With packs over their shoulders, the men of the 14th Legion were marching into Belgium. It was the late summer of 54 B.C., and the commander in chief of operations in France and Belgium—or Gaul, as the Romans called it—Lieutenant General Gaius Julius Caesar, was dispersing his legions for the winter. History would come to know the general as Julius Caesar. Fresh from celebrating his forty-sixth birthday, Caesar was completing the fourth year of a military campaign during which his forces had conquered central and northern France for Rome. Rather than also go to war with Caesar, most of the tribes of Belgium had hastily signed peace treaties with him, had agreed to accept wintering legions on their turf and to supply them with grain in return for peaceful relations.
Only just back from his second military expedition to Britain, Caesar had come ashore at the Pas-de-Calais and was basing himself at Amiens on the Somme River while his legions set up camps for the winter. For the first time, he was breaking up his army into groups of a legion or two, and spreading them across the conquered territories. Gaul had experienced a fierce summer that year; Caesar himself was to write that the wheat crop had been poor, and it was necessary to send his troops far and wide to find sufficient supplies to last the winter.
Under the command of Brigadier General Quintus Titurius Sabinus, with the younger Brigadier General Marcus Aurunculeius Cotta as his deputy, the 14th Legion was marching northeast from the Pas-de-Calais, heading for the Geer River in central Belgium, an area occupied by tribes classified as friendly, since they’d signed the peace treaty with Caesar. The 14th was accompanied by another five cohorts of unidentified infantry—perhaps from the 11th Legion, or auxiliaries—and a squadron of Spanish cavalry.
In the four years since Caesar had founded it in northern Italy—the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, as it was then known—the 14th Legion hadn’t seen any combat. For four years the 14th had done nothing but guard camps, escort road convoys, and cut wheat to feed other legions.
Caesar was slow to trust new legions. Of the eight legions now making up his army, only five had his complete trust—the 7th, 8th, and 9th, legions raised in Spain in 65 B.C. by Pompey the Great; the 10th, raised by Caesar personally in Spain in 61 B.C.; and the 12th, raised by Caesar in Cisalpine Gaul in 58 B.C. As for the 11th and 13th, like the 14th, they were toiling to win Caesar’s faith and the frontline role that brought glory, promotion, and booty to its legionaries. All in good time, their officers would have assured the frustrated troops of the 14th, the day would soon come when the legion would prove its worth to Caesar, would show their commander in chief that they were the equal of his favorite units.
The 14th was close to full strength. Its nominal strength was 5,940 enlisted men and 60 centurions—the lieutenants and captains who commanded the legion’s centuries, maniples, and cohorts, subunits that were forerunners of today’s platoons, companies, and battalions. The centurions reported to six tribunes, colonels generally under thirty years of age, members of the Equestrian Order and sons of Rome’s best families. Often serving a tour of duty lasting just one year, most tribunes had little military experience, yet, at this point in Roman history, they ran every legion among them—on rotation, one tribune commanded the entire unit, while the other five each commanded two cohorts. Every two months, they rotated responsibilities. Within several decades, and with the coming of the imperial era, the role and power of the tribunes would alter drastically, with each legion commanded by a dedicated general of senatorial rank. But for now, the half-dozen tribunes called the shots, answering to whichever general Caesar chose to head their particular task force at the time.
The conquisitors, or recruiting officers, who’d conscripted the recruits for the 14th in northeastern Italy in the winter of 58-57 B.C. had enrolled healthy young men mostly between seventeen and twenty years of age. Roman citizens all, the 14th’s draftees were recruited for sixteen years’ service, signing a contract that bound both them and the State. Legionaries swore to serve the Senate and people of Rome; to obey their officers; to adhere to extremely tough service regulations; and, if necessary, to die for Rome.
In return, Rome was required to provide its legionaries with food, shelter, uniforms, basic gear and weaponry, and to pay them a salary, originally 450 sesterces a year, doubled by Caesar to 900 sesterces a year. Legionaries were forbidden to marry during their enlistment. Once enrolled in a legion they were no longer subject to civil law—the legion was their new family, and strict legion regulations with the penalty of death for major infractions governed their lives.
Leading the way into Belgium at the forefront of the 14th Legion’s 1st Cohort was Chief Centurion Titus Balventius, who’d held his post as the most senior centurion of the legion for the past year. Farther back in the column, traditionally bareheaded and proudly holding aloft the silver eagle of the 14th, came Eagle-bearer Lucius Petrosidius.
In all, General Sabinus’s detachment numbered about nine thousand infantry and cavalry, plus noncombatants, including officers’ slaves and muleteers to drive the baggage animals accompanying the troops. The baggage train would have comprised at least a thousand mules—one per squad, minimum—and several hundred carts and wagons bearing artillery, ammunition, and supplies, the more bulky gear of the troops such as the tents and millstones of each squad, plus the pavilions, furniture, and plate of the senior officers and the equipment of the engineers, artillerymen, and armorers.
