And then, since he had not anticipated anything, Sabinus panicked, and rushed here and there deploying the cohorts, but even this he did timidly and in confusion - as is usually the case when a man is forced to decide everything in the heat of the action. In contrast Cotta, who had guessed that this might happen on the march and because of this had spoken against setting out, did everything to ensure the safety of the force - and in challenging and inspiring the legionaries he did the duty of a general, while in the fighting he played the part of a soldier.’ - Caesar.1

While Caesar was in Britain in August 54 BC, his daughter Julia died in childbirth. The infant - a girl in some accounts and a boy in others - survived her by just a few days. For the Roman aristocracy, as indeed for most of humanity until the modern age, such deaths were all too common. Julia had become pregnant at least once before during her marriage, but had miscarried, shocked, it was said, by the sight of her husband coming back from the elections spattered in blood - someone else’s blood as it turned out. Since we do not know her date of birth we cannot calculate Julia’s age when she died, but at most she was in her mid twenties. Caesar’s mother Aurelia also died in 54 BC. The cause is unknown, but she was by this time in her sixties, and had been a widow for three decades. In one year Caesar lost the two members of his family who were closest to him. It was his mother to whom he had declared that he would come home as Pontifex Maximus or not at all, and who had presided over the Bona Dea celebrations in his house. She was a formidable woman who had had a great influence on her only son, and had lived long enough to see some of his great successes. Now she was gone. The news of both deaths reached Caesar by letter. There is no evidence that he had seen either his mother or daughter in the four years since he had left Rome. These were bitter personal blows, most especially the loss of his child. Cicero wrote an earnest letter of condolence to Caesar - he was devoted, perhaps excessively so, to his own daughter Tullia and heartbroken when she also died some years later. There was genuine grief and emotion and not mere political bonding on such occasions. Pompey, too, was deeply sorrowful at the death of his young wife. The couple had been very much in love in spite of the great difference in age and the political inspiration of their union. In recent years Pompey had often been criticised for spending too much time with his wife on his grand estates, enjoying himself when he ought to have been attending to the Republic’s affairs. Plutarch claims that he had not even had any affairs while married to Julia.2

For all the real emotion of father and son-in-law at Julia’s death, the concerns of public life were never far away for a senator. Pompey arranged to have her ashes interred in a tomb on one of his Alban estates near Rome, but after her public funeral in the city the great crowd of onlookers carried her remains onto the Campus Martius and buried her there. They were said to have been moved more by sympathy for Julia than particular fondness for either Caesar or Pompey, but as ever it is difficult to know whether this was genuinely spontaneous or orchestrated. A monument was subsequently erected and remained visible for centuries. Caesar announced that he would stage funeral games for her, although it would be a decade before these actually took place. Julia’s death removed the closest bond between Pompey and Caesar. Over subsequent months Caesar searched around for another female relative to renew the marriage alliance. He proposed that Pompey should marry his great niece Octavia, while he should in turn marry Pompey’s daughter Pompeia. This would have required Caesar, Octavia and Pompeia all to divorce their current spouses - Pompey’s daughter was married to Sulla’s son Faustus. Pompey turned the idea down, and showed no inclination to marry again for some time, perhaps because he wished to wait for a more advantageous situation. Political concerns were never wholly absent from the mind of a Roman senator, but it is quite possible that emotion also played a part in his decision. His love for Julia had been deep, and Pompey’s grief was real and powerful.

Although the bond between Pompey and Caesar was weakened it was certainly not broken, and both men for the moment realised that it was to their advantage to remain in alliance. By 54 BC all three triumvirs were proconsuls and so unable to enter Rome itself without laying down their office. During their consulship in 55 BC Pompey and Crassus had arranged for the tribune Trebonius to pass a bill granting them each a five-year command in enlarged provinces much like the one Caesar had received in 59 BC. Pompey was given charge of the two Spanish provinces. There was the prospect for a campaign there, taking Roman rule right up to the north and the Atlantic coasts, but the fifty-one-year-old Pompey had no desire for a return to campaigning, especially while Julia was alive. He had already triumphed three times and believed that no other commander could hope to match his glory Therefore he sent legates to govern the provinces and lead the legions there, while he himself remained in Italy, usually hovering just outside Rome in one of his comfortable villas. Pompey was still in charge of the grain supply, and this provided an excuse for his unorthodox conduct, for no Roman governor had ever acted in this way before.3

Crassus was in a different position. He had fought well for Sulla, but believed that he had not received full credit for his deeds. The defeat of Spartacus had been a major operation, during which he had shown his competence as a commander after a string of humiliating Roman defeats. Yet once it was over it was all too easy to forget the danger and dismiss the campaign as just fought against slaves. By 55 BC Crassus had decided that he wanted a major command in a foreign war and was allocated Syria. The current governor of that province completed a campaign in Egypt before Crassus could replace him, robbing him of one obvious chance for glory and profit. Instead he planned to conquer Parthia, the great kingdom lying beyond Armenia. Even by Roman standards, there was no good pretext for attacking the Parthians. Pompey in his eastern campaigns and Caesar in Gaul had pushed to the very limit their interpretation of what was in Rome’s interests, but they had never quite gone beyond that to fight wars from purely personal motives. With Crassus it was blatantly obvious that his own ambition had little to do with the needs of the Republic. As word spread of his plans there were public protests from two of the tribunes. One went so far as to shadow Crassus’ entourage as he left the city in November 55 BC, calling down terrible curses on his name for involving the Republic in a needless and unjust war. As Cicero dryly remarked, it was not an impressive beginning, and there was much that was incongruous about the expedition.

