The siege of Q. Cicero's camp, early in the winter of 54-53 B.C. was the highpoint of the second Gallic revolt during Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul, and its failure handed the initiative back to the Romans.
After returning from his second expedition to Britain Caesar placed his legions into winter quarters in the north east of Gaul. A shortage of corn forced him to spread his legions out rather more than normal. One legion, under Q. Cicero, the brother of the famous orator, was sent into the lands of the Nervii, while the newest of his legions, under Sabinus and Cotta, was posted further east, at Atuatuca in the lands of the Eburones.
The revolt was apparently inspired by the Treveri, who lands bordered the Rhine and the Moselle, but it was the Eburones who rose first. An attack on the fort at Atuatuca failed, but they then convinced Sabinus to abandon his fortifications and attempt to rejoin either Cicero or L, who was a little to the south. Two miles outside their camp the Romans were attacked and the Legion virtually destroyed.
The revolt rapidly spread westwards. Ambiorix, one of the two kings of the Eburones, led his cavalry into the lands of the Atuatuci and then the Nervii, rousing both tribes. The Nervii summoned their dependant tribes – the Centrones, Grudii, Levaci, Pleumoxii and Geiduni – and moved to attack Cicero's camp.
The disaster at Atuatuca had been so total that no news of it had reached Cicero, and so when the Gauls attacked his winter camp was only partially complete and some of his men were out in the woods gather timber. These men were cut off by the Gallic cavalry, and the main force then made a determined attack on the Roman camp. This first attack was probably the Gaul's best chance of victory, but even the partially completed defences were enough to deny them success.
On the night after the attack Cicero sent out a number of messengers with orders to reach Caesar, but none got through. More effectively the Romans completed their fortifications, according to Caesar constructing 120 towers using the timber already inside the camp.
On the next day the Gauls advanced to attack the walls, filling the ditches and attacking the ramparts, but without success. On the following night the Romans continued to strengthen their fortifications. This pattern was repeated for several days, until eventually the Nervii leaders decided to try to convince Cicero to leave his camp in the same way that Ambiorix had convinced Sabinus to leave the camp at Atuatuca.
As at Atuatuca the Gauls attempted to convince Cicero that his position was hopeless and that their demands were reasonable – all they wanted was for the Romans to go into winter quarters somewhere else. Cicero's response was rather more robust that Sabinus's. He refused to negotiate with armed enemies, but suggested that if the Gauls laid down their arms, then he might be able to argue their case with Caesar.
The Gauls now demonstrated that they were learning from their opponents. In earlier years Caesar had described Gallic siege warfare as a simple procedure. The Gauls would use missile weapons to force the defenders off the walls, and then attempt to break down the walls and attack through the gap. A number of sieges had ended when the Roman's completed their unfamiliar siege towers.
Now, in the fifth year of the war, they had learnt more sophisticated methods. In the course of three hours Cicero's camp was surrounded by a rampart eleven feet high and a ditch thirteen feet deep, ten miles in circumference. Behind their fortifications the Gauls began to prepare their own siege towers and mantlets.
The next Gallic attack came on the seventh day of the siege. The Gauls took advantage of a high wind to throw heated javelins and hot sling balls into the camp, setting fire to the thatched roofs of the Roman buildings. They then mounted the most determined attack on the ramparts yet, but despite the fires at their backs the Roman legionaries remained on the walls. One Gallic siege tower did actually reach the walls, but this attack was beaten off.
During this time Cicero made a series of efforts to get messages to Caesar, but all of the messengers were captured and killed. Eventually the message was entrusted to the Gallic slave of Vertico, a Nervian who had remained loyal to Caesar. With the message bound around his javelin this slave was able to reach Caesar in safety, and the relief effort finally began.
The Relief Effort
Caesar was faced with something of a dilemma. If he waited for all of his scattered legions to come together Cicero's camp would probably fall, but if he advanced without enough men then the relief army itself might have been vulnerable. Caesar didn’t hesitate. Letters were sent to M. Crassus, C. Fabius and Labienus. Crassus was to bring his legion directly to Caesar, Fabius was to meet him on the march and Labienus was to join the army if possible.
A fourth legion was available, but Caesar decided to leave it at Samarobriva, under the command of C. Fabius, to guard the army's baggage. The eventual relief force was limited to two legions, for Labienus was being threatened by the Treviri, who had camped three miles from his winter quarters. Labienus believed that his force was too small to safely march through hostile territory, and so he decided to remain in his camp.
This left Caesar with 7,000 men in two legions, but he believed that the only chance to save the situation was to attack the Nervii as quickly as possible. A series of long marches brought him close to Cicero's camp.
When he was about three days march away Caesar captured some Gallic prisoners and learnt that Cicero's men were in a desperate condition. In an attempt to raise their morale Caesar dispatched a Gallic horseman to the camp, with another message attached to a javelin. This time, as the horseman approached the camp, he was to throw the javelin over the walls to make sure the message got through. The only flaw in this plan was that nobody noticed the message on the javelin for two days. By the time it was finally discovered the smoke from Caesar's latest camp was visible on the horizon.
When the Gauls discovered that Caesar was approaching they abandoned the siege and advanced towards the Roman army. Caesar states that the Gallic army was 60,000 strong, nearly ten times bigger than his own force. Cicero was able to get this news to Caesar. On the day after receiving this letter the two armies came within sight of each other.
The two armies were separated by a sizable valley with a small river at its base. Caesar decided that it was too dangerous to attack across the river, and instead decided to attempt to trick the Gauls. He selected the strongest possible site for his camp, but then constructed the smallest possible camp for his men, in an attempt to convince the Gauls that his army was even smaller than it really was. At the same time scouts were sent out to find a way across the valley.
On the follow day the Gallic cavalry advanced across the valley. Caesar ordered his own cavalry to fall back into the camp, and encouraged by this apparent sign of weakness the main Gallic force crossed the river and prepared to attack the Roman camp. This was what Caesar had been hoping for. Once the Gauls were engaged in an attempt to fill the ditches and break down the ramparts of the camp the Romans attacked from every gate, catching the Gauls by surprise.
Caesar's plan worked perfectly. After a short fight the Gauls scattered, with the Roman cavalry in pursuit. This pursuit was quickly called off, partly because Caesar didn't want his men to get isolated in the nearby woods and morasses, partly because the Gallic army had been dispersed, not destroyed, and partly because he wanted to reach Cicero as quickly as possible. Later on the same day Caesar's men reached the besieged camp.
The sophistication of the Gallic siege works clearly came as an unpleasant surprise to Caesar, as did the state of Cicero's legion, where nine out of ten men had been wounded. The failure of the attack on Cicero's camp effectively ended the offensive phase of the second Gallic revolt. Indutiomarus, the Treviri leader who had probably inspired the revolt, abandoned his plans to attack Labienus's camp, and was hunted down and killed early in the winter. Caesar decided to go back into winter quarters, although this time three legions were kept together around Samarobriva and Caesar himself wintered in Gaul for the first time. The Romans spent a nervous winter, always on the alert for a fresh uprising, but in the spring and summer of 53 B.C. were able to at least temporarily restore their control over Gaul without any great difficulty.