The Nervii were one of the most powerful Belgic tribes; living in the north of Gaul at the time of its conquest by Rome. Their territory corresponds to the central part of modern Belgium, including Brussels, and stretched southwards into French Hainault. During their 1st century BC Roman military campaign, Caesar's contacts among the Remi stated that the Nervii were the most warlike of the Belgae, and very distant. In times of war, they were known to trek long distances to take part. Being one of the northern Belgic tribes, with the Menapii to the west, and the Eburones to their east, they were considered by Caesar to be relatively uncorrupted by civilization.
The territory of the Nervii had its western and northwestern border on the Scheldt (French Escaut) river and stretched in the south through Hainaut to the forests of Arrouaise and Thiérache. To the east, the boundaries are not clear but it has been proposed that they stretched as far as the Dyle river valley in the north, near Louvain, and the Meuse in the south in modern Wallonia, near Namur. An oppidum near Asse may have belonged to them but it is isolated and near to the territory of the Menapii. The bigger concentration of population is in the south of the territory, near the river Sambre with the biggest being at Avesnelles, near Avesnes-sur-Helpe. Caesar names some smaller tribes who were expected to contribute troops to Nervian forces, Levaci, Pleumoxii, Geidumni, Ceutrones, and Grudii, but their locations are unknown.
The Nervii are counted as one of the northern Belgae, who are often proposed to have been in a transitional zone between Celtic languages and Germanic languages. Others included the Menapii and Morini, to the west of the Nervii on the English channel, and the Germani cisrhenani to the east of the Nervii, stretching to the Rhine.
Caesar reported hearing from the Remi that the Belgae generally had received immigration from Germanic people from east of the Rhine. The Romanized Greek Strabo wrote that the Nervii were of Germanic origin. Tacitus, in his book Germania, says that in his time the Nervii and Treveri both claimed Germanic ancestry, similar to that of their mutual neighbours the Tungri, in order to distinguish them from the weaknesses of the Gauls.
The Romans were not precise in their ethnography of northern barbarians: by "Germanic" Caesar may simply have meant "originating east of the Rhine" with no distinction of language intended. At this time, east of the Rhine, Germanic languages may have been no closer than the river Elbe in the time of Caesar. It has instead been argued based on place name studies that the older language of the area, though apparently Indo-European, was not Celtic (see Nordwestblock) and that Celtic, though influential amongst the elite, might never have been the main language of the part of the Belgic area north of the Ardennes. On the other hand, these same studies of placenames such as those of Maurits Gysseling, have also shown evidence of Germanic languages entering the Belgic area north of the Ardennes, before the Roman conquest, while strong evidence for old Celtic place names is found in the Ardennes and to the south of them. Luc van Durme summarizes competing evidence of Celtic and Germanic influence at the time of Caesar by saying that "one has to accept the rather remarkable conclusion that Caesar must have witnessed a situation opposing Celtic and Germanic in Belgium, in a territory slightly more to the south than the early medieval Romance-Germanic language border", but van Durme also accepts that "second century BC Germanisation did not block the celtisation coming from the south. . .but that both phenomena were simultaneous and interfering instead".
Julius Caesar considered the Nervii to be the most warlike of the Belgic tribes, and that the Belgic tribes were the bravest in Gaul. He says that their culture was a Spartan one: they would not partake of alcoholic beverages or any other such luxury, feeling that the mind must remain clear to be brave. He also says they disliked foreign trade and had no merchant class.
Remarkably, given the archaeological evidence of a Celtic La Tène culture having been present in the pre-Roman past, Caesar reports that the Nervii had no cavalry. In fact they established hedges throughout their lands in order to make them difficult for cavalry.
The Frasnes hoard, accidentally unearthed by foresters in 1864 near Frasnes-lez-Buissenal in Hainaut, along with coins associated with the Morini and the Nervii, also contained characteristically Gallic gold torques, one of which was in Alastair Bradley Martin's Guennol collection.
