Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Caesar in Gaul, Germany, and Britain

In 55 Caesar invaded Germany and Britain, countries practically unknown hitherto to either Greeks or Romans, even the name of our island being now heard for the first time.

The greater part of the campaign was taken up by the Germans. The long-continued attacks of the powerful tribe of the Suebi, over whom Ariovistus, now dead, had been king, had driven the German tribes of the Usipetes and Tencteri to cross the Rhine, probably near Cleve. This immigration of 430,000 warriors with their families was fraught with great perils to the Romans, as Gallic patriots, although they suffered severely from the invasion, were willing to welcome them as allies for a war of liberation. When Caesar approached their settlements the Germans sent to tell him that they meant to stay, and warned him that though they were inferior in arms to the Suebi, they were superior to every other people on earth. He sent them an ultimatum ordering them to return to Germany, and as they had no homes he offered to settle them among the Ubii, his allies there. As their cavalry had gone to a distance to forage, they asked for time to consider, but could not resist an occasion which offered itself to attack some Roman cavalry. The next day all their chief men appeared in Caesar's camp to say that the attack had been made against their wish; but Caesar answered that the truce had been broken and detained them while he fell on their camp, left without officers and taken completely by surprise. Thus favoured by fortune, he drove the crowds of women and children, and ultimately all the defenders, in flight and slew them. The chief men who had been detained in his camp were given leave to depart, but their people were scattered and they begged to remain. Their emigration, like that of the Helvetii, had ended in a very pitiful way, and a great outcry was made in Rome against what was called Caesar's treachery. Cato called for his surrender to the Usipetes and Tencteri, and many Romans would have been glad to bring it about if they could.

His pretext for carrying the war into Germany was that the cavalry of the Usipetes and Tencteri, away foraging when he attacked their camp, had returned to their own country and were protected by the Sugambri, who refused to give them up. His real design was to frighten the Suebi. In ten days he built a stout timber bridge over the Rhine, a very difficult work on account of the width, depth, and rapidity of the stream, at Bonn, Napoleon III thought, but perhaps nearer Coblentz. After striking terror into all the tribes bordering the Rhine, he recrossed the stream and cut down his bridge, having only spent eighteen days on this expedition.

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


The short remaining portion of the summer was devoted to Britain, another place in which Caesar thought it wise to strike awe, since much help had been sent from Britain to the Gauls in every war. He set out from 'Portus Itius' (Boulogne or Wissant) one day late in August, when the shades of night had fallen; and it was about nine o'clock in the morning when he descried the rampart-like cliffs of Dover crowded with armed warriors. Sailing along the east coast, and trying to put in, most probably near Deal, he found that the Britons on their horses and in their war-chariots had followed his movements. Stones, leaden bullets, and arrows had to be discharged against them before they would give way. The Romans could not get their ships quite in on account of the shallows, and were hesitating at the sides when the brave standard-bearer of the Tenth legion cried out in a loud voice:

"I beseech the gods that we may be victorious! Leap down, soldiers, unless you wish to betray the eagle, for I shall do my duty to our country and to our general!" So saying, he leaped down with the eagle, the standard of the legion, in his hand, and there were immediate cries of: "Shame on us if we linger!" The whole ship's company sprang down into the water; the soldiers in the other ships followed, and after a bitter struggle the Romans succeeded in landing, and at last put the Britons to flight.

Very little could be done before the autumn storms caused the Romans to return to Gaul, although they defeated the Britons in battle and burned some of their villages and fields. In actual conflict they suffered a great deal from the British war-chariots, which they had not met with among the Celts of Gaul. The Britons would ride in among them in the chariots, and then, having broken their line, would dismount and fight on foot. They were most expert charioteers, galloping down the steepest inclines and able to leap out when they were driving at full pace. Their habit of retreating to their forests and dashing forth when least expected was baffling to both cavalry and heavy-armed infantry.

Caesar found on his return to Gaul that the Morini had attacked his forces, but as their marshes were dry this year he followed and captured most of them, while his lieutenants Sabinus and Cotta laid waste the lands of the Menapii, who had fled to their thickest woods.

In the year 54 Caesar made his second and more serious invasion of Britain, with new ships which he had designed to make landing easier. He took with him an enormous number of hostages from the various tribes of Gaul to ensure himself against a rising in his absence, as even the Aedui showed alarming signs. Labienus was left with a large force to maintain Caesar's landing-place and keep a watch over Gallic movements. He set out in July with a much larger force than in 55, and landed almost at the same spot; the Britons flying at the sight of his 800 ships. He first met the enemy drawn up in battle array to dispute the passage of the Great Stour, near the site of Canterbury, and easily put them to flight. Then he had to face the famous chief Cassivellaunus, whose tribe dwelt on the north bank of the Thames (in the present Middlesex and Buckinghamshire).

