The Belgae

By Edorix

    "horvm omnivm Belgae svnt fortissimi." - Caesar
    "Of all the Gauls, the Belgae are the bravest." - Caesar

The Belgae were a confederacy of ethnically mixed tribes living between the Celts and the Germans in what is now Northern France and Benelux. Traditionally, their territory was bounded by the Rhine to the east, the Marne and the Seine to the southwest, and the English Channel - or, as Caesar calls it, the "British Ocean" - to the north. They were famed for their military prowess and bravery; according to Caesar, this is because they were constantly at war with the equally warlike Germans, and far away from the civilising, corrupting influences and luxuries of Rome - wine, public baths, central heating etc. The Belgae, like their Germanic cousins, considered these detractive from the warlike spirit of their race.

The most important tribes were the Atrebates, Nervii, Bellovaci and Treveri, but there were many others: Caesar lists the Suessiones, Remi, Ambiani, Morini, Menapii, Caleti, Veliocasses, Viromandui, Atuatuci, Condrusi, Eburones, Caerosi and Paemani. Whether the Treveri were actually strictly Belgic is debatable; they do not seem to have been part of the core confederacy, but they were of Germanic origin living on the Gaulish side of the Rhine and they had close ties to some of the Belgic tribes, so for simplicity's sake I have counted them as Belgae here. There were a few other tribes mentioned by other writers, such as the Catalauni (sometimes mistakenly linked to the southern British Catuvellauni), but they were not mentioned by Caesar and probably only came into the area after the Belgae were already subject to Rome. The Belgae were a mixed group of Germanic and Celtic origin, some more of one and others more of the other. According to Caesar, whose truthfulness is attested by the archaeology, some of the Belgae settled on the south coast of Britain in the first century BC. They took possession of most of the territory between Dorset and Kent, but their influence spread even further. Although their mainland cousins resisted for years against the Romans under Caesar, ironically the island Belgae were among the first to submit to Claudius a hundred years later. The mainland Belgae maintained close ties with the British until at least the Roman conquest, for Caesar claims that the British were helping the Gauls rebel, justifying his invasion of the island in 55 BC. See here.

The origins of the Belgae are a bit of a mystery. They were certainly there by 150 BC because they were well established around 110 BC, around the time they were the only ones in Gaul who successfully repelled the migrating Cimbri and Teutones. In his Germania, Tacitus says that the first Germans to cross the Rhine and settle in Gaul were the Tungri (probably another name for the Eburones), but, typical of his style, he does not give a date. The best estimates based on archaeology locate the first Germanic crossings of the Rhine not before 350 BC, so a little later is when we can first assume Germano-Celtic racial mingling. Thus the ethnic Belgae probably originated around 300 BC.

Any definitive history of any barbarian race is hard to trace before its first contact with Rome; ironically, the arrival of civilisation heralding the advent of written history came with the disappearance of the earlier oral histories. We will probably never know for sure anything about the Belgae before 57 BC, when Julius Caesar arrived. It goes without saying that his Commentarii de Bello Gallico have been my chief source of information in writing this article.

Roman Invasion
Caesar spent the better part of four years (57-53 BC) fighting the Belgae, although he and his legates were conducting other campaigns elsewhere as well. The fiercest fighting was at the beginning of this period, in particular with the Nervii. The southernmost of the Belgic tribes, the Remi, were quick to side with Caesar when he began his conquest of the region. Perhaps they were never a part of the confederacy, for the rest of the Belgic tribes were unanimously opposed to Caesar, who claims they mustered three hundred and fifty thousand men- a definite exaggeration, for which Caesar is conspicuous. At any rate, the Remi remained loyal to Caesar throughout his campaigns in Gaul.

After learning that it was too late to prevent the tribes from mustering, Caesar quickly crossed the river Aisne into Belgica and encamped with his eight legions eight miles from Bibrax, a fortress of the Remi. That day, Bibrax itself was attacked by the Belgae, but the garrison just managed to hold out. Under cover of night, Caesar sent some auxiliary troops to assist the defenders, upon which the Belgae abandoned the siege to ravage the countryside instead. After that they made their own camp about two miles from Caesar's own. Skirmishes ensued; the two armies even lined up facing each other, but no battle was forthcoming. When neither side would make a move, the Romans returned to their camp. The Belgae then tried to cross the Aisne and cut Caesar's supply route, but Caesar's cavalry and light troops prevented them. Themselves short of supplies- a massive army without any kind of logistical support- the Belgae simply disbanded their warhost, agreeing to reform it when Caesar threatened them directly. That is the advantage of the citizen militia over the professional army.

