Summary and Analysis
While spending the winter in Hither Gaul, Caesar hears rumors from various sources, supported by dispatches from Labienus, that the Belgae are conspiring against Rome and giving hostages to one another. They have, he knows, various reasons for conspiring: fear that Rome, having the Celtic part of Gaul under control, might now attack them; agitation by Gauls who have opposed German occupation and who are now opposed to Roman occupation; and the additional worry that certain chiefs who desire to be kings, but who were unable to do so as long as the Roman troops were there to maintain order, might now begin waging their wars.
Caesar thus recruits two new legions in Hither Gaul and, early in the summer, has Quintus Pedius lead them to Further Gaul. Then, when enough crops have ripened, he follows with the rest of the army. For spies, he employs neighbors of the Belgae — the Senones and other Gauls — to keep him informed and he is told that an army is indeed being assembled. He decides to move quickly and, after securing his grain supply, he departs and in two weeks reaches the borders of the Belgae.
This is, of course, much earlier than anyone expects and the Remi, the Belgic tribe nearest Gaul, send Iccius and Andecomborius as deputies to Caesar. They plead for the protection of Rome and insist that they have not joined a pact with the conspirators. They offer to help Rome in any way they can and report that all the other Belgae are under arms and, moreover, that the Germans across the Rhine are joining the others. In fact, the Belgae have been so enthusiastic for war that the Remi have not been able to dissuade the Suessiones from joining the warmongers, even though the Suessiones and the Remi are related.
Caesar asks specifically who is under arms and the strengths of the enemy units. He is told that most of the Belgae are of German origin and, because of the fertile land, they have come to revere it as their own. In the previous generation, the only state that stopped invasion by the Teutoni and Cimbri were the Belgae, and they therefore consider themselves of great military importance. The Remi also tell Caesar the leaders of the various enemy groups and the numbers of troops under their command. The most powerful tribe, they say, is the Bellovaci, who have promised 60,000 men to the total war effort. In charge of the campaign is Galba, who promises 50,000 troops. Other tribes involved are the Nervii, Atrebates, Ambiani, Menapii, Morini, Caleti, Veliocasses, Viromandui, Aduatuci, Condrusi, Eburones, Caeroesi, and the Paemani; these have promised a total of 186,000 troops.
Caesar is encouraging to the Remi. He has the chiefs' children brought to him as hostages, then asks Diviciacus to move Aeduan troops into the borders of the Bellovaci and begin destroying their lands in order to keep the enemy from converging simultaneously. Caesar, however, learns that the Belgae are already approaching, so decides to move his army across the Axona river and pitches camp with his back to the river. He then leaves six cohorts on the other side, under the command of Titurius Sabinus, and orders them to build a camp with a rampart twelve feet high and a ditch eighteen feet wide.
The Belgae's first move is an attack on Bibrax, eight miles from Caesar's position. The strategy used is an attack upon all sides with "a rain of stones" to drive defenders from the walls. Then with shields over their heads the attackers undercut the wall. The town manages to withstand the attack, but Iccius of the Remi tells Caesar that they will not be able to hold much longer if they are not reinforced.
Quickly Caesar sends archers and slingers, and the Remi rejoice. They feel that they can not only hold their city, but that they can now take the offensive. The enemy too realizes that the town cannot be so easily taken, and so resorts to terror. They burn everything they can — buildings and farmlands — and move toward Caesar's headquarters. Then, when at last their own camp is completed, it is awesome and measures eight miles across its front. Caesar is well aware of the enemy's strength and avoids a major engagement; instead, he orders his cavalry to engage in minor skirmishes so that he can observe, firsthand, the enemy's skill without real risk to the greater part of his army. Then, after deciding that his men are not at all inferior, he selects a place for the battle. He locates on a hill with a broad front gently sloping down; sharp drop-offs are on all sides, and he chooses this particular location because the enemy will be forced to approach from only one direction — the front.
On the sides of the hill, he orders that long protective trenches be dug at right angles to his line, and at the end of the trenches he orders that forts be built for his artillery. Then, with this arrangement, the outnumbered Romans can neither be surrounded nor approached by all the enemy at one time.
Preparations completed, Caesar retains the most recently enrolled legions as a reserve for the camp; the other six he moves into battle position.
Cautiously, the enemy waits to see if Caesar's troops will cross the marsh separating the two armies, but the general waits, hoping to strike the enemy as they cross over for battle.
