‘They did not allow traders to come amongst them; they permitted no wine or any other luxuries to be imported, because they believed that these weakened the spirit and reduced courage.’ - Caesar.1
‘The whole race which is now called both Gallic and Galatic is war-mad . . . although not otherwise simple .... And therefore, if roused, they come together all at once for the struggle, both openly and without circumspection, so that for those who wish to defeat them by stratagem they become easy to deal with ... .’ - Strabo, early first century AD.2
During the winter months of 58-57 BC Caesar raised two more legions, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth. Once again he acted entirely on his own initiative and paid for the troops and their equipment with the funds he controlled as governor. Thus within twelve months he had doubled the size of the army allocated to him with his province. Centurions from the experienced legions were given steps in promotion and transferred to the new units. This made good military sense, providing the raw recruits with a leaven of veteran officers, and seems to have been Caesar’s standard practice throughout his campaigns. The transfers created vacancies in the established legions, which must then have been filled by internal promotions or appointments from outside. In the Commentaries conspicuous gallantry is always given as the reason for advancing or rewarding centurions. Suetonius says that Caesar did not care about his men’s ‘lifestyle or wealth, but only their courage’. His tribunes and prefects, many of whom were appointed on the basis of recommendation or favour, had proved disappointing in the previous summer. We do not know whether the discontent at Vesontio resulted in any dismissals. Patronage was everywhere in Roman society, so that it is unlikely that it never played a role in Caesar’s appointment of centurions, but it is clear that individual ability was his main concern. His centurions certainly came to believe that talent would always be rewarded. Caesar carefully cultivated them, learning their names, in much the same way that he and other senators took the trouble to greet passers-by by name in the Forum. The bond that was created between the proconsul and these officers was intensely personal. Centurions led from the front and suffered disproportionately high casualties as a result. This, combined with the continued expansion of Caesar’s army, helped to ensure that there were always more posts to fill, and more brave junior officers to reward. By the end of the Gallic campaigns the vast majority of the centurions in his legions owed their initial appointment, promotion to senior grades, or both, to Caesar himself. This was an important part of the process whereby his legions became not simply the army in the province he happened to control, but Caesar’s army.3
The winter months were also a time for training. Caesar was not a martinet in the old Roman tradition of stern commanders who flogged and executed their men to instil rigid discipline. He seems rarely to have employed either punishment, considering only desertion and mutiny as serious crimes. Off-duty and in the quiet months his men were allowed considerable leeway in their behaviour. Caesar is once supposed to have said that his men would fight as well even if they ‘stank of perfume’. Marius had led his armies in the same way, and Caesar may deliberately have copied his famous relative, and perhaps felt that this was an appropriately popularis way of doing things. Yet for all their leniency in peaceful times, both Marius and Caesar had high standards of conduct for their legions during actual operations. Then it was a question of tight discipline, instant obedience and proficient manoeuvres, and to ensure that he received this Caesar trained his army hard. In this respect he conformed with the aristocratic ideal of a commander, for all the best generals were seen as men who carefully prepared their armies for battle through rigorous training. Caesar ‘often stood his men to, even when there was no cause, and especially on festival days or when it was raining. Sometimes he would tell them to keep an eye on him, and then slip away suddenly by day or night, and lead them on an especially long march, designed to wear out those who failed to keep up.’4 His personal example was vital in encouraging the soldiers to meet his standards. Caesar led the column on training marches and in the field, sometimes on horseback, but more often on foot, just like the ordinary legionaries. It was a gesture intended to show them that he was not expecting them to do anything he would not do himself. According to Plutarch the soldiers were astonished:
that he should undergo toils beyond his body’s apparent power of endurance . . . because he was of a spare habit, had soft and white skin, suffered from epileptic fits .... Nevertheless, he did not make his feeble health an excuse for soft living, but rather his military service a cure for his feeble health, since by wearisome journeys, simple diet, continuously sleeping in the open air, and enduring hardships he fought off his trouble and kept his body strong against its attacks. Most of his sleep, at least, he got in cars or litters, making his rest conduce to action, and in the daytime he would have himself conveyed to garrisons, cities, or camps, one slave who was accustomed to write from dictation as he travelled sitting by his side and one soldier standing behind him with a sword.5
When Caesar addressed his troops it was always as ‘comrades’ (commilitones), never ‘men’ or ‘soldiers’. He and they were all good Romans, serving the Republic by fighting against its enemies, and also winning glory and plunder along the way, which he took care to share with them most generously. Already they had won two great victories. Mutual trust grew up gradually between the commander, his officers, and soldiers as they came to know and rely on each other. Pride in themselves and their units was also carefully fostered. Decorated weapons, some inlaid with silver or gold, were issued, most probably as rewards for valour, marking the recipients out as exceptional soldiers and making them feel special. The Roman military system had always sought to encourage boldness in its soldiers, but in Caesar’s legions this ideal was taken to an extreme.6