The Nervii were part of the Belgic alliance that resisted Julius Caesar in 57 BC. After the alliance broke up and some tribes surrendered, the Nervii, under the command of Boduognatus and aided by the Atrebates and Viromandui, came very close to defeating Caesar (the Atuatuci had also agreed to join them but had not yet arrived). In 57 BC at the battle of the Sabis (now identified as the river Selle, near modern Saulzoir; previously identified as the Sambre), they concealed themselves in the forests and attacked the approaching Roman column at the river. Their attack was so quick and unexpected that some of the Romans didn't have time to take the covers off their shields or even put on their helmets. The element of surprise briefly left the Romans exposed. However Caesar grabbed a shield, made his way to the front line, and quickly organised his forces; at the same time, the commander of the tenth legion, Titus Labienus, attacked the Nervian camp. The two legions who had been guarding the baggage train at the rear arrived and helped to turn the tide of the battle. Caesar says the Nervii were almost annihilated in the battle and is effusive in his tribute to their bravery, calling them "heroes".
When Ambiorix and the Eburones rebelled in 53 BC, the remaining Nervii joined the uprising and besieged Quintus Tullius Cicero – brother of the orator – and his legion in their winter camp until they were relieved by Caesar in person.
The Nervian civitas was at Bagacum. The city was founded probably outside the traditional Nervian territory and is now known as Bavay. The forum has been excavated. The town was founded in c.30 BC and rapidly became a center of Roman civilization. Towns belonging to the Nervian territory were Fanum Martis (Famars), and Geminiacum (Liberchies).
The Nervians were well known for the export of grain; an interesting tombstone of a frumentarius was excavated as far away as Nijmegen. They also produced ceramics (terra nigra).
Inscriptions found on artifacts recovered at Rough Castle Fort along the Antonine Wall across the Central Belt of Scotland indicate that in the 2nd century the fort was the base for 500 men of the Sixth Cohort of Nervii, an infantry unit. According to Tacitus, the Nervians also served in cohorts based along the Rhine border.
After the disastrous attacks by the Franks in 260-275 AD, a new chief city was designated at Camaracum (Cambrai), further south than Bavay, and Bavay itself, and the main road it was on, became part of a new secondary fortified border zone. The northern part became de-populated, and then settled by Germanic groups, leaving the southern part, medieval Hainaut more Romanized. In 432 the country of the Nervians was officially taken over by the Franks. Their king Childeric I was buried in Tournai. The medieval Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cambrai continued to cover the same approximate area as the Roman civitas until 1559.
Hainaut was sometimes referred to as the county of the Nervians (comitatus nerviensis) in medieval Latin, and when this came to be politically united with mainly Dutch speaking Brabant again, the counties were still distinguished in the official Latin titles (comitatus Nerviensis atque Bracbatensis).
In popular culture
The Nervii and their western neighbours the Menapii are the main subjects of the comic book Asterix in Belgium. In it, a competition between the Belgians and the Gauls from Armorica takes place to decide who was the bravest under the unlikely adjudication of Julius Caesar.
- Wightman, Edith Mary (1985), Gallia Belgica, University of California Press page 30.
- Wightman, Edith Mary (1985), Gallia Belgica, University of California Press page 12-14.
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2.4
- Strabo, Geographica 4.3
- Tacitus, Germania 28
- Lamarcq, Danny; Rogge, Marc (1996), De Taalgrens: Van de oude tot de nieuwe Belgen, Davidsfonds page 44.
- M. Gysseling, Enkele Belgische leenwoorden in de toponymie, in Naamkunde 7 (1975), pp. 1-6.
- "Genesis and Evolution of the Romance-Germanic Language Border in Europe", Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (Language Contact at the Romance-Germanic Language Border)
- Wightman, Edith Mary (1985), Gallia Belgica, University of California Press page 20.
- Thomas P.F. Hoving, "'Valuables and Ornamental Items': The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Alastair Bradley Martin" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, 28.3 (November 1969:147-160) p. 152.
- Pierre Turquin ("La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l' An 57 avant J.-C.", Les Études Classiques 23.2 (1955), 113-156)
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 2
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 5.38-52
- Stephan Fichtl, Les Gaulois du Nord de la Gaule (1994 Paris)
- Musée Archéologique de Bavay (France)
- Musée Royal de Mariemont, Morlanweltz (Belgium)