Rome versus the Belgae, Part I

Fresh off the heels of a good year full of military victory, surefooted Julius Caesar leads his small Roman army up north to confront a giant war force rumored to be forming against him.

After the winter of Caesar’s victorious year of 58 B.C., confirmation of rumors arrived to Caesar in Cisalpine Gaul (modern: Northern Italy) that the Belgae (modern: Belgium; Hauts-de-France, France; North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany; Southern Netherlands) were forming a coalition against Rome. Amidst brewing discontent over Roman presence in Gaul (modern: France, Belgium, Switzerland, Southern Netherlands, Southwestern Germany, and Northern Italy), constant German invasion, and tireless jockeying for kingship amongst themselves, 14 Belgic tribes cooperatively raised an army of approximately 246,000 soldiers to form a unified, defensive front around their homeland.

To this, Caesar responded by raising two new legions for a total of six legions under his command. He marched them north, starting from Cisalpine Gaul (modern: Northern Italy), for fourteen days until they reached the border of the Remi (modern: northern Champagne-Ardenne, France).

Map of Gaul, Late Roman Republic, Julius Caesar
Map of Gaul during the Late Roman Republic era, circa 57 B.C.

The Remi had prior sent two messengers to offer their surrender to Rome, preemptively assuring Caesar that they had no part in the forthcoming Belgae plot to drive off the Romans and that it was largely drummed up by the Belgic tribes of German descent farther northeast along the Rhenus River (modern: Rhine River). So, Caesar accepted their promised support, hostages, and food supplies and guaranteed their safety and protection.

Caesar also called on Diviciacus the Aedui to join his side. Diviciacus had ruled as king sovereign over central Gaul, parts of Belgae, and even Britain – so you can see why Caesar’s friendship with him was so necessary to preserve.

Learning that the Belgae war force was so large, nearly eight times more numerous than his own force of six legions, or 30,000 to 36,000 men, Caesar called upon Diviciacus to lay waste to the western edges of Belgae near Aedui territory so to distract and prevent the Belgae from focusing all of their might totally on Caesar.

Next, Caesar crossed the Axona River (modern: Aisne River) in allied Remi territory and set up a camp alongside its banks, which served as a natural defense for his rear. The Remi, there situated, served as a defensive buffer and supply chain for his camp.

The Belgae enemy, hearing of Caesar’s approach, attempted to siege the city of Bibrax (modern: Aisne & Reims, France) about eight miles north of this camp. With a heavy invasion force, they tried to clear Bibrax’s walls by throwing stones. The city’s inhabitants quickly lost hope, but Caesar sent his specialized ranged units – Numidian archers, Cretan archers, and the legendary Balearic slingers – just in time to defend the city. The sight of these unique, specialized troops was enough to dispel the Belgae siege for fear of a counter-attack and sure death by way of their relatively advanced bow and arrows and slingshots that they had not seen before. So, the Belgae left Bibrax and laid waste to the surrounding Remi land until they stopped at a spot just two miles away from Caesar’s encampment at the River Aisne.

Caesar, concerned by the sheer size of the enemy force and their renowned fierceness, refrained from battle, but he did engage in light cavalry skirmishes to feel out his enemy. Determining that his men could stand as equals to the enemy’s physical prowess and courage, Caesar moved four of his six legions toward a potentially suitable battleground below the hilly river-side where they had been camped while leaving behind his two newly recruited legions back at the river-side camp.

These four legions, spread wide and arrayed in a depth of three lines, occupied the whole length of the flat-land that Caesar had eyed beneath his hill. At the left and right ends of this formation, trenches were dug shaped like two lines affixed at a right angle ( ┐—┌ ), towering fortifications were built, and artillery placed. Beyond these, further aside, the land began to slope down, so it was naturally defensive, too. This new fortified battle line was set upon a small slope just above a flat plane, so the Romans had the defensive advantage of high ground should the Belgae attempt to charge up at them.

