King of the Nervii, Boduognatus

It had been a short but profitable campaign for the men of the 10thLegion. They had stripped thousands of dead Swiss and German troops. They had looted their camps and baggage trains. All with only minimal casualties in their own ranks. By the fall they had settled into a massive camp in Alsace not far from Besançon, to spend a leisurely six months waiting out the winter before Caesar led them on new adventures in Gaul the following spring. Caesar himself had gone to northern Italy to carry out his duties as chief judge of his provinces, leaving the legions under the command of General Labienus. But as winter arrived, Labienus began sending Caesar intelligence reports that the tribes of northern Gaul, the Belgae, were planning to attack the Roman forces to prevent them from advancing farther into Gaul. Caesar had his own spies among the tribes, and when these insiders added credence to Labienus’s reports, he acted quickly.

Raising two new legions in northern Italy, the 13th and the 14th, Caesar returned to Gaul to confront the rebellious tribes. Collecting his six existing legions then wintering in Alsace, he marched his bolstered army up into the present-day region of Champagne-Ardenne, northeast of Paris, the home territory of the Remi people, allies of Rome, who had their capital at Rheims. Against him it was estimated that the tribes of the Belgae could muster 260,000 men, although the actual number who met him at the Aisne River north of Rheims was perhaps a third of that.

After each army tried to outmaneuver the other, Caesar dealt the Belgae a defeat using just his cavalry and auxiliaries, and the tribes split up and retreated in disorder to their home territories. This allowed Caesar to march on individual tribes and defeat them piecemeal over the coming weeks, often accepting their surrender after laying siege to their chief towns. In this way he bloodlessly conquered the Suessiones, the Bellovaci—the largest of the Belgic tribes—and the Ambiani, then marched into the territory of the Nervii, who occupied an area in central Belgium east of the Scheldt River.

The Nervii were a proud people, famous fighters originally from Germany who even barred traders from selling wine in their territory because they believed it made men soft, and they had no intention of submitting to the Romans. From spies they learned the Roman order of march—Caesar was advancing with each legion separated by its baggage train from the next—and saw an opportunity to attack part of the column before more legions could come up in support. The Nervii had few mounted troops of their own, and to hamper enemy cavalry they had long before planted hedgerows across their fields; this gave them the confidence to take on the Roman army without fear of Caesar’s cavalry, and the king of the Nervii, Boduognatus, convinced his Belgian neighbors of the Atrebate and Viromandui tribes to join his people as they carefully prepared an ambush beside the Sambre River.

But Caesar’s scouts had forewarned him that enemy troops were active near the Sambre, so he changed the order of march as he approached the river, putting the 10th and his five other experienced legions in battle order in the vanguard of his advance, with the baggage of all the legions coming up next and the two new legions forming a rear guard. Seeing Nervian cavalry pickets on the far bank, Caesar sent his cavalry across where the river was only three feet deep and ordered his legions to begin work building a fortified camp on the slope of a hill that ran down to the Sambre. The 10th and 9th Legions were assigned the left end of the encampment, under General Labienus. The 7th and the 12th took the right, while the 8th and the 11th set to work in the middle.

The Nervian cavalry retreated into a wood on the sloping far bank, but kept reappearing to harry the Roman cavalry. In the meantime, the legionaries stacked their backpacks, shields, and javelins, and set to work with entrenching tools building their camp. After a time the Roman baggage train came lumbering onto the scene. This was the moment the tribesmen had been waiting for—they had agreed to hold off their attack until the first Roman baggage train arrived. Not realizing the Romans now had just one large train, and that six legions, not one, were now on the far bank, the Belgae poured from the wood in their tens of thousands. Caesar was to estimate he faced sixty thousand warriors at the Sambre. In the face of this wall of screaming men, the surprised Roman cavalry fled in all directions, and the hollering tribesmen dashed to the river.

The Belgae were already splashing across the Sambre by the time Caesar was able to comprehend the scope of what was happening. He issued a minimum of orders; his flag went up, and the trumpets sounded “To Arms.” Men were running everywhere as he galloped to the 10th Legion on his left. The legionaries of the 10th had dropped their tools, grabbed their arms, and hurried down the slope to form up in their cohorts below the camp works, with the leather weather covers still on their shields. Many were so pushed for time they didn’t even have the chance to don their helmets, let alone add plumes or decorations.

“My soldiers of the 10th,” Caesar yelled, “live up to your tradition of bravery, keep your nerve, meet the enemy’s attack with boldness, and we shall win the day!”

The men of the 10th roared a hurrah, shaking their javelins in the air. Confident his favorite legion would hold their wing, and with a nod of assurance from General Labienus, Caesar galloped off to organize defenses elsewhere.

The slope, the hedgerows, and the suddenness of the attack combined to split up the Roman army. The 10th and the 9th found themselves separated from the other legions as warriors of the Atrebates tribe emerged from the river and came surging up the slope toward them. General Labienus coolly waited for the tribesmen to come within range, then gave the order for the front line to let fly with their javelins. A volley of missiles sliced down into the Atrebates. Out of breath, many of them wounded, with comrades falling dead all around them, the Atrebates stopped in their tracks.

