Battle of the Sabis
|Battle of the Sabis|
|Part of the Gallic Wars|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Gaius Julius Caesar||Boduognatus|
|About 42,000 men (8 legions with cavalry and auxiliaries)||75,000|
|Casualties and losses|
|Unknown||Claimed 60,000 (based on body count which would include fleeing refugees who were being pursued across the river by Caesar's men)|
The Battle of the Sabis, also (erroneously) known as the Battle of the Sambre or the Battle against the Nervians (or Nervii), was fought in 57 BC near modern Saulzoir in Northern France, between the legions of the Roman Republic and an association of Belgic tribes, principally the Nervii. Julius Caesar, commanding the Roman forces, was surprised and nearly defeated. According to Caesar's report, a combination of determined defence, skilled generalship, and the timely arrival of reinforcements allowed the Romans to turn a strategic defeat into a tactical victory.
During the winter of 58-57 BC rumours came to Caesar's ears that the Belgic tribes were forming a union because they feared possible Roman interference in their affairs. The union included the Bellovaci, Suessiones, Nervii, Atrebates, Ambiani, Morini, Menapii, Caleti, Veliocasses, Viromandui, Aduatuci, Condrusi, Eburones, Caeroesi, and Paemani tribes, and was under the leadership of Galba, a king of the Suessiones. These reports provided Caesar with a good pretext for conquering more than Gaul "itself", and for this, he raised two legions in Cisalpine Gaul (XIII and XIV) and convinced the Remi tribe to side with him.
In response, the other Belgic and Celtic tribes had attacked Bibrax (the oppidum of the Remi, situated near the Aisne River). Caesar countered by defending the oppidum and winning an action at the Aisne. In the face of this and because of shortage of provisions, the union collapsed and tribal armies retreated to their own lands, with the agreed future intention of coming to the support of any tribe invaded by the Romans. Caesar continued his advance and tribes surrendered one by one. However, four tribes, the Nervii, the Atrebates, the Aduatuci and the Viromandui refused to submit.
The Ambiani told Caesar that the Nervii were the most hostile of the Belgae to Roman rule. A fierce and brave tribe, they did not allow the import of luxury items as they believed these had a corrupting effect and probably feared Roman influence. They had no intention of entering peace negotiations with the Romans. Caesar would move on them next.
As with all ancient battles, estimates of the forces available to both sides will always be a matter of some speculation. A Roman legion at this period had a theoretical establishment of some 4,800 fighting men with additional auxiliary forces. Eight Roman legions took part in the battle. It is not known if they were at full strength, but a reasonable estimate might be in the region of 42,000 men.
Caesar claims he had earlier received intelligence from the Remi that the various tribes of the Belgae had promised to contribute a total of 300,000 fighting men. According to Caesar the Remi estimates of the men promised by the four tribes now left to oppose Caesar were: 50,000 Nervii, 15,000 Atrebates, 10,000 Veromandui and 19,000 Aduatuci. If these figures were reliable it would mean that Caesar was immediately faced with a maximum of 75,000 men, as the Aduatuci were still en route. Promises are not always kept so it is probable the actual number was smaller than this, though still high enough to outnumber the legionaries.
Order of battle
Traditionally it was believed that the battle was fought on the banks of the river Sambre, near modern Aulnoye-Aymeries, but in 1955 Turquin showed that it was fought on the west bank of the river Selle, near modern Saulzoir.
Before the battle
Caesar's legions had been marching in Nervian territory for three days, following an ancient road. He learnt from prisoners that the Belgae were massing on the far side of the River Sabis, which was about 10 miles (16 km) ahead. The Nervii had persuaded the Atrebates and the Veromandui to support them. The Aduatuci were marching to join them, but they did not arrive in time to take part in the battle. Their non-combatants had moved to a safe area screened by marshes, where an army could not approach. The Belgae had made their preparations and were now waiting for the Romans.
Caesar sent forward experienced scouts to choose the next campsite.
He learnt from prisoners taken later that sympathisers in the ragtag of surrendered Belgae and other Gauls travelling with the army had gone to the Nervii and reported his disposition of his column. They reported that the individual legionary baggage trains were interspersed between the legions and that it would be easy to cut off the leading legion from the rest and destroy it before any support could reach it. It was believed this would intimidate the Romans into withdrawing. The Nervii, having traditionally always relied on infantry rather than cavalry had, over the years, developed a technique of building dense, impenetrable hedges of briars and thorns set between young trees as a defence against the raids of surrounding tribes. These would obstruct Caesar’s advance and help the attack. It was agreed that the signal for an attack was to be the appearance of the baggage train behind the first legion. In doing this, the Nervii were intending to use what is recognisable today as the modern army doctrine of force concentration. As will be seen, their plan would be frustrated by Caesar.