General Sabinus would have been in his mid- to late thirties. He had a mixed reputation. Two years earlier, when operating in Normandy, he’d been severely criticized by men under him, who’d accused him of acting timidly in refusing to venture outside his camp to fight an attacking Gallic force from the Venelli tribe. Caesar himself was later to write in Sabinus’s defense, especially after Sabinus subsequently used a spy to lure the Venelli into a trap, after which he’d wiped out much of the enemy force.
Now, enjoying fine weather, the legionaries of the 14th and the other troops of Sabinus’s force arrived in Belgium without incident and quickly built their fortified camp for the winter at Atuatuca, a then virgin site on a slightly elevated position a little way from the Geer River—the Jaar, in Flemish. Today the site is occupied by the town of Tongres, the Flemish Tongeren, twelve miles northwest of the city of Liège.
The camp would have followed normal Roman army specifications, as described by the Greek military writer Polybius, being roughly square and surrounded by a ditch at least ten feet deep and three across, and often with a wooden palisade on the outer side. An inner wall a minimum of ten feet high and three feet thick was created from earth dug from the ditch, topped by a wooden palisade of sharpened stakes. There was a gate, flanked by a wooden guard tower, in each of the four main camp walls. The tents of the cohorts were neatly arrayed along the camp’s grid-pattern streets, as were those of the officers. According to Polybius, there was also provision for a market at the center of every legion camp. A broad, open space between tents and wall sufficient to prevent burning spears or arrows from reaching the tent line from outside the camp was occupied by the legion’s baggage animals and cattle and, when in the legion’s possession, chained prisoners of war.
In Caesar’s time legionaries slept ten to a tent—originally leather, but by the first century made of canvas. In Gaul at this time, too, it was the habit of the legions to thatch the roofs of the little leather huts of their winter quarters as protection against the severe northern weather. The ten men in each tent made up a contubernium, a squad, the smallest subunit of the legion. With the emperor Augustus’s reorganization of the Roman army two and one-half decades later, the contubernium would be reduced to eight men. But the nature of the squad never changed. Members cooked at their tent; there was no mess hall. And they marched, laughed, grumbled, fought, and died together as a tightly knit group.
Each officer had a tent to himself, with the commander occupying the spacious praetorium, the headquarters tent, which was both his quarters and office, with the tribunes and quartermaster quartered next door. Horse corral and store tents were set up in close proximity to the praetorium.
Guard duty rotated among the cohorts, with the guard cohort on duty reporting to the tribune of the watch and required to provide a set number of sentries for a variety of stations: a daytime picket outside the walls, ten men at each gate, more in the guard towers, on the walls, and at the officers’ quarters and cavalry corral. On a trumpet call sounded from outside the praetorium, the watch changed every three hours. Daily, just before sunset, the tribune of the watch provided the commander with a register of the able-bodied men in camp and in return received the watchword or password for the next twenty-four hours.
The watchword was methodically distributed to the sentries on a wax tablet, the tesserara, by the tesserarius, the guard sergeant of each maniple. Anyone approaching the camp in the dark would be challenged by sentries, who would demand the watchword. Only with the arrival of daylight and the end of the last night watch at the sounding of the reveille trumpet call would sentries cease to issue their challenges.
To ensure that all guards were present and awake, each legion’s cavalry unit provided a four-man patrol of the sentry posts every night, the troopers alternating as patrol leader for each of the four watches of the night while the other three acted as observers to ensure that he did his job. Their patrols were made at random, never at specific times, to catch offenders. And to ensure that sentries couldn’t be tipped off about intended patrol times in return for a bribe, the patrol had to station itself for the night outside the tent of the centurion commanding the duty guard cohort. Sentries asleep on duty or absent without leave could be sentenced to death by a court-martial of the legion’s tribunes
By paying their centurions a set fee, one legionary in four could take a furlough during the noncampaigning months. Men on leave frequently left their camp, but at Atuatuca General Sabinus kept all men in camp except those engaged in foraging.
With several idle months ahead of them, the men in the camp began repairing and replacing equipment, with specialists among their ranks employing their peacetime skills. Armorers labored over forges. Cobblers repaired footwear. Tailors were at work, too. The rank and file sharpened weapons, cleaned helmet plumes, polished bravery decorations, sewed gaps in shield covers. Every man took a turn grinding their squad’s grain ration and cooking their daily bread for the main meal at night and a snack at lunchtime. Bread and olive oil were the staples of their diet, with meat an occasional supplement. Potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, and coffee were unknown to them. As they worked in the fall sunshine, sitting in groups outside their tents, the legionaries would have exchanged slanderous gossip about their officers and told crude jokes, as soldiers do.