Caesar spent much of the winter south of the Alps, so that presumably a good deal of training must have been supervised by his legates, tribunes and centurions. In the past he had championed the rights of the residents of Cisalpine Gaul, and during his time as governor he did his best to win the lasting support of the people of the area, especially the aristocracy. He employed many citizens of Gallic extraction on his staff, a good number of them aristocrats from the tribes of the Transalpine province. Apart from Valerius Procillus, who had played such a prominent role in the first campaigns, other men are mentioned later in the Commentaries. The father of the Gallic historian Pompeius Trogus also served on Caesar’s staff, and was given responsibility for some of his letters. Caesar never mentions him, and it may be that he was one of a number of clerks who helped to cope with the proconsul’s voluminous correspondence. Even while mounted and riding out to inspect the lines of his army, Caesar was said to have been able to dictate to two secretaries at a time. Letters went often to influential men in Rome, and on many occasions were reinforced by personal visits made by his agent Balbus. Much correspondence also went the other way, and Plutarch tells us that from the beginning many men travelled north to petition Caesar for favours such as appointments to his staff. Always eager to do favours and so place more men under obligation to him, he was almost always willing to grant any request. Yet in the main it still seems to have been the failures or those without good connection who approached him.7
Socially Caesar entertained and was entertained by the local aristocracy, many of whom had only possessed citizenship for a generation or so. Suetonius says that he regularly filled two dining halls, one with his officers and Greek members of his staff and the other for civilian citizens. On one occasion in Mediolanum (modern Milan), he dined at the house of one Valerius Meto, and the party was served with asparagus accidentally dressed in bitter myrrh rather than the normal olive oil. Caesar ate it without comment or change of expression, and rebuked his companions when they loudly complained. The patrician from one of Rome’s oldest families was the perfect guest and as always a lively companion. Whether or not many of the local nobility were able to provide him with the witty, often philosophical or literary conversation that was so popular amongst Rome’s elite is unknown. Even if they could not match the standards of sophisticated dinners at Rome, the pronounced literary interests of so many of his officers doubtless provided him with such diversions. Caesar was also friendly with the father of the poet Catullus, whose family came from the Po Valle). The son had gone to Rome, but after taking a few steps on a public career, had abandoned this and devoted himself to his verses. Many dealt with love, but not a few were bitter attacks on leading men of the day, including both Cato and Caesar. In one he styled Caesar a ‘ravenous, shameless gambler’, but another was even more scurrilous, alleging - amongst other things - a homosexual affair between the general and one of his prefects, Mamurra:8
Well agreed are the abominable profligates, Mamurra the effeminate, and Caesar; no wonder either. Like stains, one from the city and one from Formiae, are deeply impressed on each, and will never be washed out. Diseased alike, very twins, both on one sofa, dilettante writers both, one as greedy in adultery as the other, rivals and partners in love. Well agreed are these abominable profligates.9
Caesar was outraged, but did not break his friendship with the poet’s father, and when Catullus himself apologised, immediately invited him to dinner.10
No one seems to have actually believed that Caesar and Mamurra were lovers, but the latter was not a popular figure and attracted Catullus’ spleen in other poems. After the stories about Nicomedes, Caesar remained sensitive about such things. However, the suggestion that the proconsul continued his womanising ways while in Gaul was widely - and certainly correctly - credited. Years later at his triumph Caesar’s legionaries would sing about him frittering away the money he borrowed in Rome on his Gaulish women. In Tacitus’ account of a rebellion in the Rhineland in ad 70, we read of one Gallic nobleman who claimed that he was descended from Caesar. The latter was supposed to have taken the man’s great-grandmother as his mistress at some point during the campaigns in Gaul. It is difficult to know who Caesar’s lovers were in these years, but probably most were from the aristocratic families inside his provinces and perhaps amongst the tribes elsewhere. Some, especially those with Roman citizenship, may have been educated and able to provide him with the witty and stimulating companionship that he had sought so often amongst the married women of Rome. In other cases it may simply have been a question of physical pleasure.11
Leaving his army to winter in the lands of the Sequani had shown that Caesar did not intend his intervention in the affairs of Gaul to be temporary. Even he admits that this caused disquiet amongst certain tribal leaders, who wondered whether they had truly gained from the expulsion of Ariovistus, if they were now to be dominated by a Roman proconsul. During the winter rumours and reports reached the proconsul south of the Alps that the Belgae, the tribes of northern Gaul, were even more disturbed and had formed a ‘conspiracy’ against Rome. They were encouraged by chieftains in some of the Gallic/Celtic peoples - men whom Caesar claims aspired to kingship - but judged that such revolutions would be harder to achieve in a region dominated by Rome. The Belgae also felt that once the Romans had secured control - ‘pacified’ is the word used in the Commentaries - of Celtic central Gaul, then the legions might soon march against them. In the light of subsequent events this was not an unreasonable concern, for Caesar was about to do precisely that. By taking his army outside Transalpine Gaul in the previous year, driving out first the Helvetii and then Ariovistus, he had shown that Rome was willing to intervene on behalf of its allies. In the past, the Roman province had maintained a ring of friendly states around its borders. Caesar had decided to push the Roman sphere of influence further north, claiming that this was necessary to prevent other forces from dominating the region, and ultimately threatening the security of the province. These motives were entirely appropriate for a Roman governor, and even if Caesar’s actions interpreted his duty in an extremely aggressive way, he still remained within the boundaries of proper action for a magistrate of the Republic. Pompey had behaved in a similar fashion during his eastern campaigns, but his and Caesar’s campaigns differed only in scale from the actions of many earlier Roman generals. Few of these men had subsequently been challenged because of their actions, and even fewer actually punished. In the Commentaries Caesar claims that the Belgae planned and began a preemptive attack to challenge Roman power. He was effectively acting in the same way. By the standards of the time, neither of them were acting unreasonably.12
