III

RESCUE ON THE SAMBRE

General Titus Labienus was the first to hear of the extermination of the 14th Legion. Caesar describes how several survivors managed to escape from the battle during the day and find their way south to the post of Labienus’s second in command on the Luxembourg border.

Labienus, in his late thirties, a wealthy noble from eastern Italy and a very astute general, sent Caesar a detailed, written account of the fate of Sabinus and his force, which he obtained by interviewing these escapees. Yet for Labienus, and subsequently Caesar, to be in possession of details of all of Ambiorix’s conversations with the Roman leadership at Atuatuca, from initial parley to the surrender negotiations in the woods, the conclusion has to be drawn that interpreter Gnaeus Pompeius was among the survivors.

For the interpreter to have survived means he either escaped following the massacre, or Ambiorix set him free. Perhaps Pompeius played a secret and duplicitous role that resulted in the Sabinus disaster and for this reason his life was spared by the Eburones. We will never know.

Initially, Caesar was ignorant of the fate of the last men of the 14th Legion who managed to fight their way back to the camp at Atuatuca. Labienus’s detailed report apparently went no farther than the bloody contest in the woods, perhaps terminating with the death of Sabinus and Cotta. Shocked and angered by the news that he had lost upward of nine thousand officers and men at Atuatuca, Caesar let his hair and beard grow in mourning, as Romans did after a close relative died, and vowed to revenge himself on Ambiorix and his people.

He didn’t have long to wait before he discovered Ambiorix’s location. A courier arrived from General Cicero in Nervii territory in Flanders bearing the news that his camp, fifty miles west of the site of the Sabinus disaster and built on rising ground not far from the Sambre River, was surrounded and under sustained attack. Cicero had a single legion under his command, probably the veteran Spanish 7th Legion, down to no more than five thousand men after several years of tough campaigning in western France and Britain. The attacking force, made up of the Eburones and seven other Belgian tribes, including the powerful Nervii, who’d flocked to the cause on the news of Ambiorix’s bloody success at Atuatuca, totaled sixty thousand by Caesar’s estimate.

Taking a leaf from the Roman book, and with the forced “advice” of a handful of Roman prisoners of the 14th and the other unit that Ambiorix had taken in the forest outside Atuatuca and kept alive, the attackers built extensive siege works, toiling under the cover of mantlets—sheds on wheels—and constructing impressive wooden siege towers, which they rolled up the incline toward the camp walls. To harry the attackers, General Cicero sent out legionary volunteers on commando sorties against the works.

A week into the siege, a message reached Cicero from Caesar, telling him the commander in chief was on his way, and urging Cicero and his legionaries to hold on. The message, written in Greek in case it fell into enemy hands, was carried by a Gallic courier who had to join in an attack on the camp walls so he could transmit the message, wrapped around a javelin, which he threw into a Roman guard tower.

At the same time, urgent dispatches went out from Caesar to other generals, ordering them to link up with him on a march to Cicero’s support. Leaving behind his heavy baggage so his troops could move at speed, Caesar himself set off to the relief. With the Treveri menacing General Labienus in Luxembourg and preventing him from moving, Caesar reached Cicero’s position with only five thousand infantry from an unidentified legion, perhaps his favorite 10th, and two thousand mixed cavalry.

The tribes had kept General Cicero’s men cut off for weeks. They’d burned to the ground all his camp buildings, using bullets of red-hot clay slung over the walls and onto thatched roofs. And they’d caused heavy casualties among the defenders. But the Gauls hadn’t been able to force their way into the Roman fortification. Now, with news from their patrols that Caesar himself was approaching, the Gauls terminated the siege, pulling out to march to intercept the Roman commander in chief.

Outnumbered almost ten to one, Caesar built a camp across the valley from the advancing Gauls and their German allies. They also pitched camp, with a stream separating the two distant troop concentrations. The tribesmen, daunted by Caesar’s reputation, decided to wait for reinforcements before they took him on. In his memoirs, Caesar was to write that he took steps to give the impression that he had a lesser force than he in fact possessed, by building a camp smaller than usual. And to let the enemy think that he and his men were afraid of them, he erected elaborate additional defenses.