One cohort in ten always was on guard, and there were daily drills and weapons practice for all ranks. This still would have left a good deal of free time. Wrestling matches probably were organized to keep the men amused and occupied. Board games were popular, such as Roman chess, which had a board with sixty squares, and another called twelve lines.
The one game that was the passion of all Roman soldiers at all times was dice, a game played for money and forerunner of today’s game of craps. During the imperial era dice-playing was illegal, with the only time dice could be legally played being during the Saturnalia Festival in December. It’s not hard to imagine groups of legionaries crowded around players at a dice board and a cry going up when someone rolled basilicus, the highest throw of the dice.
The peace of the scenic riverside setting at Atuatuca was not to last for long. Two weeks after General Sabinus had sent a cavalry dispatch rider to Caesar at Amiens reporting that his men had completed construction of their fortification beside the waters of the Geer and were settling in for the winter, “To arms” was unexpectedly trumpeted through the camp.
The cause of the problem was a Belgian king named Ambiorix. As its peace treaty with Caesar required, the local Eburone tribe, who lived between the Rhine and Meuse Rivers in a kingdom called Eburonia by Roman historian Cassius Dio, had delivered a large quantity of grain to General Sabinus and the 14th while the legion’s camp was under construction. The Eburones had two kings—Catuvolcus, who was old and ailing, and the younger, more active Ambiorix. It was King Ambiorix who supervised the handover of the grain at Atuatuca, and he’d eyed the growing Roman emplacement with distaste. He could see that the Romans were planning on a long stay in Eburonia.
Ambiorix soon came to hear that there were stirrings of revolt elsewhere in Gaul. The first manifestation was among the Carnute tribe, in territory to Caesar’s rear between the Seine and Loire Rivers, southwest of Paris. The Carnutes assassinated their regent, Tasgetius, who’d been installed by Caesar two years earlier. As Caesar transferred General Lucius Plancus and his detachment south from Belgium to calm the Carnutes and identify and punish Tasgetius’s murderers, more trouble brewed to the northeast.
The Treveri, a large and powerful German tribe whose territory straddled modern Luxembourg and eastern Belgium, with their capital, Trier, on the Moselle River, had been providing Caesar with top-class auxiliary cavalry for his Gallic campaigns. At the time Caesar considered the Treveri the bravest if not the best mounted troops in Gaul. But now, leading Treverans were plotting a revolt against Caesar. One of them, Indutiomarus, secretly sent envoys to neighboring tribes, urging them to join in an uprising.
Not long after making the grain delivery to General Sabinus, King Ambiorix the Eburone received a visit from one of these envoys. Inspired by the message from Trier, Ambiorix decided to ignite the revolt without waiting for the Treverans to give the lead. After convincing old Catuvolcus to go along with his plan, he sent messages to all the Eburone clan leaders, summoning them and their fighting men for a campaign against the Roman invaders.
The Eburones quickly answered the call. After just a few days’ preparation, making ammunition and practicing rudimentary battle drills, the Eburone warriors quietly washed through the Belgian forests and arrived at Atuatuca. Without warning they overran and massacred a small 14th Legion wood-gathering party working a little way from the Geer River position. Before news of the massacre reached General Sabinus, ten thousand Eburones launched an assault on the fortified camp itself. As General Sabinus’s legionaries dashed to take up defensive positions along the camp ramparts the sentries had just time enough to swing the camp’s four gates shut.
Of Germanic origin, these Belgic tribesmen were undisciplined; disorganized; and, compared to the professional Roman soldier, untrained. But like all the Germanic peoples, they were warlike by nature and prided themselves in their individual weapons skills, ingrained since boyhood. What’s more, as Caesar tells us, all the Belgae were quick to learn military lessons after observing the Roman war machine at work.
Their nobles were comparatively well outfitted in moccasins; ankle-length trousers, perhaps bearing one of the tartan designs then popular in the north of France; plus leather jerkins covered with protective iron mail; and iron pot helmets trailing long horsehair plumes. They came armed with Celtic swords, a foot longer than the standard Roman infantry sword but blunt-ended, and worn on the right side, as the legionaries did, plus large, flat shields made of planks of oak. The richer, more powerful nobles could be identified by the size of their personal bodyguard as well as by the size of their solid gold neck chains and bracelets.
Their followers weren’t as well off. Like their leaders, they wore long trousers, but there the comparison ended. Often sporting mustaches, the fighting men of northern Gaul were bareheaded, with their hair gelled into upstanding spikes via a hairdressing of clay and lime. Although some had the protection of breastplates and carried swords, most were naked to the waist, and many were armed with just spears and stones. Shields were universal, but the least-well-equipped warriors of Gaul and Germany could only manage a wicker affair with a leather facing. These poor, uneducated subsistence farmers of Belgium were driven to war by strong clan loyalties forged through blood and marriage; by obligation to their nobles; by a hate of foreign invaders, be they Roman or German; and by the promise of rich Roman booty.
