Excerpts from “The Roman Barbarian Wars, The Era of Roman Conquest.”
Ludwig H. Dyck
Telamon, the Battle for Northern Italy;
“We can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae Kings, Concolitanus and Aneroestes, by whose sides sat their warrior champions and their druid advisors. With eloquent tongue, the ambassadors offered a large sum of gleaming gold, which was but a paltry amount compared to what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, proud allies, would honor the deeds of the Gauls who long ago crushed the legions at the River Allia and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months! The heroic tales roused the Gaesatae’s lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius (Polybius, The Histories, II. 27.)”
“Death March of the Legions,” The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest;
“Provisions of food were gathered, mainly millet, barley and livestock. Ordinarily meat was too precious to be eaten on a regular basis. Now, however, the warriors would need all the strength they could get. Those too old would stay behind, to look after the very young and the remaining farm animals. Aged grandparents bid emotional farewells to sons, grandsons and daughters-in-law, who they might never see again. They trusted in their gods to give them courage and good fortune. Priests took sacred emblems from their holy groves and carried them into battle. The Germanic warriors would fight side by side with their family members. Fathers, sons and brothers were comrades in arms, families were their squadrons and clans were their divisions. From thousands of tiny settlements, bands of warriors hungry for loot and vengeance gathered and followed in Arminius’ wake.”
Caesar against the Belgae, “The Bravest of the Gauls;”
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 in the center. The barbarians poured down the hillside like a human avalanche, unstoppable in its fury. The Roman cavalry and light troops were completely overwhelmed and scattered, barely even impeding the enemy charge. So fast were the barbarians that Caesar wrote, “almost at the same moment they were seen at the woods, in the river, and then at close quarters!” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, II. 19). The three-foot deep river proved scarcely more of an obstacle than the Roman cavalry. 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 the Roman legion in its prime, under the generalship of one of the great captains of history.”
Viriathus, Hero of Hispania;
“Galba came to the first group and asked them to lay down their arms in a gesture of good faith. The naïve Lusitanians did as they were told. Women with babes in their arms, old couples supporting each other and young warriors who clenched their fists, watched in helpless apprehension, as Roman soldiers with spades moved around them. The Romans dug as only Romans could until a vast trench surrounded the Lusitani. Swords slid out of scabbards as the legionaries moved in. Children cried, frantic women screamed and clung to their men who cursed in anger. Roman soldiers pushed their way through the panicked mob to single out the able bodied men and cut them down like sheep. The others were “saved” for the slave markets. The slaughter was repeated with the other two Lusitani groups. Of the plunder, the greedy Galba kept most of it for himself and only gave a little to his soldiers, even though he was already a man of great wealth.”
During Gaius Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (58-51 BC) and during the civil war (50-45 BC) that followed, Caesar commanded over an army of Roman legions and tribal auxiliaries. Among the latter was a troop of German tribesmen, who, out of all proportion to their paltry numbers, would, time and again, lead Caesar to victory.
The Germanic tribesmen were tall men, with skin leathered by the elements and scarred from battle wounds. Their limbs were gnarled and muscular, their eyes wild and fierce. Men of war; they were armed with spears and swords, shields and helmets. Some wore their long blond or red hair combed sideways and done up in a knot, after the fashion of their people, the feared Suebi. Most hailed from the Usipetes and from the Tencteri, a tribe renowned for its cavalry.
The Germans first joined Caesar after he had beaten back tribal intrusions into Gaul by the Suebi in 58 and by the Usipetes and Tencteri in 55 BC. There were four hundred of them, hostages of tribal nobles and their retainers. They were there as a show of good will and trust, and for the loot and glory in battle.
That the Germans would fight for former foes was not at all unusual. The retainers of a German chief hailed not just from his own tribe, but from tribal hostages and from warriors that wandered the land in search of battle and plunder. What did it matter to them, if they fought for a German chief or a Roman consul? Germanic warriors even served as bodyguards for Cleopatra and for Herod the Great. The Germans were not the only tribal auxiliaries in Caesar’s army. For the vast bulk of his cavalry, Caesar depended on allied Gallic tribes and there was also a small detachment of Spanish cavalry.
Caesar was impressed by the martial spirit of the Germans. According to Caesar; although in the past, the Gauls had been more warlike than the Germans, the Gauls had come to “not even pretend to compete with the Germans in bravery” (Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, IV. 24). Even the “fierce glance of their eyes was more than they (the Gauls) could endure” (Caesar, I. 39).
