A shortage of grain throughout Gaul, caused by a drought the previous summer (54 bc), led Julius Caesar to break from his normal practice and divide his army when it went into winter quarters. At Atuatuca, somewhere in the Ardennes, one division, comprised of a legion recently raised in northern Italy, another five cohorts (equivalent to half a legion), and some Spanish auxiliary cavalry, were snug in thatched wooden huts, well supplied with provisions, and protected by a ditch and rampart sited in a strong position. The local tribe, the Eburones, seemed docile. Their leaders, Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, had met the Romans at their borders, and had brought corn into the cantonment. After about 15 days, all appeared peaceful. A detachment of the troops was out gathering wood, and the rest were unarmed in the camp, when the attack came. The detachment was overrun. In the camp the legionaries ran to arm themselves, and, taking their places on the rampart, tried to fight off the assault. When the Spanish horses sallied out and got the advantage of the Gallic cavalry, the tribesmen drew back.
The Eburones asked for a parley. Ambiorix, through Roman intermediaries, offered on oath a safe conduct to the besieged force. The Gallic chief said that it had not been his wish to attack. His hand had been forced by his own people, who had been encouraged to act by a general rising throughout Gaul; all Caesar’s camps were under attack, and a large force of Germans had crossed the Rhine and would be at Atuatuca in two days. At the officers’ council of war held on receipt of this message, a deep division emerged between the two Roman commanders. Cotta argued that they should stay put. Sabinus, raising his voice so that the soldiers could hear, demanded that they should go. At midnight Cotta yielded, and it was announced that they would march at dawn. The soldiers passed the rest of the night talking and going through their possessions to decide what they would abandon in the camp.
At first light it was a straggling column of tired soldiers impeded by much baggage that marched out into the heavily wooded landscape. After about two miles the column entered a steep defile. As the vanguard tried to climb the ascent out, the ambush was sprung. Ambiorix had lied. There was no general revolt in Gaul, and no Germans rushing to aid it. He had led his tribe into the attack, and he had no intention of keeping to the safe conduct. The noise in the Roman camp had given the Eburones warning that the Romans would march that morning.
With the army assailed from all sides, the Roman generals reacted very differently. Sabinus ran about issuing ineffectual orders to post the cohorts here and there. Cotta, however, addressed the troops to encourage them, and fought like a soldier. As the length of the column made effective supervision impossible, the generals ordered their men to form a square. This manoeuvre, smacking of despair, merely encouraged the enemy, and lowered Roman morale. In a confusion of shouting and weeping, Roman soldiers were abandoning their posts in attempts to retrieve their treasured possessions from the baggage train. The Eburones obeyed their leaders and kept in rank, rather than attempting to loot the Roman baggage. Seeing that the Romans were still causing many casualties in hand-to-hand combat, Ambiorix ordered his men to fight with missiles from a distance. The cohorts that charged could not catch the Gauls, whose mobility was enhanced by the lightness of their equipment and their daily training. The charging Romans were pelted with missiles on their unshielded right side, and when they attempted to retire were surrounded and cut down. For nearly eight hours those who remained close-packed in the square endured a rain of missiles. In response to a request from Sabinus, Ambiorix said that if the general wished for a parley he would guarantee his life and would try to prevail on the tribesmen to spare the rest of the Romans. Cotta, who had been wounded in the face by a slingshot, refused to negotiate with an enemy under arms. Sabinus ordered those officers nearby to accompany him. Commanding the Roman party to cast away their arms, Ambiorix span out the negotiations until they were surrounded and killed. On the death of Sabinus, the barbarians, raising their customary shouts, charged back into closequarter combat. Cotta died fighting.
Some of the Romans managed to fight their way back to their camp. The legionary eagle was saved by the self-sacrifice of the standardbearer, and the remnant held out until nightfall. Realizing that their position was hopeless, that night they slew one another to the last man. Out of the whole army only a handful survived, slipping away through the woods.
We are well informed about the disaster at Atuatuca in the winter of 54-53 bc. Several ancient sources tell of it. Yet all are derived from one text: Julius Caesar’s Commentaries (Gallic War 5.24-37). These can be described as propaganda, in the sense that Caesar seeks to convince a Roman readership of the rightness and the greatness of his actions. We cannot be sure how many legionaries, and thus Roman citizens, plus auxiliaries, died at Atuatuca. A legion at this time probably contained about 5,000 men. The main legion in this force was recently raised, so probably had not had time to reach the levels of undermanning which seem to have been common. On any estimate thousands of citizens under the ultimate command of Caesar had been massacred. Caesar had some explaining to do, and it is fascinating to see how he seeks to free himself of blame.
First, he is at pains to show how accurate is his account; he knows about the event from both sides. The few Romans who got away escaped to the camp of another deputy, Labienus, who sent Caesar a letter telling their story. Later, when Caesar captured some of the Eburones, he learned more details, and he lets us know that he has subsequently been to Atuatuca. Second, Caesar attempts to show that he had taken every possible precaution. The need for supplies had forced him to divide his army. Yet he had made sure that all the winter quarters were at no great distance from one another, and he was waiting in Gaul until he heard that all the camps were fortified and supplied. Third, Caesar shifts almost all the blame on to Sabinus (we will look below at how Caesar portrays the actions of the soldiers). The behaviour of Sabinus is marked by stupidity; if it was foolish to trust a Gaul once, it was doubly so to trust him a second time after he had broken his oath. In council Sabinus betrays signs of demagoguery in raising his voice so that the ordinary soldiers can hear him. He panics when they are ambushed. There is even a suggestion of duplicitous cowardice; asking Cotta to join him in negotiating with Ambiorix, Sabinus suppresses the fact that the Gaul has already promised to spare Sabinus’ life, but not those of the other Romans. Later in the text (5.52), Caesar tells his troops not to be downhearted because of this disaster, it was entirely the fault of Sabinus and his temeritas (rashness or perfidy). Sabinus’ dreadful performance is made evident in the text as Caesar goes on to write up at length (5.39-52) the excellent behaviour of Quintus Cicero (the famous orator’s brother) under almost identical circumstances: when his camp is attacked he turns down the overtures of the Gauls and conducts a vigorous defence until rescued by Caesar.