The campsite was to be laid out on a hill which gently sloped down to the river. On the other side of the river there was another hill directly opposite, similarly sloping. The top of that hill was densely wooded but the lower part was open and sloped down to the river over a distance of 200 paces (roughly 300 metres (330 yd)). The enemy was concealed inside the woods, but a few cavalry pickets could be seen in the open area by the river. The river was very wide but only about three feet (one metre) deep.
At some point on his march to the Sabis, Caesar reorganised the column and reverted to his usual tactic of leading his forces with six legions in light marching order. Behind them was the baggage column of the entire army, followed by the newly recruited legions, XIII and XIV. Caesar does not say whether this change was fortuitous or was made in response to the intelligence received. While Caesar's force began to set up camp on the slope running down to the river, his cavalry, together with slingers and archers, was ordered to cross the river to reconnoitre. This developed into a skirmish with the few troops of Belgic cavalry that had been observed on the far side. Caesar describes the enemy cavalry as sallying repeatedly from the woods at the top of the hill and says his cavalry did not dare follow them in when they retreated. He does not elaborate further so it will never be known if the Nervii were trying to entice the skirmishers onto their hidden position or holding them in play on the slopes in preparation for the planned rush.
Meanwhile, the legions had started arriving at the camp site and began to build its fortifications. The Belgae, waiting for the baggage train to appear, gradually found themselves faced with not one legion, but six. Their plan of piecemeal destruction had to be abandoned, but they must have believed their numbers more than adequate to deal with their enemy.
As the Roman baggage train came into view, the Belgic force suddenly rushed out of the trees and surprised their opponents, overwhelming the Roman cavalry. They crossed the shallow river at full speed and charged up the hill against the legions setting up camp, giving them no time to get into battle formation. It seemed to Caesar that the Nervii came on with incredible speed, all at once pouring out of the trees, charging across the river and overrunning his legionaries.
Taken by surprise, Caesar had to rapidly give orders to sound the alarm both by raising the battle-standard and by trumpet, get his men away from construction work, recall the wood-cutting parties and try to get his legions into some semblance of order. There was very little time and much had to be left undone. Two things, though, saved the legions from being immediately routed—firstly, the knowledge and experience of the soldiers (which meant that they could decide for themselves what to do without waiting for orders) and secondly, Caesar had previously ordered all legion commanders to stay with their legions during the setting up of the camp.
Caesar went wherever he was needed, giving only essential orders and eventually found himself on the left wing with legion X. Seeing that the enemy were within range of the Romans he gave the order to hurl a volley of spears. Going to another part of the field, he found his men already fighting. The men had run from their building tasks to fall into ranks but many did not even have time to put on their helmets or take the covers off their shields. The legionaries had no opportunity to group with their own cohorts and instead congregated around the first friendly standard they saw. Caesar states that the hedges were a considerable obstruction to his men during the battle although he does not specify their locations on the field. and the woody hilltop is the one place we can infer their presence.
The soldiers of legions X Equestris and IX Triumphalis, on the left flank, having thrown their spears at their Atrebates opponents, charged. They threw the enemy back and drove them into the river, killing many. The Romans crossed the river and found themselves on disadvantageous or uneven ground, but although the Atrebates regrouped and launched a counter-attack, the Romans put them to flight a second time. Further along, in the centre, two legions, XI and VIII, having checked the Viromandui with whom they were engaged, pushed them from the higher ground into the river.
However, as these four legions pushed their opponents back, the front and left of the camp was left undefended and a gap opened up in the Roman line. A compact column of Nervii under Boduognatus (the overall commander of the Belgae) rushed through the opening. Part of the column turned to encircle the two legions holding the right flank; the rest continued upwards to attack the higher part of the camp.
Meanwhile, the routed Roman cavalry and skirmishers were just straggling into camp when they found themselves face to face with the Nervii – they ran again. Camp followers further up the hill by the camp’s back gate had observed the success of the Romans at the river and came down in the hope of plunder, but noticed the Nervii in the camp and also ran. People accompanying the baggage train just arriving were horrified at the sight before them and panicked as well. Even the usually-dependable Treveri cavalry arriving to support the Romans looked at the seemingly hopeless situation and promptly turned for home to report the disaster.
