In the second half of 44 B.C., at the request of Caesar’s chief secretary, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Aulus Hirtius, an officer who had been a colonel on Caesar’s staff since 54 B.C., reluctantly sat down to complete Caesar’s memoirs—his Commentaries, as they were known in his own time, or The Gallic War, as the book on his campaigns in Gaul came to be called.
By that stage the first seven parts of Caesar’s memoirs had been published in Rome, receiving great attention and acclaim, even from Caesar’s critics, such as the elder Cicero. When Hirtius sent his last chapter of The Gallic War to Balbus, his covering letter contained the protest that he was not qualified to write it. But write it he did. His work was not in the same league as Caesar’s originals in either the literary sense or the military sense, yet it served its political purpose at the time. Like Caesar’s own work it was pure propaganda, but with an even more one-eyed stance than Caesar had adopted. It’s from Hirtius that we learn details of the last episodes of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul.
Hirtius’s eighth and final chapter took up where Caesar had left off, in the final stages of a 52 B.C. uprising against him in Gaul. Led by Vercingetorix, charismatic young leader of the Averni tribe of southern France, all of central Gaul had rebelled. There had been sieges and skirmishes, and a major reverse for Caesar outside the walls of Gergovia in the Auvergne Mountains, after which he and his legions, including the 14th, had been forced to retreat. And then there was Caesar’s famous siege of Alesia on Mount Auxois, thirty miles northwest of Dijon. Destroying a Gallic relief force of as many as 250,000 men, Caesar’s ten legions had then forced Vercingetorix and much of his army of 80,000 starving men trapped at Alesia to surrender. The Gallic Revolt, it seemed, had been crushed.
In late 52 B.C., as all the legions were settling into their winter camps in Gaul, the rebellion spluttered back into life. Caesar himself had decided to remain in Gaul for the winter, so he wouldn’t be caught in Italy should there be further problems. He had only just set up his headquarters at Bibracte, on Mount Beuvray, twelve miles west of Autun, when intelligence reports arrived of fresh unrest among tribes to the west, with talk of a guerrilla war being planned. On December 29, leaving General Mark Antony in charge at headquarters, Caesar set off from Bibracte with his cavalry bodyguard and hurried west, picking up the 13th Legion and then the 11th Legion from their camps during his rapid progress.
In a minicampaign of forty days, Caesar surprised and overwhelmed the Bituriges with his two legions, taking numerous prisoners. Once he was satisfied that rebel ringleaders had been rounded up and the threat eliminated, he sent the two legions back to their bases as he himself returned to Bibracte.
In late February, just eighteen days after his return to Bibracte, Caesar was presiding over a court session when envoys from the Bituriges arrived to say that their people were under attack from the Carnutes, their neighbors to the north. Caesar promptly sent to the two nearest legions, units then camped on the Saône. The men of the 14th Legion, huddled around their campfires at Chalon, would have been surprised and delighted when ordered to prepare to march with Caesar at once to deal with the Carnutes.
According to Hirtius, the other legion summoned by Caesar together with the 14th was the 6th. This was the first mention of the 6th Legion in relation to Caesar’s army in Gaul. Until 52 B.C., the 6th Legion was one of three legions based in eastern Spain with Lieutenant General Lucius Afranius, under the overall control of Pompey the Great, who governed all of Spain from Rome.
Plutarch says that a legion was temporarily transferred by Pompey to Caesar in Gaul as the result of an urgent request from Caesar, either just leading up to or during the period that Pompey was sole consul in 52 B.C. Plutarch adds that Cato the Younger complained bitterly that Caesar’s request did not go through the Senate and that Pompey equally didn’t bother to refer his loan of the legionaries to Caesar to the Senate.
That Pompey allocated the legion to Caesar in the face of the worrying southern advance of contingents of Vercingetorix’s Gallic liberation army in 52 B.C. is obvious. We know from Caesar himself that the defenses of the Roman province in the south of France, the later Narbonne Gaul, were thoroughly stretched by rebel incursions in 52 B.C., with Caesar’s cousin Lieutenant General Lucius Caesar raising a force of twenty-two militia cohorts to support local troops deployed by General Decimus Brutus Albinus. Bringing experienced reinforcements from across the Pyrenees was a sound move.
At the same time, Caesar had raised a new unit in Transalpine Gaul, on his own authority. Suetonius says that none of its recruits was a Roman citizen—Caesar didn’t have to obtain Senate permission to raise units of auxiliaries, noncitizens, which could be disbanded at any time. But then, says Suetonius, Caesar unilaterally granted every man in the new unit Roman citizenship, giving them rights under Roman law—another act to severely ruffle feathers in Rome. Suetonius says that Caesar called the new legion the Alaudae, from Celtic, meaning “crested larks,” and said to have been because of the men’s long, trailing Celtic-style helmet plumes. Later, during the civil war, he would allocate the Alaudae the number of Pompey’s 5th Legion after he’d discharged that unit.
