King Ambiorix looked up in astonishment.
“The Romans are here!” was the cry from men who had been working outside in the spring sunshine and who were now rushing indoors, wide-eyed with terror. “The Romans are here!”
After the rout outside Julius Caesar’s camp in the valley of the Sambre the previous year, Ambiorix had fled back to his homeland between the Meuse and the Rhine and kept his head down, exchanging messages with other tribal leaders throughout northern Gaul and biding his time as a new Gallic uprising came to the boil. The revolutionary Trever leader Indutiomarus had been tracked down and executed by Caesar’s deputy General Labienus, who sent the rebel’s severed head to Caesar. But that had only made the Treveri all the more determined to overthrow the Romans. The Treveri had brought together a new coalition of rebel tribes from the North Sea to the Rhine, enlisting Ambiorix as a member of their revolutionary council, and keeping him informed of developments.
As for Caesar, Ambiorix would have heard that the general had canceled his plans to return to Italy for the winter as usual, that before the winter of 54-53 B.C. was out he had led a force of four legions back into the territory of the Nervii to the west and ravaged the countryside. The Nervii had quickly surrendered to Caesar, but not before large numbers of cattle and prisoners were taken and handed over to his legionaries as booty. Caesar had then called a meeting of all the leaders of the tribes of Gaul at the town of Lutetia, capital of the Parisii tribe, modern Paris. Just four tribes apart from the Eburones failed to send ambassadors to the meeting—the Treveri, Carnutes, Senones, and Menapii. Now, at least, Caesar knew who his enemies were.
In the spring of 53 B.C., following the Paris meeting, Caesar marched into the territory of the Senones and the Carnutes, forcing them to submit. Then he turned his attention to the Menapii, who lived in close harmony with the Eburones on the northern border of Ambiorix’s territory. Sweeping through the marshy Menapian homelands with five legions, burning their farms, confiscating their property, Caesar swiftly forced the Menapii to surrender.
Caesar hadn’t forgotten Ambiorix. His very name seemed to taunt him and to haunt him. Repeatedly in his memoirs Caesar mentioned the man who had embarrassed him at Atuatuca, and stated his intent to rob the Eburone king of friends and allies before he went after him in person. After making the Menapii promise to hand over Ambiorix should he seek refuge with them, Caesar swung away and marched east, toward the land of the Treveri along the Moselle. His object now was to link up with General Labienus before the Treveri’s German allies reinforced them for a spring offensive against the Romans, as had been agreed by the revolutionaries. That may have been the last that Ambiorix had heard of the Roman army. Until now.
When Caesar linked up with General Labienus, Caesar found that his able deputy had already decoyed the Treverans into a battle and routed them. Determined to teach the German tribes a lesson about the foolishness of messing with Rome, Caesar then built a wooden bridge of his own design across the Rhine, in ten days. The rapidity of this feat of engineering, involving a bridge forty feet wide built on piers sunk in the deep and fast-flowing Rhine—in his memoirs Caesar proudly details the construction technique he employed—still amazes engineers today. Caesar then crossed the Rhine in force.
At the time, the German tribes east of the Rhine were stunned to discover half a dozen Roman legions suddenly on their side of the great river. The powerful Suebi tribe at first assembled its clans to fight Caesar, but daunted by his reputation, they withdrew into heavily forested territory in central Germany and sent for help from other tribes. Caesar hadn’t thought through what he wanted to achieve with this operation, which was nothing more than a demonstration of strength. After eighteen days east of the Rhine he pulled back across the river and tore down the eastern end of his new Rhine bridge so the Germans couldn’t use it. Then, at last, he turned to settle the score with Ambiorix.
The wheat was beginning to ripen across northern Gaul as Caesar set off from the Rhine and headed along the forested tracks of the northern Ardennes. He marched with ten legions now, including the revamped 14th. To maintain the element of surprise, Caesar formed most of his cavalry into a flying column under the command of a young colonel, Lucius Minucius Basilus, and sent them ahead at speed. They pushed west with orders not to light fires overnight to ensure that the Eburones had no warning of their coming.
Colonel Basilus’s cavalry surprised Eburone farmers working in their fields. As the troopers swept through the wheat with javelins flying and swords flashing, some tribesmen were permitted to escape. Roman scouts followed the fleeing farmers at a discreet distance. As Colonel Basilus hoped, they led him to King Ambiorix.