Caesar says that all the Belgic tribes employed a common tactic when assaulting a fortress. They would rain stones against defenders manning the walls; then, when the defenses had been thinned, and emulating the Roman army, they would send forward detachments under the cover of shields to undermine the walls at weak spots and force breaches through which they would then flood.
On this occasion the tribesmen’s initial assault on the Atuatuca camp walls was easily driven off by a sortie by Sabinus’s Spanish cavalry, who unexpectedly pounded out a swiftly opened gate and drove into the attackers’ flanks while they were busy pelting the legionaries on the ramparts with stones of golf ball and baseball size.
As the tribesmen pulled back out of missile range and surrounded the camp, cutting it off from the outside world, King Ambiorix sent to the camp walls messengers who urged the Romans to send someone out to speak with their leader. “We have something to say that concerns both sides,” Caesar says they called. “Something that can bring this fighting to an end.”
In response, General Sabinus sent out two colonels to meet with Ambiorix. One was Gaius Arpineius, a member of the Equestrian Order and a friend of Sabinus. The other was Quintus Junius, a Spaniard and most probably commander of Sabinus’s Spanish cavalry detachment. Colonel Junius and Ambiorix were already well acquainted; Caesar tells us he himself had sent Junius on a number of missions to Ambiorix in the past, missions that had resulted in the peace treaty that Ambiorix had now violated.
The two Roman officers would have been accompanied by General Sabinus’s interpreter, Gnaeus Pompeius—no relation to the famous Pompey the Great. Gnaeus Pompeius appears to have later personally reported to Caesar in detail on this meeting and subsequent events, because Caesar was to repeat Ambiorix’s words in his memoirs.
“I admit that I am greatly indebted to Caesar,” the Eburone leader conceded to the two Roman colonels at the meeting. Caesar had, among other things, previously arranged the release of Ambiorix’s son and nephew, who had been prisoners of a neighboring tribe. Yet, said Ambiorix, while he owed Caesar more than one favor, he had been forced into the attack on the Atuatuca camp by the will of his people, who were anxious to take part in a concerted uprising by all the tribes of northern Gaul and throw out the Romans while Caesar was absent. “But now having done my patriotic duty with my attack on your camp, and bearing in mind what I owe Caesar, I urge and implore General Sabinus, as my friend and guest in my country, to consider his safety and that of his soldiers.”
The king went on to inform the colonels that a large force of German mercenaries had crossed the Rhine on their way to join the Gallic uprising, and they would reach Atuatuca within days. He then offered safe passage to Sabinus and his troops if they abandoned their camp now and withdrew to join other Roman forces to the west or south.
Surprised and alarmed by the news the colonels brought back, General Sabinus called a council of war of his senior officers to canvass opinions. The question he put to them was simple enough: should they stay, and risk being surrounded and either overrun or starved into submission, or accept Ambiorix’s offer and abandon the camp?
The officers attending this meeting included Sabinus’s deputy, Brigadier General Cotta, the cavalry commander Colonel Junius, Colonel Arpineius, and the five other tribunes of the 14th, as well as the five colonels leading the force’s other unidentified cohorts. Also present were Chief Centurion Titus Balventius and the five other first-rank centurions of the 14th, including Quintus Lucianus, whose son was serving in the legion’s ranks. They also may have been joined by Eagle-bearer Petrosidius, as eagle-bearers had influence with the troops and often were brought into councils of war by their generals.
As an authority on the Gauls, General Sabinus’s interpreter Pompeius also would have been present. In his memoirs, Caesar rarely penned conversations or speeches verbatim relating to occasions when he was not present. But in this case he was to quote exactly what was said at the council of war, so someone present must have subsequently reported those words to him. Everything points to that again being interpreter Pompeius.
In the headquarters tent, as the officers discussed their alternatives, General Cotta, supported by the majority of tribunes and first-rank centurions, was all for ignoring Ambiorix’s offer of safe passage and staying put behind the walls of the camp.
“We can resist any number of Gauls as well as a large force of Germans,” Cotta declared. “We aren’t short of grain, and before we do run short, relief will arrive from our nearest camps and from Caesar himself.” Cotta felt certain that this uprising was localized, that Ambiorix was lying about a widespread revolt.
But General Sabinus could not believe that an obscure and insignificant tribe such as the Eburones would dare to make war against Rome on their own initiative. And he wasn’t so sure that if he held out against a besieging army help would necessarily arrive—the other Roman camps also might be under siege and be in just as much trouble as they were. Sabinus thought that in staying at Atuatuca and inviting a siege the Romans might seal their own doom.