The Roman army, though everywhere victorious, suffered a great deal, as it marched, from the sorties from the woods, and it soon became plain that Cassivellaunus did not intend to fight a regular battle but to wear the enemy out. At last the Romans came to the only ford in the Thames at this point (the one between Kingston and Brentford), where the Britons had driven stakes into the bed of the stream, below the surface of the water. They stood behind a palisade to render the fording still more difficult. Caesar learned about the hidden stakes from captives (whom one is always afraid that he tortured) and fugitives, but directed his soldiers to cross, the cavalry entering first to remove the stakes. They dashed across and attacked so impetuously that the Britons at once retreated, Cassivellaunus disbanding all but about 4000 charioteers. With these he retreated to his fortress—simply an impenetrable wood and marsh, fortified by a rampart and trench, probably on the site of the later Verulamium, where the city of St Albans now stands. When Caesar appeared and beset it on two sides, Cassivellaunus escaped, and soon gave up the struggle in despair. After a failure of the four kings of Kent to destroy the Roman ships, which were well guarded, he, like the other chieftains, promised hostages and that Britain should pay a yearly tribute to Rome. This second visit lasted under three months and Caesar never came again. Interest in Rome about this new-found island died down somewhat when it was known that no treasures of silver or skilled slaves had been met with. The Romans discovered, by means of their water-clock, that the summer nights were shorter in Britain than in Gaul.

The fate of Britain caused great mourning among the Gauls, and they began to plot the murder of the Romans who were about to be stationed in winter quarters among them; and perhaps if they had obtained the German aid they sought and acted together they might have massacred all the solitary detachments of Roman soldiers scattered throughout their country for the winter months. Their first effort met with grim success. The Belgian tribe of the Eburones surrounded the camp of Sabinus and Cotta established among them, and was driven off, but returned immediately to tell them that all Gaul was up in arms against the Romans and that a vast army of Germans had crossed the Rhine and would be on them in two days' time. Its chief, Ambiorix, said he would let them go if they were willing to do so, for he bore them no ill will, but simply disliked their being quartered among his tribe. Sabinus at once took fright; Caesar, he thought, might have returned to Italy and the tale of a general rising be true; and he wished to make use of the permission of Ambiorix and retire before the arrival of the Germans. Cotta, his colleague, with many of the military tribunes and the centurions of the first ranks, disapproved of leaving their post without Caesar's permission, and reminded the other officers that it was a difficult matter for any host to storm a Roman camp and that they had plenty of supplies, while it would be undignified and disgraceful to take the advice of an enemy in such a matter. Sabinus, however, cried out that they must retreat at once, for the Germans would soon be upon them, and, even if a siege did not mean instant destruction, it must mean ultimate starvation. Cotta and his supporters urged vehemently that they should remain, but Sabinus shouted so loudly that the common soldiers in their separate quarters heard his words:

"Have your own way if you will! I am not one who is particularly afraid of death. These are wise men, but, if any misfortune occurs, you, Cotta, must bear the responsibility. If you would we might join the nearest Roman camp the day after to-morrow and all face the common danger together, not perish by the sword or starvation in this lonely spot."

After this speech, which started a panic in the army, it was almost impossible to remain in the camp, and Cotta saw that the most fatal course of all would be dissension. When the discussion had gone on far into the night he gave in, and it was decided to leave at dawn. At dawn, therefore, the weary troops, who had spent the night packing as many of the comforts which they had gathered together for the winter as they could possibly carry, started out heavily laden. The Eburories, who were on the watch, had prepared two ambushes, and when their column had descended into a low valley, the Romans found themselves between two large forces of the enemy—and an enemy who showed a discipline and self-restraint rare in Gauls and at the same time vastly outnumbered them. Sabinus was too frightened and surprised to give any orders, and Cotta acted as general from dawn to three o'clock in the afternoon, when his handful of soldiers, heavily wounded, could hold out no longer. Sabinus then sent envoys to the Gauls to beg for their lives, but Ambiorix answered that Sabinus must come himself, and promised that he should not be harmed. He asked the wounded Cotta to go with him, but nothing could persuade him to do so; and Sabinus therefore took the military tribunes and chief centurions to share the risk. When they approached, Ambiorix bade them lay aside their arms, and Sabinus, obeying, ordered the other officers to do the same, whereupon they were murdered. Yells of triumph rose from the Gauls, who rushed back to attack Cotta. This faithful officer was slain, fighting to the last; the standard-bearer managed to get back to the camp and throw the eagle over the rampart; and the rest held the camp until nightfall and then slew themselves. A few who had fled from the battle wandered through the woods until they came to the camp of Labienus and told him the tragic news.