Ambiorix had retired to his mansion in the forest. Caesar says that most Gauls built their houses in woods or beside rivers, or both, because the locations were cool in summer. Ambiorix’s residence would have been a typical Gallic longhouse, its walls of wood and mud, the thatched roof pitched high as a protection against the weight of winter snow. There, Ambiorix had gathered many of his surviving retainers, all his many horses, his carriages and worldly worth, and had stockpiled weapons for the day news of the renewed Gallic uprising arrived.
“The Romans are here! The Romans are here!”
Panic seized Ambiorix’s attendants as the Roman cavalry galloped into the clearing around the house. The king’s men quickly barricaded themselves inside the building. As the auxiliary troopers dismounted and tried to force their way in the front, one of Ambiorix’s bodyguards succeeded in finding a horse for his leader and slipping him out the back. Ambiorix, alone, rode away through the trees undetected, while his retainers and friends fought a desperate delaying action.
Caesar was not pleased that his adversary evaded capture. In his memoirs, he put Ambiorix’s escape down to a great stroke of luck. Ambiorix was delivered from danger by “the all-prevailing power of Fortune,” he said. The hunt for King Ambiorix, destroyer of Caesar’s original 14th Legion, now became an obsessive quest.
Caesar arrived in central Belgium with his main legionary army, and trailed by a convoy of carts and wagons bearing the merchants, slave traders, pimps, and prostitutes who attached themselves to his baggage train wherever he went during the campaigning months. These camp followers—the lixae, the Romans called them collectively—were a necessary evil to Roman commanders. The women served the obvious purpose. Merchants traded in the marketplaces of the legion camps, buying the booty the soldiers acquired during each campaign—goods, chattels, animals, and prisoners—merchandise the traders would take away to sell at inflated prices in town marketplaces and at slave auctions from Gaul to Spain to Italy.
According to Plutarch, Caesar, during his eight years of active operations in Gaul, was to kill a million Gauls and sell another million into slavery. Some would be sold for life, others for twenty or thirty years, depending on Caesar’s attitude to them or their tribe at the time of their capture. We don’t know what price the prisoners were achieving for their sellers at this time, but two decades earlier, according to Plutarch, men being sold as slaves in the legionary camp of General Lucius Lucullus during his eastern campaigns went for four times the price of an ox.
As he reached the Geer River, Caesar learned that Ambiorix had sent messengers far and wide, telling his countrymen to disperse and hide. Some hid in forests, others in marshes. Others were taken in by friendly tribes, others still found refuge along the North Sea coast. But old Catuvolcus, Ambiorix’s co-ruler, too weak to flee, took poison made from seeds and foliage of the yew tree, which contain a toxic alkaloid. Later Caesar was to learn that, as he died, the old man cursed his younger colleague for embroiling him in the failed revolt.
Ambiorix himself seemed to have vanished, and Caesar, now reunited with Colonel Basilus and his cavalry in the heart of Eburone territory, wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. He had received a report that Ambiorix was heading for a hiding place at the western end of the Ardennes with the few Eburone cavalry he’d been able to muster. But the report could have been false, deliberately fabricated to lead the Romans away from the king, not to him. And Caesar knew it.
He decided to divide his army into three divisions that would conduct a wide-ranging reconnaissance in force. General Labienus would drive northwest, toward the coast, with three legions; General Trebonius would push southwest, with three legions; and Caesar himself would march down toward the Scheldt River and the western end of the Ardennes, with another three legions. To enable each force to travel light and fast, Caesar left all the legions’ heavy baggage in the territory of the Eburones, guarded by one legion under the command of General Cicero. That legion was the new 14th. And the place Caesar chose for them to hole up was a deserted fort on the Geer River, the fort built at Atuatuca the previous year by the now dead legionaries of the first enlistment of the 14th Legion.
Caesar would later be criticized for installing the new recruits of the 14th Legion at Atuatuca. The majority of Romans, even the most educated of men, were highly superstitious. They believed in omens, in astrology, in ghosts. Caesar himself was a pragmatic man, and although he’d held the post of pontifex maximus, or high priest of Rome, since 63 B.C. and was responsible for overseeing the official auguries of the priests and magistrates at Rome, throughout his career, right up to and including the fateful last day of his life, he demonstrated a lack of interest in omens and signs. So the thought that it might be bad luck for the latest enlistment of the 14th to be quartered where their brothers had died so tragically seems not to have entered his mind. In his memoirs, Caesar was to excuse his choice of the site by saying he had several reasons. But primarily, he said, he chose it because the fortifications built the previous year were still intact and could be put to good use.