The arrival of the Alaudae and the 6th had brought Caesar’s army up to twelve legions. But before these two units could become engaged, the Vercingetorix Revolt had been terminated at Alesia. But Caesar was in no hurry to give the 6th back to Pompey, even though, as it hadn’t served with Caesar before, it was in his eyes no better than a brand-new legion of raw recruits, like the Alaudae. He sent it to gather wheat at Macon until the next spring, when it would be deployed with the rest of his legions as required.
In the last days of February 51 B.C., the Spaniards of the 6th Legion marched from the Saône, in the company of the excited young northern Italians of the 14th, to join Caesar. After the two legions had tramped into Bibracte, without heavy equipment and keen for action, Caesar took charge of them and quickly led their cohorts northwest into the homeland of the troublesome Carnutes.
This was not the ideal time for a military column to make a rapid transit across central France. Hirtius comments that the winter days were short, the roads bad, and the weather intolerable. But the men of the 14th and the 6th marched without complaint, wet and cold, swathed in their woolen cloaks, driven by a determination to secure some glory and not a little profit—after their unprofitable forty-day hike through Biturige territory a few weeks earlier, the legionaries of the 11th and 13th Legions had been promised 200 sesterces each by Caesar in lieu of booty, their centurions, 2,000 sesterces each. The young men of the 14th would have had ambitions for similar rewards.
As the 14th and the 6th slogged along poor roads and through dreadful weather to the Loire River, the Carnutes fled in all directions ahead of them, deserting their towns, villages, and farms in terror. With Caesar’s cavalry and auxiliary troops chasing tribesmen from the district, the men of the 14th had no fighting to do. They marched into the deserted Carnute capital, Aurelianum, modern Orléans, and made themselves at home, helping themselves to possessions left behind by the townspeople in their hasty departure.
Caesar moved on to attend to other problems: reports had reached him that the Bellovaci, a Belgic tribe living around Beauvais, north of the Seine, was talking of taking up arms. Leaving General Trebonius in command at Orléans, Caesar told the 14th and the 6th that they could spend the remainder of the winter in the town. This meant comfortable accommodation for some men of the legion, who took over Orléans’s empty houses. Thatched wooden shelters were quickly built over the tents of the remaining legionaries.
While these two legions put their feet up, Caesar led the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 11th Legions north of Paris to deal with the Bellovaci. In managing these winter operations, Caesar had shown a keen eye to a lesson from the past. Historically, Roman legions did not campaign during winter. Seventeen years earlier, General Lucius Licinius Lucullus had pushed his luck and his troops too far on a winter campaign in the East. Lucullus was a brilliant general who thought nothing of hardships, and in his single-minded determination to outmaneuver the armies of Mithradates the Great, king of Pontus, one of Rome’s most formidable adversaries, he had kept his legions out of winter camp and incessantly on the march. Led in part by Clodius, Lucullus’s brother-in-law, the general’s men had mutinied—not once, but three times. After the troops refused to take another step, Lucullus had been recalled by the Senate and replaced by Pompey, who showed much more interest in the welfare of his men and still managed to beat Mithradates.
Caesar knew the lesson of Lucullus well enough. Three times in as many months now he had used different legions for winter missions limited in their goal and duration, calling out a fresh contingent each time he responded to rebel activity. Yet, for all this, the men of the 14th were not to relax for long—things were getting out of hand to the north. As the Bellovaci and five allied tribes massed for a major offensive, Caesar sent urgently to General Trebonius to bring up the 14th and the 6th, and the 13th, which was wintering in Biturige territory, to reinforce him. The 14th was on the march again.
Leading the Belgian rebels was Correus, king of the Bellovaci, together with King Commius of the Atrebates. For five years, Commius had been a loyal and energetic supporter of Caesar, even going to Britain as his ambassador and enduring capture by the Britons before Caesar’s invasion of 55 B.C. had secured his release. Commius had sacrificed a great deal to lead four thousand of his men to war against Rome in the Vercingetorix Revolt the previous year. He’d been considered such a friend by Caesar that he’d also been given power over a neighboring tribe, the Morini. What was more, his people had enjoyed tax-free status courtesy of Caesar. Yet, like so many of Caesar’s friends and allies throughout his career, Commius had turned against his patron.
Just prior to the Vercingetorix Revolt, after hearing from spies that Commius was a prime mover in the planning for a widespread uprising, General Labienus, Caesar’s deputy, knowing how influential Commius could be among his fellow Gauls as Caesar’s favorite, had decided to take preemptive action. Arranging a meeting with Commius, who was unaware that Labienus suspected him, the general sent along the troubleshooting Colonel Gaius Volusenus, then a cavalry commander with Mark Antony’s forces, accompanied by centurions who’d been primed for their part in the mission.
At the meeting, as king and colonel conversed, Volusenus had grasped Commius by the right hand, as if in friendship. This was a prearranged signal. While Volusenus held the king’s sword hand firmly in his two hands, one of his centurions drew a sword and went to cut Commius’s throat. There was a struggle before Colonel Volusenus and his men mounted up and galloped away, leaving the king for dead. But they hadn’t been thorough—the sword cut wasn’t lethal. Commius survived, carrying an ugly scar and perhaps a damaged voice that would be a permanent reminder to him and to all who met him of the day the Romans tried to assassinate him.
