Ep. 12: Belgica: Caught Between Caesar and Germania
In our last episode Caesar brought most of Celtica under his nominal control in 58 BCE. The tribes still had a great deal of autonomy as the Roman presence was limited and some tribes were unconquered, but it was clear that the Gauls were under Roman authority, and under Caesar specifically. This was cause for celebration in Rome and Caesar was able to enjoy a winter holiday in Italy basking in his own glory. However, not everyone was happy about this, least of all the Belgae. The Belgae were a proud people who had resisted the Germans and Gauls to form their own identity. While their oppidums were not as lavish as those in Celtica, they had many hidden forts in woods and marshes that were unassailable without advanced siege machinery, neither of which the Gauls or Germans had. The Belgae looked south at their Gallic cousins who had come under Roman power and realized that Rome would almost certainly attack them soon.
Belgica was a complex land to say the least. On the one hand, the Belgae were caught between the Germans to the east and the encroaching Romans to the south. It’s hard to say who the Belgae preferred, though the correct answer is probably neither. After Caesar conquered Celtica an internal struggle broke out between the Belgae over what they were going to do next, with some wanting to unite with the Germans to go to war with Rome, and others wanting to make peace with Rome to hold off the Germans. Rome must have been more foreign to the Belgae, as they were used to Germans, both as trading partners and as frequent rivals. But many tribal leaders believed the Germans were the greater evil, as evidenced by the fact that Ariovistus had been invited into Celtica by the Arverni and Sequani and once there had brutally suppressed the Sequani. As such, an internal struggle broke out between the Belgae, but soon it was clear that the anti-Roman camp won the day and ousted the pro-Roman leaders. Early in 57 BCE the Belgae traded hostages and entered into a pact to face Rome.
At least, this is what Caesar recounts. It’s hard to say what is truth and what isn’t with Caesar. What we do know is that the Belgae were amassing a large army. But was this army to invade Celtica and push out the Romans as Caesar says? Or was it a purely defensive force? We’ll never know. What we do know, is that Caesar raised two more legions, without the permission of the Senate, and marched to the border of Belgica.
As he approached, ambassadors from the nearest tribe, the Remi, marched out to meet Caesar, begging for leniency and telling him the Belgae allied with the Germans against Rome. They told him that the Belgae and Germans had around 300,000 armed soldiers, a clearly inflated number on Caesar’s part. Regardless of how large the enemy was, Caesar took the Belgae threat seriously. He ordered Divitiacus, leader of the Aedui, to ravage the Belgae lands so that the Belgae would be forced to disperse their forces in order to gather food. Meanwhile Caesar took his force across the Aisne river and made a fortified camp.
In response, the Belgae army sieged the Remi town of Bibrax, hurling stones at the ramparts and assaulting the gates, though without proper siege equipment their efforts were only so effective. Nonetheless the overwhelming numbers meant the town would fall eventually, something which Caesar was clearly aware of.
At this point Caesar notes that he had a large army with people from across the Mediterranean world including Numidians, Baelarians and Cretans. On the one hand this meant that he had a diverse army with many different specialties, but beyond that, I think it is a truly incredible thing that at this time, when Rome’s enemies were a homogenous group of Celts or Germans, Caesar’s army included Europeans, Africans and even some Asians from Anatolia. It must have been strange for a brown-skinned northern Africans to march into Belgica, and perhaps just as strange for the Belgae to march against people from races and tribes they never even knew existed.
After some brief skirmishing between the two armies Caesar retreated to his camp, while the Belgae made their own camp 2 Roman miles from his. The two sides engaged in cavalry harassment, but days passed before the two armies assembled for battle. The “battle” could hardly be called that, as the armies were flanked by a marsh and neither could maneuver easily, so the Belgae and Romans retreated. At this point the Belgae abandoned their harassment of the Romans and decided to plunder more Remi territory. Caesar chased after the Belgae and assailed them as they tried to cross a bridge. The Roman soldiers were assaulted by an immense rain of projectiles, which pushed most of them back, though a few marched over the bodies of their fallen comrades in pursuit of the Belgae.
This proved to be a major strategic victory for Rome, even if tactically, the battles were indecisive. It’s said that lay people interested in war study strategy while generals study logistics. In this sense, Caesar was a true general who had long supply lines to keep up the morale and health of the army. Meanwhile, the Belgae were relying on their overwhelming forces to plunder Celtica. The Romans successfully denied them the ability to pillage which forced the Belgae to return to their own country or face starvation.
