Julius Caesar’s Trapped Legion

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)

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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Did this have the same psychological impact as the Battle of Teutoburg?

    • I don’t think so. Caesar came back and wiped out the poor Eburones. Cativolcus poisoned himself but Ambiorix fled. The name of this tribe was never to be heard again. Caesar had to set an example. Then conquest of Gaul and Belgium ensued – not without difficulties, the Gauls being fierce warriors.

      So this episode didn’t change things, while the Teutoburg battle stopped the Roman conquest of Germany.

      • So we are back to the nobleness of suicide. I wonder if that episode inspired Uderzo and Goscinny?

      • No, no, Paul, I don’t want to get back to suicide matters.

        I also wondered if it had to do with Asterix. Caesar says Ambiorix and Eburones were German, but Ambiorix seems a Celtic name. I read in the Wikipedia that in the album ‘Asterix in Belgium’ the Belgian chief, Beefix, resembles Ambiorix a bit.

  2. Ha, Paul!

  3. You scared MOR that is.

    • Dialogue always brings to learning something. No fear in this case.

  4. That is a good account. I am not familiar with Roman history, and hence these stories are interesting to me :-)

    Destination Infinity

    • Glad you liked it, Destination Infinity. All history is fascinating, but of course, due to the theme of my blog, I often concentrate on Roman history.

  5. Excellent text! Really informative.I have to create a 3d anim re enactement of this event, I will use your
    text to create the scenes.credits will be given for sure. I will get back to you once the movie is done.

    Thanks again your text has made my day.

    ciao,from montreal

    • Thank you. Remember though that some credit must be given also to Peter Heather (and to Julius Caesar, lol, who’s the source writer). Ciao.
      Montreal? My goodness. Only in this short discussion, apart from a person from India, you are ALL from there.

      • Hi,i won’t forget to add Peter Heather in the credit promise. I didn’t know that other
        montrealers were interested on the subject.
        the internet can really show some strange
        situation,but this one i like.

        ciao,we’ve got a snow storm coming, coool…

        • Yes, there are a lot of montrealers around this blog, I don’t know why, but I’m pleased by it. Snow storm? Omg

          • “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.”

            “But Cotta kept his cool and quickly had the column pulled into a square.”

            I’m working slowly but surely on this project

        • Wow, really cool! I liked the 3d animations very much!

          The num 1 “marching not in battle order but in a very extended line” seems clear and outstanding. Didn’t perceive well num 2, ie “the column pulled into a square by Cotta who kept his cool”, but I watched it quickly because I’m busy plus it is dark. I’ll re-watch later.

          Good (and fascinating) job. Bravo!!

          • Hi.i’m glad that you think that video 1 was reenacted correctly.video 2 is
            a night test for dust particle while german’s inf run toward the roman’s square.
            I still got a lot of work
            in front of me,but comment
            like this will help a lot
            to continue this long work…but ancient history is my cup of tea.ok,thanks,
            i’ll be updating you on my
            progress very soon…

            take care.

          • The only doubt I have, yours is a hollow square. And I see a plain, no deep valley. The Romans used hollow squares but here, trapped as they were in a narrow valley with missiles pouring on their heads from above, I’d rather think of a testudo, a solid dense square where men hold their shields so that they worked as a shield-wall to all sides. Testudo was created against missiles, also during sieges. I should check the original Julius Caesar’s text, but have no time now. See ‘testudo’ on the Wikipedia. ‘Infantry square’ could also help.

  6. Yes,you are right about that,
    but this pc game doesn’t have
    testudo animation for roman units.
    mmm,but i know where to go
    to get testudo formation
    for roman formation a 3d pc game.
    the video will be different but more
    realistic for that re enactement
    scene.

    thank for the info…

    • You’re welcome. Remember tho the narrow valley, Romans trapped at the bottom, and from above, on both steep valley sides, the Eburones pouring missiles on them, so Cotta possibly ordered to form a testudo.


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