Agreeing that they would aim to complete their sweeps within seven days and meet back at Atuatuca in a week’s time if they hadn’t found Ambiorix, Caesar and his two divisional commanders set off, leading sixty thousand Roman legionaries and auxiliary Gallic cavalry in search of the Belgian leader. In addition to several thousand noncombatants, they left upward of seven thousand fighting men at Atuatuca—the six thousand new recruits of the 14th Legion, two hundred auxiliary cavalry, and hundreds of legionaries on the army’s sick list—it seems that a severe gastric infection had been going through the more established legions since the winter, laying low large numbers of men who’d served for as many as eight years in their legions until then.
Caesar’s chronic impatience as well as a fine tactical sense gave him a dislike for heavy baggage, which, although necessary to an army campaigning in foreign territory, slowed him down. It was a dislike his protégé Mark Antony would inherit. But while Antony would one day pay a heavy price for failing to adequately protect his baggage, in Gaul Caesar never left less than a legion with his. And even then, he kept his main grain supply with him. As he set off in search of Ambiorix, Caesar left just seven days’ rations with the men at Atuatuca. And as he marched away, Caesar told General Cicero that to be on the safe side he was not to let anyone venture outside the camp over the coming week.
As the three forces disappeared from view, men of the 14th Legion industriously set to work repairing and improving the camp. But some superstitious souls in the ranks grumbled that it was bad luck to be garrisoned in this ill-starred place. And as it turned out, they were right.
A week passed. On the eighth day since Caesar marched away, General Cicero began to worry. There was neither hide nor hair of Caesar or his fellow generals. Not even a cavalry scout arrived to tell Cicero that Caesar was on his way back. Cicero had taken his commander in chief at his word, and he’d allowed his men to consume their seven days of rations. Now, on day eight, they had nothing left to eat.
Within hours of Caesar’s departure, Cicero’s men had begun to complain about being cooped up inside the camp. Despite these rumblings in the ranks, General Cicero had obeyed Caesar’s orders to the letter, not even permitting a single servant to venture beyond the camp walls. Men grumbled that it was as bad as being blockaded by the enemy. Yet where was the enemy?
It was pointed out to Cicero that three miles from the camp a field of ripened wheat stood invitingly ready to be harvested. His officers recommended that rather than let the men starve, they could send out a large and well-armed foraging party to cut down the wheat and bring it back to camp. Cicero could see no reason why not, and the order was given to organize the foraging party.
Five cohorts of the 14th—three thousand men, half the new legion—were paraded for the mission, together with several troops of cavalry. In addition, three hundred experienced legionaries on the sick list, men from a variety of legions, had recovered sufficiently to also be involved, and these volunteers formed up in a separate detachment. The entire group would go out under the command of a young tribune of the 14th, Colonel Gaius Trebonius, who may have been related to the thirty-seven-year-old General Gaius Trebonius, who was leading Caesar’s southern division at that moment.
The camp’s decuman gate opened. It faced south, toward friendly territory. The cavalrymen would have appeared first, leading their short, neat Gallic ponies out the gate, then mounting up—unless an emergency combat situation existed, no man was permitted to ride in a Roman camp, not even a commander. Once settled in their saddles, which were equipped with four horns, two at the front and two at the back, and which provided such a secure seat that Roman horsemen had neither the need for nor knowledge of stirrups, and with an oval shield on their left arm, a short lance in their right hand, and a long cavalry sword, the spatha, on their hip, each trooper would have urged his steed forward and trotted off to patrol the route ahead.
On the heels of the cavalry, the five legion cohorts, then the sick-list detachment, came out the gate, marching ten abreast behind their various standards. They were followed by a flood of animals, as hundreds or even thousands of mules and packhorses were herded in the soldiers’ wake by unarmed attendants—General Cicero also had decided that it would do no harm to allow many of the army’s hungry baggage animals to be taken out to be exercised and to graze while the wheat was being cut.
With all four gates remaining open behind it, the column moved along a narrow bridge of earth leading out through the camp’s outer entrenchments, then passed through the congregation of tents and parked vehicles of the army’s camp followers, who were never permitted to reside inside a legionary camp, and into the countryside beyond. From their tents, the traders would have watched the soldiers go. Some probably set off after them, to do a little business in the wheat fields if the officers gave them the chance.
