To Northern Gaul; Caesar makes war on the Belgae, the “Bravest of the Gauls”

Military Heritage Magazine August 2002

To Northern Gaul

Caesar makes war on the Belgae, the “Bravest of the Gauls”

By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

Gallic cavalry, detail from silver cup (Military Heritage Magazine August 2002)
Gallic cavalry, detail from silver cup (Military Heritage Magazine August 2002)

57 BC

“The gray skies of winter still shrouded the town of Vesontio on the Dubis River. To the south when not obscured by mist and rain, rose the Jura Mountains, and beyond them the lofty peaks of the Alps and the nearest Roman Province, Gallia Cisalpina. It was early in the year 57 BC, and within Gaul were billeted the legions of Gaius Julius Caesar.”

Caesar had gained renown in Gaul, having defeated the Germanic invader Ariovistus from across the Rhine and before him the migrating Celtic Helvetii from what is today Switzerland…

“To many Gauls, Caesar appeared as an invincible savior…but not to the Belgae! The Belgae did not appreciate Caesar’s meddling in affairs south of their lands. They believed Rome would not stop until all of Gaul was hers. Councils were held and hostages exchanged. The kings and chiefs of the Belgae readied themselves for war.”

Caesar was delighted…

“His opportunistic mind had seen that Gaul, beset by external enemies and internal strife, was ripe for conquest.”

The ensuing campaign involved three major engagements, including two river crossings and a siege of a stronghold, the pivotal battle being fought against the Nervii on the banks of the River Sabis.

“Caesar seemed confident that his cavalry, slingers and archers sufficed as protection for his legions. The Roman host then tramped down the valley side and was soon busy cutting down timber and shoveling earth to erect the usual camp entrenchment. The presence of Belgae cavalry should have forewarned Caesar that the entire Nervii coalition might be nearby, just as the prisoners had told him. Despite such knowledge Caesar considered his cavalry sufficient cover for his toiling legionaries. After all, other than some cavalry units, the enemy seemed nowhere close by. He was wrong. From beneath the emerald foliage of the woods on the far bank, the eyes of some 30,000 Nervii, Atrebates, and Viromandui watched the oblivious Romans with glee.”

“As soon as the Roman baggage train appeared over the hillside, the entire Belgae army broke out of the woods. The Nervii formed the left wing, the Atrebates the right and the Viromandui the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche. In no time the barbarians gained the river’s farther side to continue with seemingly unbroken momentum up to the entrenching Romans.”

“The barbarian ambush would have sealed the doom of almost any other army caught in the same situation. But this was not just any army; it was a force of Roman legions at their prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”

“To Northern Gaul,” originally appeared in Military Heritage Magazine, August 2002, and is the basis for a chapter in Ludwig H. Dyck’s “The Roman Barbarian Wars, the Era of Roman Conquest,” soon to be re-republished by Pen & Sword Books.

Military Heritage Magazine August 2002, featuring
Military Heritage Magazine August 2002, featuring “To Northern Gaul,” by L. H. Dyck.