Some officers suggested that they wait and see if Ambiorix’s prediction proved correct, banking on their hunch that the Germans would fail to appear, that Ambiorix was attempting to bluff the Romans into leaving.
“No, it’ll be too late to do anything once the Gauls have put together a larger force, reinforced by the Germans,” Sabinus countered. If they were to take Ambiorix’s advice, they had to act on it without delay. “We only have a short time to decide.”
The debate became an argument, which raged into the night. By this time the dander of the hot-tempered General Cotta was up. “What could be more irresponsible or unprofessional than to follow the advice of an enemy?” he wanted to know.
“That’s irrelevant!” Sabinus snapped back. “It’s the facts of the case that I’m looking at. It’s inconceivable that Ambiorix would have taken this kind of action without being sure of his ground.” In Sabinus’s mind, a massive revolt was about to sweep all of northern Gaul, and it would be suicidal not to act on the advice of the Eburone leader and get out fast, before all avenues of escape were cut off by the rebels.
Cotta had yet to see any proof of a widespread uprising and was convinced that Ambiorix was trying to trick them into giving up their camp. But Sabinus, accused of being overcautious once before, was not prepared to make an incautious decision that condemned his force to being trapped here at Atuatuca.
“My policy is safe either way,” the commander declared. “If nothing serious is under way we’ll make our way to the nearest legion without any risk. If the Gauls are united and in league with the Germans, as Ambiorix says, this will be our only chance to escape. The plan recommended by Cotta and you others who differ with me might not involve danger now, but it certainly means a long blockade, and ultimately the threat of death by starvation.”
With both men adamant that his was the wiser strategy, neither would give ground. As the hours passed, the tribunes swung their support behind General Sabinus, but Cotta and the centurions stubbornly held their course. For hour upon hour Sabinus tried to respect the opinion of his deputy, but finally, as the pair stood toe-to-toe in the flickering torchlight of the praetorium, red-faced and glaring at each other, the senior general’s patience gave way.
“Have it your way!” Sabinus exploded, his voice so loud now that legionaries in the nearest row of tents across the main street from the headquarters could hear him. “I’m no more afraid of death than the rest of you. The men will understand. If this ends in disaster, it’s you they’ll blame, Cotta! If you’d only agree to my plan, by the day after tomorrow the men would have reached the nearest friendly camp instead of sitting here, isolated, like outcasts and exiles, to be massacred or starved to death!”
To the watching junior officers it looked as if their two generals were about to come to blows. Jumping up, they separated the pair.
“Generals, it’s not important whether we go or we stay,” said one subordinate. This was possibly Chief Centurion Balventius. Described by Julius Caesar as both brave and highly respected, Balventius would not only have been known to Caesar, but also twelve months earlier the commander in chief would have personally promoted him to chief centurion of the 14th Legion. “Just so long as we all agree on the one course of action,” the middle-ranking officer now told his generals. “But if we go on arguing like this, there’s no hope for our survival.”
The two leaders were parted, and the torrid debate dragged on, until, as midnight arrived, General Cotta, exhausted and in tears of frustration, finally capitulated to his superior’s will and gave up his objections.
General Sabinus’s plan was adopted by the meeting. It was agreed that the 14th Legion and the other Roman troops at Atuatuca would break camp at daybreak, abandoning their fortified position and heavy equipment, and head west across open country into the territory of the Nervii, in present-day Flanders, to the camp of General Quintus Tullius Cicero. Younger brother of the famous Marcus Cicero the orator, General Cicero had joined Caesar’s staff only that year, and commanded a single unidentified legion encamped fewer than fifty miles west of Atuatuca.
Traveling light and fast after leaving behind their heavy baggage and the bulk of their winter grain supply, it would be possible for the men of the 14th to cover the distance in forty-eight hours; legions are on record as not infrequently traveling twenty-five miles a day or more on forced marches.
An emergency order was quickly relayed throughout the camp: “Prepare to march at dawn.” The troops stayed up the rest of the night, sorting out their gear, reluctantly parting with winter equipment, supplies, and personal treasures. In the hour before dawn, tents came down after the first trumpeting of “Prepare to march,” as Roman army routine required. With the second sounding a long baggage train of pack mules was loaded with essential equipment and valuables by tense legionaries and anxious mule drivers. Carts, wagons, and the heavier loads they normally carried were being left behind. Then, on the third trumpet call, the decuman gate, or main gate, the camp gate that faced away from the enemy, was swung open, and the lead elements of the Roman force moved out. The countryside ahead of them was silent and encouragingly empty.