In marching order, the legionaries had their shields and helmets slung over shoulders and around necks, while their gear included scythes for lopping grain, and sacks for its collection. It would have taken them upward of an hour to tramp over the low hill separating the camp from the gently swaying, waist-high field of wheat. Once there, they neatly stacked shields and javelins, squad by squad; then, with the cavalry and perhaps one legion cohort standing guard, the rest set to work in the sunshine.
After several hours of uneventful industry the reapers had filled their sacks and, led by their colonel, the men cheerfully set off back for the fortress. The cavalry proceeded out in advance as before, and the sick-party detachment and the baggage animals followed behind. It had been a profitable day’s work, and the men were looking forward to the night’s meal of steaming, fresh bread and olive oil.
Julius Caesar tells in detail of what followed. It started back at the camp.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Wearing just his soiled tunic, Publius Sextius Baculus, chief centurion of the 12th Legion, staggered from a tent erected not far from General Cicero’s headquarters, blinking as the bright sunshine met his red eyes.
The camp at Atuatuca was in an uproar. In various states of undress, raw recruits of the 14th Legion—some armed, some not—were running in all directions, many looking confused, the rest, terrified. The camp ramparts were unmanned. From the rear gate nearby came the sound of fighting—the ringing of metal on metal, the crunching of blade on leather and wood, alarmed cries, and, above it all, the yelling of German voices.
“Germans have surrounded us!” came one Roman voice in answer to Chief Centurion Baculus’s question.
“Caesar has been overrun!” said someone else. “Our army has perished! And we’re to be next!”
“It’s this place!” another man cried. “It’s haunted by the ghosts of Cotta and Sabinus. We’re doomed!”
“That’s right, we should never have been sent to this infernal place,” a quaking young soldier declared. “We’re destined to share the fate of our comrades of the first enlistment who fell here.”
“Enough of that talk!” growled Baculus. “Where’s the enemy?”
“They’re in the camp!” came a yelping reply. “The place is already lost!”
“We’ll see about that!” said the chief centurion angrily. “Here. Give me your shield.” With that he yanked the long, curved shield from the frightened legionary’s left arm. “And you, your sword!” he snapped to another man.
The recruit handed over his sword before Baculus swung around, determined to do what he was trained to do. Tall, skinny as a stick, he strode away, heading for the praetorian gate, pushing aside youngsters of the 14th who were milling around looking for someone to tell them where to assemble, which way to advance.
Baculus had been chief centurion of the 12th ever since it had been formed in northern Italy five years earlier. We don’t know what his background was prior to that, but to receive such a senior appointment from Caesar suggests that Baculus had been marching with him for years. In 57 B.C., within months of his appointment, Centurion Baculus had been locked in a famous and desperate battle against the Nervii beside the Sambre River. With fellow centurions of the 12th dead and dying all around him, Baculus had been so severely wounded he’d been unable to keep his feet. From the ground, he’d stubbornly continued to direct and rally his men. Soon after he’d recovered from his multiple wounds, his legion had been surrounded in St. Bernard’s Pass by Swiss tribesmen as General Servius Galba unsuccessfully tried to force a crossing over the Alps on Caesar’s orders, and on that occasion Baculus had helped lead a breakout that saved the 12th from extinction.
Yet, to Baculus’s chagrin, it had ultimately taken an epidemic, not a battle wound, to separate him from his legion. A week back, he’d been left behind at Atuatuca, suffering from the same ailment that had swept through the ranks of the older legions. But instead of soon recovering, like the three hundred men now out with the reaping party, Baculus had only become all the more unwell. So sick, in fact, that for the past five days he’d been unable to eat a thing. But Publius Baculus was a primus pilus, holder of the most senior and respected rank to which an enlisted man could then aspire. There were even a few centurions in Caesar’s legions who were of Equestrian rank—knights—yet these men, too, deferred to Chief Centurion Baculus. Now, fired by pride, driven by adrenaline, the physically weak but single-minded Baculus reached the Atuatuca camp’s rear gate.
What he found was a scene of carnage. The rear gate, like all the camp gates, had been left open during the day. Now, the ten men of the guard cohort who had been stationed there lay dead or dying in the gateway, surrounded by the bloodied corpses of big, bearded, long-haired German warriors. Beyond the gate, all the way to the entrenchment line, were more German bodies. Several horses lay dead in the entrenchments, their legs jutting grotesquely into the air. The legion sentries had done their duty before they fell, had prevented the attackers from entering the camp—the first Germans had obviously ridden all the way up to the gate before being slain.
