Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Belgic King Ambiorix

Ambiorix was one of the great Belgic chiefs of our early history. Most of what we know about him comes from the writings of his greatest enemy, Julius Caesar. The Belgae greatly impressed the Roman conqueror because of their courage and ferocity but Gallia Belgica in the end became one of the major provinces of the Roman Empire. However, the name of King Ambiorix was almost forgotten about until the popular movement toward Belgian independence began to grow and prosper. The Belgian people looked for a great figure from the history of their own people to inspire them to resist the rule of the Netherlands and encourage unity among all Belgians. One of the heroes they rediscovered was King Ambiorix who so fiercely resisted Roman domination as a champion for Belgian national pride and the struggle for freedom.

King Ambiorix was the chief of the Belgic tribe known as the Eburones together with Catuvolcus. The Belgica territory at that time encompassed what is now the northeast part of France, all of Belgium, part of the south of the Netherlands to the Rhine and the northwest part of North Rhine-Westfalia in Germany. The various Belgic tribes were having a fine primitive existence, farming, hunting, breeding and fighting each other when the Romans arrived and turned their world upside down. That was in 57 BC when the Romans under Caesar conquered Gallia Celtica and Gallia Belgica. The changes grew over time and in 54 BC the Roman troops began to run out of food and started to force the Belgae to give up their own crops and go hungry to feed the conquerors. Because of a bad crop food was already scarce for the Belgae and the Eburones were starving. When they resisted Julius Caesar built Roman outposts in each village with a centurion in charge of confiscating the food for the Roman soldiers.

King Ambiorix was outraged by this theft and moved by the suffering of his people. Julius Caesar, who had freed Ambiorix from being a tributary of the Atuatuci, was becoming an oppressive ruler and Ambiorix decided to fight back and so he joined with Catuvolcus in the winter and began what might later be called a guerilla war against the Roman occupiers under Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Auruncleius Cotta. Ambiorix and his warriors killed a Roman unit sent out to gather wood and chased the remaining Romans back to their camp. This post was too strong to attack so Ambiorix addressed the Romans as their friend, telling them he appreciated that they had stopped the inter-tribal warfare and warned them, as their concerned friend, that other tribes were preparing to move against them with help from the Germans and that they should retreat to another camp where they would have more soldiers and more time to prepare for the attack.

Sabinus and Cotta did not know what to do. Should they believe the fierce Belgic warrior or not? Sabinus thought that they should trust Ambiorix; they had too much to lose if he was telling the truth. Cotta wanted to stand his ground and fight anyone who attacked them. However, he also wanted no responsibility if they were all killed by the fearsome Belgians. Hearing that, would you like to stay there? Naturally the Romans decided they would retreat, which is just what Ambiorix wanted them to do. While crossing a valley on the march to their next outpost Ambiorix and his Belgic warriors came swarming down the sides of the hills and wiped out the entire Roman command –one legion and five cohorts. This spread a wave of shock across the frontier and all the way to Rome itself where the Senate was horrified and outraged. Julius Caesar stood up and promised to return to Gallia Belgica and crush all of the Belgians as an example of what would happen to those who resisted the rule of the Roman Republic.

Caesar arrived on the scene just in time to stop a Belgic attack on a legion in Nervii territory that included Cicero’s brother. It took a number of years of fierce fighting to subdue Ambiorix and the Belgae but in the end the better organized Romans were successful, also because they came with about 50,000 highly trained veteran soldiers. The Belgae were devastated, as Romans tended to do with their beaten enemies, slaughtering the people, exiling them and burning their villages. Ambiorix fought on to the bitter end, finally vanishing across the Rhine into German territory after which nothing more is known of him. Still, he and his warriors left a lasting impression on the Romans and their great conqueror Caesar who said that, of all his enemies, the Belgians were the bravest. When Belgium was revived as a nation the story of Ambiorix and his victories were rediscovered and celebrated with many stories, tributes and memorials erected in his honor. He had become a celebrated popular figure and was ranked as one of the greatest Belgians in history.


  1. This is a new one on me, very interesting though. Even though I'm a big Roman partisan, I'm also a little sympathetic to some of the "barbarians" too. Very timely though, my next profile will be on one of Rome's famous enemies. When I was reading this, I first thought it was just a handfull of Belgians but then saw that they took out a whole legion. Wow. That's no small accomplishment.

  2. You see, Belgians have always been the toughest! We may not be able to win every time but we are fierce enough to knock the smartness out of the invaders! :)