The ruse worked. Tempted by the possibility of killing Caesar himself, and expecting more of Caesar’s legions to come marching into the valley any day to bolster his current small force, the Gallic leaders chose not to hesitate any longer. At dawn one morning, their thousands of massed cavalry splashed across the stream and came thundering all the way up to Caesar’s position.

Caesar ordered his own cavalry to withdraw inside the camp. Then, to make it look as though he was afraid to come out again, he increased the height of the camp’s main wall and sealed the camp gateways with walls of earthen bricks. Now the tribes’ foot soldiers also flooded across the valley to surround Caesar’s position. In response, Caesar ordered his men down from the ramparts. The astonished Gauls launched volleys of spears over the vacant walls. Meeting no response, the tribesmen prepared their arms and equipment for an all-out attack on the Roman position.

As their leaders carefully studied the defensive obstacles in their path, Gallic heralds were sent on horseback to yell over the trenches and walls of the defenses, offering clemency to anyone in Caesar’s camp who defected by 9:00 A.M. After no defectors had appeared by that hour, the order went out for the tribes to launch a concerted assault on the Roman position.

It would be a methodical assault. Rather than try to file up to the walls via the narrow roadways to the four gates and be mown down by the defenders massed above the gates in towers and on ramparts, the plan was to go against the wall along its entire circumference. To achieve this, the Gauls would have to eliminate the trench system separating them from the wall. Tens of thousands of tribesmen lay aside their weapons and set to work dismantling the wooden palisade on the Roman perimeter. That done, they began to dig, shoveling earth into the Roman ditch. The plan was simple: when they had filled in the ditch, they would scale the camp’s main wall from all sides at once.

The digging probably continued for an hour or two, until suddenly a Roman trumpet call sounded inside the camp. Perspiring Gallic diggers would have looked up with scowls. Then, suddenly, the apparently impregnable brick walls blocking each gateway tumbled outward. Thousands of legionaries charged out from all four camp gates in formation, followed by the Roman cavalry. Caught by surprise, unarmed diggers trapped outside the camp walls were trampled and butchered. The remaining tribesmen, who had been standing back in their bunched clans waiting to go against the wall, watched in disbelief as their comrades were overrun.

Panic thrives on numbers. Casting aside their weapons, the tribesmen of Gaul ran for their lives, heading for the protection of nearby woods and marshes, and pursued by the much less numerous Romans. Not one Gaul attempted to make a stand. Caesar was to say that his force didn’t suffer a single casualty that day.

Among those tribesmen who escaped was King Ambiorix, who, with many of his Eburones, fled back to his home territory to the east. The uprising initiated by Ambiorix and that had seen the destruction of the 14th Legion dissolved in minutes there on the valley floor. But before they ran, the Eburones murdered their last captive survivors of the 14th Legion, the POWs from Atuatuca who’d been forced, under threat of death, to advise the rebels on siege tactics at the Sambre. Their bodies, with throats slit, would be found among the Gallic dead. The Eburones did take the prized silver eagle standard of the 14th Legion with them. The lost eagle was never recovered.

Later in the day, Caesar linked up with General Cicero and his beleaguered legion on the Sambre. Their position was surrounded by deserted Gallic siege equipment, while, inside, the camp was a fire-blackened ruin. Caesar says that when he paraded the haggard men of Cicero’s legion to praise and reward them for their courageous defense, he found that nine out of ten legionaries of the 7th had been wounded during the siege.

From Eburone prisoners taken that morning Caesar heard the final chapter in the story of the annihilation of the 14th Legion, of how the Eburones had found the bodies of the legionaries who’d taken their own lives behind the walls of the camp at Atuatuca.

As he stood on a tribunal in front of the assembled men of Cicero’s force, Caesar first praised them for their valor, for holding out for so long against such numbers. Then he told them about the disaster that had overtaken their comrades of the 14th Legion. He says that they were stunned by the news.

