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The Usipetes and Tencteri

Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. In 55 BCE, Julius Caesar defeated two tribes that were looking for a home in the south of the Netherlands: the Usipetes and Tencteri. He first provoked them and finally attacked them during an armistice. Caesar almost admits this in sections 4-15 of book 4 of his Commentaries on the war in Gaul.

When this genocide became known in Rome, the leader of the conservatives, Cato the Younger, exclaimed that Caesar, the general of eight legions, was  to be handed over to the Germans. Caesar was forced to divert the Senate's attention to other subjects, and spent the second half of the year with an invasion of Germania and an expedition to Britain. From a military point of view, both campaigns were unnecessary, but it gave Caesar great political advantages.

The translation is by Anne and Peter Wiseman.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Map of Gallia Belgica in the age of Caesar. Design Jona Lendering.
The Usipetes and the Tencteri [1] had withstood attacks from the Suebians [2] for many years, but they were in the end driven from their land, and after wandering about for three years in various parts of Germania, they reached the Rhine. The area they had come to was inhabited by the Menapians [3], who had lands, buildings, and villages on both banks of the river. The arrival of such a horde so terrified these people that they abandoned their buildings on the right bank and posted guards on the left bank to stop the Germans crossing.

The Germans tried every means of getting across, but without success; they could not force their way over because they had no boats, and the Menapian guards foiled any attempts at crossing by stealth. So they pretended to go back to their own country and home, and for three days marched in that direction. Then they turned back; their cavalry covered the whole distance back in one night, and caught the Menapians when they were off their guard. They did not expect to be attacked, because their patrols had told them that the Germans had withdrawn, and so they had gone back with no fears to their settlements across the Rhine.

The Germans killed them and seizing their boats, crossed the river before news of all this could reach the Menapians on the left bank. Once across, they seized all the buildings that the Menapii had there, and lived on their supplies of food for the rest of the winter.

Reconstruction of an Iron age farm, similar to those in Roman Germania Inferior. Archeon, Alphen aan den Rijn (Netherlands). Photo Jona Lendering.
Reconstruction of an Iron agefarm (Archeon)

When I was informed about these events, I felt uneasy because of the temperament of the Gauls: they are always ready to change one plan for another and in general are always eager for political change, and I thought I ought not to rely on them. [...]

Being aware of this habit of theirs and not wishing to have to face a more serious campaign, I set out to join the army rather earlier in the season than I usually did. When I reached them, I discovered that what I had suspected would happen had happened. Some tribes had sent embassies to the Germans inviting them to withdraw from the Rhine, and undertaking to supply them with all they had asked for. This encouraged the Germans to range over a wider area, until they had reached the country of the Eburones and the Condrusi, dependents of the Treverians [4].

I called a meeting of the leading men of Gaul, but thought I ought not to reveal to them what I had found out. Instead, after calming their fears and giving them encouragement, I told them to provide cavalry for the campaign I intended to conduct against the Germans. After making arrangements about grain supplies and selecting my cavalry troops, I began the march to the area where the Germans were said to be. When I was only a few days' march away from them, they sent envoys to me with the following message.

'We Germans are not initiating hostilities against the Roman people, but neither shall we be slow to fight if we are provoked. It is a custom handed down from our forefathers to resist any aggressor and to ask no mercy. One thing, however, we wish to say: we came to Gaul not from choice, but because we were driven out of our homes. If you Romans wish to be on friendly terms with us, we can be of use to you. Either assign to us land to live in or allow us to keep that which we have fought over and won. The Suebians are the only tribe we acknowledge as our superiors, for not even the immortal gods can match them; there is no other tribe on earth that we cannot overcome.'

I gave what I considered an appropriate reply, and ended by saying that if they remained in Gaul there could be no question of friendship between us. It was unreasonable for people who were unable to protect their own territory to seize other people's, and besides there was no land available in Gaul that could be given to them without causing resentment, especially considering their great numbers. I told them they could, if they wished, settle in the country of the Ubians [5], whose envoys were then in our camp, complaining about the wrongs done them by the Suebians and asking me for help; I would give instructions to the Ubians about this.

The German envoys said they would report back to their people and then return to me in three days when they had discussed the matter. They asked me in the meantime not to move my camp any nearer to them. I told them that it was impossible for me to grant that request either.[6]

I had found out that they had some days earlier sent a large detachment of cavalry across the river Meuse to the territory of the Ambivariti [7] for plunder and grain supplies. I thought that they were trying to delay matters with me because they were waiting for these cavalry troops to get back. [...]

When I was no more than fifteen kilometers from the enemy, their envoys returned to me, as had been agreed. They met me on the march and earnestly begged me not to advance any farther. I did not agree to this request, so they asked me to send word to the cavalry who had gone on ahead of our column, telling them not to engage in battle. They also asked me to give them the chance of sending envoys to the Ubians, saying that if the chiefs and the council of that tribe would pledge themselves by oath, they would accept the terms I suggested. They asked me to allow them three days for completing these arrangements.

I thought all this was being proposed with the same motive as before, that is, to obtain a three-day delay in which their absent cavalry could get back again. However, I said that on that day I would advance no more than the six kilometers necessary to get water. I asked them to meet at that point on the next day with as many of their tribesmen as possible so that I could hear their requests.[8]

Meantime I sent orders to the officers who had gone on in front with all the cavalry telling them not to attack the enemy, and if attacked themselves, to hold out until I approached with the main body of the army. Our cavalry force was 5,000 strong, whereas the enemy's numbered no more than 800 because those who had crossed the Meuse in search of provisions had not yet returned. 