Roman legions literally broke camp. Normally, while the guard cohort removed gate hinges and other difficult-to-replace items, legionaries filed along the camp ramparts, each man taking a pair of stakes three feet long from the wall palisade and strapping them to his backpack, with the intention that when next they made camp each man would hand over his pair of stakes to the wall-building detail. In this way some twelve thousand wall stakes traveled with every legion on the march, ready to be used on the ramparts of the next marching camp. Last of all, the remaining woodwork—gates, guard towers, and the like—was normally put to the torch. But with orders to march light and to be ready to move as soon as the new day dawned, the men left the Atuatuca camp virtually intact.
As the first fingers of the new day’s light stretched above the horizon, Colonel Junius’s small Spanish cavalry detachment led the way west. General Sabinus had given no special instructions for his troops’ disposition on the march. In general marching order, they carried their shields slung over their left shoulder, their helmets were hung around their necks, and a weighty backpack hung from a pole over each man’s right shoulder. The legionaries, unhappy at giving up their camp without a fight, despondent about leaving possessions behind, trudged away from the Geer in silence and in loose formation, and, as Caesar tells us, already wearied by the lack of sleep the night before.
Sacrificing the protection of the fortified position, the Roman column straggled long and thin across the Belgian countryside with the baggage mules untidily spread the length of the march. Fresh in the minds of the common soldiers as they marched was the assurance of their officers that they had been granted safe passage by the Eburones all the way to General Cicero’s distant camp.
The legionaries’ immediate route passed through a thick wood. Two miles from Atuatuca, as the column tramped through a defile in the wood, and with the advance elements about to climb a hill up and out of the defile, thousands of yelling, threatening armed Eburone tribesman sprang from the trees and barred their way. At the same time, thousands more sprang from concealment in the Roman rear.
The column was caught between the two ambushing forces. Ambiorix himself appeared at the head of one, and waved his countrymen forward. With excited yells and bloodcurdling war cries, the Eburones rushed to the attack. Soon the Romans were fighting for their lives at both the front and the rear of the column.
Up front, the Spanish cavalry seem to have been quickly overwhelmed. At their head, Colonel Junius probably was among the first to die, tumbling from the saddle when both rider and steed were impaled after the air filled with spears. Several cavalrymen apparently fought their way through the close-packed Eburone ranks on the back of terrified mounts. Diving through the trees, they made their escape, swinging southeast and heading for the camp of General Titus Labienus, Caesar’s second-in-command, in Trever territory. Frantically spurring on wounded horses, they literally rode for their lives along narrow forest tracks. With the Roman infantry swiftly deprived of mounted support, the Eburones employed both mounted men and foot soldiers against the ragged column.
General Sabinus panicked. Dismounting, he ran up and down the column, trying to organize cohorts into battle order. But his orders betrayed his fear, and time and again he changed his mind or contradicted himself. Meanwhile, General Cotta, who’d started the day morose and pessimistic, found his fire, and despite the vindication of his worst fears, quickly organized resistance in his sector. He was soon fighting on foot alongside the rank and file of the 14th as they strove to keep the Gauls from overrunning the column and chewing up strung-out individual Roman units piecemeal one after the other.
The order was passed up and down the column for all troops to abandon the baggage and concentrate in an orbis. This ring formation was notoriously a tactic of last resort for the Roman army, a desperate measure that sapped the confidence of legionaries and gave heart to the enemy. Even as the legionaries struggled to mass as ordered, the force’s plight was made worse by legionaries dashing from their units to look among the straying baggage animals for their most cherished possessions before retiring to the ring. Their unmilitary efforts would have been accompanied by curses and bellowed orders from centurions telling them to resume formation, and cries of alarm from less materialistic comrades.
There was some hope among the men of the 14th that many Gauls would have pulled out of the attack and gone after the now unguarded baggage. But Ambiorix and his subchieftains passed the word along the entire Gallic line that no man was to leave the fight. There would be plenty of plunder for everyone once the Romans had been defeated, they said. The order was obeyed; the Eburones surrounding the Roman force ignored the lure of spoils and bore into the attack more fiercely than before, determined to finish off the legionaries quickly so they could take their rewards.
The battle raged all through the morning. The fifteen Roman cohorts, formed side-by-side in circular formation with the wounded and the non-combatant mule drivers and personal servants of the officers in the center, found themselves surrounded and increasingly hemmed in by the Gallic horde.
Every now and then a Roman cohort would make an organized and disciplined charge from the circle in an attempt to break up the attack. But each time, the tribesmen to their front rapidly retreated as a group ahead of the cohort, keeping out of range and drawing the Romans on, just as Ambiorix had trained them to do in the days leading up to the move on Atuatuca. Other tribesmen waiting for a gap to be opened up in the circle by a cohort’s advance would attack at the site of the opening, aiming their missiles at the unprotected right sides of the exposed Romans in the circle. The cohort taking the offensive had no choice but to withdraw to their original place, to seal the hole they’d created.