Crassus was in his late fifties, which was very elderly for a Roman field commander, and had not been on active service for sixteen years. In the past elderly men had been recalled to serve the Republic as generals, but normally only at times of crisis. This time there was no dire threat to Rome, and Crassus’ conduct of the war seemed slow and uninspired. He spent most of 54 BC in Syria, levying taxes ostensibly to fund the planned invasion, but malicious tongues suggested that he was also lining his own pockets. The prospect of a lucrative campaign was clearly one of the main reasons why Crassus had wanted a command. There was also an element of balance, since if both Pompey and Caesar had provinces and legions to control then the third triumvir needed a command to match them if he was not to be placed at a severe disadvantage. Yet in most respects Crassus had already achieved his main objectives in life - prominence, two consulships, a huge fortune, massive influence and, as the Catilinarian debates had shown, virtual freedom from political attacks or prosecution - and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that rivalry with his political allies was his main reason for craving a military command. He and Pompey had been jealous of each other since they had both served Sulla, and Crassus had always resented the fame the other man had won. Now Caesar too was proving himself to be a great general, and Crassus, the oldest of the three triumvirs, does not seem to have wanted to be overshadowed.4

With all three triumvirs away from Rome from 54 BC onwards, they were all reliant to a great extent on agents acting on their behalf. They remained dominant, but as in the past could not control everything. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus made it to the consulship for 54 BC, and had Clodius’ eldest brother Appius Claudius Pulcher as his colleague. At the same time Cato was one of the praetors. Both consuls complained that they were unable to make appointments even to such junior ranks as that of military tribune. Between them the triumvirs commanded over twenty legions, the overwhelming majority of the Roman army in existence at that time. Appius even travelled north to visit Caesar in Cisalpine Gaul in order to secure a tribune’s commission for one of his clients. Pompey hovered close to Rome, and probably had little cause to miss regularly attending the Senate for he had never been a particularly gifted speaker. Crassus was less of a force when he was away from the city, since he was no longer able to keep himself in the public eye and do favours by appearing as an advocate. Caesar was already used to the problems of maintaining his interests in Rome while he was away from Italy His agents, particularly Balbus, were active, and we get some glimpse of the flood of correspondence that went back and forth between Caesar’s headquarters and the leading men of Rome from Cicero’s letters. His brother Quintus had served as one of Pompey’s legates supervising the grain supply to Rome, and then went to Gaul as one of Caesar’s legates in 54 BC. This was a mark of the goodwill that his brother owed to both men for his recall. Cicero himself was reluctant to leave Rome, and was anyway more useful to the triumvirs there, and so Quintus was obliged to undertake this service for the good of the family. In his letters to his brother Cicero makes constant inquiries about Caesar’s mood, and signs of favour towards them. He mentions sending poetry and other literary compositions to Caesar for his opinion. Much of this communication was not overtly political, but informally cemented the bonds between them. We know that Caesar wrote at least three letters to Cicero in Rome during the course of the second expedition to Britain.5

Several letters have also survived written by Cicero to one of his clients, Caius Trebatius Testa, who had been given a post on Caesar’s staff at the orator’s request. The young man would later become a famous jurist and was already committed to pursuing a career in law. We have the original letter of recommendation sent to Caesar, which brought the appointment about. The orator later told Quintus how Caesar ‘expressed his thanks to me very politely and wittily. He says that in all his huge staff there was no one able to put together properly even a form of recognizance’. Trebatius was not given a military post - although Cicero did secure a commission as military tribune for another client - and was employed on administrative and legal duties. Even so, Trebatius was for a long time unenthusiastic about his new post and missed Rome intensely. By August 54 BC Cicero was writing to tell him that he had just heard from Caesar, who had written to him ‘very politely’ to say that he had not yet had much chance to get to know Trebatius, but assuring him that he would do so. Cicero informed his young client that he had spoken to the proconsul on his behalf asking for further favours. In this and other letters he expresses more than a little exasperation at the impatience and lack of initiative he perceived in his client. A man’s own prestige was weakened if his recommendations proved inadequate, and although Caesar was probably willing to accept anyone so long as it strengthened the obligation that Cicero felt towards him, the orator was keen to play his part in the relationship. What is most striking is that both men were in contact and discussing the normal preoccupations of Roman senators even while Caesar was engaged in active campaigning. Most of the letters between Cicero and Caesar have failed to survive even though they were published. We can safely assume that Caesar was engaged in equally copious correspondence with many other senators.6


Although Caesar never neglected his political concerns, in the coming months he was to have little break from active service. On his return from Britain he had called the leaders of the Gaulish tribes to a meeting and then supervised the movement of his army into winter quarters. The harvest had been poor, and Caesar blamed this on an unusually dry summer, but it seems likely that the campaigns he had fought in the last years had also disrupted the agriculture of many regions. As a result his eight legions would camp separately and were dispersed over a very wide area. Most were amongst the Belgic tribes whose commitment to the new alliances with Rome remained uncertain. In other years he had set out for Cisalpine Gaul very quickly, but this time Caesar waited longer than usual, wanting to make sure that the army was securely placed before he left. Each legion was placed under the command of either a legate or his quaestor, who in this year was Crassus’ eldest son Marcus. One of the new legates was the same Trebonius who as tribune in 55 BC had secured five-year commands for Pompey and Crassus and a similar extension for Caesar (see p.263). Each of these officers was instructed to send a report as soon as they were in position and their camp suitably fortifed. We know that Quintus Cicero was allowed to choose the exact location of his legion’s camp, and it may well be that other legates were given similar freedom of action. While this was underway, Caesar became aware of unrest in a number of tribes. The king he had imposed on the Carnutes was killed by other chieftains, prompting him to change his dispositions and move one legion from amongst the Belgae to winter amongst this tribe.7