However, the Germans charged our force as soon as it came into view.[9] Our men, who were not expecting trouble from the enemy, because their envoys had only just left me and had asked for a truce for that day, were quickly thrown into confusion. But when they fought back once more, the enemy, following their usual practice, jumped down and unseated a number of our men by stabbing their horses in the belly. The rest they put to flight, driving them on in such panic, that they did not stop until they came into sight of our marching column.

Seventy-four of our cavalry were killed in this engagement, among them a very gallant Aquitanian called Piso. He came from a most distinguished family, his grandfather having been king of his tribe and granted the title 'Friend' by our Senate. In this engagement he went to the help of his brother, who was cut off by the enemy, and succeeded in rescuing him: his own horse was wounded and he was thrown. He fought back most courageously as long as he could, but in the end he was surrounded by Germans and fell covered in wounds. His brother had by this time got away from the fighting, but seeing Piso fall, he spurred on his horse, rode straight at the enemy and was himself killed.

After this battle it was clear that I was dealing with an enemy who with out provocation had launched a treacherous attack when they had asked for peace. I therefore decided that I should not listen to any more of their deputations or accept any proposals they might make. However, I considered it to be the height of folly to wait until the enemy's forces could be increased by the return of their cavalry, and knowing the unstable character of the Gauls, I realized what a deep impression the Germans had already made on them with just one battle; so I decided that they must be given no time to make plans. Having reached this decision, I told my legates and quaestores of my intention not to let a single day go by before bringing the enemy to battle.

The next morning we had a great stroke of luck. A large number of Germans, including all their chiefs and elders. came to visit me in my camp. They were resorting once more to the same treachery and deceit because, though they claimed to have come in order to excuse themselves for having the previous day attacked us, thus breaking the agreement they themselves had asked for, they intended to deceive me if they could into granting their requests about a truce.

I was delighted that they were in my power and I ordered that they should be detained. I led the whole of my army out of the camp, telling the cavalry to bring up the rear, because I thought that its morale had been undermined by its recent defeat.

My troops were formed in three parallel columns and quickly marched the distance of 12 kilometers, reaching the enemy camp before the Germans could realize what was happening. Everything threw them into sudden panic - the speed of our advance and the absence of their own leaders. They were given no time to make plans or arm themselves, and they were in too much confusion to decide whether it was best to lead their troops out against us, or to defend their camp, or to try to save themselves by running away. We could tell they were in a panic by the way they were shouting and running about, and our men, spurred on by the treachery of the previous day, burst into their camp.

There, those Germans able to arm themselves fast enough resisted our men for a short time, fighting among their carts and baggage wagons. But because the Germans had brought everything they had with them when they left their homes and crossed the Rhine, there was also a great crowd of women and children and these now began to flee in all directions. I sent the cavalry to hunt them down. When the Germans heard cries behind them and saw that their own people were being killed, they threw away their weapons, abandoned their standards, and rushed out of the camp. When they reached the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine [10], they saw they had no hope of escaping farther. A large number of them were killed and the rest flung themselves into the river, where they perished overcome by panic, exhaustion, and the force of the current.

Our men returned to camp without a single fatal casualty and with only a very few injured, after fearing that they would be involved in a very difficult campaign since the enemy had numbered 430,000. I gave the Germans detained in our camp permission to leave. But they were afraid of being killed or tortured by the Gauls whose lands they had ravaged, and they wanted to stay with me. I allowed them to retain their liberty.[11]



Two tribes who originally lived in Westfalen or Hessen. Culturally, they belonged to the La Tène-culture (the 'Celts'). Caesar, however, defines the Rhine as the border between the Germanic and Celtic regions, and therefore calls them Germans. Usipetes means in the Celtic language 'good horsemen'.

A 'real' and very powerful German tribe that was gaining ever more territory.

They lived in the Dutch province Noord-Brabant. (Later, they moved to Belgian West-Vlaanderen.)

The Treverians lived in the valley of the Moselle; the other two tribes were dependent on them, as clients of a more powerful tribe. The Eburones lived along the Meuse in Belgian and Dutch Limburg.

The Ubians lived in Westfalen. In 19 BCE, the emperor Augustus allowed them to live on the west bank of the Rhine, where they founded Cologne.

It is not clear why Caesar was unable to stop his march, but it is likely that he wanted to provoke the Usipetes and Tencteri, as we will see below.

The Ambivariti are not otherwise known, but may have lived in the north of Dutch Limburg or the east of Noord-Brabant.

Form what follows, it is clear that Caesar wanted to lure the warriors away from the camp. He already had a cavalry attack on the women and children in mind.

It is not hard to see what really happened: the presence of the Roman cavalry provoked the Usipetes and Tencteri into battle. This gave Caesar the excuse he needed to attack them.

An error: Caesar confused the Meuse and Moselle (Mosa and Mosella).

'I allowed them to retain their liberty': a cynical way of saying that the envoys were sent out of the camp, where they would no doubt be killed by the Belgian tribes in the neighborhood.

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