Battle of the Sabis

Battle of the Sabis

Infobox Military Conflict

conflict=Battle of the Sabis
partof=the Gallic Wars
date=57 BC
result=Roman victory
combatant1=Roman Republic
commander1=Julius Caesar
strength1=About 40,000
strength2=Possibly 25,000
casualties1=2,500 killed or wounded
casualties2=3,000 killed or wounded
The Battle of the Sabis, also (erroneously) known as the Battle of the Sambre [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) has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the battle was fought at the River Selle, west of modern Saulzoir.] or the Battle against the Nervians (or "Nervii"), was fought in 57 BC in the area known today as Wallonia, between the legions of the Roman Republic and an association of Belgic tribes, principally the "Nervii" (a Belgian tribe). Julius Caesar, commanding the Roman forces, was surprised and nearly defeated. According to Caesar's report, a combination of determined defense, skilled generalship, and the timely arrival of reinforcements allowed the Romans to turn a near-defeat into a crushing victory. In reality, Caesar was saved by his legate LabienusFact|date=June 2008.


During the winter of 58/57 BC rumours that the Belgian tribes wanted to attack the Romans came to Caesar's ears. [] These reports provided him with a good pretext for conquering more than Gaul "itself", and for this Caesar raised two more legions (the XIII and XIV) [] and convinced the Remi tribe to side with him. [ - ]

In retaliation, the other Belgic and Celtic tribes attacked Bibrax (the oppidum of the Remi, situated near the Aisne River) in an attempt to drive out Caesar. [] 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, king of the Suessiones.

Caesar quickly responded by defending the oppidum and attacking the Nervii tribe. In the face of this rapid response by Caesar and of the poor coordination of effort within the confederation, the union collapsed and tribal armies retreated to their own lands, where they were confronted piecemeal and surrendered to the Romans. [ - ] However, four tribes, the Nervii, the Atrebates, the Aduatuci, and the Viromandui, refused to give in.


Estimates of the forces available to each side vary, but the eight Roman legions had a strength in the neighborhood of 42,000 professional soldiers of infantry, with associated archers and auxiliary cavalry. An estimate of the Belgic forces, recruited from an estimated total population of some 300,000, gives them 25,000 men, though Caesar's figures are much higher (up to 150,000), almost entirely infantry (militia) and hidden in the woods.

Order of battle

Caesar's legions
* IX "Triumphalis"
* X "Equestris"
* XI
* XII "Victrix"


Caesar's legions had been marching in Nervian territory for three days, following an ancient road. [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.] He now received reports of the Nervian positions. [—the battle as a whole occupies the majority of this book of the Commentaries, from to ] As the Roman column closed up to the Nervian position, Caesar used his usual tactic of leading his forces with six legions in light marching order. Behind them was the baggage column of the entire army escorted by the newly recruited legions. Whilst Caesar's force began to set up camp next to the river and come in from the north-east, his cavalry crossed the river to perform some reconnaissance and to skirmish with the Belgic cavalry. After the engagement began, the Belgic cavalry retreated into the woods.

The Nervii, under the command of Boduognatus and supported by the Viromandui and the Atrebates, had collected their forces on the south bank of the river, hidden in some trees about two hundred feet from the bank, and prepared to attack the legions setting up camp on the other bank of the river. The Aduatuci were not present, but were marching to join them (though they did not arrive in time to take part in the battle). []

The few Belgic horse were in the open land between the trees and the river bank. Six Roman legions (the VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, and XII) were scattered and occupied with foraging for materials and constructing a camp and fortifications. Two inexperienced legions, the XIII and XIV, marched behind the baggage train about two miles in the rear.

As the Roman baggage train came into view, the whole Belgic force suddenly rushed out of the trees in formation and surprised their opponents, overwhelming the Roman cavalry. They crossed the river at full speed (it was only 3 feet deep) and charged up the hill against the legions setting up camp, giving them no time to get in battle formation. Caesar's men quickly prepared for battle, but many did not even have time to put on their helmets or grab their shields. Two things, though, saved the legions from being routed in this first clash—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. The Roman soldiers did not have time to group with their cohorts and instead congregated around the first friendly standard they saw. Soon the legions were isolated by the Belgians and began a fight for mere survival, and the XIII and XIV were closing from the rear of the baggage train as quickly as they could.

Julius Caesar, taken by surprise, made his way into the fray, only giving essential orders and meeting up with the X Legion first. The four legions on the Roman left flank became locked with the onrushing Belgae on the north bank of the river. The legions X "Equestris" and IX "Triumphalis", on the extreme left, engaged the Atrebates and repulsed them across the river, slaughtering them as they fled. The XI and VIII legions in the Roman center made slow but steady progress against the Viromandui.

As these four legions pushed their opponents back, a gap formed in the Roman line. The Nervii rushed through the opening, seizing the Roman camp and attempting to outflank, from the inside of the line, the two legions of the Roman right, the XII "Victrix" and VII. Unable to redeploy, the Romans could only hold their position.

The veterans of the X and IX quickly routed the Atrebates and crossed the river to engage the Belgian reserves waiting in the other side of the river. On the right flank the XI and VIII had managed to halt the Viromandui but were unable of drive them to the other side of the river. Close to their position the XII and VII were under heavy pressure by the Nervians that were surrounding them, the XII had lost almost all of its centurions, even the "primus pilus" had fallen and had lost several standards and the soldiers were beginning to panic. Caesar grabbed a shield from a soldier in the rear and joined the XII, yelling at them to push out, as they were clustered so closely together than they could not fight effectively. As he tells it, it was only his arrival with the XII that boosted their morale. Caesar then ordered the XII and VII to join and adopt a square formation so they could offer a tougher resistance.

After overcoming the Atrebates, crossing the river, defeating the Belgic reserves, the X Legion seized the Belgic camp on the south bank. As usual the legionnaires began to loot the camp. At a certain moment Legate Labienus ordered his men to stop the looting, seeing from the high ground that Caesar's right wing was in great trouble. The X Legion therefore hurried back across the river to attack the Nervii from the rear and retake the Roman camp. Soon the XIII and XIV joined the fight and cleared the rear of the XII and VII square, and continued to defeat the remaining Nervians. The XI and VIII soon defeated the Viromandui and cleared the remaining enemies from the camp.

The XIII and XIV legions, which had been guarding the baggage train, were now rushing to join their comrades. The arrival of reinforcements and renewed efforts of all the Romans allowed them to encircle and slaughter the enemy.

The Nervii warriors fought to the last, standing on the bodies of their slain comrades, whilst other of the remaining Nervians broke and fled the field.


By the time their elders surrendered, Caesar writes, the force of 60,000 fighting men had been reduced to 500 and that only three of the 600 'councilors' (commanding officers) remained. [Julius Caesar, "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" , 2.28.] This must be exaggerated because it is contradicted by Caesar himself. [Julius Caesar, "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" , 7.75.] Certainly a part of the defeated Nervii army later joined the Eburones and destroyed a complete legion. [Julius Caesar, "Commentarii de Bello Gallico" , 6.29.]


The Nervii were severely defeated and all the neighboring tribes surrendered to Caesar, giving him control of most of what is now Belgium.



*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

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