Caesar uses the term Belgae or Belgians fairly vaguely to refer to all the peoples living to the north of the Celtic tribes. The area was much wider than modern Belgium, and included not only parts of Holland, but much of northern France. The ‘true’ Belgae appear to have been the tribes living in what is now the Pas de Calais and upper Normandy. Caesar considered all of the Belgae were Gauls, but also claims that many of them were descended from German settlers. As we have already seen, the distinction between Gaul and German was not always as clear as our ancient sources suggest but there may well have been some truth in this. At the end of the first century ad Tacitus also believed that the Nervii and Treveri were both Germanic. In Caesar’s case his mention of the Germanic connection may well have been intended to make the Belgae seem more threatening, and therefore more deserving of Roman ‘pacification’. He also takes care to report that one tribe boasted that they were the only people who had resisted the migrating Cimbri and Teutones, while another was descended from these great enemies of Rome. The Belgae were more warlike than the Celtic tribes, in part because they were further away from Roman influence. Ancient authors believed that access to the luxuries of civilisation softened a people, while a simple life preserved natural virtue and courage. The archaeological record confirms that Roman wine was far less common in northern Gaul than amongst those peoples who lay nearer the trade routes. The Nervii are supposed to have forbidden all imports, but elsewhere the tribal aristocracies did value wine, and possessing it even in small quantities helped to confirm their status.
Less is known about the walled towns of northern Gaul than the oppida of the Celtic tribes, but in general they seem to have been somewhat smaller and less developed. Some of the tribes still had kings, a few of whom were powerful, although aristocratic councils were more important in other tribes. Only a generation or so before, one monarch is supposed to have controlled much of the region and also part of Britain.13
Such political unity under a single strong leader no longer existed, but the Belgic tribes did show a willingness to join together to meet what they perceived as the threat posed by the Romans. During the winter they had exchanged hostages and agreed to form a combined army, to which each was to provide a set number of warriors. The whole force was to be led by Galba, King of the Suessiones, not by any right, but because the other leaders acknowledged his ability. Caesar began to concentrate his own forces before the campaigning season began, sending the two new legions under the command of the legate Quintus Pedius to join the rest of the army. The proconsul remained in Cisalpine Gaul, only travelling north to take charge when the spring was sufficiently advanced to provide forage for the army’s animals. He immediately requested the allied tribes to inform him of events further north and received reports of the Belgic preparations. The Roman army marched north, the proconsul pushing on at his usual rapid pace, so that within two weeks they were approaching the Remi, the first of the tribes considered to be Belgae rather than Celts. Envoys arrived assuring him that they had never been hostile to Rome, immediately agreeing to Caesar’s demands for hostages and supplies of grain. He questioned them about the numbers of warriors he was likely to face and was given a precise list of the tribal contingents. The Bellovaci had promised 60,000 men, the Suessiones and Nervii both 50,000, the Morini 25,000, the Atuatuci 19,000, the Atrebates 15,000, the Ambiani and Caleti each 10,000, while another six tribes altogether offered 50,000, producing a total of 289,000 warriors. These were the figures reported by the Remi and dutifully recorded by Caesar in the Commentaries. He never troubles to say whether or not he believed their estimates were accurate. The narrative of the campaign does suggest that the combined army was an exceptionally large and rather clumsy force, which may well have been significantly bigger than the Roman army. Caesar himself made sure that the full strength of the tribes was never united, by arranging with Diviciacus for the Aedui to attack the Bellovaci and keep their warriors busy defending their own lands.14
The Remi were closely related to the Suessiones, following the same customs and laws, and at times ruled by the same leaders. It is hard to know whether their readiness to join the Romans was a pragmatic acknowledgement of their inability to resist the sudden appearance of Caesar, or was based on rivalry with and fear of the other tribes. Certainly, the Remi were the first target of the Belgic coalition, whose army advanced to assault Bibrax, one of the Remi’s main towns (probably modern Vieux-Laon). Caesar had advanced across the Aisne, which lay on the tribe’s borders, and camped on the far bank. He left a detachment under the legate Sabinus on the other side of the river to build a fort protecting the bridge. Bibrax was about 8 miles away, and its leader - one of the chieftains who had led the delegation to Caesar - now sent word that he could not hold out much longer unless he received help. Guided by the men who had brought this message, the proconsul sent his Numidian, Cretan and Balearic light troops to slip into the town under cover of darkness. The method used by the Belgians for attacking a fortification was simple - a barrage of sling stones and other missiles pinned the defenders down, while other warriors advanced holding their shields over their heads and undermined the wall. The skilled archers and slingers sent by Caesar would have made this extremely difficult, and the Belgians abandoned the attempt, contenting themselves with ravaging the surrounding area, setting fire to the small villages and farms dotted about the countryside. They then moved to confront Caesar, camping 2 miles from the Roman position, with a valley between them. Caesar claims that the fires in the Belgians’ sprawling encampment covered an area of some 8 miles.15