“The defeat of that legion was due entirely to the blundering rashness of General Sabinus,” he quickly added. “You men have no reason to be concerned about it.” But concerned they were. This was a Roman military disaster, a reverse of a magnitude Caesar’s self-confident troops had not thought possible up to that time. Caesar tried to reassure them. “With the help of Providence your valor has avenged that defeat.”

But in his heart Caesar would have known that no Roman could genuinely consider that vengeance had yet been fully extracted. He would have to do much more to wipe Sabinus’s defeat from the minds of both friend and foe. To the former it was a black mark on his to date impeccable military record, an indication that he was fallible after all. To the latter it was proof that Caesar could err and could be beaten.

For hundreds of years to come, General Sabinus’s fatal blunder in Belgium would still be spoken of in Roman circles as an example of foolishness ranking with the ill-fated expedition of Lieutenant General Marcus Crassus, father of Caesar’s quartermaster, and onetime victor over the slave army of the escaped gladiator Spartacus; Crassus was to lose his life and his army to the Parthians at the crushing defeat of Carrhae in Iran in just the following year, 53 B.C.

Like their general, the men of the first enlistment of the 14th Legion would be remembered for the disgrace of defeat and the loss of their eagle. Unlike their general, they also would be remembered for their bravery—of the men who’d fought to the last, standing their ground, and for those last few who’d taken the noble way out, as Romans saw it, of taking their own lives rather than surrendering. It would give their successors who had to live with the shame of the legion’s annihilation in Belgium a valorous example to live up to in decades and centuries to come.

As the winter of 54-53 B.C. loomed, Caesar sent urgent dispatches to Rome. One would have contained an account of the Sabinus disaster for the Senate, as well as a defense of his own role in it. But far from being put on the back foot by the destruction of the 14th Legion, Caesar was planning to take an unprecedented step, in a career dotted with precedents.

To begin with, he asked the Senate for new officers to be allotted to him—two generals to take the places of the dead Sabinus and Cotta, another general and colonels to boost the size of his staff to cope with his plans for the new campaigning season. Caesar also asked Pompey the Great for a favor. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus Sr. had been ruling the Roman world for the past few years via a three-way military junta that historians have called the First Triumvirate. Even though he was a couple of years older than Caesar, Pompey was his son-in-law, by virtue of the fact that he had married Caesar’s daughter Julia. The marriage had cemented the alliance of the two generals, an alliance that permitted Caesar to do as he pleased in Gaul, safe in the knowledge that he had Pompey’s support back at the capital.

To the desolation of both her father and her loving husband, Julia would soon die in childbirth. Her death would begin the disintegration of the close friendship and partnership between the two generals. But in these late months of 54 B.C. that partnership still held firm. For reasons of friendship and patriotism, according to Caesar, Pompey quickly agreed to hand over recruits he’d recently levied in northern Italy, men he was entitled to draft under a Senate vote that empowered him to raise troops in all Roman provinces when he saw fit, recruits enrolled but not yet assigned to units.

The conscripts supplied by Pompey were soon joined by more men recruited from throughout northern Italy and southwestern Switzerland by Caesar’s new generals, Silanus, Antistius, and Sextius. Before the winter was out, the three generals marched a total of eighteen thousand recruits across the alps to join Caesar. Twelve thousand of these men were formed into two new legions, the 15th and 16th. The remaining men went into a re-formed 14th Legion.

Never in recorded Roman history would an annihilated legion be instantly re-formed like this. Julius Caesar saw things differently from most men. Both stubborn and petty at times, he had neither the desire nor the intention to create a permanent reminder of his failure at Atuatuca by retiring the number 14. Caesar simply created a new 14th Legion, almost as if the ill-starred first enlistment had never existed. But Providence had been determined to scar the 14th Legion from birth, and not even Julius Caesar was to cheat Providence, as he was soon to discover.

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