Caesar begins the year by invading Britannia and harassing Belgica. Meanwhile Celtica rises up and the Gauls surround two Roman armies. With doom approaching heroes are born as Vorenus and Pullo make an epic last stand.
In our last episode we covered 55 BCE, in which Caesar launched raids into Germania and Britannia to pacify Gaul. Gaul had been relatively peaceful that year. Thinking Gaul was largely pacified, Caesar decided to try his hand at conquering southern Britannia, only to find out that his absence from Gaul led many to foment rebellion, because as it turned out, it wasn’t Rome per se that the Gauls feared, but Caesar personally. Caesar wanted to turn himself into a superhuman figure, and the Gauls, who bore the brunt of his warmongering, saw him as such.
At the beginning of the year Caesar wintered in Italy, as was his custom, maintaining his power base and presence there. While away from Gaul, Caesar quickly subdued Illyricum, having only needed to threaten an invasion to be offered hostages. As soon as Caesar returned to Gaul he was informed that the Treveri in northeastern Celtica were rumored to be collaborating with Germans, so he marched there with his armies. It’s hard to say whether there is any truth to this, as the trope of a Celto-Germanic alliance might have been fabricated by Caesar as a pretext for military action.
Caesar records that “two persons, Indutiomarus and Cingetorix, were then contending with each other for the supreme power.” Cingetorix appealed first to Caesar, and in turn other leaders followed him. As such, Indutiomarus was isolated. Cingetorix was made the ruler of the Treveri, imbittering Indutiomarus against the Romans. This is a pretty striking event as it shows how many Gauls had come to accept Rome and Caesar personally as their own power broker.
At a now-lost port in Northern Belgica, Caesar met up with Dumnorix, who we mentioned a few episodes ago as a popular leader among the Aedui. Dumnorix was a popular man across the interconnected Celtic world. Knowing this, Caesar intended to take him on a voyage to Britannia. Dumnorix claimed that he feared the sea, and claimed that divinations boded ill if he took off to Britannia. Caesar recounts that Dumnorix probably feared the Roman general would execute him in Britannia, far from his countrymen and was likely faking these superstitions. When the day came to sail out, Dumnorix slipped away with his Aeduan cavalry, while Caesar was busy planning the expedition. Upon discovering this Caesar was outraged and he ordered his cavalry to capture Dumnorix and kill him if he refused to return. The Romans caught up with the Aedui and told Dumnorix their order to which Dumnorix violently refused, screaming “I am a free man and a citizen of a free state.” Those were his last recorded words before the Romans stabbed him to death. I don’t suppose I need to explain the significance of this event, other than to say that the Aedui probably thought they would receive special treatment from Rome due to their decades of friendship. This proved to not be the case as Rome had no friends, only interests. The rest of the Aeduan cavalry looked at Dumnorix’s corpse, took the not-so-subtle hint and returned with the Romans to the port.
With the Aedui in check, Caesar sailed with 5 legions and 2,000 cavalry to Britannia. The wind blew them off-course, but after heavy paddling they arrived. A number of them were assembled on the beaches, but the sight of such a large force caused them to flee. When the Romans did land a number of Britons jumped out and attacked them, but as I mentioned in the last episode, by now the Romans were used to these jump-scare tactics and slaughtered many of them. A remnant retreated and the Romans chased after them before Caesar ordered a halt, fearing a trap. Caesar took ten days to fortify his camp. When he was confident he had a defensible position to fall back on he marched north where he met a massive British army of many tribes led by Cassivellaunus, a chief based around the Thames river.
Here we get our stereotype of Pictish warriors as Caesar recounts “All the Britains, indeed, dye themselves with wood, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip.”
The two main hosts stared each other down while Caesar sent out his cavalry to test the Britons. The Roman cavalry proved superior but they made the mistake of chasing down the Britons and many were killed in their eagerness. Then the main host of the Britons attacked the camp and after some heavy skirmishing the Romans repulsed them.
The following day the British army divided into numerous parties and camped on the surrounding hills, waiting for a chance to harass the legions when they went out foraging. Caesar saw the trap and sent his men out in larger parties then normal. When the Britons attacked it was an absolute slaughter.
After this, Caesar recounts that he “lead his army into the territories of Cassivellaunus to the river Thames; which river can be forded in one place only and that with difficulty. When he had arrived there, he perceived that numerous forces of the enemy were marshaled on the other bank of the river; the bank also was defended by sharp stakes fixed in front, and stakes of the same kind fixed under the water were covered by the river. Caesar then sent forth his cavalry with his main host following. But the soldiers advanced with such speed and such ardor, though they stood above the water by their heads only, that the enemy could not sustain the attack of the legions and of the horse, and quitted the banks, and committed themselves to flight.”