Some chieftains had benefited from Caesar’s arrival in Gaul, but for others it had meant seeing their rivals elevated. The summary killing of Dumnorix when he became inconvenient had shown such men that Caesar needed little provocation to dispose of anyone who did not behave as he wished. Yet Roman domination did not end the fierce competition for power between the aristocrats of a tribe, and if they were not doing well under Caesar, then successfully opposing him offered a path to fame and power. Before leaving for Britain in the summer of 54 BC, the proconsul had intervened in a dispute between rival leaders of the Treveri. The man who lost out to an opponent with Roman backing was Indutiomarus. At the time he had made his peace with Caesar, going to his camp and handing over 200 hostages. During the winter he saw an opportunity to strike at the Romans while their army was dispersed and vulnerable. Indutiomarus planned to raise all the Treveri who were loyal to him and attack the legion commanded by Labienus, which was camped on tribal lands. Yet he knew that the Treveri on their own could not defeat Caesar, and had spent time encouraging chieftains of neighbouring tribes who similarly resented Roman dominance to join him in the rebellion.

This was not a well co-ordinated revolt directed by a single leader, but a series of separate outbreaks occurring at roughly the same time and feeding off each other by dividing the Roman forces. It began not with the Treveri and Indutiomarus, but amongst the Eburones, who lived in what is now the Ardennes. The tribe appointed two war-leaders, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, who then proceeded to inflict on Caesar’s army one of the only three serious defeats it ever suffered.8

Fifteen cohorts were quartered amongst the Eburones at a place called Atuatuca (perhaps somewhere near modern Liege or Tongres, but its precise location is unknown). The force included the entire Fourteenth Legion, but it is not clear whether the remaining five cohorts were detached from other legions or independent units - Caesar was to raise at least twenty cohorts in Transalpine Gaul, where the recruits did not even have Latin status like those from the Transalpine province. Caesar mentions that some Spanish cavalry were with the legionaries, and there may have been other auxiliaries as well, so that the force probably numbered between 6,000 to 8,000 men. It was commanded by two of Caesar’s legates, Cotta and Sabinus, both of whom had held independent commands in the past and proved reasonably competent, if uninspired. They had also worked together against the Menapii in 55 BC. Caesar does not say whether one of the men held overall authority, but his narrative implies that they were jointly in command. The first attack on their camp was repulsed without difficulty, but then Ambiorix came forward to parley and claimed to have been forced to go to war by his people. He told the Roman representatives that there was a conspiracy throughout Gaul for each tribe to attack the legions on this set day. In honour of favours he had received from Caesar in the past, he then offered to give the Romans free passage to march and join either of the other two legions that were camped within 50 miles. Late into the night, the legates argued over what they should do. Sabinus wanted to accept the offer, while Cotta said that they should not disobey Caesar’s orders but remain in the camp, where they had plenty of food and could reasonably hope to hold out until relieved. In the end Sabinus prevailed, and at dawn on the next day the Roman force marched out. The Eburones knew the ground and were waiting in ambush where the track passed through a ravine. The Romans were surrounded and gradually whittled down. Cotta was wounded by a slingstone early on, but still kept on encouraging the men and trying to organise resistance. Sabinus despaired and was surrounded and killed while negotiating with Ambiorix. Cotta fell when the final charge swept over the rough circle of men he had formed into the last organised resistance. A handful of survivors straggled into the camp of Labienus over the coming days, but the fifteen cohorts had effectively been wiped out.9

In the Commentaries Caesar places all the blame for the disaster on Sabinus. Cotta is shown arguing sensibly and behaving as a Roman aristocrat should during a crisis. Neither man came from an especially influential family and therefore Caesar did not have to worry too much about upsetting powerful interests in the Senate. He claims to have reconstructed events from the stories of survivors and interrogation of prisoners captured in later actions. There is nothing inherently implausible about the version given in the Commentaries, which has similarities with other military disasters in other periods - Elphinstone and Macnaughten at Kabul during the First Afghan War spring to mind. It may genuinely have happened that way, but the narrative was obviously intended to soften the impact of the disaster and distance Caesar himself from blame. The account is very detailed, describing the debate between the commanders, and the confusion in the column when the ambush was sprung. Apart from Cotta’s stirring but futile efforts to hold the men together, there are heroic cameos, such as the centurion who died trying to rescue his son, or the eagle-bearer - this time named, unlike the hero of the landing in Britain - who threw his standard to safety before he was killed himself. (The eagle was presumably captured anyway when the last survivors who had taken refuge inside the camp all committed suicide during the night.) Caesar tried to shift the blame onto his legate, but few if any of his contemporaries were fooled and all our sources see this as his defeat. As the proconsul with imperium, he was responsible for the entire army under his command - hence the conventional opening for any letter from a Roman governor to the Senate, ‘I am well, and so is the army’ Both Sabinus and Cotta were his legates or ‘representatives’, chosen by him and acting under his orders. If they held joint command then it was Caesar’s fault for permitting such an untidy situation to exist. Napoleon was later to comment that it was better to have one bad commander than two good ones with shared authority. Sabinus may have been disobeying Caesar’s orders when he chose to march out of his camp, but even this suggests that the proconsul had either not made his intentions sufficiently clear or had failed to accustom his legates to strict obedience. Ultimately Caesar was responsible, and even if the mistakes had been made by his subordinates, the defeat was still his. A substantial part of his army had been destroyed by one of the least prestigious tribes of Gaul. It was the first time that such a thing had happened, and it challenged the illusion of Roman invincibility created by his constant success up to this point.10