Caesar records that the Belgae all fled in a disordered rush, as each tried to make their way home as quickly as possible. Caesar, incorrectly sensing a trap, kept his forces in camp, until the following day when his scouts confirmed that indeed the Belgae armies were haphazardly flooding back into Belgica. Thus, he sent out his own cavalry and legions, and slew much of the retreating Belgae, though the greater part escaped. With the Belgae scattered, unable to consolidate their forces due to a lack food, Caesar went on the offensive and besieged the Belgae town of Noviodunum. At first the Belgae held due to their deep trenches and heavy fortifications. In response Caesar engaged in one of the first of many incredible military feats, winning a battle by using superior Roman engineering.
At this point it’s worth noting that despite Roman propaganda, Rome was not technologically superior to the Celts in every way. The Celts were better metalsmiths, and by far the better sailors as they sailed the open ocean, rather than the relatively calm Mediterranean. But if there was one technology the Romans possessed which was far superior to anyone else on their borders it was their engineering prowess, and Caesar used his military engineers to full advantage. At Noviodunum he ordered massive siege towers to be constructed, which rolled on wheels up to the walls of the town, loaded with troops. Just the sight of these towers cowed the Belgae inside to surrender, and their king surrendered two of his sons as hostages.
Caesar then marched to a town called Bratuspantium, taking it without a fight, due to Caesar’s enormous army, which could move together due to Caesar’s steady supply lines while the Belgae armies had to return to their own tribal lands. After taking hostages, Caesar conquered yet another Belgae tribe as they fell like dominoes. Here, Caesar was getting deep into Belgae territory and approached a tribe known as the Nervii. The Nervii had a deep-seated hatred of Rome and forbid their imports, particularly wine (gasp) because they believed that Roman luxury was corrupting. As Caesar approached, the Nervii assembled three other tribes to meet Caesar. The two sides camped on opposite sides of the River Sabis, staring each other down each from a hill on their side. Caesar had perhaps 42,000 while the enemy had possibly 75,000 at maximum, more than the Romans but not overwhelmingly.
Caesar learned from his spies that among the surrendered Belgae, were those who still hated Rome and who told the Nervii about Roman column formation. The Romans would put their baggage in between each legion, rather than their entire baggage at the back, as a means of protection. Thus the Nervii planned on attacking a baggage train. Furthermore, the Nervii were famous for their fortifications which would disrupt a neat Roman column. In response Caesar placed the entire baggage behind his army, so that his six legions faced the enemy. Meanwhile his cavalry crossed the river and skirmished with the Nervii cavalry, confirming their location.
Caesar hunkered down and intended to outlast the Nervii as he had outlasted so many enemies before. But the Nervii wouldn’t give him that chance. Suddenly the Nervii exploded from the forest, rushing like a tidal wave against Caesar’s forces. They forced the Roman cavalry to retreat, then crossed the river, where they ran up the hill toward the Roman fortifications. On the one hand this probably left them slightly tired, but on the other, they were able to attack the legions before they could get into formation. The attack was so sudden that the Nervii struck while some Romans were either working on the fortifications or out collecting wood for the camp.
Caesar might have been overrun and his incredible life cut short there. However, these were veteran soldiers, and Caesar made sure to keep his lieutenants with their units, so that when the Nervii struck, each Roman unit assembled for battle. Thus, when the Nervii attacked the Romans rallied to whichever standard was closest, rather than to their own assigned camp. This really demonstrates how the Romans had developed a professional army, unlike the configurations they faced, as here were peoples from all across the Mediterranean, speaking different languages, belonging to different tribes and races, and yet they could all be organized into a cohesive unit when battle began. The one advantage the Nervii had was surprise. But the disciplined Romans were prepared, meaning that the tired, unorganized masses of Belgae forces, met with the fresh, organized Romans who held the high ground and stood behind fortifications.
The Belgae left wing collapsed, and the Romans chased the Atrebates tribe to the river, slaughtering them. Yet, a number of Belgae got into the Roman camp, causing a panic and leading some soldiers to flee, believing all was lost. The following was a slaughter. The Romans knew they couldn’t flee in the tight conditions, while the Nervii, seeing the Roman left flank at the river, knew their escape route was blocked. With no escape for either side, it was kill or be killed. It was said the Romans, even while dying, leaned on their shields pushing back the Nervii, while the Nervii stood on their own dead as they hacked at the Romans, before they were eventually surrounded and slaughtered.
The result was a decisive if costly victory for the Romans. The Nervii were almost driven to annihilation, which scared other Belgae tribes from fighting Caesar and showed Rome’s might extended far beyond its own territory.
