RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Germanic barbarian

Julius Caesar’s Trapped Legion

Posted on

Part of a display seen at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, 1998. Click for credits

54 BC, November. A typical grey rainy day in eastern Belgium. One of Julius Caesar’s legions plus 5 additional cohortes are wintering in the land of the Eburones, a German tribe. The other Roman legions are scattered far away in Gaul in their fortified camps, as was Caesar’s habit during winter. Caesar is heading towards Italia in order to take care of political matters.

The Eburones, commanded by their two kings, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, wipe out with a sudden attack a small group of Roman soldiers foraging for wood not far from their camp.

A parley thus began. Ambiorix (see below a statue dedicated to him in Tongeren, Belgium) told the Romans that a revolt was occurring in Gaul and that many Germans were about to pass the Rhine ready to join the Gauls against the Romans. He offered a safe passage towards other Roman camps fifty miles away.

The two Roman commanders, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, began a heated discussion within the council. Cotta was for staying: they had enough food and the legion was well entrenched. Sabinus was instead for leaving. Caesar would never arrive in time, he said, and their only opportunity was following Ambiorix’s advice. Around midnight Cotta had to give up since Sabinus’ opinion had prevailed in the council and even the soldiers were for leaving the camp.

These soldiers were the least experienced among Caesar’s legions, enrolled just a few months earlier and used only as baggage guards in important battles.

At break of day the Roman force, more than seven thousand men, quit the camp marching not in battle order but in a very extended line and with a very large amount of baggage. This showed that Sabinus’ idea, that the Germans must be trusted, had prevailed among the Roman commanders except Cotta. The Eburones were concealed in a thick wood waiting for the Romans. When the Romans entered the wood they let them pass through and descend to a deep valley where they abruptly showed up on either side of it. The Romans realised they were encircled and trapped.

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren in Belgium. Click for credits

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren, Belgium. Click for credits

The Eburones, fearing to attack the Romans directly went high above them on both sides and started pouring down missiles and rocks on the heads of the Romans. Sabinus lost his head, since he knew he had led the Romans into a mortal ambush. But Cotta kept his cool and quickly had the column pulled into a square. The Roman force held on for an extraordinary 8 hours though the casualties augmented.

At this point Sabinus tried to parley with Ambiorix, but was slaughtered by the king himself during talk. The Eburones then charged down en masse and many other Romans died, including Cotta.

Some still kept formation and succeeded to get back to the camp fighting.

“There the survivors kept the Eburones out until nightfall, and then, to a man, committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.”

“If the baggage guard would fight all day with no hope of success and commit mass suicide rather than surrender, Rome’s enemies were going to be in serious trouble.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Note. Freely inspired by the The Fall of the Roman Empire – A new history, by Peter Heather, Macmillan 2005, where the last two paragraphs are taken from; the episode is narrated by Julius Caesar in chapt. V of his De Bello Gallico. Here the English Gutenberg text)

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

Colosseum in Rome

A few days ago, in a pizzeria very close to the Colosseum, I met a couple from Lübeck, Germany. She was a Catholic redhead with communicative and laughing blue eyes, born in Cologne. He was a colourless Protestant, with meditative and sad eyes of a pale blue, a vague resemblance with pilot Schumacher.

“It is a sort of Little Italy, Cologne, – he said – while I am the Germanic barbarian beyond the Roman border.”

Bizarre how the proximity of the Colosseum makes just any tourist talk history.

We didn’t chat for a while though, each of us minding our own business, kind of reluctant to human communication.

Suddenly, I really don’t know why, I opened up -a full-bodied red wine is to be held responsible? The fizzy Roman air? -, I gave this friendly and sincere look to them and shot these point-blank, out-of-the-world 4 sentences:

“I worship the music of Bach. Bach is sovereign. He is a great honour to German civilization. German music is eternal.”

I am unfortunately aware I must have sounded totally nuts. Four solemn and incautious sentences were now suspended in the Roman breeze.

They looked at me in total amazement:

“Also Italy has created beautiful music, really. But isn’t Bach too heavy, too stern?”

No idea if they meant “too stern for an Italian” or were just talking in general.

“Heavy? Oh no, no, – I said – how can the most magnificent among composers be heavy? Bach is not heavy. Bach is a-l-l.”

His pale eyes, from an initial mistrust, sweetened up. Her smile became even warmer than before. Actually the three of us were a little moved (and probably high.)

Some additional sporadic sentences (she was proud of this German pope … they wanted to know if I was a real Roman …) concluded this little Roman scene. We said goodbye after exchanging our addresses.

ψ

Now I have friends ready to greet me if I ever get to Lübeck, a city to which young Bach arrived, if I am not wrong, after many kilometres on foot, so eager to learn all he could from his idol musician, the organist and composer Buxtehude.

I have to check better. Just found this on the Web:

“Im Spätherbst 1705 reist Johann Sebastian Bach nach Lübeck, um den norddeutschen Komponisten Dietrich Buxtehude zu treffen und von ihm zu lernen.”

Sintetico but enough.

Sorry if I showed off some of my German (no big deal after all lol), but how can one not love this language: of course its difficulty (and the lost wars) didn’t help its expansion.

A German friend once noted, a bit disconsolate:

“Even just the adjective, Deutsch, is difficult both to write and to pronounce. We should have changed it. But we have been stupid. Sometimes we are not as intelligent as people think.”

One last thing.

Bach is a son of un-romanized Germany. Rome and the classical world are not all, of course. But I am asking myself:

Is this diverse historical background somewhat responsible for the fact that Bach’s music lacks sometimes … measure and grace? Is it by chance that many Italians prefer his music played by classicism-oriented performers like American Murray Perahia or, even better, Italian Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli?

I for example adore Bach’s Italian Concert in F major (BWV 971) played by Michelangeli (and other Bach’s works played by him.)

Michelangeli’s magic fingers add grace and brilliance to this austere northern German music, making it sound a little bit like Mozart’s.

ψ

Update (September 21, 2013)

Italian Neapolitan Maria Tipo’s Bach is another example of how Bach can be played (corrected? made more singing etc?) by Italian performers.

ψ

Italian version

Related posts:

Permanences I
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds
Music, Politics and History
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 160 other followers