The first sign of this came when Ambiorix and his retainers rode into the lands of their neighbours the Atuatuci, and then on to the lands of the Nervii. The vast majority of the Eburones had dispersed, carrying back their plunder to their homes in the manner of so many tribal or irregular armies throughout history. Yet the story of their success was enough to rouse the other tribes and persuaded the Nervii to strike against the legion wintering in their lands. This was commanded by Quintus Cicero, serving as a legate simply to confirm good relations between his brother and Caesar. Quintus did what was necessary for his family, but he was not the most enthusiastic of soldiers. In his letters home he complained of the rigours of life on campaign, and his mind does not seem to have been focused entirely on his duties. In the autumn of 54 BC, while moving his legion into its winter camp, he informed his brother that he had composed four tragedies in just sixteen days. However, when the Nervii suddenly attacked his camp, Quintus Cicero responded well. The Romans had no warning, for they had not yet received any word of the disaster, but although surprised they repulsed the first attack. The Nervii, backed by allied clans and numbers of Atuatuci and some Eburones, then settled down to besiege the camp. Overnight Cicero’s men built 120 small turrets to strengthen the ramparts of their camp - the material for these had already been gathered into the camp, but evidently the fortifications were not yet completed. Now the work continued at a furious pace. A second all-out attack was repulsed on the following day. Whatever his personal inclinations and abilities, Quintus Cicero behaved as a Roman senator should, encouraging the men by day as they fought, and supervising them each night as they laboured to strengthen the defences further and to produce fresh supplies of missiles. His health was poor and eventually he was persuaded to retire to his tent by the soldiers. It is tempting to think that Cicero’s officers were the real heart of the defence, and that at times he may have almost got in the way. Caesar wanted good relations with Quintus and especially with his older brother, and this ensured that he would be portrayed favourably in the Commentaries. Yet even if his skill and experience were limited, Quintus Cicero showed real courage, and did all that he could, coldly rejecting the offer of a truce to permit his men to march away to safety. The siege continued, the Belgians surrounding the fort with a ditch and wall, and constructing mantlets and other siege devices. Just a few years before such things had been unknown in Gaul, but the tribes had watched Caesar’s men in action and learned from them. The Roman garrison was slowly worn down, many men being wounded, which meant that those who were fit had to shoulder more of the burden. They were heavily outnumbered - Caesar reports that the Nervii had 60,000 men, quietly forgetting his claim of the massive casualties they had suffered in 57 BC - and must eventually have been overwhelmed if they were not relieved.11

Quintus Cicero had sent messengers to Caesar as soon as he had been attacked, but none of these men had been able to get through the Belgian lines. Several were brought back to within sight of the walls and executed in full view of the legionaries. The siege had lasted for more than a week before a man was able to get through. The messenger was a Gaul, a slave of a Gallic nobleman who had remained loyal to the Romans and had stayed with Cicero. The news reached Caesar in his camp at Samarobriva (modern Amiens) late in the evening. As well as reporting his own situation, Cicero’s dispatch gave Caesar the first inkling of the destruction of Sabinus’ and Cotta’s men. Up to this point he had been completely oblivious of the rebellion, an indication of just how much his intelligence was reliant on friendly noblemen amongst the tribes. It was a dreadful shock, but Caesar realised that he must act swiftly. Quintus Cicero’s garrison needed to be relieved as soon as possible if it was not to fall. A second victory would add even more momentum to the rebellion, encouraging more and more leaders and tribes to join. With him at Samarobriva he had only a single legion, guarding the main baggage train of the army with its records and pay chest, and also supplies of grain brought in from all over Gaul, as well as the hundreds of hostages he had taken since 58 BC. Cicero’s client Trebatius was there along with many other administrative officials and clerks. Caesar could not move quickly with all these non-combatants and impedimenta, but neither could he leave them unprotected. Therefore his first order was to his quaestor, Marcus Crassus, who was camped with his legion no more than 25 Roman miles away. Crassus was ordered to march with all haste to Samarobriva, leaving his camp at midnight. This probably meant that he sent off his standing pickets first, the rest of the legion following as soon as it was ready to march. By mid morning on the next day the leading patrols of Crassus’ legion - probably mounted men - reached Caesar and informed him that the main force was not far behind.12

Leaving his quaestor to guard Samarobriva and its precious contents, Caesar himself set out, covering 20 miles in that first day. He had managed to scrape together 400 auxiliary and allied cavalry to add to his one legion, and hoped to be joined by two more legions on the march. A messenger had gone to Caius Fabius, who was amongst the Morini, instructing him to march through the lands of the Atrebates to rendezvous with Caesar as he went through the same region. Another order was sent to Labienus, telling him to try to join the main force on the borders of the Nervii, but granting him considerable discretion to stay where he was if the local situation required it. Fabius was a little late, but still managed to join him. Labienus sent a despatch rider to report that he was unable to move, because the Treveri had gathered an army and were now camped just 3 miles from his position. He also confirmed the fate of Sabinus and Cotta, giving some of the details provided by the survivors who had reached him. Caesar concurred with his senior legate’s reasoning, but was left with just two legions, both of which had been on campaign for some time and were markedly under strength. Even with his cavalry, he had little more than 7,000 men, but there was no prospect of gaining further reinforcements for a number of weeks. If he waited, then Cicero’s camp might well fall and another legion be lost, a success that was bound to fuel the rebellion. He had marched with only light baggage and minimal supplies of food. It was well into the autumn and his men could not expect to find much food or fodder in the lands they passed through. The Romans needed to win quickly and could not afford a cautious, long drawn-out campaign of manoeuvre. Caesar pushed on to rescue the beleaguered garrison. The decision made strategic sense, and conformed to Roman military thinking, which always emphasised aggression, but it was certainly risky Yet there was another, more personal motive that meant that Caesar had to keep going. His legionaries were in danger, and the trust that had grown up between army and commander was based at its most fundamental level on each keeping faith with the other. Caesar could not leave his men to die if there was any chance of saving them. He had already shown the depth of his feeling for the loss of the fifteen cohorts by swearing an oath not to shave or cut his hair until he had avenged them. This was a particularly significant gesture for the ever fastidious Caesar. Unshaven, the proconsul force marched his 7,000 men onwards.13