Caesar blamed the softening of the Gauls to their trade with Roman provinces, which provided them the luxuries of civilization. In comparison, the Germans maintained their hardiness through their harsh more primitive lifestyle. In reality, the ethnicity of tribes facing each other across the Rhine was not as clear cut as Caesar maintained although the river served as a rough border between Celts and Germans.
In battle, the fleet German light infantry ran alongside the cavalryman, clinging to the horse’s mane to keep pace. He protected the cavalryman’s flanks and stabbed at the enemy horse. Caesar valued his German warriors so highly, that he replaced their pony-like horses with the larger steeds of his bodyguard, tribunes and knights.
It was in 52 BC, during the final and most critical year of Caesar’s Gallic war, when Caesar’s fortunes would fall to an all time low, that his German cavalry would rise to the occasion.
Caesar was accepting the surrender of the town of Noviodunum Biturigum, when the cavalry of King Vercingetorix, the charismatic Gallic resistance leader, appeared on the horizon. Caesar ordered his several-thousand-strong allied Gallic cavalry to take the field. Caesar’s Gauls had the worst of the ensuing fight, prompting Caesar to sent in his 400 Germans. With a furious charge, the Germans scattered the enemy and inflicted heavy casualties.
Vercingetorix, however, re-gained the initiative with a defensive victory at Gergovia. With many of this Gallic allies having switched sides, Caesar recruited another 600 German tribal cavalry and light troops from across the Rhine. Quite possibly these included Batavi from the Rhine Island between the Waal and the Meuse.
Caesar tried to retreat back to the threatened province of Gallia Narbonensis when Vercingetorix again attacked with his cavalry. Vercingetorix’ sudden appearance caught Caesar unprepared. However, the Gallic cavalry failed to close in for combat with the Romans and skirmished about instead. Caesar’s auxiliary cavalry kept the hostiles at bay, allowing the legionaries to form a defensive square. Caesar’s German cavalry meanwhile gained the summit of a nearby hill. Not content with being on the defensive, the Germans routed a body of Gallic horsemen and hurled them back upon their own infantry. The rout caused the entire Gallic cavalry to take to flight.
The Gauls placed the greatest reliance on their cavalry arm and with its defeat, their spirits sank. The initiative was back in Caesar’s hands. Vercingetorix retreated to the stronghold town of Alesia. Perched on a plateau and surrounded by hills and streams, Alesia seemed impervious to assault. Below the town ramparts a hastily constructed six-foot wall and trench enclosed the camp of Vercingetorix’ army.
Caesar surrounded the Alesia with over 14-miles of two concentric rings of earthworks, ditches, ramparts, spikes, stakes, covered pits, forts and camps. An inner ring of fortifications faced the defenders of Alesia while an outer ring protected the Romans from the anticipated Gallic relief army.
Construction of the Roman fortifications was still going on, when Vercingetorix’s cavalry sallied out of the Gallic camp. Possibly numbering over 10,000, the Gauls were met in battle by Caesar’s cavalry. The earth rumbled from galloping horses, with the fighting sweeping over a three-mile stretch of plains between the hills. The Gallic horsemen gained the upper hand over Caesar’s auxiliary Gallic and Spanish cavalry but once again, Caesar had kept his Germans in reserve. The Germans turned the tide and harried the Gauls back against their outer wall and trench.
Behind the attacking Germans, the legions drew themselves up for battle. A general panic now erupted among the Gauls as the it looked like the legions were preparing for an assault. Masses of Gauls tried to flee into the town but Vercingetorix had the gates shut. Below them at the camp ramparts, frantic Gauls jammed up the narrow gates or abandoned their mounts to scramble through the trench and up the wall. The Germans were right behind them, swords slashing and spears thrusting, riding down their panicked foes and captured a number of horses in the bargain. Vercingetorix was forced to change his strategy, remaining on the defensive and sending out cavalry to raise a relief army among the rebellious tribes.
As the siege dragged on, the perhaps 25,000 defending Gauls and the tens of thousands of non-combatants of Alesia were reduced to near starvation. Their spirits rose with the sighting of the arrival of the Gallic relief army under Commius, King of the Atrebates. Commius’ army numbered an estimated 120,000 men, three times larger than Caesar’s worn down legions and remaining auxiliaries. Caesar was now in a real bind, as Vercingetorix’s men stormed the inner line of Roman fortifications while Commius sent forth his cavalry, archers and light armed troops to assault the outward facing Roman defenses.
With his legionaries defending against Vercingetorix’ men, Caesar sent his cavalry to engage Commius’ troops. The besieged Gauls in Alesia shouted to encourage their own, more numerous cavalry. The hard fought battle lasted until the sun neared the horizon. It was then that the Germans massed all their squadrons for a charge. The German cavalry struck Commius’ Gallic horsemen like a thunderbolt. Commius’ cavalry fled the field, exposing his archers who were easily cut down.