The tale of this triumph flew from tribe to tribe of northern Gaul, and it was determined to fall at once on Quintus Cicero, brother of the orator, and his legion stationed among the Nervii. Suddenly beset by a combined force of Eburones, Nervii, and Aduatuci, Cicero could scarcely hold out till the enemy drew off at nightfall. Messengers were offered great rewards to get a letter through to Caesar, but all the routes were guarded and they were seized. During the night the Romans, with incredible swiftness, raised numbers of towers, completed the fortification of the camp, and made missiles. The varied skill of a Roman soldier is almost beyond belief: he was at need sailor, engineer, architect, and carpenter, although there was a special corps of engineers. For day after day and night after night fighting and working at the fortifications succeeded each other; not even the sick and wounded could take rest, and Cicero, who was in the poorest health at a time when so much depended on him, had to be forced by the soldiers to sleep a little at night.

The Nervii then sought to repeat the stratagem of Ambiorix, but Quintus Cicero, although he had various grave faults of character, stood much in awe of Caesar, and was, moreover, a brave man. He replied that it was not the Roman custom to accept conditions from an enemy; and so the siege went on again. The besieged must have felt that they were only selling their lives dearly, since the whole country was up and the Germans coming. The Nervii then began to draw lines of circumvallation round the camp, as they had seen the Romans do in their sieges, and to make towers and hooks to pull down the rampart, and sappers' huts so that they might approach unhurt. On the seventh day of the siege they cast red-hot balls of clay and red-hot javelins at the winter huts of the defenders, and these, made of timber (covered with hides) and thatched with straw, quickly caught fire, while a great wind bore the flames all over the camp. Then they brought their ladders and began to climb the rampart, thinking that the Roman soldiers would desert their posts to extinguish the fire. Scarcely one of them, however, even glanced behind at the flames which were devouring all their worldly goods, and they inflicted great loss on the imprudent besiegers. Among the deeds of desperate valour in this siege is that of two chief centurions who had always been rivals. Now one after the other leaped down among the enemy, and after slaying several Gauls clambered back again amid wild cheering. At last a deserter from the Nervii, unsuspected on account of his appearance and Gallic dress, managed to get to Caesar with a letter hidden under the lashing of a javelin.

Caesar was at Samarobriva (Amiens) and at once sent messages to all the winter quarters for aid. Then, leaving Crassus in charge at headquarters, he hastened away. He had only two legions and some cavalry, but he hoped to take the Gauls unawares. A messenger, sent with a letter urging Cicero to hold out, could not get near enough to deliver it, so fastened it to the thong of a javelin and shot it over the rampart. It clove to a tower and was not found for two days, and even as Cicero was reading it to the overjoyed soldiers, they saw far off the smoke of the Roman fires. The Gauls, too, saw it, drew off, and hastened with their 60,000 warriors to attack Caesar's camp, held by only 7000 men. Caesar pretended panic, a favourite Roman stratagem, and when a bold attack was being made sallied forth and drove in flight all whom he did not slay. On the same day he entered Cicero's camp, and was greatly surprised by the sight of the Gallic siege-works and touched by the condition of the defenders, not one in ten of whom was unwounded. He had heard earlier in the day of the sad affair of Sabinus and Cotta.

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


Labienus, whose camp was about sixty miles away, had been threatened by the Treveri (dwellers in the district of what is now Treves), but they fled. The country, however, was in such an unsettled condition that Caesar remained for the winter, placing his three legions in three different camps round Amiens. Before the year 54 was over the Treveri made a great attack on Labienus, and their utter defeat caused all the other tribes to sink into the quiet of seeming despair. Caesar's five years' command had come to an end and he seemed to have done his work, but there can be no doubt that if he had departed now it would all have been undone.

The year 53 was even more arduous and anxious than the year 54. To repair the losses of 54 fresh troops were levied, and Caesar borrowed a legion from Pompey, thus making a total of ten legions, a respectable force for the Romans, who conquered the world with very small armies. The Menapii, the last free tribe of Gaul, were subdued; but tribe after tribe, inspired by Ambiorix, revolted, and nearly the whole campaign was spent in a vain chase of Ambiorix, who hid, now in the pathless Ardennes forest, now in marshes over which the Romans had to throw causeways. He won allies among the Germans, and, to nullify any plans for a new German invasion, Caesar once more crossed the Rhine, building another bridge a little to the south of the former one, and marched on the Suebi, who retreated to the entrance of a boundless wood, probably the Thuringian forest.

As the Suebi were not an agricultural people, Caesar was afraid of finding himself short of supplies if he marched farther against them; for the Romans contemplated a meat diet with as much fear as British soldiers would entertain at the prospect of a bread and water regime. He therefore returned, leaving part of the bridge on the Gallic side with a guard, as if he meant to come again, and continued the search for Ambiorix until the summer ended. One of the most notable episodes of the campaign was another attack on Quintus Cicero, now stationed among the revolted Eburones, the tribe of Ambiorix; and this time Cicero fell into disgrace for disobeying orders and almost causing the loss of his camp by his rashness.