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The Story of Ambiorix

Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. In the winter of 54/53, the Eburones, a tribe between the Meuse and Rhine, revolted against the Romans. Their leader Ambiorix, who had received great gifts from Julius Caesar, was able to destroy the garrison - some 7,000 men. Having liberated his country, he tried to liberate the Nervians, but this attack failed.

The story is told by several authors (including Caesar himself); here you can read the account in the
Roman history (40.5-10) by Cassius Dio (164-c.235). The translation was made by Earnest Cary.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

Map of northern Gaul. Design Jona Lendering.

This war was begun by the Eburones, under Ambiorix as chief. They claimed they had been roused to action because they were annoyed at the presence of the Romans, who were commanded by Sabinus and Lucius Cotta, lieutenants. The truth was, however, that they scorned those officers, thinking that they would not prove competent to defend their men and not expecting that Caesar would quickly make an expedition against their tribe. They accordingly came upon the soldiers unawares, expecting to take the camp [1] without striking a blow, and, when they failed of this, had recourse to deceit. 

For Ambiorix, after planting ambuscades in the most suitable spots, came to the Romans after sending a herald to arrange for a parley, and represented that he had taken part in the war against his will and was himself sorry; but against the others he advised them to be on their guard, for his countrymen would not obey him and were intending to attack the garrison at night. Consequently he made the suggestion to them that they should abandon Eburonia, since they would be in danger if they remained, and should move on as quickly as possible to some of their comrades who were wintering near by. 

Statue of Ambiorix at Tongeren (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.
Modern statue of Ambiorix

Upon hearing this the Romans believed him, especially as Ambiorix had received many favors from Caesar and seemed to be repaying his kindness in this way. They hastily packed up their belongings, and setting out just after nightfall, fell into the ambush, where they suffered a terrible reverse. Cotta with many others perished immediately. Sabinus was sent for by Ambiorix under the pretext of saving him, for the Gallic leader was not present at the ambush and at that time was still thought to be trustworthy. On his arrival, however, Ambiorix seized him, stripped him of his arms and clothing, and then struck him down with his javelin, uttering boastful words over him, such as these: 'How can such creatures as you wish to rule us who are so great?' This was the fate that these men suffered. The rest managed to break through to the camp from which they had set out, but when the barbarians assailed that, too, and they could neither repel them nor escape, they killed one another. 

After this event some others of the neighboring tribes revolted, among them the Nervians, though Quintus [Tullius] Cicero, a brother of [the orator] Marcus [Tullius] Cicero and lieutenant of Caesar, was wintering in their territory [2]. Ambiorix added them to his force and engaged in battle with Cicero. The contest was close, and after capturing some prisoners alive the chieftain tried to deceive him also in some manner, but being unable to do so, besieged him. Thanks to his large force and the experience which he had gained from his service with the Romans, together with information that he obtained from the individual captives, he quickly managed to enclose him with a palisade and ditch.

There were numerous battles, as was natural in such a situation, and far larger numbers of the barbarians perished, because there were more of them. They, however, by reason of the multitude of their army did not feel their loss at all, whereas the Romans, who were not numerous in the first place, kept continually growing fewer and were hemmed in without difficulty. They were unable to care for their wounds through lack of the necessary appliances, and did not have a large supply of food, because they had been besieged unexpectedly. No one came to their aid, though many were wintering at no great distance; for the barbarians guarded the roads with care and caught all who were sent out and slaughtered them before the eyes of their friends. Now when they were in danger of being captured, a Nervian who was friendly to them as the result of kindness shown him and was at this time besieged with Cicero, furnished a slave of his to send as a messenger through the lines. Because of his dress and his speech, which was that of the natives, he was able to mingle with the enemy as one of their number without attracting notice, and afterwards went his way. 

In this way Caesar, who had not yet returned to Italy but was still on the way, learned of what was taking place, and turning back, he took with him the soldiers in the winter establishments through which he passed [3], and pressed rapidly on. Meanwhile, being afraid that Cicero, in despair of assistance, might suffer disaster or even capitulate, he sent a horseman on ahead. For he did not trust the servant of the Nervian, in spite of having received an actual proof of his actual good will, fearing that he might pity his countrymen and work the Romans some great evil; so he sent a horseman of the allies who knew the dialect of Eburones and was dressed in their garb. And in order that even he might not reveal anything, voluntarily or involuntarily, he gave him no verbal message and wrote to Cicero in Greek all that he wished to say, in order that even if the letter were captured, it should even so be meaningless to the barbarians and afford them no information. [...] Now the horseman reached the camp of the Romans, but not being able to come close up to it, he fastened the letter to a javelin, and acting as if he were hurling it against the enemy, fixed it purposely in a tower. Thus Cicero learned of the approach of Caesar, and so took courage and held out more zealously. 

But the barbarians for a long time knew nothing of the assistance Caesar was bringing; for he journeyed by night, bivouacking by day in very obscure places, in order that he might fall upon them as unexpectedly as possible. But they finally grew suspicious because of the excessive cheerfulness of the besieged and sent out scouts; and learning from them that Caesar was already drawing near, they set out against him, thinking to attack him while off his guard. He learned of it in time and remained where he was that night, for the purpose of appearing to have only a few followers, to have suffered from the journey, and to fear an attack from them, and so in this manner to draw them to the higher ground. And thus it turned out; for in their contempt of him because of this move they charged up the hill, and met with so severe a defeat that they carried on the war against him no longer. 

The story of Caesar's revenge is told here.



Note 1:
The camp of Sabinus and Cotta was called Atuatuca, a name that was later in use for the capital of the Tungrians. This Atuatuca is identical to modern Tongeren in eastern Belgium, and it has been said that this was the place of the Roman defeat. However, there is no archaeological evidence that the site was occupied before c.20 BCE, and Caesar states explicitly that the Eburones lived between the Meuse an Rhine; the battle field must, therefore, have been somewhat further to the east. One is tempted to search in the neighborhood of the German town Aix-la-Chapelle. (The presence of a sanctuary for the Celtic god Grannus proves that this site was occupied.)

Note 2:
Cicero's camp can have been anywhere near modern Brussels, where Binche and Blicquy are plausible candidates.

Note 3:
There were Roman troops in Amiens and St.Pol.


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