For days both sides then watched each other. There were cavalry skirmishes, by which Caesar gauged the quality of this new enemy and judged that his own men would be more than a match for them in most situations. His camp was on high ground with the River Aisne to the rear. On the slope in front he deployed his six legions with battle experience, leaving the two recently recruited formations to guard his camp - an echo of the deployment against the Helvetii. With no natural feature to protect the flanks, the legionaries dug a 400-pace (roughly 130 yards) ditch on each side, running back at right angles from the main line. Each ditch led up to a small fort, in which were emplaced light artillery pieces or scorpions, capable of firing heavy bolts with tremendous force and accuracy over distances far greater than any missile weapon the Belgians possessed. Sulla had once entrenched his position in much the same way to secure his flanks against an enemy army that was markedly superior in numbers. The Belgians would have to advance up the gentle slope before attacking the Roman position from the front, and the advantage of such a position had been clearly demonstrated the year before near Bibracte. To make matters worse for the Belgians, in the bottom of the valley between the two positions was a stream and an area of marsh. These were not impassable obstacles, but would have slowed an attack down and caused a line to fall into disorder. It was unlikely that the opposition would give the attacker the opportunity to stop and redress the line before continuing the advance.16
Caesar’s position was a strong one and he could be confident of beating off even the heaviest of attacks. However, the Belgic host showed no sign of charging to its doom and was content to form up on the far side of the valley, waiting for the Romans to cross the boggy ground and fight at a disadvantage. This was always the risk for a commander who took up a very strong position, for if the advantages it gave were obvious, then there was little incentive for the enemy to engage. Both sides sent forward their cavalry, and the allied horsemen gained a slight advantage over the Belgian horse before Caesar withdrew them. Realising that a full-scale battle was not going to develop, the legions were ordered back to camp to rest. Reaching the same conclusion, the Belgic commanders sent a part of the army to ford the River Aisne and either threaten the Roman supply line by capturing the fort protecting the bridge, or draw Caesar off by ravaging the lands of his newfound allies, the Remi. The outpost at the bridge reported this new threat and Caesar responded by personally leading his cavalry, Numidians, and the other light troops back across to the far side of the river. They managed to catch the Belgic warriors when only a few had got across. The latter were surrounded and dealt with by the cavalry, while the missile troops shot down the other warriors as they waded through the water. After suffering heavy losses, the Belgians withdrew.
It was a difficult task to keep any tribal army in the field for any length of time, since their logistical arrangements tended to be extremely basic. Only a certain amount of food would have been carried by the warriors, or the wives and servants who in many tribes accompanied them to battle. In the summer months it was often possible to find food and forage from the countryside, but the quantities to be seized in this way were limited, and soon exhausted if the army remained in one place for any length of time. The Belgian army in 57 BC was exceptionally large, even if we must treat the figures given with some caution, and so the problems of supply were made considerably worse. The attack on Bibrax had failed, as had the attempt to cross the river and get behind the Romans. Caesar had shown himself willing to fight only if the Belgians put themselves at a severe disadvantage. He had doubtless told his men that the reluctance of the enemy to attack the Roman position showed that they were frightened. Galba and the Belgian chieftains could equally have assured their warriors that the Roman refusal to come down from their hilltop and trenches was proof that they feared the might of the tribes. The campaign had not been especially successful for them so far, but they had shown their numbers and confidence to this new enemy, and Caesar had not risked attacking their main force. It is possible that Galba and the other leaders felt that they had demonstrated their strength and that this might be enough to deter further invasion. There often seems to have been strong elements of display and gesture in inter-tribal warfare, so we do not necessarily need to follow Caesar and see the Belgians’ next action in purely pragmatic terms. Yet the practical factors were undeniable, for the army had almost run out of food and could not stay where it was for much longer. In addition, news had arrived that the Aedui were advancing to the border with the Bellovaci in accordance with Caesar’s arrangement with Diviciacus. At a council of the senior chieftains present with the army, the Belgians resolved to disperse and go home, each tribal contingent returning to its own lands, where they could easily be fed. Pledging themselves to come to the aid of any tribe that Caesar might attack over the coming months, the great army broke up. It did not do this in any ordered manner, individual leaders and groups simply packing up and walking off during the night.17