Apart from the drought of 54 bc being evident in the tree-ring record, archaeology provides no direct evidence for the battle. Atuatuca is often identified as Tongres in Belgium, but the scanty and imprecise topographical details furnished by Caesar allow no certainty. It was in Caesar’s interests to emphasize the natural strength of the site of the winter quarters, and the Ardennes are full of wooded defiles. In contrast, the site of a similar disaster of even greater magnitude which befell a Roman force under Varus in ad 9 in the Teutoburg Forest in Germany, outside the modern town of Kalkriese, has recently yielded a mass of evidence. Among the many items of Roman equipment found, one is especially poignant; the skeleton of a baggage mule, the large bronze bell around its neck stuffed with straw in an attempt to deaden its sound and not give away the movements of the army. If we consider what archaeologists call the formation of an archaeological site (in this case, broadly what has happened to the site between the event and its discovery/excavation), the contrasting fate of the two battlefields in the archaeological record becomes clear. Although a later Roman expedition reached the site of Varus’ defeat and buried some of the bodies, the battlefield remained outside the empire in the territory of free German tribes. It seems that the Germans left the bodies of the Romans and some of their equipment on the battlefield as a dedication to the gods. For the Germans, the site became a sacred, lasting memorial to their triumph. The aftermath was very different at Atuatuca. The Romans recaptured the area within weeks, and for centuries it remained within the province of Gallia Belgica. The Romans had reasons beyond piety for burying their dead and tidying up the battlefield.
The events at Atuatuca forcibly remind us of the importance of logistics in ancient strategy and tactics. The need to find supplies forced Caesar to divide his army, and the overlong baggage train contributed to Sabinus’ defeat. The beating back of two Gallic assaults on the camp at Atuatuca and Quintus Cicero’s successful defence of his camp under days of continuous attack by huge numbers of barbarians point to the superiority in siege warfare enjoyed from the 4th century bc onwards by the Greeks and Romans over almost all other contemporary cultures. One of the very few meaningful constants over centuries of warfare appears to be the ability of well-supplied regular troops in fortifications to defy seemingly overwhelming numbers of irregular warriors. Atuatuca shows the potential of terrain in ancient battle. On steep, wooded slopes the heavily armed Romans could not catch the more lightly equipped Gauls, who were accustomed to those conditions. Deployment on the small area of open, flat ground at the bottom of the defile packed the Romans so close together that they could not fight effectively and made them an easy target for missiles. Although equipment matters, in Caesar’s account it is morale that determines success or failure. He indicates fatigue as an important factor in undermining the will to combat. We are told that the Gauls were the equals of the Romans in courage (virtus), and it is the effect on the morale of both sides of the death of Sabinus and the officers with him that is the turning point. This testifies to the relatively `low-technology’ nature of ancient land battle.
That the last Romans choose mass suicide rather than try to surrender makes manifest the barbaric nature of their opponents. This is a clash of cultures between those who fight in the `Western Way of War’ and those who do not. Much in Caesar’s account of the Gauls in this battle fits the conventional template of the barbarian. They lie and, being irreligious, break their oaths. In battle they are noisy and prefer ambush and long-distance combat to open, hand-to-hand fighting. Yet Caesar also plays with his audience’s expectations. Although he stresses the collective courage of the Romans and gives us vignettes of individual heroism, here and there they behave rather like barbarians. The legionaries lack discipline, first when they chatter all night, tiring themselves and alerting the enemy, and second when, shouting and weeping, they desert their posts in battle to rescue their personal possessions. Conversely, the barbarians at times behave almost like Romans. They have been training daily, obey orders, and keep in their ranks rather than individually loot the Roman baggage. Caesar’s partial inversion of classical cultural expectations is made more acceptable to his audience by the information that the main Roman legion is composed of raw recruits; it implies that they had not yet achieved Roman disciplina. Yet in his final analysis, blame lay not with the troops but with their commander Sabinus.
One of the most striking features of Caesar’s account of Atuatuca is his judgement of the actions of the two Roman generals. Sabinus, the general of whom he disapproves, `ran to and fro arranging the cohorts; but even this he did nervously and in a way which showed that he was at his wits’ end – as generally happens to those who are compelled to make decisions when a battle has actually begun’. While Cotta, the general who is held to have taken the correct course, `did everything possible to save the army – calling upon the men and encouraging them as their commander-in-chief [Caesar himself] might have done, and fighting in the ranks like a soldier’ (5.33, tr. H. J. Edwards). A modern reader might consider that if one’s army was caught in an ambush while out of formation in a straggling column, trying to achieve some tactical order was as important as words of encouragement and adding one man to the fighting line, if not rather more so. But that is not Caesar’s judgement. This reminds us that, contrary to much that has been written on the subject, generalship is not a universally constant activity. What generals do, and are expected to do, in battle are products of their culture.