After encouraging legion X, Caesar went to the right wing. Things looked bad. He could see that the men of XII Victrix were crammed so closely together in one mass by their standards that they could not fight effectively. All (six) centurions of the fourth cohort were dead, its standard bearer killed and the standard missing. Of the remaining cohorts, almost all the centurions were either wounded or killed; Baculus, the legion’s primipilus, a fine soldier, had received so many minor and serious wounds that he could barely stand. The Nervii were attacking vigorously from lower ground and pressing at the front and both flanks. Caesar could see some men were shirking and trying to get to the rear; others were slowly ceasing effective resistance. There were no reserves. This was the crisis-point. He took a shield from a soldier at the rear and went to the first line. Calling his centurions by name, he ordered them to have the soldiers advance (signa inferre) and the maniples open up and extend. As he tells it, his arrival brought hope and boosted the soldiers’ morale. Every man was now keen to do well in front of his general. As a result, the enemy assault was checked slightly.
Caesar saw that legion VII nearby was also hard-pressed. He ordered the tribunes to redeploy the two legions to gradually join and fight back to back. This further increased his men’s confidence. By now, the legions escorting the baggage, having received a report of the action, had come on at double pace and the enemy could see them coming over the hill above the camp. Legion X, under the legate Labienus, had overcome the Atrebates, crossed the river and defeated the Belgic reserves. Now they seized the Belgic camp on the wooded hill. From the higher ground, Labienus could see that Caesar’s right wing was in serious trouble. He ordered his men back across the river to attack the Nervii from the rear.
Soon legions XIII and XIV joined the fight. Caesar does not detail their actions, but they probably cleared the camp (as it was their nearest target) and went to the right to relieve the pressure on legions XII and VII. This, coupled with the return of legion X, transformed the situation. Seeing the position begin to stabilise, cavalry and skirmishers took heart and, keen to wipe out their earlier shame, started to fight in earnest. The camp followers joined in now that they could see enemy’s dismay. The entire Roman force was now fully committed.
The Nervii warriors fought to the last, standing on the bodies of their slain comrades, and throwing the Romans’ own spears back at them. Eventually the few remaining Nervii broke and fled the field. Caesar’s opinion of the Nervii was that they had shown great fighting spirit in carrying an attack forward so vigorously on to difficult ground and in continuing to fight stubbornly when the tide of battle turned irretrievably against them.
The older men of the Nervii, described by Caesar as “senators”, came out of their hiding place in the marshland and surrendered. They said that their council had been reduced from 600 men to three and that of 60,000 fighting men there were barely 500 left. It is not entirely clear if this is a figure for the dead or if it includes wounded, nor is it clear if these are solely Nervii casualties or if the figure includes their allies. Caesar states that he spared the Nervii and ordered the surrounding tribes not to take advantage of their weakness.
Caesar gives no indication of his own casualties.
- Bello Gallico 2.1
- Bello Gallico 2.4
- Bello Gallico 2.2
- Bello Gallico 2.3 - 2.5
- Bello Gallico 2.6 - Bello Gallico 2.14
- Bello Gallico 2.15
- Bello Gallico 2.4
- Pierre Turquin ("La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l' An 57 avant J.-C." in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156)
- Essentially the road that was later paved by the Romans and connected Samarobriva (Amiens) with Cologne, and is now often referred to as "Via Belgica". The position of Bronze Age and Iron Age tombs proves that it already existed in pre-Roman times.
- Bello Gallico 2.16
- Bello Gallico 2.17
- Bello Gallico 2.18
- Bello Gallico 2.19
- Bello Gallico 2.20
- Shields were made of layers of wood and leather, then painted with casein-based paints. The shield was covered when not in use as a protection against rain.
- Bello Gallico 2.21
- Bello Gallico 2.22
- Bello Gallico 2.23
- Bello Gallico 2.24
- P. Sextius Baculus survived and is mentioned again by Caesar as an invalid. See Gallic Wars Books 3.5 and 6.38
- Bello Gallico 2.25
- Bello Gallico 2.26
- Bello Gallico 2.27
- Bello Gallico 2.28
- Bello Gallico 2.29
- Bello Gallico 2.33
- Bello Gallico 2.34
- Bello Gallico 5.38
- Bello Gallico 7.75
- Caesar, C. Julius. The Gallic War. Trans. Carolyn Hammond. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Pierre Turquin, "La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l' An 57 avant J.-C." in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156
- The Battle of the Sabis (57 BCE) Photos of the battlefield
- Caesar and the Nervians Text of Caesar's account of the battle
- Battle of the Sambre[sic] from the Military History Encyclopedia on the Web
- Clash on the Sabis painting titled 'Fury of the Goths'
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