The Roman outposts reported the noisy departure of the Belgian army, but Caesar was suspicious that it might be a trap. The failure of the surprise attack against the Helvetii in the previous year may well have made him rather cautious about operations at night. At dawn he sent out patrols that confirmed that the enemy really were simply drifting away without any serious attempt to cover their retreat. The cavalry rode out under Pedius and Cotta, while Labienus followed them with three legions to provide close support. There was little resistance, and large numbers of Belgic warriors were killed and captured as they fled from the Roman pursuit. For the moment the great army had dispersed - it would take some time before the tribes were able concentrate their forces again. Caesar made sure that they did not have that time. On the following day he marched against the Suessiones, whose lands bordered on those of the Remi. By a forced march he reached one of their main towns at Noviodunum. (Like most of the other Belgic oppida mentioned by Caesar, its precise location is unknown, but it was most probably fairly near modern Soissons.) Believing from reports that the town had no defenders, Caesar sent his men straight into the attack. There were indeed few warriors to resist him, but the Romans had no ladders or other siege equipment and those few were able to repulse the attack. After this failure, Caesar made sure that the business was done properly and set the legionaries to making a ramp, siege towers and mantlets to take his men up to and over the wall. The town was not yet blockaded, and numbers of warriors from the dispersing army took refuge within it. Their morale was shaky, however, and the sight of the Roman siege machines caused dismay. The Suessiones surrendered, winning favourable terms because the Remi interceded on their behalf. They gave up hostages from their leading families, including two of King Galba’s sons, and handed over quantities of weapons - perhaps a token amount as a symbol of disarmament.18
Caesar needed to move on while the advantage was still with him and now attacked the Bellovaci. These similarly put up little resistance and swiftly surrendered. This time it was Diviciacus of the Aedui who spoke for them, pleading long-standing friendship between their two tribes. The recent hostility of the Bellovaci was blamed on a few chieftains who saw the Aedui’s alliance with Rome as slavery. These men had now fled to Britain and could no longer influence tribal policy. Caesar happily granted the pleas and accepted the surrender on similarly lenient terms, although he did demand and receive 600 hostages, which was clearly far more than normal. In part this was because he wanted to honour Diviciacus and the Aedui, but it was also important to weaken the coalition facing him by removing as many members as possible. The high total of hostages makes it likely that most of the Suessiones’ aristocratic families sent someone to Caesar’s camp and this was clearly intended to ensure that they did not risk renewing the war. Throughout the Commentaries on the Gallic War there are frequent references to hostages, but never once does Caesar say what happened to any who came from tribes that broke their treaties with him. It would be surprising if most of these were not executed on such occasions. After thus dealing with two powerful tribes individually, Caesar next attacked the smaller Ambiani, who swiftly capitulated. Well over a third of the force that it was claimed the Belgians had mustered earlier in the year had now been defeated and the odds were turning in Caesar’s favour. However, the easy victories of the last days were over and resistance was hardening.19
THE BATTLE OF THE SAMBRE
Caesar now drove north-west against the Nervii, the largest tribe still willing to fight.
After three days the Roman column was about 10 miles away from the River Sambre, and captives revealed under interrogation that the tribal army was waiting on the far side. They had been joined by the Atrebates and Viromandui, and another tribe, the Atuatuci, were on their way According to the Remi’s estimates, the Nervii, Atrebates and Viromandui had contributed 75,000 men to the coalition army raised earlier in the summer, and Caesar gives the first tribe 10,000 more men in this battle. As we have seen, the reliability of theses figure is questionable, and their contingents had probably anyway been weakened by the earlier operations and further reduced by warriors who had not yet been able to join the army. Caesar’s eight legions probably mustered somewhere in the region of 30-40,000 men, backed by several thousand cavalry and as many light troops. It seems likely that the Nervii and their allies had at the very least parity of numbers with Caesar’s men, and probably a significant numerical advantage, although probably not as much as double the Roman numbers. The Belgians were determined to fight, and had evacuated their women, children and other non-combatants to places of sanctuary deep in inaccessible marshland. They also had information sent secretly by some of the Gauls and Belgians marching with Caesar as allies or hostages. These had reported that Caesar’s normal order of march was for each legion to form up separately, guarding its own baggage train. This meant that the fighting troops were split up into eight main sections, with cumbersome lines of servants, carts and pack animals between them, which would have made it difficult to form a battle line.20
Such a formation made the Romans vulnerable, and the Nervii had picked their ground carefully. As usual there can be no certainty as to the precise location of the battle, but a site within a few miles of Maubeuge seems quite probable. It is possible that the tribe had repelled invaders at this spot before. They evidently knew where Caesar would cross the river, which makes it probable that he was following a well-trodden route, used by the tribes for the movement of trade as well as armies. Low hills rose on either side of the river, which at this time of year was only about 3 feet deep and easily forded. On the far bank, the valley side was open for about 200 paces, but was then heavily wooded, allowing the warriors to wait in concealment. On the side from which the Romans were approaching, the ground was broken by lines of thick, high hedges, made deliberately by the Nervii to hinder raids by enemy horsemen. These were an obstacle both to movement and visibility, and were intended to send a clear message to raiders that once they crossed this point their attack would be resisted by a tribe proud of its martial reputation. Now they intended to give Caesar a demonstration of this and would launch an all-out attack as soon as the baggage behind the leading legion came into view.21