Caesar and the Belgians now camped across a valley from each other. There were a few skirmishes as each side felt out the other, but as Trebonius approached from the south with his three legions, the six tribes sent away their noncombatants, then withdrew behind a wall of fire, which effectively prevented pursuit, to a new encampment on more favorable ground ten miles away. As Caesar set off after the rebels with the legions, he sent the cavalry on in advance, with auxiliary infantry in support.
Again Commius and Correus had a trick up their sleeves. Their waiting troops ambushed the Roman cavalry as it hurried after the rebels. But Caesar’s mounted troops stood their ground and fought a battle that lasted for hours. News that Caesar was coming up with the legions reached both sides, news that inspired the Romans and demoralized the rebels. Belgian resistance wavered, then gave way. Thousands of tribesmen turned tail and fled, leaving more than half their number dead on the field. Correus, chief of the Bellovaci, was cornered. Offered his life if he surrendered, Correus refused, and cut down any man who advanced on him. In the end, he was shot with an arrow by a member of the unit of archers from Crete then serving with Caesar, and died there on the battlefield with his countrymen.
The surviving Bellovaci leaders and their allies now held a hasty conference. Seeing no other way out, they sent envoys to Caesar to arrange their surrender. Commius shunned the peace talks. After the previous year’s attempt on his life he’d vowed never again to place himself in the presence of a Roman. Instead, he went into hiding.
Over the next few months there were a number of isolated outbreaks of hostilities as the Gauls’ war of liberation went through its death throes. While General Labienus took two legions to finally subdue the Treveri, Caesar sent several legionary forces to western France to snuff out resistance there. One of these forces marched under General Gaius Fabius. The other, led by General Gaius Caninius, was made up of two legions, the 14th and the 6th, now working well together as partner legions. Here was an opportunity for the youngsters of the 14th to give Caesar reason to consider them more than just a B-grade legion.
Caesar himself still had a debt to settle—on his behalf, and on behalf of the 14th Legion. He returned to the land of the Eburones in Belgium, taking with him Mark Antony and the 12th Legion, supported by auxiliaries and cavalry. Hirtius wrote that in lieu of capturing Ambiorix, the best way for Caesar to gain the satisfaction that his honor demanded was to strip Eburone territory of its inhabitants and their means of survival.
Hearing that Caesar was tied up in the south, many Eburones had come out of hiding in the new year and returned to their farms. Now they were caught in their fields by the sudden arrival of Roman troops. Thousands were rounded up by Caesar’s spring sweep through central and eastern Belgium. Some were killed, others sold into slavery. The last of the Eburones’ cattle was plundered. Every building was destroyed.
Hirtius says that the plan was to cause Eburone survivors such grief that they would never permit their fugitive king to return. But the roundup was so complete that the Eburones ceased to exist as a nation. Before long, the Tungri Germans would be encouraged by Rome to settle in Eburonia. As for Ambiorix, he was never heard of again.
Perhaps, like Commius, king of the Atrebates, another resistance leader on the run, Ambiorix escaped to Germany or Britain. To begin with, Commius and his mounted bodyguard popped up in Belgium, making guerrilla raids on Roman road transport, only to ride into an ambush set by his would-be assassin, Colonel Volusenus, who had been given explicit orders by Mark Antony to find the Belgian king and finish the job he’d botched the year before.
The ambushed Commius and his few men wheeled around and made a suicidal charge at Volusenus. Taken by surprise, the colonel and his troopers fled. Commius overtook Volusenus and unhorsed him with a couched lance, which he drove clean through Volusenus’s thigh before the rebel king made good his escape. Commius sought sanctuary with German tribes on the North Sea coast. Later, with a Roman price on his head, he crossed to Britain aboard a merchant vessel, to live out his days among Atrebate settlers in southern England. His sons would subsequently become leaders of this British offshoot of the Atrebate tribe.
Meanwhile, in western France, as General Fabius brought a number of tribes to heel, General Caninius and his two legions, including the 14th, hurried to help the people of Poitiers, Roman Lemonum, capital of the Pictones, longtime allies of Caesar, who were under siege from the rebel Andes tribe from the Anjou region. When he arrived, Caninius put his two legions behind the walls of a hastily built camp and wouldn’t come out, later giving the excuse that his legions were understrength. The 14th was missing the two cohorts it had lost at Atuatuca a couple of years earlier, while the men of the 6th were fourteen years into a sixteen-year enlistment; natural attrition would have seen the legion reduced to about two-thirds of its nominal strength by this time.
The rebels made a cursory attempt to assault the camp before withdrawing after hearing that General Fabius and his two legions were coming up in support of Caninius. Fabius’s cavalry overtook the retreating Andes tribe and cut to pieces twelve thousand of them. According to Hirtius, the Roman cavalry stopped the slaughter only when their horses were exhausted and the troopers’ right arms were too tired to raise.
There would be just one last bloody episode, a test for the 14th Legion, before the war in Gaul was finally brought to an end and Caesar’s conquest was complete.