Crushed shoulder to shoulder with their comrades, legionaries had little freedom of movement. At the same time, they made easy stationary targets for the tribesmen who dashed in, threw their spears, or let fly with their slings, then withdrew again. With each passing hour more men of the 14th went down, many with crippling leg injuries that left them unable to stand. The circle grew smaller; the number of legionaries able to offer resistance grew fewer.
Sabinus was ineffectual as a commander by this stage. He had become a mere spectator, standing behind the fighting line. The 1st Cohort of the 14th Legion was providing his bodyguard—a legion’s 1st Cohort always stayed with its general. And with a dazed look, almost of incomprehension, Sabinus would have seen the cohort’s commander, Chief Centurion Balventius, felled by a javelin that pierced both his thighs and pinned him like a lamb on a spit.
He would have seen Centurion Quintus Lucianus of the 1st Cohort making a desperate bid to go to the aid of his son, a legionary in his early twenties, who’d been cut off and surrounded in a vain push forward by his cohort. And Sabinus would have watched as both father and son were cut down and killed.
Sabinus would have seen Brigadier General Cotta go down, dropping his sword and shield and sagging to his knees, felled by a slinger’s stone likely to have been as big as a baseball, which Caesar says hit him in the middle of the face as he urged a cohort forward at the charge.
As Roman hands reached out to help him, Cotta pulled himself to his feet, dazed, and with blood streaming down his face. He would have ripped off his helmet to determine the damage as subordinates crowded around and a servant tried to stem the bleeding. Pushing the man away, ignoring the blood, a ringing head, and blurred vision, General Cotta slipped the elbow strap of his shield back in place, taking a firm grip on the handle, took up his sword once more, and, seeing the anxious looks of his men around him, told them in no uncertain terms to worry about the enemy, not him. Caesar says that despite his wound, Cotta soldiered on, continuing to rally his men, no doubt mixing encouragement and expletives with alternate breaths.
With mounting casualties, the 14th Legion stood its ground and fought off the tribesmen from an hour after dawn until past the middle of the day. As two in the afternoon approached, General Sabinus seemed to rouse himself. Through the melee he spotted Ambiorix in the distance, addressing a group of his warriors. Sabinus called over his interpreter, Gnaeus Pompeius, and instructed him to try to get through to the Eburone king and seek a truce.
The interpreter, probably a native of Gaul who’d been granted Roman citizenship for his services to Rome and taken the name of her great general, would have swallowed hard as he looked across the field strewn with bodies to his assigned destination. How was he to reach that destination unscathed?
The Field Service Regulations of 1914 used by the British army during World War I state that an individual “who comes with a white flag” to communicate with the other side “has a right to inviolability.” The white flag is today a universally recognized symbol, but in 54 B.C. there was no such thing as a white flag for soldiers seeking to discuss a truce or surrender. Romans did have a tradition of displaying an olive branch as a symbol of peace, but there wouldn’t have been any olive branches handy at that moment. General Sabinus’s envoy would only have had his prayers to protect him.
Interpreter Pompeius must have nodded grimly to the general. “I will do my best, my lord,” he would have said.
Somehow, Pompeius did indeed manage to reach King Ambiorix unharmed, and conveyed his general’s message. Ambiorix now called a cessation to hostilities.
“Tell your general he may speak to me in person,” he told the interpreter. “I hope I can convince my men to spare the lives of the Roman soldiers, but whatever happens, I can personally guarantee that Sabinus himself will come to no harm.”
The fighting stopped. Reluctantly the tribesmen held back, maintaining their positions around the trapped legionaries, some glaring at their opponents, others grinning in anticipation of finishing them off before the day was over. After the tumult of the preceding hours of battle, a chilling silence would have fallen over the battleground, broken only by the moans and the groans of the wounded and the dying.
The Roman interpreter returned to his own lines with the eyes of thousands of anxious legionaries on him. The Roman troops would have been wondering why the Eburone attack had halted, wondering what fate their incompetent general had in mind for them now. After Pompeius had brought him the Eburone king’s response, Sabinus sought out the wounded General Cotta. He proposed to his deputy that the pair of them should go to Ambiorix to beg for their lives and those of their troops.
Cotta stubbornly refused to budge. “I will not go to discuss anything with an enemy who has not laid down his arms,” the bloodied general declared.
Sabinus turned to the colonels and first-rank centurions still standing, and ordered them to follow him. He then pushed his way through the front ranks of the orbis, stepping over the dead and the dying, and strode across the bloodied grass toward the waiting Ambiorix. Interpreter Pompeius would have been close on his general’s heels. Despite any misgivings they may have had, the general’s subordinates could not disobey a direct order—the tribunes and centurions followed in Sabinus’s footsteps. True to his convictions and his mistrust of Ambiorix, General Cotta resolutely held his ground, remaining behind with the troops.