Patrols had brought in prisoners who confirmed that Cicero’s men were still holding out. A Gallic cavalryman was persuaded to take a message through the lines. It was written in Greek characters, which it was believed the Belgians would not be able to read. Unable to get into the camp, he did as instructed and tied it to a spear, which he then hurled into the camp. For two days no one noticed the unusual attachment on the spear stuck into the side of one of the towers, before someone spotted it and took it to Cicero. The legate paraded his men and read out the contents, which informed them that Caesar was on the way. Confirmation came when they sighted columns of smoke rising in the distance - a sign that a Roman force was advancing, setting fire to ‘enemy’ farms and villages along its route in the normal way Belgian patrols reported the same thing, and the besieging army abandoned the siege to meet this new threat. Even if they did not have the 60,000 men reported by Caesar, they probably still outnumbered his small column by a big margin. Cicero, calling on the same Gaulish aristocrat as before to provide a man willing to slip through the enemy lines, wrote to Caesar informing him that the Belgic army was moving against him. The Gaul arrived in Caesar’s camp at midnight, and the proconsul immediately told his men of its contents - Suetonius claims that he usually broke any bad news to them himself, telling the soldiers in a matter of fact way and so confidently that it showed they need not be worried. Sometimes he even exaggerated the danger. For all this he remained a careful commander. Up until now he had begun his marches before the night was over, but on the next day he waited until dawn before moving his column 4 miles. In this season the days in northern Europe are short. The Nervii and their allies were waiting for them on a ridge behind the line of a stream. Twice in 57 BC the Belgians had adopted a similar position, and it is quite possible that in each case they occupied sites on main routes into their land, which were often used in inter-tribal warfare.14

Caesar was heavily outnumbered and did not have enough food to engage in protracted manoeuvring. Attacking over a stream and uphill against the waiting enemy would have placed his men at a severe disadvantage and probably resulted in disaster. Therefore he needed to persuade the Belgians to give up their position and come and attack him. To this end he made his camp deliberately smaller even than was normal for a small force without baggage, making the streets that intersected the various units’ tent-lines narrower than usual. He wanted the Nervii to despise his army, hoping to persuade them to attack him, but in case this did not work he sent out patrols to look for other routes across the stream, wondering whether he could outflank the enemy position. During the day the two armies stared at each other from opposite sides of the valley, and only the cavalry went forward to skirmish. At dawn on the next day the same thing happened, but Caesar ordered his auxiliaries to give way before the enemy. The Nervii had few horsemen and these did not have a good reputation, so it was doubtless especially encouraging when these chased Caesar’s cavalry back to their camp. To add to the impression of fear, the Romans made the ramparts of this higher than usual, and blocked up each of the four gateways with a wall consisting of a single row of cut turf. The Nervii took the bait and came across the stream to the Roman side of the valley. Warily, they edged closer and closer to the enemy camp, lured on by deliberate displays of panic. The legionaries even abandoned the walls as if terrified of the approaching warriors. The Belgians sent forward heralds, proclaiming that any of Caesar’s men who wished to desert could freely do so, but any that failed to come across by a set hour would be shown no mercy After a while the Nervii came up to the ramparts, and some began to tear down the turf walls blocking the gates. Only then did Caesar order an attack. The column of troops that had been waiting behind each gateway now charged, easily pushing down the flimsy barrier. The Nervii panicked and fled, pursued by the legionaries and the cavalry that Caesar ordered out in support. Some were killed, others abandoned weapons and shields as they fled, but he recalled his men before very long, fearing that they might suffer if they followed the enemy too far and were ambushed in the nearby woods and marshes.15

With the enemy army dispersed, Caesar pressed on to relieve Cicero. He took care to praise his legate, and separately inspected and commended the officers and men of the garrison. Only one-tenth had escaped being wounded during the siege, although it seems likely that many of the injured were fit enough to perform duty. On the following day there was another parade, and this time the proconsul spoke of the defeat of Cotta and Sabinus, making the latter the scapegoat and encouraging the troops for the future. When news of the Roman victory reached the Treveri, their army withdrew from its position facing Labienus’ camp. Caesar sent Fabius and his legion back to their camp amongst the Morini, and led Cicero and his own legion back to Samarobriva. He kept both of these units and Crassus’ legion near the town throughout the winter to give himself a concentrated striking force in case of further rebellions. The proconsul stayed with them, the first time that he had not gone south of the Alps for this season. The situation in Gaul was simply too tense for him to leave. It is also likely that this was the only year when a book of Commentaries on the last campaign was not published. Most probably books five and six came out together in the winter of 53-52 BC. Caesar was simply too busy, and until he had stamped out all the embers of rebellion then it was doubtful that he wanted to send a narrative of an uncompleted conflict. The news had already reached Rome of hard fighting in Gaul by December 54 BC, when Cicero would write to Trebatius that he had heard that they had been having a ‘hot time of it’ lately.16 Throughout the winter Caesar kept a close eye on the tribes: ‘Now when they heard of Sabinus’ death and defeat, nearly all the Gaulish tribes started to take thought of war, sending off ambassadors and delegations to every region to discover what the rest thought and where the war would begin, holding night-time meetings in remote spots.’17

In Amorica (roughly equivalent to modern Brittany) a force of tribesmen gathered near the camp of Lucius Roscius and the Thirteenth Legion, but subsequently dispersed. Another of Caesar’s appointees, Cavarinus the king of the Senones, was attacked by his chieftains and only narrowly escaped with his life and made his way to Caesar at Samarobriva. The only real fighting of the remainder of the winter was done by Labienus. Indutiomarus had tried and failed to raise German allies but, nevertheless, once again brought an army of his fellow tribesmen against Labienus’ camp. For days the Treveri formed up in battle order in the plain outside and challenged the Romans to battle. Labienus repeatedly declined, but then one day as the Treveri once again dispersed to go back to their own camp, he sent his allied cavalry out against them. The men were ordered to kill Indutiomarus and ignore everyone else. He was caught and his head brought back to the Legate. Without their leader, the warriors dispersed again.18