Battle of the Sambre
The captives - presumably men brought in by the cavalry patrols and scouts that preceded the main army - had warned Caesar that the river crossing would be contested. As a result he changed the march formation, adopting what he claims was his standard deployment when there was a risk of encountering the enemy After the screen of cavalry and light troops, the six experienced legions marched unencumbered by baggage, all of which was massed together and guarded by the two new legions who followed at the rear. On this particular day the Tenth was in the lead, followed by the Ninth, then the Eleventh, Eighth, Twelfth and Seventh. A party of centurions accompanied the forward scouting patrols and had the task of selecting and marking out the camp site for the night. The construction of a marching camp protected by a ditch and an earth wall formed from the spoil was standard practice for any Roman army in the field, and was the equivalent of modern infantrymen digging in at the end of a move. A camp took several hours to construct, but then offered security against sudden attack, and was laid out to a regular design, so that each unit knew its place. The centurions marked out a site on the hill on the near side of the river. When the main force began to arrive, the cavalry and light troops splashed through the water and formed a screen on the enemy-held bank. The bulk of the tribal army was hidden amongst the trees, but a few small groups darted forward and skirmished with the Romans. The Nervii had very few cavalrymen, and the auxiliaries easily held their own in the resulting combats, but took care not to pursue too far and enter the woods. As the legions arrived, they began the task of building the camp, packs were laid down, helmets, shields and pila piled, but it was normal for legionaries to keep their armour on while they dug. Each legate supervised the legion under his command, for Caesar had instructed them - probably as a permanent standing order - to remain with their men until the camp was complete. Small detachments of armed legionaries may well have been sent out as piquets, but there was no real effort to protect the labourers from a full-scale attack.
In the previous year Caesar had covered the construction of a camp close to Ariovistus’ army by keeping the first and second lines of the legions in battle order facing the enemy, while the cohorts of the third line dug.
Napoleon and many other commentators have justifiably criticised him for not adopting a similar practice here. Caesar already knew that the enemy were massed somewhere across the river, and would have seen his cavalry and light troops skirmishing with them on the far bank. The Nervii and their allies were close and therefore an attack possible, but he may have judged it unlikely. The day was considerably advanced and the enemy had done no more than harass his outposts. Weeks before, when he had faced an even larger army, it had refused to attack across some difficult ground and the river felt like a secure barrier. Keeping a substantial part of his army under arms would slow the building of the camp - in 58 BC the cohorts of the third line had had to construct a camp for only two legions, not the entire army. Whether through a conscious decision or simple omission, perhaps brought on by complacency after the easy defeat of three tribes in the last weeks, Caesar took the risk of not protecting the legions as they worked. It nearly proved fatal.22
The Belgians displayed admirable discipline as they waited for the moment to attack. The leaders of the army - a Nervian chieftain named Boduognatus was in overall charge - had agreed that they would wait until the Roman baggage appeared. Even though this did not follow the leading legion as they had expected, the warriors remained calm and only when the concentrated train of the army came into view on the far side of the valley did they leave the cover of the woods and advance. The Romans’ auxiliary cavalry and light troops could not hope to withstand a massed attack and quickly gave way The Belgian line had been formed into tribal contingents under cover of the trees and surged quickly down the slope and across the river. Some of their order was lost in the process, and the hedges on the far shore probably encouraged the line to break up even further. For all that, they were still better prepared for battle than the Romans, who struggled to form any sort of a fighting line. The battles against the Helvetii and Ariovistus - and indeed most large encounters in this period - were carefully prepared and anticipated affairs, with hours spent carefully deploying the lines and encouraging the troops for the clash to come. This time it was different and: ‘Caesar had to do everything at the same time: to raise the standard, which was the signal to stand to arms, to sound the trumpet call which recalled the soldiers from work, to bring back the men who had gone further afield in search of material for the rampart, to form the line of battle, to address the soldiers, and to give the signal for battle.’23