Now the Roman commander gave the order to charge. With swords drawn, and with General Labienus leading the way, the men of the 10th and 9th Legions swept down the hill and overwhelmed the Belgian warriors. Tribesmen in the rear turned and ran to the river, and the legionaries chased them all the way across, cutting down many from behind as they fled in panic. The river was soon filled with bloody, dismembered bodies. The men of the 10th and the 9th pursued other Atrebates up the slope on the far bank, all the way to the woods at the top of the slope from which they had emerged a little time before.

On the Roman right wing, the 7th and 12th Legions had been all but surrounded by Boduognatus and his Nervii. Here, the Roman disorder, particularly among the men of the less experienced 12th Legion, most of whose centurions were already dead or wounded, threatened to give way to defeat. The legion’s 4th Cohort, which had taken the brunt of the Nervian attack, had lost every centurion and a standard bearer. Caesar arrived on the scene to find men assembled behind any standard and packed tightly together in their fear. Caesar dismounted and grabbed a shield from a man in the rear, then made his way to the forefront of the battle, yelling orders. “Push forward! Spread out! Give yourselves room to fight!”

He addressed the surviving centurions by name, urging them and their men on. Given new heart by the arrival of their general, the men of the 12th rallied. Seeing the 7th Legion close by similarly hard pressed, Caesar shouted to their tribunes, ordering them to link up with the 12th and form one large square. As this formation was created, Boduognatus and his Nervii were held back, but Caesar and the two legions were still being pressed by compact phalanxes on three sides.

On the far bank of the river, General Labienus and his two legions had chased the Atrebates into the woods and discovered the tribes’ camp, where the Belgians had lain in wait for the Roman column for days prior to Caesar’s arrival. Quickly dealing with the few sentries, Labienus occupied the camp, then pushed on up to the top of the hill. Looking back across the river, he saw the predicament of Caesar and the 7th and the 12th, and quickly ordered the 10th Legion to go to Caesar’s aid before the Nervii broke through.

As the men of the 10th came wading back across the river, the two legions of the rear guard, the 13th and the 14th, topped the hill above the Roman earthworks. From there, the recently recruited new arrivals from northern Italy could see Belgae tribesmen in the partly built Roman camp. The enemy were looting the baggage train as noncombatants, cavalry, and auxiliaries ran for their lives. They also saw that Caesar and his legions at the bottom of the hill were in big trouble. There was German auxiliary cavalry from the Treveri tribe with the rear guard—Caesar was to say Trever cavalry was the best and most numerous in all of Gaul. These German troopers were convinced all was lost and turned around and galloped away. Days later, when they reached their own capital, Trier, on the Moselle, they reported that Caesar and his army had been wiped out by the Nervii.

On the right, Boduognatus and his closely packed ranks only had eyes for Caesar and his trapped legions. They didn’t know anything about the return of the 10th Legion until its leading cohorts plowed into their flank at the charge. The 10th was heavily outnumbered, but despite this, the legion’s arrival turned the battle. The men of the 10th fought so fiercely to save Caesar that Plutarch was to say later that they displayed more than human courage this day. Stunned by their savage onslaught, the Nervii were pushed back to the river bank by the 10th, enabling Caesar to regroup the 7th and 12th Legions and lead them to join the 10th.

In the center, the 8th and 11th Legions succeeded in withstanding the attack of the Viromandui, then also pushed them back to the river’s edge. Once the Viromandui broke off and fled, the 8th and the 11th were able to swing over and join the other three legions throwing themselves at the Nervii, who made a brave stand on the bank, fighting from behind mounds of their own dead and refusing to flee. Thousands were felled. A handful escaped and others were made prisoners as the Roman cavalry regrouped and searched the countryside for enemy on the run.

Caesar was to estimate that just five hundred fighting men of the Nervii remained capable of carrying arms following this battle. Later events were to prove this an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that on this day the flower of the Nervii were cut down beside the Sambre. We never hear of Boduognatus again, so presumably he died with many of his men. Three surviving Nervian elders of an original six hundred on the Nervii governing counsel sent envoys to Caesar begging peace, which he agreed to, with lenient conditions.

Meanwhile, the Atuatuci, Belgian neighbors of the Nervii, were marching to their aid when news of their defeat at the Sambre reached them. As the Atuatuci turned around and retreated to a stronghold, probably at Mount Falhize, Caesar sent young General Publius Crassus with the 7th Legion to prevent the tribes on France’s Atlantic seaboard from entering the conflict, while he himself marched on the Atuatuci with the 10th and his other legions. After a brief siege the Atuatuci surrendered. Caesar sold fifty-three thousand of them into slavery. Roman settlers from the south would soon spread into captured territory and acquire the homes and farms of defeated tribespeople.

At the same time, on the coast, Crassus and the 7th forced seven Gallic tribes into submission. On receipt of Caesar’s dispatches describing his crushing victories in France and Belgium, the Senate at Rome, convinced he had conquered all of Gaul, voted him fifteen straight days of public thanksgiving. As Caesar himself would later point out, no one in Roman history had previously been granted such an honor. But the war in Gaul was not yet at an end.

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  1. Pingback: King of the Nervii, Boduognatus – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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