With Commius’ cavalry setback, Vercingetorix withdrew his demoralized men back into Alesia. A second Gallic assault at night died in the fire of Roman siege engines. A third attack saw Caesar’s cavalry strike at Commius’ infantry from the rear, utterly beating them. With no help left, Vercingetorix surrendered. Aside from relatively minor engagements, it was the end of the Gallic wars.
Caesar plunged the Roman Republic into civil war in 50 BC, when he marched his legions across the Rubicon and into Italy. For four years his Gallic and German cavalry accompanied the legions through the civil war against the Pompeians and the interludes of the Egyptian and Pontic wars. After performing admirably in the Spanish campaign of 49, the auxiliary cavalry followed the legions to confront Pompey’s army in Greece.
In 48 BC, Caesar blocked Pompey from reaching his supply base at Dyrrachium. In turn, Caesar found his own supply route to Italy severed by Pompey’s naval dominance of the Adriatic. When Pompey tried to break through Caesar’s entrenchments, the Germans fought on foot beside the legions. Sallying forth over their own fortifications, the Germans slew several Pompeians before returning back to Caesar’s camp. Nevertheless, Pompey eventually managed to pierce the blockade. Forced to withdraw, Caesar’s army was demoralized and low on supplies.
Withdrawing into Thessaly, Caesar stormed the defiant town of Gomphi and gave it over to be ransacked by his half-starved soldiers. The whole army, especially the Germans, embarked on an orgy of gluttony and drinking. Pompey finally caught up with Caesar at Pharsalu. Caesar overthrew Pompey’s initially successful cavalry charge and inflicted a crushing defeat. Pompey fled to Egypt where the ministers of Ptolemy XII assassinated him.
Caesar became involved with Cleopatra and her dynastic struggles with her brother and co-regent Ptolemy. With the aid of Mithridates of Pergamum, Caesar cornered Ptolemy near the Nile. The Egyptian army sought protection on a hill flanked by a canal. The German cavalry swam the canal, striking the Egyptians in the flank and allowing the Romans to cross the canal unopposed and annihilate the Egyptians. Most likely the German cavalry in question were the Batavi who were famed for their ability to swim in full gear with their horses. After a lightning campaign against Pharnaces of Pontus, who had occupied Armenia and Cappadocia, Caesar returned to Italy.
In 46 BC Caesar continued the war against the followers of Pompey in North Africa. At fist Caesar was vastly outnumbered by the forces of Quintus Mettelus Scipio and King Juba but after being reinforced, brought the campaign to a victorious end at Thapsus. Caesar’s overeager veterans launched themselves into battle before the lines had been formed and without Caesar’s orders. Simultaneously his archers targeted the elephants which panicked and steam-rolled through their own lines, causing a general collapse among the opposing legions and the Numidians.
The civil war was brought to an end in 45 BC, when Caesar faced Gnaeus Pompeius’ legions at Munda. In addition to eight legions, Caesar possessed over 8000 cavalry, including his veteran Gauls and Germans and King Bogud of Maurentia, with his corps of Moorish horsemen. The 10th legion caved in the enemy’s left flank while the cavalry, with Bogud in the lead, vanquished the enemy horse and fell upon the enemy’s flank and rear.
Caesar returned to Rome and became dictator. He rewarded his veteran legionaries with a generous gold coins equal to 27 years pay! Caesar disbanded his Praetorian bodyguard and his Spanish cohorts. Likely his Gallic and German cavalry disbanded as well, returning to their tribes with plunder and coin. Perhaps a few of their number were even granted the coveted Roman citizenship. No doubt, many stayed in some sort of military service for the Romans. There was certainly no lack of opportunity for a skilled sword for hire when, upon Caesar’s death in 44 BC, a new civil war erupted.
Caesar’s German cavalry had certainly proved their worth. In Gaul they gave Caesar the advantage over hostile cavalry and returned the initiative to Caesar’s hands. Alongside the siege craft and tenacity of the legions, the German cavalry brought about Caesar’s victory at Alesia. In Greece, the German tribesmen proved that they could fight as well on foot as they could on horse. In Egypt they helped clinch the victory over Ptolemy. Few in number, Caesar treated his German cavalry as elite, often holding them in reserve until the situation became desperate. It was then, that this small but crack corps of warriors could decisively influence the course of a war.
Feature Image: Angus McBride, copyright, used under Fair Use for non-profit, educational purposes only.
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Caesar makes war on the Belgae, the “Bravest of the Gauls”
By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
“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.