The proconsul could only be in one place at a time, and later paid tribute to his legates, who set about organising the troops nearest to them without waiting for instructions from him. Similarly the legionaries and centurions did not panic, but began to form up often in ad hoc units of whoever happened to be near at the time. A battle line began to coalesce surprisingly quickly, and even if it was less neat than was usual, and also less impressive - there was no time to take the leather covers off shields or to fix crests and plumes onto helmets - it was capable of putting up a resistance. It is questionable whether the army would have coped so well with such a crisis in the previous year, when army and commander were still unfamiliar with each other and had yet to build up the cohesion that came from training and the confidence derived from success. Caesar himself rode to each legion in turn, coming first to his favourite the Tenth, who were on the left of his ragged line. He gave them a few words of encouragement, telling them to remain steady and to remember their proven courage. The Belgians - mostly Atrebates on this flank - were now within 100 yards or so, and Caesar ordered the Tenth to charge, which they did with considerable effect. A volley of pila smashed into the enemy front ranks, halting the Atrebates. The slope at this point was mostly in the Romans’ favour, and the enemy tired from their rapid charge, so that the Tenth and neighbouring Ninth soon drove them back down the slope. In the centre the Eleventh and Eighth were also able to hold their own, pushing the Viromandui to the river. The right and centre of the Belgian army was crumbling, and the Tenth and Ninth even crossed the Sambre to chase the enemy back up the far slope. However, the main weight of the Belgian attack, and the bulk of the Nervii led by Boduognatus himself, had fallen on the Roman right. It was hard for the Roman officers to see what was going on, since vision was so often restricted by the high hedges, but by instinct or clear realisation the proconsul had galloped to the spot:24
After addressing Legio X, Caesar hurried to the right wing, where he saw his men hard pressed, and the standards [a shorthand term for the units’ formations] of Legio XII clustered in one place and the soldiers so crowded together that it impeded their fighting. All the centurions in the fourth cohort had fallen, the signifer was dead and his standard captured; in the remaining cohorts nearly every centurion was either dead or wounded, including the primus pilus Sextus Julius Baculus, an exceptionally brave man, who was exhausted by his many serious wounds and could no longer stand; the other soldiers were tired and some in the rear, giving up the fight, were withdrawing out of missile range; the enemy were edging closer up the slope in front and pressing hard on both flanks. He saw that the situation was critical and that there was no other reserve available, took a shield from a man in the rear ranks, - he had come without his own - advanced into the front line and called on the centurions by name, encouraged the soldiers, and ordered the line to advance and the units to extend, so that they could employ their swords more easily. His arrival brought hope to the soldiers and refreshed their spirits, every man wanting to do his best in the sight of his general even in such a desperate situation. The enemy’s advance was delayed for a while.25
Roman generals normally led from close behind the fighting line, and were at risk from missiles or the attacks of bold individuals eager to win fame by killing the enemy commander. In this way they shared some of the risks of the soldiers in their armies, and this was an important element in bonding leader and led. This time Caesar went a step further, going right up into the front of the fighting line, and displaying the personal courage that was as fundamental an aspect of aristocratic virtus as the higher skills expected of a commander. This willingness to stand and fight, if necessary to die, with his men was the confirmation of the growing trust that had developed between Caesar and his troops. Once there he encouraged the men around him - the centurions as individuals, the ordinary legionaries as ‘fellow-soldiers’ and units - and he improved their deployment. There were a number of stories about Pompey fighting at the front of his men, striking down enemies with sword or spear in heroic fashion. This was how Alexander the Great had fought his battles, and Pompey revelled in comparisons between the two of them. Caesar was also said to be very skilled with his personal weapons, but there is no mention in his own account of his actually fighting. It may be that this was deliberate false modesty, intended to allow his audience to imagine for themselves the heroism of the proconsul, hinted at by the matter of fact comment about borrowing a shield. However, Caesar does not seem to have wanted to emphasise his personal prowess, instead concentrating on his role as a leader and commander. In the end his account acknowledges that the Sambre was a soldier’s battle, ultimately won by the determination and discipline of the legionaries.
During a lull in the fighting Caesar redeployed the Twelfth and Seventh legions, wheeling them back so that they formed a rough square or circle and were able to defend against attacks from any direction. Such pauses in the fighting were common, contrary to the Hollywood image of frenzied battles in which every man rushed forward, intermingled with the enemy and fought individual duels, deciding the battle in a matter of minutes. Battles usually lasted for hours, but hand-to-hand fighting was physically and mentally exhausting and seems usually to have occurred in short furious bursts, before the lines separated by maybe just a few yards, drew breath and tried to build up enough enthusiasm to close again. When Caesar arrived the line had been disintegrating, men from the rear ranks slipping off to escape from danger. Many centurions were dead or wounded and collapse appeared imminent. His example - and doubtless that of the other officers there, for he encouraged the centurions and gave orders for a formation change through the tribunes - stabilised the situation for the moment, but the two legions were still under huge pressure and a collapse was probably only a matter of time.26
The Roman right flank held out, but the battle was won elsewhere. The two legions marching at the rear of the column to protect the baggage came into the view of those Belgians who had bypassed the Roman right and gone up the hill to attack the camp itself. The arrival of fresh Roman forces dismayed the Belgians and encouraged those Romans able to see them. Labienus was in charge of the victorious Roman left, and on his own initiative sent the Tenth back across the river again to aid the rest of the army This legion, realising that things were not going well, hurried forward and struck the Nervii in the rear. The Roman right was now able to advance, and drive off the warriors facing it. In the meantime even the slaves accompanying the baggage had joined the rallied cavalry and light troops and repulsed the Belgians around the camp. The Nervii did not give way quickly, many fighting on for a long time. Caesar claims that some warriors even stood on the mounds of their own dead to keep on fighting. This was doubtless an exaggeration, but testified to the ferocity of a combat that he had seen from particularly close quarters. His claims for the number of casualties inflicted on the tribe - that only 500 warriors survived out of 60,000, and just three tribal leaders out of 600 - were clearly also greatly inflated, and are in fact disproved by his own comments in a later book of the Commentaries. Nevertheless, the losses were high, and the will of the Nervii and their allies to continue the struggle was utterly broken. Envoys came and surrendered to the proconsul, who ordered them to remain in future inside their own borders and not to attack anyone else. He also sent instructions to the neighbouring tribes not to raid the Nervii in their currently vulnerable state.27