A cavalry battle erupts first and Caesar's men gain the advantage. Caesar then moves back into his camp. The enemy wildly attempts to cross the river behind the camp, intending to take the fort under Quintus Titurius and then destroy the bridge, or, if they cannot manage that, to destroy the Remi farmlands from which Caesar's troops are getting food.
Titurius, however, reports this movement and Caesar leads all the cavalry and the slingers and archers across the bridge. The enemy is slowed crossing the river and a great number of them are killed; the few who do get across are surrounded by cavalry and also are killed. Then the enemy realizes that Caesar will not fight on unfavorable ground. They also realize that they are running out of food, so they decide to disperse and return home. Victory seems impossible now; they plan to await a Roman attack elsewhere, then come to the defense of whoever needs it. In disorder they straggle home during the night. When Caesar hears of their plans, he suspects an ambush and does not pursue the men. He waits until daybreak, then learns that they actually were leaving and sends his cavalry out to harass their rear.
In charge of the cavalry are Quintus Pedius and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta; following them with three legions is Titus Labienus. Flight is less easy than the enemy imagined and, confused by the noises from their rear, they flee chaotically.
Next day, before the enemy can recover and regroup from the rout, Caesar moves into the borders of the Suessiones and presses on to Noviodunum, which he tries to take by direct assault. The plan fails, however, for the town's trench and walls are surprisingly strong. Caesar is forced to pull back. He then calls for his siege apparatus and when the Suessiones see the massive size of the general's equipment, they ask for immediate surrender terms.
Caesar takes the leading men of the state and two sons of Galba as hostages, accepts the surrender, then moves his army to Bellovaci territory. There, old men approach his army five miles from Bratuspantium and ask for peace. A little closer, women and children approach with the same request. Diviciacus suggests that the Bellovaci have been friends of the Aedui and have only been incited to war by their chiefs, who have fled to Britain. Thus, he asks as a favor for both the Bellovaci and the Aedui that Caesar pardon them and accept their peace request. This, he says, will also enhance the prestige of the Aedui.
Because of his respect for Dividiacus and the Aedui, Caesar agrees, but demands 600 hostages. These are delivered and the town's weapons surrendered. Caesar then moves on to the borders of the Ambiani, who surrender immediately. Next he presses toward the Nervii, a tribe that avoids all luxury, and especially wine drinking, in order to maintain courage and power. These people, Caesar is sure, will ask no favors.
After marching for three days, Caesar hears from prisoners that the river Sabis (Sambre) is only ten miles away and that the Nervii have positioned themselves on the other side. With them are the Atrebates and the Viromandui; also, they await the Aduatuci, already en route.
Caesar considers, then sends scouts and centurions to find a place for his camp. Meanwhile, some of the Belgae and Gauls, who had earlier surrendered, escape to the Nervii and report that Caesar's baggage travels between legions. The Nervii, therefore, they argue, can attack the first legion when it arrives, and, because there is so large a distance between it and the next legion, they will have an opportunity to plunder Caesar's necessities. The plan is accepted.
Caesar's officers select a campsite on a hill near the Sambre river. In the nearby woods the enemy waits in hiding. Caesar approves of the site and sends the cavalry ahead, then follows with the rest of the troops. He does not, however, send them in the order which the deserting Belgae had reported to the Nervii. When approaching the enemy, Caesar leads with six legions, then the baggage, followed by the two most recently enrolled legions. The cavalry cross the river, with the slingers and archers, and meet the enemy's horsemen. The enemy, however, rush in and out of the woods and Caesar's horsemen dare not pursue them. The six legions arrive and camp-making begins. Then, the enemy spots the baggage train, speeds from the woods, and mounts a massive attack on the cavalry, who are overwhelmed by the rush. The Nervii continue their attack, aiming themselves across the river and straight uphill toward Caesar's camp.
There, the attack is so sudden that Caesar cannot exercise control in his usual orderly fashion. Luckily the troops, however, are so experienced that disaster is averted. Caesar has made sure that the field commanders remain in the area and these men are ready and do not have to wait for commands from their general before acting.
Caesar's men are quick to realize that their military maneuvers are governed by the nature of the ground rather than by tactical logic. The legions then spread out but their front view is blocked by thick fences put up by the enemy, making it difficult to know where reinforcements are needed and impossible for one man to coordinate all the units.
The Ninth and Tenth Legions, fighting on the left, drive the Atrebates into the river, inflict heavy casualties, then pursue them to the other side before the enemy turns and the two legions are routed themselves. The Eleventh and Eighth Legions, also separated from the main body of troops, push the Viromandui as far as the river bank. The Twelfth and Seventh Legions battle near each other, but the front and left side of the camp are left open and the Nervii, commanded by Boduognatus, press forward, hoping to reach higher ground and cut off the two legions from the rest of the Roman forces.
