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The Battle of the Sabis (57 BCE)



Battle of the Sabis (57 BCE): fight in which Julius Caesar defeated the Belgian tribe of the Nervians. The Sabis is identical to the modern river Selle, not with the Sambre - this misunderstanding has been surprisingly hard to get rid of, although the evidence for Selle location is conclusive and was put forward more than half a century ago.

The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering.

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The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. The photo above (#1 on the map below) shows the battlefield at the Sabis, where Julius Caesar defeated the Nervians in the summer of 57 BCE. It was a difficult fight, as he tells us in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul, 2.16-28. Caesar was following the ancient road from the Atrebates to the Nervians, which already existed in the Late Bronze age, and which you can see above and, well, can not see to the left, on photo #2 (clue).


The battle against the Nervians. Map design Jona Lendering. Caesar approached from the southwest, knowing that the Nervians and their allies were somewhere across the Sabis, which is now called Selle. He ordered his cavalry to go in front of his eight legions and cover them while the soldiers were building their camp on the west bank of the little river, which he describes as "a hill sloped down evenly from its summit to the river Sabis" (more...).


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. The legionaries were to build their build their camp parallel to the little river on the ridge shown here on photo #3, west of modern Saulzoir, which may be identical to the Hermomacum mentioned on the Peutinger Map. (Today, it is best known as one of the towns along the classic cycle race Paris-Roubaix, l'Enfer du Nord.) You are looking from the ancient road -which is still in use- to the position of the Tenth legion; the slope down to the river is to the right. Today, this hill is called Le Quesnoy.


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. Photo #4 shows the same ridge, now looking to the south from more or less the same position. The main road to the river is to the left, and you are looking to place where the Eleventh and the Eighth legions were to build their camp. The gentle hill to the right is called L' Epinette and Le Cheminet.
The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. The western wall of the camp of the Eleventh and Eight legions was behind the ridge shown on photo #5. The slope is probably artificial, but there is no indication that it is the wall of the Caesarian camp, although it was near this site. The small woodland to the right is known as Bois de Montrecourt. The advance guard occupied the ridge and started to build a camp, protected by the cavalry.


The Sabis today; it is now called Selle. Photo Jona Lendering. The cavalry had proceeded beyond the ridge and reached the Sabis, which, according to Caesar, "was about a meter deep" (more...). You are looking to the south; the Roman bank, occupied by Caesar's cavalry, is to the right, and the Nervians occupied the bank to the left. The Belgians unexpectedly rushed forward, defeated the Roman cavalry, and proceeded to the ridge.


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. Photo #7 shows the most northern part of the ridge, with, to the right, the Bois le Kien. This was the place that was occupied by the Ninth legion, which was on Caesar's left wing. On this slope, they had to fight against the Atrebates, which were tired from crossing the river and easily driven back (more...).


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. On photo #8, we look from to north to Le Quesnoy, the site of the Tenth legion's camp, close to the Ninth. "They hurled their javelins and wounded many Atrebates," tells Caesar, "and rapidly drove them downhill into the river. My men pursued them as they tried to get across, and with their swords killed great numbers of them as they struggled in the water."


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. This photo, #9, shows the plain on the east bank of the Selle, known as Le Paradis. It measures about a square kilometer and was the site of the camp of the Nervians. According to Caesar, there were about 60,000 of them, and they were far more dangerous than the Atrebates. They crossed the river, and attacked the Twelfth and the Seventh legions on the west bank, Caesar's right wing. He admits that his men found it very hard to cope with the attack.


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. Photo #12 shows the main battlefield. You are looking from the Nervian camp to the Selle and the camp of the Twelfth and Seventh. "It was on this position," writes Caesar, "that the entire army of the Nervians [...] moved in a solid mass. Some of them began to surround the legions on their right flank; others made for the top of the hill, where the camp was."


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. The main road again, on photo #10, taken from the foot of the water tower that today dominates the village of Saulzoir. The road leads to the capital of the Nervians, Bagacum, modern Bavay, and was already in existence in Antiquity (shown by the presence of prehistoric funeral mounds). This site was the camp of the Viromandui, who had been defeated by the Eighth and Eleventh legions, in the Roman center. They must have made their escape along this road.


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. The battle was more or less in balance; on the Roman left and in the center, the legionaries were successful, but on their right wing, the Nervians had pushed back the Seventh and Twelfth. They were saved by the commander of the Tenth, Titus Labienus, who, after defeating the Atrebates and crossing the Sabis, led his men across "difficult ground" (more...), which is shown on photo #13. It is now called Les Fossés.


The Selle battlefield. Photo Jona Lendering. Labienus occupied the Nervian camp and from the high ground (more...) shown on this photo (#11), he saw that the Roman right wing was in danger. He immediately attacked the Nervians in their rear. They were now caught between on the one hand the victorious Tenth and on the other hand the Seventh and Twelfth legions, which were reinforced by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, the Roman rear. According to Caesar, a mere 500 Nervians survived the battle (more...). This is exaggerated, but the battle was a disaster for the Nervians, and Caesar could proceed to the valley of the Meuse, where he was to attack the Atuatuci who lived near modern Thuin.


To the left, the battle positions on a modern satellite photo (from Google Earth); its wider context can be found here.

Literature

  • Pierre Turquin, "La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l' An 57 avant J.-C." in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2006
Revision: 5 July 2012
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