Beyond the trench line, the tents of the camp followers were in mayhem as hundreds of heavily armed Germans ran amok, indiscriminately killing the defenseless noncombatants, men and women alike, and plundering their goods. As Baculus surveyed the scene, more Germans appeared on horseback on the far side of the thirty-foot-wide bridge of earth that cut through the entrenchments. Yelling excitedly, they pointed to the open gateway, where, to their glee, just the single pale chief centurion, devoid of even an armored vest or helmet, stood unsteadily in their path.
Baculus would have fought Germans on numerous occasions during the years Caesar had been campaigning in Gaul, and seems to have picked up a little of the German tongue in the process. According to Caesar, he heard the riders at the entrenchments call to each other: “It’s true, just as the Eburone prisoner told us! There’s no garrison at the Roman camp.”
“Come on,” said one of their leaders. “We can’t let such a piece of luck slip through our fingers!”
They quickly dismounted, sent their horses away, drew their long, round-nosed German broadswords, and advanced, grinning, over their own dead toward Chief Centurion Baculus.
The centurion was bellowing at the top of his lungs, calling each centurion of the guard cohort by name, summoning them to his side, as giant Germans struck at him with overhead, two-handed swipes of their swords. Baculus parried the blows with his shield, then thrust the point of his own sword into faces and necks with powerful, short-arm jabs. One after the other, Germans dropped at his feet dead or reeled away with screams of pain and clutching at terrible face wounds. But still the enemy came on.
Baculus probably didn’t even feel the pain of the wounds the Germans inflicted on him as he fought. But he would have seen and heard several centurions of the 14th’s guard cohort now join him in the gateway with a handful of men. Shields raised and locked together, they quickly formed a barrier on either side of Baculus and began launching javelins into the ranks of the Germans, who continued to pour along the narrow embankment toward the gate.
The German attack slackened for want of numbers. Uncertain, warriors held back. At the same time, more legionaries of the 14th Legion arrived to form up behind the centurions at the gate. In the lull that now prevailed, Chief Centurion Baculus looked down, to see that his own blood was flowing. And then five days without food and his growing loss of blood combined to rob him of his strength. Baculus blacked out, and collapsed to the ground.
Willing hands reached down and dragged the unconscious chief centurion to his feet. Rather than break their shield line, the men of the 14th lifted him above their heads and passed him hand to hand to the back of the group, from where noncombatants carried him out of the firing line for attention to his wounds. We never hear of him again.
The Germans were spreading out. Repulsed at the praetorian gate, they galloped around the fortifications to the other three gates, all of which continued to stand open. But as they did, the example of Chief Centurion Baculus and the men at the rear gate gave heart to many of the raw recruits of the 14th Legion, who began to reinforce the guard details at the other gates and to man the ramparts at last, from where they could rain missiles down on the attackers.
Amid the struggle, cries of alarm went up from Germans congregating at the front gate. Men were pointing with concern to the south. Just above the top of a low hill in the distance the bobbing standards of an approaching Roman force could be seen.
Marching along with their full sacks of grain, the men of the reaping party heard the sounds of shouting coming from the direction of their Atuatuca camp. On Colonel Trebonius’s orders, the cavalry galloped ahead to determine the cause of the tumult. Broaching the top of the low, grassy hill that separated the main body of the detachment from the camp, the troopers saw that the fort was under attack from a number of mounted Germans. The cavalrymen wheeled about and headed back to report to the colonel.
Seeing even the experienced men of the sick-list detachment looking unnerved by the cavalry’s news, the inexperienced Colonel Trebonius ordered a halt to the march and called a hasty conference with his thirty or so centurions. As the raw recruits of the five 14th Legion cohorts waited anxiously for orders, the officers began arguing among themselves. Meanwhile, the noncombatants abandoned the baggage animals and flocked in a panic-stricken mass to the top of the little hill, thinking it offered some protection.
Colonel Trebonius was all for adopting a wedge formation, a textbook defense against cavalry, and then making a dash for the camp. Some men might be cut off, he said, but the majority should reach the camp if they all stuck together. In his twenties, the colonel appears to have been on his first posting. Probably only joining the legion that spring, he didn’t enjoy the confidence of his centurions—they said it would be suicidal for untried infantry to attempt to cross so much open ground against mounted troops. The centurions advocated making a stand on the hill.