The cavalry and light infantry, who had retreated earlier, again encounter the enemy and attempt to flee in another direction. The enemy manages to reach the camp, but at that moment the baggage train approaches and the men accompanying it see the chaos in the camp and are terror-stricken. The Treveri, usually brave Gallic horsemen, run, reporting that the Romans have been overcome and that the enemy has taken complete possession of the Roman baggage train.
Caesar leaves the Tenth Legion and starts for the right side, where he sees that his men are under greatest pressure. There, the men of the Twelfth Legion are jammed so closely together that defense is almost impossible; besides, they can barely fight. Most of the centurions in the legion have been killed and the men are already bred. Caesar takes a shield from one of the soldiers and immediately moves to the front, encouraging the men and calling them by name. He shouts for them to spread out and his maneuver is effective. The men rejoice at seeing him in their midst and their courage is rejuvenated.
Caesar then notices that the Seventh Legion is falling, so instructs the tribunes to bring the two legions together, then wheel to advance against the enemy. This lets the men turn without having to worry about their backs being exposed.
The soldiers in the two legions that have followed the baggage at last rush into the battle and Titus Labienus directs the Tenth Legion with startling effectiveness.
The reinforcements change the defensive perspective. The battling troops are given additional spirit for the fight and many of those who fled now return to grapple with the enemy, though many are without arms. The cavalry then returns, also shamefacedly. The enemy, meanwhile, continues to display great courage and, as its front ranks fall, men from the back come forward to take their comrades' places. Soon great piles of corpses clutter the battlefield.
The Nervii are almost destroyed by the battle. The older men and women and children, who have been hidden in creeks and marshes, send deputies to Caesar to ask for surrender terms. Of 600 senators, their people now have but three and, of 6,000 men who were able to bear arms, there are but 500 left. Caesar's terms, as usual, are lenient; those who remain may keep their territory and towns and, further, he instructs their neighbors that the Nervii are to be left in peace.
The Aduatuci, who were speeding to assist the Nervii, hear of the defeat and return home, then gather all their supplies into a strong fortress with three sides of steep rocky slopes; the front has an advantageous sloping approach only 200 feet wide. The fortress seems impregnable. It is surrounded by a high wall, armed with sharp spikes and heavy stones.
As Caesar's army approaches, they are met by Aduatuci warriors and battle through several small encounters. Meanwhile, Caesar sets up a rampart 15,000 feet around, protected by many forts and erects his siege apparatus. The Aduatuci laugh at the foolishness of Caesar's troops, who suppose that they can reach the enemy walls from so great a distance. But their laughter soon fades when they see the total apparatus moving. As it approaches their walls they become so alarmed that they ask for immediate peace terms. It is believed that the Romans must have divine aid to get such speed from such massive devices. The only request made by the Aduatuci is that Caesar permit them to keep their arms, for they fear their neighbors and are afraid that those states whom they once taunted will now find them undefended and will destroy them.
Caesar agrees to spare the Aduatuci, not because they deserve it, however, but because this is the way he always treats those he defeats, provided, of course, that they surrender before his battering ram reaches their wall. But he demands that they surrender their weapons. He will, he promises, demand that their neighbors refrain from committing any outrages against them. The deputies check with their tribesmen, and it is agreed that they will do as Caesar asks and a massive heap of weapons is tossed over the town walls but, treacherously, the Aduatuci retain a third of their arms. Then they open the gates and enjoy a day of peace.
In the evening, Caesar orders his troops out of town and has the gates closed so there will be no trouble with the soldiers. But the townspeople, believing that they have the advantage of surprise, take the hidden weapons, sneak into the night, and attack Caesar's forces. Cleverly, Caesar had previously ordered a battle plan for just such an event. Flares are set off and Caesar's troops converge on the point of attack. Some 4,000 of the enemy are killed and the rest are chased back into the town. Next day, the gates are broken open and the town's property and 53,000 of its citizens are sold.
Publius Crassus, who had been sent with a legion to fight the Yeneti, Venelli, Osismi, Curiosolitae, Esubii, Aulerci, and Redones, reports that he has successfully brought them under Rome's authority and, at last, Gaul seems at peace. Even the tribes across the Rhine promise hostages and say that they will obey Caesar's commands.
