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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