Ambiorix eyed the Roman officers coolly as they approached. “Lay down your arms if you wish to speak with me,” he commanded as Sabinus came up to him.
The Roman general meekly lay aside his shield and removed the sword belt that hung over his right shoulder, and dropped it to the ground. He then turned to the officers behind him and ordered them to do the same. Unhappily, his subordinates disarmed.
When the Roman officers’ weapons lay on the grass, Ambiorix beckoned them closer. The Roman officers took several more steps forward. The Eburone leader then asked what the Roman commander had to say to for himself.
“I seek terms of surrender,” Sabinus glumly announced. When Ambiorix indicated he should go on, Sabinus began to detail terms that would be acceptable to him.
From their lines, his troops could hear his words, some grateful that the fighting might soon be at an end, others frustrated and angry at the prospect of capitulating to these long-haired Belgic barbarians.
As the general and Ambiorix conducted a conversation, which was deliberately protracted by the king, tribesmen slowly closed around Sabinus, leering at the humiliated Roman commander. Someone gave a signal; perhaps it was Ambiorix himself. Spears plunged, swords struck, and to the horror of his watching men, General Sabinus fell dead at the feet of his chief adversary, victim of his own fear and gullibility.
The Eburone hordes let out a fierce, victorious bellow—their customary shout of triumph, Caesar called it. And even as the disarmed Roman tribunes and first-rank centurions turned and made a desperate lunge for their grounded weapons, the Gauls let out another guttural cry and charged forward. The defenseless officers were mowed down. The bodies would be stripped, with tribesmen scuffling over their valuable clothing, armor, fittings, and weapons, even as the battle continued close by. In the German tradition, the heads of the dead officers would have been lopped off, as trophies.
Meanwhile, a wave of triumphant Eburones fell on the men of the ragged orbis. Soldiers of the 14th, so full of the hope of life a few moments before as they witnessed apparent surrender negotiations—even if their perceived future had been as prisoners, probably sold as slaves across the Rhine to the Germans—were suddenly required to fight to save their skins once more. But they were too slow to overcome the double shock of their general’s assassination and hopes dashed. The Belgic charge broke the Roman ring.
General Cotta went down fighting. He didn’t take a backward step as scores of Eburones swarmed all over him. Around him, thousands of men of the 14th Legion also died fighting. And when no more Roman soldiers offered resistance, the tribesmen hacked defenseless noncombatants to pieces even as they begged for their lives. Just a handful of surrendered legionaries were spared; Ambiorix had plans for them.
Still, some men of the 14th Legion, perhaps as many as several hundred, were able to withdraw in reasonable order back to the camp beside the Geer that they had deserted that morning, and to shut the still-intact gates behind them. Their retreat was made possible by the fact that the majority of tribesmen turned to stripping the dead and rounding up the wandering Roman baggage animals. Led by bareheaded Eagle-bearer Petrosidius, these escapees included men of the 14th Legion’s 1st Cohort who had retained their discipline in their determination to carry out their sworn duty to protect their legion’s sacred eagle.
Petrosidius himself was cornered outside the camp walls by tribesmen intent on wresting the glittering silver eagle standard of the 14th from his hands. Throwing the eagle over the earth wall to colleagues who had managed to reach the comparative safety of the camp, Petrosidius turned, drew his sword, and raised his small, round, standard-bearer’s shield. He took a few Gauls with him before he, too, was cut to pieces.
Those Eburones who persisted in harrying the last survivors of General Sabinus’s force as they took refuge in the Atuatuca camp were insufficient in number to overrun it. The few remaining soldiers of the 14th Legion held off their wearying assailants until nightfall, when the attackers finally withdrew. Caesar says the Gauls both revered and feared the night, considering it the domain of their god of the underworld, from whom they believed all Gauls were descended. By the Gallic calculation, the old day ended at sunset, and the new day began with the arrival of night, so that Gauls spoke of the passing of time not in terms of days, as the Romans did and as we do, but in nights.
But the Gauls around Atuatuca didn’t retreat far. In the night, the Romans sheltering in the camp would have seen thousands of Belgic campfires burning all around them, would have heard the laughter and victory songs of the celebrating enemy. The leaderless legionaries, seeing that all hope was gone, that no relief column would be coming to save them—no one even knew they were in trouble at this point—and determined not to allow themselves to be captured by the treacherous enemy and be tortured or sold into slavery, entered into a pact.
Next day, the Eburones who renewed the assault on the camp beside the Geer found no answering fire coming from the ramparts. Of the Romans who had taken refuge there the previous day there was not a sign. Tribesmen were soon warily scaling the undefended walls. Once inside the silent camp they discovered the reason for the lack of resistance. The fortress was occupied by a garrison of corpses. Every last proud legionary of the 14th Legion had fallen on his sword and committed suicide in the night.