As Caesar departs for Italy and Illyricum, he tells the representatives of these states to return to him next summer, and he stations his legions in winter quarters. Later, when reports of the great conquests are received in Rome, a thanksgiving of fifteen days is proclaimed, the first time so great an honor has been awarded.
Throughout the Gallic Wars, there are reports of many exchanges of hostages under a variety of circumstances. One should remember that at this time there was no equivalent of a United Nations organization to appeal to if one wished to sue for damages over a broken agreement; nor was there any way to insure political security. In addition, the victors of those days had always to worry that the enemy might be surrendering only to gain a bit of time and restore its strength before resuming fighting. Also, if tribes formed an alliance to fight a common foe, there was suspicion among them, and thus as a kind of cover-all insurance measure, hostage exchange was agreed upon. A conqueror took hostages to insure that the defeated would keep the peace and, likewise, conspirators exchanged hostages to make sure that their comrades would keep promises. When this book opens, note that Caesar is prompted into action on hearing that the Belgae are exchanging hostages. He knows that they would not be doing such if they were not considering military moves.
The reasons for a Belgic conspiracy might well make a catalog of all the reasons given for anti-Roman activity throughout the book: fear of Roman rule, political ambition among a few scheming individuals, and a love for conspiracy.
The action in this book is of a different kind from that which is found in the first book. Caesar no longer defends the Roman Province; now, he is extending its boundaries, moving north of the Gallic Province into a territory roughly bounded by the Seine on the south, the Rhine to the north, the Moselle to the east, and the English Channel to the west.
Caesar's sending Diviciacus to the land of the Bellovaci is one of the most important strategic maneuvers of the campaign, for Diviciacus' movements are directly responsible for the disbanding of the enemy army, which in turn permits Caesar to fight the enemy one segment at a time. Caesar's first position is one that cannot be attacked from all sides for it backs on a river; his next camp is on a bill with protected sides — attack must come from the front. And, even though the enemy forces outnumber his, the limitation of the fighting area does much to equalize matters.
A reader might also note that in battle Caesar often lets the enemy position itself so that it is forced to move very sluggishly. Then he sends his distance fighters — archers and slingers — to pick them off much like prey in a shooting match. Often, too, Caesar gauges the hours of the day, and simple passage of time may well save his maneuvers.
The concession of Caesar to Diviciacus is made in order to augment Diviciacus' prestige. It is believed that, no doubt, he would have been kind to the Bellovaci, but his letting his actions appear to be prompted by Diviciacus' request has the effect of placing the Bellovaci and Aedui further in his debt. Diviciacus is more likely to remain faithful because of the favor, and the Bellovaci are more likely to remain loyal because they would, by rebelling again, betray not only Caesar but Diviciacus.
Because the tribes Caesar wars with are often engaging in warfare to stake out new dwelling lands, they frequently travel with their women and children. The Romans, on the other hand, are only interested in protecting and extending the empire; thus they move with only a fighting force. Another difference between the foes is this: the greedy enemies of Caesar are not interested in having states subservient to them as much as they want the land the other tribes inhabit.
The report which the deserters give the Nervii — that Caesar travels with his baggage separating the legions — would mean that the enemy could attack one legion at a time and the others would be so far behind that the enemy could plunder the baggage train and escape before help could arrive. Remember, these men are marching two or three abreast and, since there are several thousand men in each legion, they take up quite a stretch of roadway. Caesar, however, is not so foolish. The enemy is in front, so he puts his experienced legions before the baggage, then has the two inexperienced legions bring up the rear.
One repeated source of difficulty is the battle's tendency to overextend itself. A unit often will stray too far away from the main body of the army and will be attacked and defeated by a larger number of enemy soldiers. This is exactly what happens to the Ninth and Tenth Legions in Section 23 of this book. Conversely, one of the Gauls' greatest faults in battle is their tendency to make quick conclusions on insufficient evidence. They run wild on mere rumor and are hasty to change their minds. Notice that the Treveri flee and report that Caesar has been defeated, even though the battle is far from finished Clear reasoning is needed — such clear thinking as that used by Caesar and Labienus Caesar, for instance, sees that some of his men are so close together that they can neither attack nor defend themselves, so he brings two legions together and maneuvers them in such a way that they are changed from a group of losing soldiers into successful attackers. Labienus looks over the battlefield, also analyzes the situation and sends the Tenth Legion to the most effective position.
A public thanksgiving, mentioned in the book's closing paragraph, was a great honor accorded by the Romans for a major military victory or political feat. A few days was a considerable expression of the state's appreciation, so the fifteen days given in honor of Caesar and the twenty days accorded him later are tremendous gestures.