Relying on his troops' superior marching speed, Caesar pounced on Noviodunum, near modern-day Soissons, capital of the Suessiones, hoping to capture it before the Suessione warriors got back. The warriors, however, managed to sneak in under cover of night, but when they saw the Roman siege preparations- eerie catapults, giant towers and dozens of sturdy ladders- they surrendered without a fight. Demoralised, the Bellovaci, a major tribe of the confederacy with a great reputation who had promised a hundred thousand troops, and the Ambiani, another important tribe, also surrendered without a fight. The Nervii, on the other hand, rallied the neighbouring Atrebates and Viromandui and prepared for battle. Their precise numbers, as usual, are unknown; using the figures Caesar gave previously, the Nervii could have supplied fifty thousand warriors, the Viromandui five, and the Atrebates fifteen. They were also expecting the arrival of a considerable number of reinforcements from the Atuatuci, maybe nineteen thousand. Caesar had about forty-five to fifty thousand men.

The Nervian forces learned that Caesar was planning to build his camp on a hill which sloped down straight into the River Selle (not the Sambre, as proven by Pierre Turquin). On the other side of the river was a dense wood, and there the Nervii hid their entire force in ambush positions. Two of Caesar's legions were at the rear of his column, protecting his baggage train, so he had only about forty thousand men with him against the proposed seventy thousand Belgae. Caesar sent his cavalry and light troops across the river to scout, and so began the famous Battle of Sabis.

(Please note that this map incorrectly names the river the Sambre; its course is therefore also incorrect.)

The Nervii charge swept away the Roman scouts and surged on across the river and up the hill like a tidal wave, so fast that the Romans never saw them coming until it was too late to organise themselves. They were caught so unprepared that they rushed out of the camp leaving some of their weaponry behind and fell in under the first standard they came across. This disorganisation would tell on them over the course of the battle.

The Nervii were faced with legions VII and XII, while the Viromandui and Atrebates faced the VIII and XI, and IX and X respectively. The fighting was fierce, but the Romans managed to hold the line. The Belgic cavalry (the Nervii had virtually no cavalry; all the Belgae together at the battlefield couldn't have had more than five thousand) repulsed the Roman cavalry easily, but instead of then rejoining the battle as at Cannae, they pursued their routed foes across the field. Had the Nervii warlord, Boduognatus, been more like Hannibal, Sabis could have been the end of Caesar's Gallic campaign and Caesar.

In the centre and on the Belgic right, the twenty thousand Atrebates and Viromandui, exhausted from running, were facing equal numbers of Romans, fresh but unprepared. The Romans drove them off with relative ease and pursued them, but in doing so left a great gap in the line for the numerically superior Nervii to exploit. If there were fifty thousand Nervii, even if a few warbands had not come to the muster and others had been dispersed along the line to strengthen the Viromandui and Atrebates, and they were up against only ten thousand Romans, they had troops to spare. The Nervii began to surround the VII and XII legions, and captured the Roman camp.

Many officers were dead and cohort standards lost, and the Roman ranks were too compressed to fight effectively, just as at Cannae. But Caesar was no Varro, and Boduognatus was no Hannibal. This is the point where Caesar, famously, grabbed a shield and pushed through to the front line, exhorting his men and ordering them to open out their ranks and form a square facing all ways. His presence, as well as his tactics, allowed the Romans to hold out until Labienus, leader of the Roman left who had by now captured the Belgic camp, sent the elite X legion to the rescue. The tide of the battle began to turn, but the desperate Nervii fought to the last. Their name, "Nervii", which in Old Celtic meant "Heroes", was not baseless:

    "The enemy, even in their desperate plight, showed such bravery that when their front ranks had fallen those immediately behind stood on their prostrate bodies to fight, and when they too fell and the corpses were piled high, the survivors kept hurling their spears over them as if defending a citadel, and flung back the pila caught in their shields. Such courage accounted for the extraordinary feats they had performed already. Only true heroes could have made light of crossing a wide river, clambering up a steep hill and then launching an assault on such a difficult position."