The Germans were pulling out of the attack on the camp. Thinking that the approaching standards must belong to Caesar’s main army, they sent a group of riders to check them out. These Germans rode to the top of the hill, scattering the noncombatants clustered there, who ran back to Colonel Trebonius and his troops. Seeing the contemptuously small force of Roman infantry and cavalry halted beyond the hill, the Germans galloped back to their comrades. Soon, all surviving members of the German raiding party, numbering some two thousand men, had mounted up. Cutting down a few thousand Roman foot soldiers caught in the open sounded like good sport. Leaving their dead at the camp gates, the Germans charged in the direction of the reaping party.
As the sounds of pounding hooves grew louder, the centurions of the 14th ignored their colonel, ordering their cohorts to hurry to the hill and form up to make a stand. The old soldiers of the sick-list detachment thought this was crazy, and told Trebonius they were with him and his wedge-and-dash plan. The cavalry was undecided which option to take. Trebonius swiftly formed the three hundred experienced sick-list men into a small wedge, and just as the entire German cavalry force swooped over the hill and came in for the attack, the colonel and the wedge set off at the double for Atuatuca.
The Germans were confronted with a choice of objectives: the small, closely packed formation making an organized run for it and heading determinedly straight toward them, the much larger group forming up on the hill, the baggage animals roaming free, the sacks of wheat left dumped all over the river plain. The drive of the tightly packed wedge bristling with javelin points made the Germans part to the left and right of its advance. In the wake of the wedge, the auxiliary cavalry spurred their horses forward and followed close behind. Seeing the gap open up in the German line, many of the noncombatants now also made a dash for the camp through the same opening, as the Germans turned their attention to the Romans lining up in ragged cohorts on the hillside.
On the gentle slope of the hill, the remaining noncombatants tried to get as close as they could to the sacred standards of the legion’s assembled maniples and cohorts, expecting the men around the standards to put up the fiercest fight of all. With civilians mingling in their ranks, cursing young legionaries of the 14th only became all the more agitated and undisciplined. All the while, their centurions were barking orders, trying to keep lines tight, shields raised, and noncombatants out of the way.
German cavalrymen galloped around the five surrounded cohorts, letting fly with javelins on the run or sweeping in with flashing swords, then pulling away again, leaving increasing numbers of legionaries dead and wounded. Legionaries on the hill now saw that Colonel Trebonius and the wedge had made it all the way to the camp unscathed, as had the cavalry. Most of the noncombatants who’d chosen that option also had gotten through. Angry that their centurions had made the wrong choice for them, groups of soldiers on the slope pulled out of the fight and made a run for the camp.
Before long, the organized ranks on the hill began to dissolve, as two-thirds of the men of the 14th Legion cohorts tried to make it to the camp. One large group at the forefront of the flight was soon caught by Germans in a dip and surrounded. The senior centurions in the group, realizing their error in not siding with their colonel earlier, were determined not to compound their mistake. They’d been promoted from junior grades in other legions to their present grades in the 14th on account of their bravery, says Caesar, and they were determined not to forfeit their reputations. Banding together, the handful of centurions made a charge up onto the rim of the depression, an unexpected offensive move that scattered overconfident German horsemen.
As Germans fell back in the face of the centurions’ charge, a gap opened in their ring that gave many of the centurions’ men the chance to break out of the encirclement and resume the dash for the fort. To their own surprise, these men reached the camp as their centurions behind them kept the Germans busy. But none of the centurions survived. Greatly outnumbered, they all fell as they made a last stand.
Back on the hill, almost the equivalent of two cohorts, a thousand men, hadn’t budged, had retained their discipline and their formation. But now they were entirely cut off. With the group of centurions downed, all German horsemen now turned to concentrate solely on the men on the hill. The young legionaries found themselves outnumbered two to one, bunched up, trying to fight off drives through their ranks by German horses, to avoid the overhand thrusts of German lances, the decapitating swipes of German swords. No help came from the camp as their ranks were progressively chopped down. By late in the day, the thousand 14th Legion men on the hill had been wiped out to a man.
The gates of the camp had been closed. From the ramparts, the surviving men of the 14th Legion, bleeding, hungry, and humbled, watched forlornly as Germans stripped the corpses of their Roman friends and relatives on the battlefield, rounded up the straying baggage animals, and loaded up the abandoned wheat that had ultimately cost the 14th Legion so dearly. General Cicero probably couldn’t bring himself to look. We hear not a word of him throughout the day’s action. No orders came from him, no sallies were led by him—as Caesar would soon note.