Over the winter Caesar took care not simply to make good his losses, but to raise double the number of new troops so that the Gauls would come to believe that Roman resources of manpower were inexhaustible. Three new legions were recruited in Cisalpine Gaul, a new Fourteenth to replace the massacred unit, the Fifteenth and the First. Although raised in Caesar’s province, the last of these had actually been intended to form part of Pompey’s army in Spain and had taken an oath to him, hence its number came from another sequence. Not planning major campaigns of his own, Pompey agreed to ‘loan’ the new legion to Caesar ‘for the good of the Republic and out of personal friendship’. Caesar now had ten legions, but the tribes in rebellion were also gathering their strength. Ambiorix was playing a key role in encouraging them, and had made formal alliance with the Treveri. In addition the Nervii, Atuatuci and Menapii were all in open war with Rome, while other tribes like the Senones and Carnutes had rejected leaders favourable to Caesar and were refusing to come in answer to his calls to council. Caesar decided that he must begin operations before the normal start of the campaigning season at the beginning of spring. He wanted to regain the initiative, which inevitably at the beginning of a revolt lay with the rebels. The Roman army would attack and would show that Rome was still strong in spite of a defeat, and that the consequences of opposing it were appalling. The tribes had no single leader, no capital and looked unlikely even to mass into a single field army. Nor would the defeat of one necessarily cause others to capitulate, and each had to be defeated in turn. Lacking these clear targets, Caesar would instead attack the homes and farms of the warriors. Houses would be burned, crops and herds consumed or destroyed, and people killed or enslaved. The Romans had a word for this activity, vastatio, which is the root of the word devastation, and even a verb vastare for the process. It was brutal in the extreme, but could be effective, terrifying the enemy into admitting defeat and coming to terms. Throughout history occupying forces have often turned to similar methods, but few have surpassed Caesar’s legions in their ruthlessly efficient application.19

Before the winter was over Caesar concentrated four legions - presumably somewhere near Samarobriva - and attacked the Nervii. It always took time to muster a tribal army and the Nervii had little chance either to defend themselves or to flee. The surprise was all the greater because no large Gallic army could have operated at this season - in 57 BC the great Belgic army had even been forced to disperse when it ran out of food in the summer months. Only the organised supply system supporting the Roman army made this possible. Caesar’s column captured large numbers of people, rounded up their herds and flocks, and torched the villages. Faced with this onslaught the Nervii quickly capitulated and supplied the Romans with hostages. Caesar withdrew his army, and sent messages to the tribes summoning them to a council at the beginning of spring. Once again the Senones and Carnutes failed to attend, as did the Treveri, who were now led by some of Indutiomarus’ family The council was to be held for the first time at Lutetia on the Seine, the main town of the Parisii, the people whose name is preserved in that of the modern capital of France. Before the council convened, Caesar took his legions against the Senones. Surprised before they could take refuge inside the walls of their town the tribe swiftly submitted. The Aedui spoke on their behalf and Caesar treated them relatively leniently. Partly this was because of his desire to show respect to Rome’s old ally, but also because he wanted to get on with operations against the other rebellious tribes. One hundred hostages were handed over to his camp, but there was no mass enslavement of the population. Realising that they were most likely next on Caesar’s list, soon afterwards the Carnutes sent envoys to him, accompanied by representatives from the Remi. The proconsul was again willing to accept their surrender. As was his usual practice, at the council he requested contingents of cavalry from the tribes. Privately he resolved to keep those supplied by the Senones with him, so that he could keep an eye on their commander, the chieftain Cavarinus.20

Central Gaul was now ‘pacified’ and the proconsul turned his attention to the north-east. Ambiorix was the most influential and charismatic of the leaders opposing him, but Caesar judged that he was unlikely to risk open battle. Therefore he decided to strip him of real or potential allies in the region. The army’s baggage and supply train was sent to Labienus with an escort of two legions. Caesar himself took five legions with minimal stocks of food and heavy equipment and led them against the Menapii - at this point only one of the three new legions seems to have reached the main army. As usual, the Menapii avoided contact and relied on the inaccessibility of the forests and marshes of their land for protection. This time, however, the Romans were prepared. Caesar divided his force into three independent columns, each of which began clearing a route into tribal territory, constructing bridges and causeways as necessary. Such was the engineering skill of the legions that there were few places where they could not go if they were led with determination. Dismayed to realise that they were not as safe as they had believed, and seeing the smoke rising from their burning villages, the Menapii sent in envoys and surrendered. The main army moved on, leaving the Atrebatian chieftain Commius and his retinue of warriors behind to ensure that the Menapii did not repent of their decision. While this operation was underway, the Treveri had moved against Labienus. Showing all his accustomed skill, the latter had lured them into a bad position and then turned on them, allegedly telling his men to ‘show the same courage they had often displayed for their general’. His three legions - his own legion having been reinforced by the two escorting the baggage just before the engagement - cut the Treveri to pieces. After this defeat the hostile chieftains fled across the Rhine, and power within the tribe was restored to Caesar’s candidate Cingetorix.21