On the devastation of the Nervii, Caesar recounts: “This battle being ended, and the nation and name of the Nervii being almost reduced to annihilation, their old men sent embassadors to Caesar by the consent of all who remained, and surrendered themselves to him; and in recounting the calamity of their state, said that their senators were reduced from 600 to three; that from 60,000 men they [were reduced] to scarcely 500 who could bear arms; whom Caesar, that he might appear to use compassion toward the wretched and the suppliant, most carefully spared; and ordered them to enjoy their own territories and towns, and commanded their neighbors that they should restrain themselves and their dependents from offering injury or outrage [to them].”
But not all the Belgae were willing to submit just yet. The Aduatuci tribe removed themselves from all their lands and concentrated into one massive fortress to resist the Romans. Yet again, when Rome approached with siege towers, this Belgae tribe sued for peace, claiming only divine favor allowed for such marvels to appear. To show they willingly surrendered, the Aduatuci threw their weapons over the walls until they were as high as the walls themselves, and the gates were opened. But the Aduatuci didn’t get rid of all their weapons. They hid a number of arms in wicker baskets, enough for 4,000 soldiers. They waited for Caesar to enter with his negotiators and surprise him. But Caesar didn’t just enter with negotiators but a number of his elite guard, who resisted the sudden onrush until the rest of his soldiers rushed into the town. Because of this Caesar sold 53,000 of their people into slavery, decimating the Aduatuci. Thus Belgica was largely subdued.
Meanwhile Caesar was informed that a number of tribes that bordered the Atlantic in western Gaul were subdued by his lieutenants. Caesar’s victories were so great that Germans from across the Rhine sent ambassadors to him. But Caesar bid them wait, returned to Italy and declared 15 days of thanksgiving for his continued conquests.
The following year, (56 BCE), Caesar ordered Servius Galba to occupy eastern Gaul, opening up a trade route from the Alps into that region. In the middle of the night two Gallic tribes sent forth their armies to occupy two mountains overlooking a single Roman legion in their area. They resented Rome demanding hostages which humiliated them, and they believed that by opening up the pass Rome wanted to claim permanent control of Gaul, which wasn’t inaccurate.
Having to choose between abandoning their supplies and fleeing, or staying and waiting, the Romans waited as the two armies watched them from nearby mountains, cutting off an easy retreat path. On a signal the Gallic armies charged down upon the Roman camp. The Romans fought bravely, and with deadly force, moving to whichever part of the fortifications needed aid. But the Gauls had incredible numbers and could replace their tired forces with new ones, while the Romans were so hard-pressed that even the injured were told to keep fighting. After six hours of fighting the Romans became exhausted and even their weapons were breaking. Without any hope of holding them off, Galba ordered a retreat.
Yet fortune sided with the Romans as the Gauls believed they had won the camp with the Romans in full retreat. Seeing that many Gauls were now trapped within the camp, Galba swung his legions back and slaughtered a large number of them, while causing the rest to flee. But Galba didn’t trust a second miracle to happen, burned the camp and retreated.
Meanwhile the Veneti, who lived in modern-day Brittany, and who were accustomed to sailing back and forth to Britannia, raised the surrounding tribes in revolt against Rome. Caesar left eastern Gaul to Galba while he ordered ships built on the Loire River and sailed them out along the coast towards the Veneti lands. Realizing Rome was ready to fight them, the Veneti bunkered down in their harsh, cold, rocky land. It was even colder than it is today, especially in winter, and would be akin to Norway, meaning there was little food. The Veneti believed that their ships could hold off any sea invasion and their towns could withstand a short siege. Without much nearby food, the Veneti were counting on Caesar’s army giving up after a short siege. Still, the Veneti were worried enough that they called for aid from Britannia.
When describing their towns, Caesar recounts: “The sites of their towns were generally such that, being placed on extreme points [of land] and on promontories, they neither had an approach by land when the tide had rushed in from the main ocean, which always happens twice in the space of twelve hours; nor by ships, because, upon the tide ebbing again, the ships were likely to be dashed upon the shoals. Thus, by either circumstance, was the storming of their towns rendered difficult; and if at any time perchance the Veneti overpowered by the greatness of our works, (the sea having been excluded by a mound and large dams, and the latter being made almost equal in height to the walls of the town) had begun to despair of their fortunes; bringing up a large number of ships, of which they had a very great quantity, they carried off all their property and betook themselves to the nearest towns; there they again defended themselves by the same advantages of situation. They did this the more easily during a great part of the summer, because our ships were kept back by storms, and the difficulty of sailing was very great in that vast and open sea, with its strong tides and its harbors far apart and exceedingly few in number.”