The Germans withdrew to the woods behind the camp from which they had launched their attack earlier in the day. There, they had stored Eburone cattle and other plunder accumulated during this very profitable raid into Belgium. Leading their newly acquired Roman army pack animals, they turned their backs on Atuatuca and withdrew east, to recross the Rhine and victoriously return home.
As Caesar was to learn later from prisoners, the raiders were members of the Sugambri tribe, Germans whose homeland was to the northeast, between the Ruhr and Sieg Rivers. On hearing that the Romans had devastated the Eburones, the Sugambri had put together their mounted raiding party in the hope of mopping up some of the Eburone spoils, and crossed the Rhine in boats and on rafts thirty miles below Caesar’s recently built and dismantled bridge. Described by Caesar as born fighters and bandits, the Sugambri had seized a number of roaming cattle and taken several Eburones prisoner before one of the captives had informed them that Caesar and his Roman army were campaigning well to the south and north, and that in Caesar’s absence all the valuable property belonging to his army was being stored at Atuatuca.
None of this background was then known to Cicero or his men, and as the Sugambri returned home, the rumor quickly circulated around the Atuatuca camp tents that this German force had been part of a much larger Gallo-Germanic army that must have wiped out Caesar and the legions. So that night, when Colonel Gaius Volusenus, Caesar’s regular point man, arrived at Atuatuca with most of Caesar’s Gallic cavalry, few at the camp believed him when he said that Caesar and the legions were intact, unharmed, and close behind him. It took Caesar’s return within the next day or so for the men of the 14th Legion to finally acknowledge that Volusenus had been telling the truth.
Caesar wrote in his memoirs that he took General Cicero to task for allowing the 14th Legion cohorts outside the camp, against his express orders. But apart from that—officially, anyway—he went easy on him, putting the loss of two 14th Legion cohorts down to bad luck more than bad leadership.
Caesar had a distinctly political motive for this. Cicero’s brother, the famous orator Marcus Cicero, was one of Caesar’s most outspoken critics in the Senate, and there was no point in antagonizing the elder Cicero unnecessarily. In person, Caesar was probably much more forthright with Quintus Cicero. Impatient as always, Caesar would have then moved on, mentally and physically. For the better part of his career he was quick to forgive most who disappointed him or let him down, and Caesar was to retain the younger Cicero on his staff for another year.
It’s less likely that Cicero forgot the dressing down he received from his commander in chief after this second debacle at Atuatuca. By the time civil war broke out fewer than four years later, unlike a number of the generals who served with Caesar in Gaul, the younger Cicero would side with and march with Caesar’s opponents.
Caesar had failed to achieve the objective of his expansive sweep through Belgium over the past week—the seizure of the fugitive King Ambiorix. Now, unhappy at that failure, smarting over the loss of a thousand men of the 14th, and with his spirits further dampened by the sudden arrival of heavy fall rains, he pulled out of Atuatuca, with the 14th now marching with the other legions. Sending the cavalry ahead, he made a punitive scorched-earth drive through Eburonia. Every Eburone village, every farm building, was put to the torch. Cattle were rounded up or slaughtered, crops not flattened by the rain were harvested and consumed as Caesar determined to punish the small, impertinent Eburone nation by starving it out of existence.
Often, reports came to Caesar from cavalry patrols that Ambiorix had been sighted, fleeing with just a mounted bodyguard of four men. But each time, the Eburone king would evade pursuit and disappear once more.
As the weather continued to worsen, Caesar sent the legions into camp for the winter of 53-52 B.C. and made plans to head south to Italy to conduct court sittings in Cisalpine Gaul and spend the winter there, as had become his custom. On Caesar’s orders, two legions went to the Trever frontier in eastern Belgium; two went to central France, setting up camp in the vicinity of modern Dijon; and the remaining six pitched their tents in a huge new camp at present-day Sens in central France, sixty-five miles southeast of Paris. After their savaging at Atuatuca, the 14th Legion had earned Caesar’s displeasure, and the unit probably was garrisoned at the main legion camp at Sens, out of harm’s way. The men of the legion would have lapsed into depression, convinced that now they would be forever consigned to the rear. But they need not have fretted: Caesar would soon have a mission for the 14th Legion.