Indutiomarus and Ambiorix had both sought allies from the German tribes on the east bank of the Rhine. Neither had enjoyed much success, for according to Caesar the Germans were still intimidated by the fate of Ariovistus and the Usipetes and Tencteri, and only a few bands of warriors had come to their aid. Even so the proconsul now decided to cross the Rhine for a second time, both to deter the tribes from offering even such modest aid to his opponents in Gaul and to prevent Ambiorix from seeking refuge on the far side of the river. The Roman army marched to the Rhine and built a bridge only a short distance away from the one they had constructed and then destroyed in 55 BC. Caesar did not bother to describe the design in any detail, but noted that having performed the task once before, his legionaries completed it very quickly. Bridging the Rhine in 55 BC had been an exciting foray into unexplored country, but now it was simply a matter of routine. That was essentially the point of the operation, to make it absolutely clear that the river was no barrier to the Romans and that Caesar could attack the Germans in their homeland whenever he wanted. As on the first occasion there was no actual fighting. The Ubii quickly sent envoys telling Caesar that they had remained faithful to their alliance with Rome. The Suebi withdrew into their heartland, and Caesar was informed by the Ubii that they were massing their army to meet him if he invaded. He made arrangements to ensure that he had sufficient supplies, ordered the Ubii to hide their own food stores and herds so that the enemy could not try to make use of them, and then advanced. When they learned of this, the Suebi withdrew and decided to offer battle at a place much deeper within their country It may well be that the size of Caesar’s force had surprised them and that more time was needed to mass sufficient warriors to oppose him. Caesar decided not to march further away from the Rhine, claiming that it would be difficult to supply his army since the Germans were essentially pastoralists rather than farmers, making it difficult for him to live off the land. Archaeology has shown that Caesar’s portrayal of the Germans is misleading, for there was a long tradition of agriculture in the region. Nevertheless, it may be that the population was less dense and the amount of wheat and barley produced smaller in comparison with much of Gaul. Supporting his army would probably have been possible, but certainly would have been considerably more difficult in a region where he did not have numbers of allies capable of providing for his needs from their own surplus. Meeting and defeating the Suebi was not essential for Caesar. He had put on another show of strength, and had made their army retreat from its first position. Both sides had a wary respect for the other’s power and were unlikely to attack each other, especially while both Caesar and the Suebi had closer and weaker opponents to fight.22

Caesar exaggerated the importance of the Rhine as a boundary and the differences between Gauls and Germans, but did so to justify a clear strategy. For all his willingness since 58 BC to exploit opportunities for new conflicts, he was not pursuing some dream of endless conquest in the manner of Alexander the Great. He knew that he would only hold his command for a limited time, and eagerly anticipated his eventual return to Rome with the benefits his new-found glory and wealth would bring. Quite early on he decided to focus his attention on Gaul and to bring the whole region under Roman dominion. This was a task that he could reasonably hope to complete - his first thought was probably within the initial five years of his command, but certainly when this was extended in 55 BC. Conquering Germany was too big a project to add to this objective, and operations east of the Rhine were always a distraction, if a necessary one, to winning in Gaul. He may well have believed that he could manage to add Britain, or at least its south-eastern corner, to Gaul, but his initial thinking on this subject was based on a very vague concept of the island’s geography After the second expedition, Caesar never had the time, if indeed he still had the desire, to establish more permanent control. Any plans for significant operations in Illyricum were also abandoned as the years went by Caesar concentrated on Gaul, and everything else was subordinate to this in strategic terms. The River Rhine offered a readily understandable boundary for an Italian audience, a boundary beyond which no one must be allowed to challenge Roman dominance of the new province of Gaul.23

After he returned to the west bank, Caesar broke down a wide section of his bridge and left a garrison to protect it. It was now late summer and the harvest was ripe, making it much easier for armies to rely on foraging. Caesar now turned to the Eburones and Ambiorix whose heartland lay in the forests of the Ardennes. The cavalry were sent ahead of the main army and ordered to light no fires at night lest their position be revealed by the light itself, or the reflection from clouds. Their sudden appearance surprised the enemy and they were able to take many prisoners. These revealed the whereabouts of Ambiorix, and the chieftain was nearly taken when the cavalry swooped down on a village. Most of his possessions, horses and plunder were found by the allied horsemen, but Ambiorix himself slipped away, and he and his followers hid themselves in the densest woods of the area. Catuvolcus - the man who had shared with him the glory of defeating Sabinus and Cotta - felt himself too old to hide in this way and hanged himself from a yew tree. (Caesar makes no comment, but it is tempting to see some element of ritual in this suicide, perhaps a king killing himself after a failure to avert the harm from his people.) Caesar moved the army to Atuatuca, the site of the disaster in the previous winter. Around this time he was also joined by the remaining two of the recently raised legions. He left his baggage there, protected by the new Fourteenth Legion under the command of Quintus Cicero, and divided the rest of his force into a number of flying columns to harass the enemy Caesar himself led three legions towards the River Scheldt, Labienus took three more against the Menapii, and Trebonius with a force of equal size moved against the Aduatuci. Speed was of the essence and the columns marched with basic rations, for it was planned that all should return to Atuatuca after a week. None of the forces met serious resistance, but stragglers or small groups who separated from them were often ambushed. Caesar decided that his legionaries were too valuable to risk the steady drain of casualties likely to come from continuing to ravage the land himself. Instead he issued a decree throughout Gaul, granting permission for anyone who chose to plunder the Eburones and their allies. Many warriors welcomed the call, and there were soon many parties of Gauls enthusiastically plundering the tribe.24

Before Caesar returned to Atuatuca, Cicero’s camp came under attack from a band of Germans. These had originally crossed into Gaul to share in the despoiling of the Eburones, but then decided that the Roman baggage train was too tempting a target to miss. The attack was repulsed, but not before a couple of cohorts caught outside the camp had been badly cut up. In the Commentaries Cicero was lightly admonished for disobeying Caesar’s orders and permitting troops to go too far outside the camp, but the criticism is gentle in the extreme, since he did not desire to alienate either the legate or his brother. It was an embarrassing reverse, especially since it occurred so close to the site of the previous winter’s disaster, but still a minor one. For the rest of the year Caesar continued to hunt Ambiorix, but never quite caught up with him. It was a grim business, as more and more Gallic allies arrived to share in the spoils:

Every village, every house that anyone could see was put to the torch; captured cattle were everywhere rounded up; the wheat was not only consumed by soldiers and animals, but squashed flat by the heavy rain common at that time of year, so that if anybody managed to hide themselves in the meantime, it seemed that they were bound to starve once the army left.25

Caesar spent most of 53 BC on campaign, beginning before winter was over and continuing into the early autumn, but did not fight a single battle. The only significant action was fought and won in his absence by Labienus. During the year the Romans had spread destruction and terror - mainly terror, for the armies only destroyed what was in their path - over a wide area. North-eastern Gaul suffered badly, and it is striking that there is a huge drop in the quantities of gold and other precious metals found in sites in this area after Caesar’s time in Gaul. Overall the archaeological record shows a marked decline in the quality and quantity of material culture, and suggests that the region did not recover for at least a generation. The danger with such a policy of intimidation was that it sowed the seeds of future resentment, but Caesar decided that the memory of Sabinus’ defeat could only be eradicated by extreme ruthlessness. It is not recorded at which point he decided that his vow of vengeance for his lost soldiers was fulfilled and he had his slaves shave him and cut his hair. At the end of the campaigning season he withdrew the army and summoned the leaders of Gaul to another council, this time at Durocortorum (modern Reims), one of the chief towns of the Remi. Earlier in the year he had been content to let the matter of the disturbances amongst the Senones and Carnutes pass. Now he investigated the affair, and decided that the prominent Senonian aristocrat Acco was the man behind the affair. Caesar resolved to impose a harsher penalty than was ‘his normal custom’ and had Acco publicly flogged and then executed. This action shocked the tribal leaders even more than the killing of Dumnorix and was to have deep consequences. It may have been a carefully considered decision on Caesar’s part, but it is also likely that a desire to depart for Cisalpine Gaul made him especially impatient. The fact that one of his own appointees had been killed and another driven out by rivals also encouraged particular harshness, for Caesar always stressed his loyalty to and care for his ‘friends’, whether Roman or foreign. Whatever his thinking, Caesar gave the order, dividing his army so that two legions wintered in a position to watch the Treveri, two more observed the Lingones and the remaining six were concentrated near one of the main towns of the Senones.26

After spending the last year and a half north of the Alps, there was doubtless much that needed his attention in Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. It was probably during these months that he wrote and released books Five and Six of the Commentaries on the Gallic War, covering 54 and 53 BC. Book Five carefully presented the defeat of Cotta and Sabinus, not only contrasting the behaviour of the two legates, but then following this with the more inspiring tale of Quintus Cicero’s successful defence of his camp and the heroism of his centurions and soldiers. Book Six included long digressions discussing Gallic and Germanic culture, padding out an account of punitive expeditions that involved little actual fighting and did not make the most dramatic reading. Some of the details appear to have been lifted from existing ethnographic works and it is tempting to see this as an indication of especially rapid composition. He repeats a number of bizarre stories, for instance of an animal called an elk, which lived deep in the forests of Germany and had no knees so slept leaning against a tree. Hunters were supposed to catch these animals by sawing almost completely through the trunk of a tree, so that when the elk leaned on it to go sleep, tree and animal both fell over.

The Greeks and Romans had great difficulty obtaining accurate information about distant lands, but it is very hard to believe that a man as intelligent and well educated as Caesar took such absurd tales seriously. It is very tempting to see this as a rare note of humour in the otherwise calm reportage of the Commentaries, but difficult to know whether or not his audience would have recognised it as such.27

Much had happened since Caesar was last south of the Alps and the public life of Rome had continued to be turbulent, but the most important event for him had occurred far out on the eastern edge of the Roman world. Late in 54 BC Crassus had been joined by his dashing son Publius and a contingent of 1,000 cavalry he had brought with him from Gaul. Father and son had then begun their long anticipated invasion of Parthia, although little was achieved before the campaigning season was spent. In the spring of 53 BC they resumed the offensive. With a force centred around seven legions, they were confident, for in the past Lucullus and Pompey had demonstrated how easy it was for the Romans to smash far larger Asian armies. The Parthians were equally sure of themselves, again used to beating their neighbours without difficulty, and it came as something of a shock to both sides to realise that this new enemy was very different from anything they had met before. In spite of their allied cavalry and light infantry, the Roman army was still essentially an infantry force. In contrast the Parthians relied on their two types of cavalry - the heavy lance-wielding cataphracts where both horse and man was protected by armour, and the fast-moving horse archers armed with powerful composite bows. When the two sides clashed for the first time at Carrhae the cavalry army proved superior, although not by as big a margin as is often claimed. Publius Crassus was lured away from the main force and he and all his men killed, but the battle ended in a tactical stalemate, neither side able to break the other. The Romans had certainly suffered heavier casualties and were a long way from home. Crassus had shown flashes of his old military skill during the battle, but in the night after the battle his spirit and that of his army broke. They retreated, something that was never likely to be easy when the Romans were on foot and the Parthians mounted. In the pursuit the Roman army was virtually destroyed. Crassus was killed while negotiating with the enemy, and his head sent back to the Parthian king. It was a humiliating disaster, which dwarfed in scale the loss of fifteen cohorts in the Ardennes just a few months before. The first of the triumvirs had gone, and the death of one of Rome’s richest and most influential men inevitably caused a deep shift in the political balance in the Republic.

By coincidence the Parthian campaign also brought fame to Crassus’ quaestor, who managed to lead a force of survivors back to Syria and repulse Parthian raids on the province. His name was Caius Cassius Longinus, and nine years later he would be one of the two leaders of Caesar’s assassins.28

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