Caesar claims that the entire manpower of the Nervii was basically wiped out in this battle (although he contradicts himself later), but he went to great lengths to ensure the safety of what was left of the tribe he clearly thought so highly of. The victory at the Battle of Sabis, which could just as easily have gone the other way, essentially broke the power of the Belgae. Even German tribes on the other side of the Rhine sent envoys offering submission to Caesar upon hearing the news. Clearly, the Nervii had quite a reputation. Caesar then sent one legion to Brittany, while he himself pacified the Atuatuci, who had broken the terms of surrender. Their army had turned aside after hearing of the Nervii defeat. Caesar took fifty thousand slaves.

The next year Caesar was busy in Brittany conducting a campaign against the Veneti, which is well worth reading up on but does not enter into my subject area. Towards the end of the year he fought an indecisive campaign against the Morini, but bad weather and guerrilla tactics forced him to withdraw. The year after that he invaded Britain and Germania. In 54 BC, he invaded Britain again, but in the winter, another Belgic revolt flared up.

Due to poor harvests, Caesar had to divide his army for their winter quarters. Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta and Quintus Titurius Sabinus were encamped with fifteen cohorts at Aduatuca Tungrorum (modern Tongeren, Belgium - confusingly, Aduatuca was not in the territory of the Atuatuci). They were attacked in their camp by Ambiorix, leader of the Eburones. After being repulsed after attempting a direct assault, Ambiorix claimed that he had not wanted to attack but had been driven to do so by his people; now having done that, he could speak to the Romans plainly. He claimed that all Northern Gaul was in revolt and that Germans had crossed the Rhine again, but he would lead them safely through his territory to another nearby Roman camp to unite. Cotta was sceptical, but Sabinus took Ambiorix at his word. In the end, Cotta gave in and let Sabinus lead them straight into an ambush. Cotta was killed fighting and the gullible Sabinus was murdered at a parley. A thousand Romans escaped back to Aduatuca, where they committed mass suicide rather than be captured.

Quintus Cicero, brother of the famous orator, was encamped with one legion in Nervian territory. Encouraged by Ambiorix's success, the crippled (but clearly not so crippled as Caesar earlier tried to make out) Nervii, Atuatuci and other dependents attacked Cicero's camp, trying to sell him the same story as Sabinus. But Cicero was no idiot; it comes from growing up with a genius brother. He refused even to discuss terms. Instead, he strengthened his defenses and struggled to contact Caesar. By the time Caesar finally arrived to relieve the siege, repelling a claimed sixty thousand strong Nervian force (again, we have Caesar's marked tendency to exaggerate; the maths just doesn't work in combination with his earlier claims) with two legions and a little cavalry, Cicero's army had taken 85% casualties.

The next year Caesar spent reconquering Belgica and the neighbouring regions, which, ironically, inspired by Ambiorix's success rather than actually having planned to work with him from the start, had in fact broken out in revolt. Caesar recruited two new legions and borrowed one from his ally Pompey, bringing the total up to ten. Indutiomarus, king of the Treveri, in the winter, marched on the camp of Labienus, intending to join up with the Senones and Carnutes, but was defeated and killed.

This was not enough to quell the Treveri, and all the other tribes of Germanic origin among the Belgae were in revolt as well. Caesar marched first on the Nervii, then the nearby Celtic Gauls who had joined the revolt, and then the Menapii, destroying crops and livestock, burning villages, and seizing property. It proved an effective tactic, and all those tribes quickly surrendered. Meanwhile, Labienus tricked the Treveri into attacking him with three legions in an unfavourable position by marching away and then turning to face them. The Treveri routed quickly and surrendered.

Caesar then crossed the Rhine for a second time, and after quickly cowing the Germans, returned to finish repacifying Belgica. He sent two columns of three legions each on a vicious punitive raid targeting most of eastern Belgica and the tribes that were still in revolt. This strategy had already proven effective against the Nervii, Menapii, Senones and Carnutes, and it did not disappoint: the Eburones and their allies surrendered before winter.

Although in the next year, 52 BC, the year of Vercingetorix's great revolt, some Belgic tribes would join him, and in Britain some remained outside Roman control until as late as AD 47, 53 BC essentially marked the end of Belgic independence on the mainland. The mighty Belgae, bravest of the Gauls, were no more; Belgica was now Roman territory, and would remain so for another half millennium.

Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics, translation by S. A. Handford.
Caesar's Gallic Wars, Osprey Publishing, by Kate Gilliver
Tacitus: the Agricola and the Germania, Penguin Classics, translation by H. Mattingly.