The British commander Cassivellaunus saw that all hope lost, as most of his infantry was dead or scattered, leaving only about 4,000 charioteers. Unable to contest the Romans in open battle, he fled into the woods. There he pursued a guerilla strategy, going from town to town and scattering their cattle so that the Romans could not easily pillage the countryside. This forced the Romans to split up into small companies to forage and when they did Cassivellanus’ charioteers ambushed them. Caesar’s response was two-fold: first, he only allowed foraging within comfortable distance of the legions. Second, he engaged in a scorched-earth policy to terrify the Britons. This large, ravaging army terrorized the Britons, who were quickly tiring of the war.
Just as in Gaul, there were inter-tribal conflicts that Caesar could play upon. Among the powerful Trinobantes was a prince Mandubratius, a great baby name for you expecting mothers, whose father had been killed by Cassivellanus. Mandubratius sent forty hostages to Caesar and accepted Roman rule over his piece of Britannia in exchange for aid against Cassivellanus. With the Trinobantes submitting to Caesar a number of other tribes followed, just as in Gaul. The submissive Britons led Caesar to Cassivellanus’ fort. Battle ensued and Cassivellanus managed to escape leaving behind many cattle. This was incredibly important not just because cattle are so valuable, but especially so since, according to Caesar, the Britons survived on meat and dairy products while eating few grains and vegetables, much like today.
Caesar followed Cassivellanus back to his own kingdom in Kent, the southeastern peninsula in Britannia facing Gaul. There Cassivellanus tried to attack Caesar’s allies but was repulsed. Without any hope of victory he sued for peace. Winter was approaching and Caesar heard some Gauls were using his absence to revolt so Caesar accepted Cassivellanus’ offer for peace, taking with him hostages and annual tribute with the new client kingdoms in Britannia, to which Cassivellanus agreed. With much of southern Britannia now tributaries of Rome, Caesar sailed back to Gaul.
When Caesar returned he found that Tasgetius, a leader of the Carnutes, had been killed. Tasgetius was a loyal puppet of Rome, who had proved his worth on the battlefield, yet he was unpopular with his own people, so that when his own personal enemies assassinated him most of the Carnutes supported it. Caesar could not allow the Gauls to assassinate his puppet rulers and replace them with their own. He ordered Lucius Plancus to march from Belgica to the Carnutes, and arrest those men responsible for the assassination.
Meanwhile, Caesar moved his troops into lands held by the Gallo-Belgae tribe the Eburones where he requisitioned food from them. The Eburones’ leader, Ambiorix, was grateful to Caesar for freeing him from paying tribute to a rival tribe, but this didn’t stop him from secretly joining the rebellion, and he attacked a smaller Roman garrison commanded by two of Caesar’s subcommanders. He later sent emissaries to Caesar, claiming that the attack was conducted without his permission. Furthermore, he warned the smaller Roman army of a massive German invasion which turned out to be a lie. When Caesar headed north to deal with the Belgae, the smaller Roman army began a retreat. When they did the Belgae, who were hiding in hills along the road, burst out to attack them, surrounding the Romans who barely survived the day.
Seeing they couldn’t stand up to the Eburones, the Roman officer in charge and his advisors approached Ambiorix’s camp and tried to negotiate a Roman withdrawal. After failing to come to terms, Ambiorix slew the officers and marched his forces against the Romans. It was said the Romans fought bravely but most were slaughtered in the camp, with only a few escaping with their lives.
Caesar recounts “Elated by this victory, Ambiorix marches immediately with his cavalry to the Aduatuci, who bordered on his kingdom; he halts neither day nor night, and orders the infantry to follow him closely. Having related the exploit and roused the Aduatuci, the next day he arrived among the Nervii, and entreats “that they should not throw away the opportunity of liberating themselves forever and of punishing the Romans for those wrongs which they had received from them;” [he tells them] “that two lieutenants have been slain, and that a large portion of the army has perished; that it was not a matter of difficulty for the legion was suddenly assaulted. He easily gains over the Nervii by this speech.”
This one victory proved disastrous for Rome because it broke the myth of Roman invincibility, and now those Gauls with grievances against Rome took up arms, seeing victory was possible. This large tribal confederation was ready to drive the Romans out forever and marched on a nearby camp, led by Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of the famous orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. Q. Cicero sent out many messengers trying to reach Caesar though a great number were intercepted.
Caesar recounts “During the night as many as 120 towers are raised with incredible dispatch out of the timber which they had collected for the purpose of fortification: the things which seemed necessary to the work are completed. The following day the enemy, having collected far greater forces, attack the camp [and] fill up the ditch. Resistance is made by our men in the same manner as the day before; this same thing is done afterward during the remaining days. The work is carried on incessantly in the night: not even to the sick, or wounded, is opportunity given for rest: whatever things are required for resisting the assault of the next day are provided during the night: many stakes burned at the end, and a large number of mural pikes are procured: towers are built up, battlements and parapets are formed of interwoven hurdles. Cicero himself, though he was in very weak health, did not leave himself the night-time for repose, so that he was forced to spare himself by the spontaneous movement and entreaties of the soldiers.”