While the Veneti were not the best warriors and were few in number, the terrain and their affinity for sailing made them difficult to subdue. While Caesar did have a number of ships, keep in mind these were Mediterranean-style ships, not Atlantic ones, and were not adapted to the tumultuous ocean. As Caesar recounts: “…their ships were built and equipped after this manner. The keels were somewhat flatter than those of our ships, whereby they could more easily encounter the shallows and the ebbing of the tide: the prows were raised very high, and, in like manner the sterns were adapted to the force of the waves and storms [which they were formed to sustain]. The ships were built wholly of oak, and designed to endure any force and violence whatever; the benches which were made of planks a foot in breadth, were fastened by iron spikes of the thickness of a man’s thumb; the anchors were secured fast by iron chains instead of cables, and for sails they used skins and thin dressed leather. These [were used] either through their want of canvas and their ignorance of its application, or for this reason, which is more probable, that they thought that such storms of the ocean, and such violent gales of wind could not be resisted by sails, nor ships of such great burden be conveniently enough managed by them. The encounter of our fleet with these ships’ was of such a nature that our fleet excelled in speed alone, and the plying of the oars; other things, considering the nature of the place [and] the violence of the storms, were more suitable and better adapted on their side; for neither could our ships injure theirs with their beaks (so great was their strength), nor on account of their height was a weapon easily cast up to them; and for the same reason they were less readily locked in by rocks. To this was added, that whenever a storm began to rage and they ran before the wind, they both could weather the storm more easily and heave to securely in the shallows, and when left by the tide feared nothing from rocks and shelves: the risk of all which things was much to be dreaded by our ships.”
Thus while the Roman ships were lighter and faster, Atlantic ships could brave the oceans and navigate rocky coasts. Mediterranean ships used oars, while Atlantic ships relied more on the wind.
Despite this disadvantage, Caesar believed that proper positioning and sheer numbers could overcome them. He sent his fleet out and eventually encountered a fleet of 220 Veneti ships. While the Veneti ships were better suited to the rocky coasts, they didn’t know how the Romans fought, and were unaware of the Roman strategy of hooking enemy ships and boarding them. Fortune favored the Romans and the wind died, allowing the oar-driven Mediterranean ships to outmaneuver and slaughter the Veneti. With their main fleet destroyed most of the Veneti surrendered.
In order to bring the rest of the Veneti to heel, Caesar hired a Gaul to pretend to desert to the remaining holdouts, telling them that Caesar was weak and looking for peace. Thus, the Veneti marched, assembled an army and engaged in a forced-march out to meet the Romans. When the Veneti saw the Romans they had a serious “oh crap” moment as the massive Roman army was waiting in full battle formation to face the tired Veneti who had marched day and night to meet them. The result was a slaughter and all of Brittany surrendered to Caesar.
But Caesar’s year wasn’t quite over. The Moreni and Menapi, the northernmost Belgae tribes, remained in revolt. Seeing that large armies failed, they decided to fight a guerrilla war against the Romans using their forests to slip in and out of battle. In response, Caesar cut down the forests, burned the villages and seized the cattle. When a bad winter storm came, Caesar was content to let the Belgae warriors starve and freeze to death, with their crops burned and their cattle seized, while he and his men marched south that winter.
Caesar’s tactics were often brutal as he killed tens of thousands of people in those two years and sold just as many into slavery, devastating the population. While this brought them under Roman authority, it meant that the Belgian tribes were now helpless against the superior German forces. Caesar put Rome in quite a predicament: by winning this short-term victory, he pulled down the dam that kept the Germans out. Next year, he will have to face the monster he let in, and fight against a new German threat.
One more thing: Remember how I mentioned that Aquitania was largely unimportant and wouldn’t figure into our story? Well here’s my one mention of them. While Caesar conquered the Veneti, his subordinate Publius Licinius Crassus, conquered Aquitania. Publius was the son of the Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus. At the time he was in his late twenties and so was too young to formally receive a military office from the Senate, but at this point the Triumvirs were just ignoring the Senate’s rules. Publius was sent by his father to Gaul in order to learn soldiering and carry on Crassus’ legacy, and by all accounts the conquest of Aquitania was meant to be the first in a long, illustrious career. So while Aquitania is going to fall out of our story for quite a while, remember the name Publius Licinius Crassus as he will come up again in our story.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.