Between the Romans and the opposing Belgae camp was a small marsh in the middle of the plane. Neither party dared cross through that marsh, small as it was, because the slog through the wet terrain would make whoever passed through it as vulnerable as a hobbled deer during hunting season. Rather, cavalry skirmishes broke out here and there between the two sides around the plane. Results of these violent contacts favored the Romans.  Seeing as the Belgae were not going to advance that day, Caesar began withdrawing his forces back to his main river-side camp.

The Belgae, owing to the innumerable size of their horde, had been able to send a large number of soldiers unnoticed far around the marshy plane with the intent to storm the Roman fort from behind. As they attempted to cross the River Aisne, the officer left in charge of the camp, Titurius Sabinus, notified Caesar of the incoming attack.

Caesar rushed in lead of all the cavalry, archers Numidian, and Balearic slingers to fend off this sudden assault.

As the Belgae forded the river, Caesar’s ranged soldiers were able to pick them off in the water. Then, so en masse were the Belgae, that the river became soddened with dead bodies. The Belgae continued their assault more speedily now as they were able to walk over this bridge of corpses made of their dead brethren. Meanwhile, the cavalry pushed back the Belgae crossing over the actual bridge that the Romans had built after killing those who had already crossed. The Belgae retreated, seeing no chance of success as the rest of Caesar’s legions now appeared.

The failure of their efforts, combined with a dwindling food supply, caused the Belgae to convene a war council among themselves. They decided to return to their respective tribelands from whence they would defend against the Romans only if invaded until they could reconvene on more favorable ground rather than fight where the Romans were set up so secure.

Around this time, Diviciacus and his Aedui army commenced their portion of Caesar’s plan, which was to wreck the borders of Belgica.

The Belgae horde dispersed, left Remi territory, and went back to their respective homes in, what Caesar perceived to be, an orderless panic and flight. So, Caesar sent his cavalry along with three legions to harass and bite at the heels of the rear guards of the departing Belgae. This resulted in a ceaseless slaughter of the Belgae. The Romans, unscathed, were able to cut down as many Belgic soldiers as time permitted for they were only limited by the speed which they could kill a man. The massacre proceeded until nightfall when they were called back to return to camp.

The next day, Caesar ordered the town of Noviodunum of the Suessiones tribe (modern: Soissones, France), south of Bibrax to be besieged. Seeing as the city was walled and entrenched, the Romans built siegeworks, or movable machines designed to break down and climb over walls. Impressed by these never-before-seen Roman inventions and the absolute quickness in which they were constructed, the town surrendered totally. They gave up their arms and offered hostages, including the sons of a major Belgae king, Galba.

Next, Caesar advanced west-northwest into Bellovaci territory (modern: Beauvais, France). When five miles away from the town of Bratuspantium, the town’s elders, women, and children came out in surrender pleading for the protection and power that comes with being a friend of Rome.

Here, Diviciacus interpleaded for the surrendering Bellovaci, who were Gallic Belgae, kin to the Aedui. He told Caesar that they had merely been riled up by conspiracy: a conspiracy created by the other Belgae purporting that the Aedui had becomes slaves of Rome: so that the Bellovaci must join the war to help save the Aedui as well as defend themselves. Diviciacus announced that those conspiring Belgae agitators had now fled to Britain; that those remaining in this territory were Gallic Belgae belonging to the Aedui state, loyal to Rome, and deserving of mercy and peace, which Caesar did grant them, restoring them to the Aedui in exchange for 600 hostages – a relatively large number of hostages as this was the most populous tribal state in Belgae.

Quickly, Caesar then moved north onto the borders of the Ambiani (modern: Amiens, France) who likewise surrendered without hesitation their loyalty, arms, possessions, and supplies.

Thus began Caesar’s first campaign against the Belgae. As the summer of 57 B.C. was still young, the season for war was nowhere near over. In no state of mind would a commander on the heels of such victory resist the momentum with which his army had just been thrust towards success. And considering that the fever of war was still simmering among the 11 remaining Belgae tribes, more work was to be done.

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