After days of hard-fighting the Celtic army sent emissaries telling Q. Cicero that all was lost for Rome. Their comrades had been slaughtered by Ambiorix, the Germans had crossed the Rhine, and Caesar was trapped in Belgica. They offered Q. Cicero the right to flee back to Italy. Sensing a trap, Q. Cicero refused, deciding to wait for Caesar to relieve him.
In response, the Celts decide to assault the Roman fortifications with the deadliest weapon they could think of: Roman-style engineering. Caesar recounts “the Nervii surround the winter-quarters with a rampart eleven feet high, and a ditch thirteen feet in depth. These military works they had learned from our men in the intercourse of former years, and, having taken some of our army prisoners, were instructed by them: but, as they had no supply of iron tools which are requisite for this service, they were forced to cut the turf with their swords, and to empty out the earth with their hands and cloaks, from which circumstance, the vast number of the men could be inferred; for in less than three hours they completed a fortification of ten miles in circumference; and during the rest of the days they began to prepare and construct towers of the height of the ramparts, and grappling irons, and mantelets, which the same prisoners had taught them.”
Caesar goes on: “On the seventh day of the attack, a very high wind having sprung up, they began to discharge by their slings with hot balls made of burned or hardened clay, and heated javelins, upon the huts, which, after the Gallic custom, were thatched with straw. These quickly took fire, and by the violence of the wind, scattered their flames in every part of the camp. The enemy following up their success with a very loud shout, as if victory were already obtained and secured, began to advance their towers and mantelets, and climb the rampart with ladders. But so great was the courage of our soldiers, and such their presence of mind, that though they were scorched on all sides, and harassed by a vast number of weapons, and were aware that their baggage and their possessions were burning, not only did no one quit the rampart for the purpose of withdrawing from the scene, but scarcely did any one even then look behind; and they all fought most vigorously and most valiantly. This day was by far the most calamitous to our men; it had this result, however, that on that day the largest number of the enemy was wounded and slain, since they had crowded beneath the very rampart, and the hindmost did not afford the foremost a retreat. The flame having abated a little, and a tower having been brought up in a particular place and touching the rampart, the centurions of the third cohort retired from the place in which they were standing, and drew off all their men: they began to call on the enemy by gestures and by words, to enter if they wished; but none of them dared to advance. Then stones having been cast from every quarter, the enemy were dislodged, and their tower set on fire.”
The next passage of Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars is a unique one in that it recounts the story of two individual Roman centurions, a rarity in Roman literature as most accounts are about high-ranking officers. Caesar recounts “In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, Titus Pullo, and Lucius Varenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity. When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pullo said, “Why do you hesitate, Varenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes.” When he had uttered these words, he proceeded beyond the fortifications, and rushed on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor did Varenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, followed close after. Then, when an inconsiderable space intervened, Pullo threw his javelin at the enemy, and pierced one of the multitude who was running up, and while the latter was wounded and slain, the enemy covered him with their shields, and all threw their weapons at the other and afforded him no opportunity of retreating. The shield of Pullo was pierced and a javelin was fastened in his belt. This circumstance turned aside his scabbard and obstructed his right hand when attempting to draw his sword: the enemy crowded around him when [thus] embarrassed. His rival ran up to him and succored him in this emergency. Immediately the whole host turned from Pullo to him, supposing the other to be pierced through by the javelin. Varenus rushed on briskly with his sword and carried on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urged on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell. To him, in his turn, when surrounded, Pullo brought relief; and both having slain a great number, retreated into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other.”
Now we have to ask as historians, did this really happen? On the one hand this does sound like pure propaganda, but on the other hand, these Romans were nearly convinced of their own doom. They were surrounded, outnumbered, Caesar was off in Belgica, a nearby Roman army had been ambushed and slaughtered. Furthermore, when Caesar returned from Britannia he believed that the Germans were trying launch a massive invasion. This turned out not to be the case, but by now the Celts knew how to scare the Romans, which was to mention a German invasion. Outnumbered, isolated, surrounded and fearing an even greater host to overrun all of western Europe, these Roman soldiers were as desperate as can ever be imagined. That Caesar would name two individual soldiers, where before and after he only ever spoke of the valor of his men in general, is curious and lends credence to the notion that Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo really were heroes of that day. We can only speculate, and maybe watch the HBO series based on their lives. Oh, it deserved so much more than 2 seasons.