The Atuatuci had not rendezvoused with the other tribes before the battle was fought. Learning of the defeat they returned to their homeland, but showed no inclination to submit to Rome and prepared for a desperate defence. Bringing the people in from other communities, they decided to occupy a single walled town that lay in a strong natural position on a craggy hilltop. Food supplies had been gathered to support them if Caesar attempted a blockade. The defenders were confident, and showed this by their willingness to sally out and attack the Roman army, which had arrived and camped outside the town. Caesar ordered the legions to build a ditch and rampart surrounding the hilltop, strengthening it with forts at short intervals to form a line of circumvallation. Altogether, it stretched for some 430 yards, which gives some indication of the comparatively small size of the stronghold. The forts probably contained light artillery of the sort used before by the Aisne, which soon deterred the defenders from venturing outside their walls. The Atuatuci could not get out, but at first they despised the ramp and siege tower that the Romans laboured to make. Caesar tells of how they mocked the ‘pygmy Romans’ and adds that the whole population of Gaul was disdainful of the smaller stature of the Italian legionaries. A siege tower was an unknown device, and there was dismay when the Romans began to wheel it up the ramp and towards the wall. Now in a state of despair, the defenders sent out delegates who offered to surrender and asked only that they be allowed to keep their weapons lest their neighbours decide to raid them. Caesar rejected this plea, saying that he would defend them as he would defend the Nervii, placing them under Rome’s protection and ordering the nearby tribes to refrain from any acts of hostility. The defenders began to hurl down their weapons from the ramparts, creating a mound that eventually almost equalled the wall in height.28
Although the gates of the town were left open, only a small number of Caesar’s troops were allowed inside. As night fell, he ordered even these to return to their camp, for he was not confident that their discipline would hold when they were out of view of their officers in the dark streets. Army pay was low, the career attractive only to the poor and the failures of society, and it is probable that most legions contained their share of petty criminals and others, who could readily get out of hand. Caesar was to repeat the same precaution on other occasions. He had the gates closed to protect the tribesmen who had surrendered themselves to Roman faith. However, some of these tribesmen either regretted or had never shared in the decision to surrender, and once night fell began to equip themselves with hidden arms and hastily improvised shields. In the small hours they charged out to attack what they judged to be the weakest part of Caesar’s fortified line. The Romans were alert, and sentries lit the prepared fires, which were the agreed signal to stand the army to. Reinforcements moved to the threatened point and the attackers were greeted with a barrage of missiles. All were killed or driven back to the town. The next day Caesar held the entire population responsible for this breach of the peace. His men battered down the gates and arrested everyone inside. It is doubtful that there was any question of keeping the legionaries under tight discipline. Everyone inside - 53,000 men, women, and children according to Caesar - was bought at a single price by a company of merchants who would then sell them on as slaves. It would have been quite normal for the era if most of the women were raped by the soldiers before this occurred. A share of the purchase price would also have gone to all of the legionaries, with larger shares to the centurions and tribunes. The sale of war captives was one source of profit. Another was plunder, though this is rarely mentioned in the Commentaries. Caesar says that the Gauls had many sacred sites where gold and precious objects had been dedicated to the gods and left piled up in public view. All the tribes respected these sacred sites and no one dared to steal from them. According to Suetonius, Caesar was unimpressed by such taboos and never failed to loot them. The wealth he was gaining restored his own finances, but as ever his main interest in money was to use it to buy friends and popularity, both with his army and back in Italy.29
The defeat of the Belgic tribes was another massive victory, following on from those of the previous year. If the suggestion that a book of Commentaries was published each winter is correct, people in Rome were already aware of the humbling of the Helvetii and Ariovistus. Now news came to Rome of the fresh success and was greeted with great enthusiasm. As Caesar proudly reports, the Senate voted him a public thanksgiving of fifteen days, a longer period than that ever awarded to any general, including Pompey This official celebration vindicated his actions, making it difficult for those enemies who tried to deny the legality of his appointment. Yet not everything at Rome was going as Caesar would have wished. Pompey may have been a little unhappy at the success and fame of his son-in-law, and Dio claims that he had began to talk about recalling Caesar before his five-year term of office had expired. The triumvirate seemed about to collapse. The next danger Caesar was to face would not come from foreign enemies.30