Anyway, despite the heroism of Vorenus and Pullo, the Romans were screwed and they knew it. They couldn’t last forever against the Celtic siege and so Q. Cicero sent out more messengers but again, most were intercepted and the Belgae made a habit of torturing the messengers in view of the Roman fort to assail their spirits. Yet, another hero emerged just when Rome needed it. A Gaul of the Nervii tribe named Vertico slipped among his fellow Celts, posing as one of them with a letter tied to his javelin, and managed to escape and contact Caesar.
With Belgica subdued, Caesar took the letter and marched out to meet with Cicero. While his army marched, Caesar hired a Gaul to take a letter to Cicero. Riding as fast as he could the Gaul attached the letter to his spear and threw it at Cicero’s camp where it became impaled on a tower…and sat there for two days (probably alongside hundreds of other spears) until someone eventually noticed it had a letter, opened it and rejoiced knowing Caesar was on his way.
The Celtic army, which Caesar estimated at 60,000, saw Caesar’s campfires and decided to attack him with their full force, unexpectedly. The same Gallic messenger Vertico proved to be a hero and slipped past the Celtic lines to Caesar informing him of the surprise attack. Caesar moved his camp, putting a rivulet and a small valley between himself and the Celts, where a fight would take place in the open, rather than in the woods. With only 7,000 men, or 2 legions, Caesar made a fortification, hoping that the bottle-neck created by the terrain would cancel out the Belgae’s superior numbers. Caesar decided to bait the enemy by having his cavalry attack, retreat and have his men close up the camp while showing as much fear and confusion as possible to draw them into a fight. His strategy worked like a charm. When the Celts arrived at the camp and tore at the ramparts Caesar ordered the gates to be burst open and the Romans slaughtered the unorganized masses of Celts. Victorious, he connected with Q. Cicero who led what little forces he had out of the camp.
Caesar then decided to winter in Gaul as a show of Roman presence. Meanwhile messages were crisscrossing Gaul as the Gauls contemplated rising up as one, some of which Caesar intercepted. To hold off general rebellion Caesar summoned all the great leaders of Gaul. During this gathering the powerful Senones tried to murder the Roman client king Cavarinus, causing him to flee to Caesar. This attempted assassination, the second attempt to murder a Roman client king that year, made Caesar suspect all Gauls, save the Remi and Aedui who were, at least to that point, loyal allies.
Meanwhile, a leader of the Treveri, Indutiomarus, appealed to the Germans for help against Caesar but, as Caesar recounts, “none of the German States could be induced to cross the Rhine since they had tried to invade twice in the war with Ariovistus and in the passage of the Tenchtheri there; [The Germans concluded that] fortune was not to be tempted any more.” For so long the Germans were an existential threat to Rome, but finally, they were dismayed, and left the Celts to accept Roman domination. Indutiomarus was disappointed at hearing the Celts were abandoned to their fate. Nevertheless he began to raise troops.
Indutiomarus wasn’t alone in his hatred of Rome. The Senones and the Carnutes joined his forces, while meanwhile the Nervii and the Aduatuci, who were already planning rebellion, united their forces with him, creating an army of five powerful tribes. Indutiomarus seized control of the Treveri tribe, declaring Cingetorix, Caesar’s appointed man, a traitor and seized his lands. He then marched with his army into the Remi territory and pillaged their land before attacking the camp of Labienus, one of Caesar’s lieutenants. There he regularly taunted the Romans and did cavalry parades in front of the fort as a show of strength and defiance against Rome. These parades turned out to be a devastating, if hilarious mistake. During one of these shows, Labienus ordered his cavalry to burst out of the camp and run down the Gauls. The Gauls were caught so off guard that the Romans slaughtered them left and right, including Indutiomarus, whose head was cut off and returned to camp as a trophy.
Thus ended another year in Gaul. 54 BCE was a disastrous year for the Gauls and for all Celts in Western Europe. Caesar’s second voyage to Britain defeated a major army led by Cassivellanus and brought the rogue island under Rome’s sphere of influence. Multiple rebellions in Gaul and Belgica were put down, and perhaps most devastating, the Germans were too afraid of Rome to try another invasion. Yet there was a glimmer of hope for the Gauls: There was widespread resentment against Roman interference bubbling under the surface, and one victory over a Roman army was enough to unite numerous tribes against Rome. If only Gaul could find some charismatic, cunning and ruthless leader, then all the tribes of Gaul could unite to fight for their freedom. But, I’m getting two episodes ahead of myself. Next week we have a very special episode. We are going to cover another year in the Gallic Wars, but we also are going to talk about how Crassus’ cataclysmic war with the Persians set the stage for a showdown between Caesar and Pompey, as in our next episode, war breaks out on both sides of the Mediterranean and Rome gets caught in the middle.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.