Ambiorix leads Gaul in Sid Meier's Civilization VI. Very little is known about this king who opposed Julius Caesar. He led a tribe of Belgic Gauls in what is now modern Belgium. Ambiorix would have faded into obscurity and forgotten by history if it wasn't for the Gallic Wars, by Julius Caesar. Caeser's book should be taken with a bag of salt though, the man would have wanted to tug his own horn.
Who, What, or Why is a Gaul?
The term Gaul is used to refer to a diverse set of nations and tribes from western Europe. They lived there during the iron age and Roman era and played a part in Julius Caesar's rise to power. Gauls were a Celtic people originally from the northwest of the Alps. Gaul, their homeland, encompasses Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, most of Switzerland, some of Northern Italy, and parts of Germany. In short, they lived all across Europe.
The thing about Gauls to remember is that they were recorded by the Romans. Roman writers considered everyone that wasn't a Roman as uncivilized, dirty, and foreign. If that reminds you of a modern nation, just remember that despite our technological advancements we still have the same brains that the people back then had. To Roman writers, the Gauls seemed like a massive alien threat just waiting to engulf their bastion of civility. Monolithic and united in their jealous lust to raid the utopia that was Rome. That is why they all share the name, Gaul. In reality, the Gauls were several disparate groups that didn't even share a common language. Romans are the ones that wrote the histories, so here we are.
Romans and Gauls had been clashing for hundreds of years before Julius Caesar was even born. The earliest clash recorded was in 390 BCE when Gauls led by Brennus, invaded Rome and raided deep into the Italian peninsula.
According to the Romans, Gauls were tall and light-skinned with red or blonde hair. They were considered to be formidable warriors and were highly valued as slaves. This is what 4th century BCE Roman soldier-historian, Ammianus Marcellinus had to say about them:
"Almost all Gauls are tall and fair-skinned, with reddish hair. Their savage eyes make them fearful objects; they are eager to quarrel and excessively truculent. When, in the course of a dispute, any of them calls in his wife, a creature with gleaming eyes much stronger than her husband, they are more than a match for a whole group of foreigners; especially when the woman, with swollen neck and gnashing teeth, swings her great white arms and begins to deliver a rain of punches mixed with kicks, like missiles launched by the twisted strings of a catapult."
According to Ammianus, it was the Gaulish women who were to be feared. Apparently, the angry wife trope is much older than we thought. Diodorus Siculus gives us a more detailed physical description of the Gauls from the 1st century BCE, devoid of jokes:
"The Gauls are tall of body, with rippling muscles, and white of skin, and their hair is blond, and not only naturally so, but they make it their practice to increase the distinguishing color by which nature has given it. For they are always washing their hair in limewater, and they pull it back from their forehead to the top of the head and back to the nape of the neck... Some of them shave their beards, but others let it grow a little, and the nobles shave their cheeks, but they let the mustache grow until it covers the mouth. "
Modern archaeology suggests that the nations of Gaul were all quite wealthy and culturally developed. They had been mining gold since before the Roman era and large stores of gold coins have been found in their lands. Gauls produced art in the form of intricate floral metalwork, this art would eventually develop into Celtic art.
The Gaulish population centers were called Oppida (singular, Oppidum) by Julius Caesar. Many of these Oppidum were governed by republics and they had highly developed legal and civic systems. At the top of the political mountain sat the king, who was later replaced by an annually appointed magistrate. Below the Magistrate, there was a council of elders who had some control over them.
Druids played an important role not only as religious leaders and keepers of their oral history but also in government, medicine, and many more fields.
Weaker tribes that had been defeated by stronger tribes were made to pay tribute. They would bes subjects to the stronger faction. This makes the social structure of the Gauls look like a complex family tree. Things weren't particularly peaceful, but it was a stable system.
So basically, barbarian savages.
The Gauls were conquered by Julius Caesar in 57BCE. Ambiorix appears briefly in Julius Caesar's chronicle titled 'The Gallic Wars.' His life before clashing with the Romans is obscured by the mists of time, as is his life after the clash.
Caesar's invasion of Gaul stems from a long list of events that would eventually lead to him taking control of all of Rome. What he was doing in Gaul was essentially building up political clout for his eventual takeover. He led several legions into western Europe where he first fought and defeated the Nervii which was one of the most powerful Belgic tribes of the time.
According to Caesar's own record he slaughtered 60,000 of the Nervii. After inflicting unimaginable suffering on the them, he turned on the Aduatuci/Atuatuci in eastern Belgium. He reportedly enslaved over 53,000 of the Aduatuci after they put up fierce resistance. This was before the concept of war crimes was a thing. Everything goes in ancient war.
Roman rule settled over the whole Meuse Valley after the defeat of the dominant tribes. Their occupation would last over four centuries. The first thing to go was the old political structure. Weaker tribes that had been subjugated in the past were freed from their oppressors. One of these tribes with newfound freedom was the Eburones, led by Ambiorix. They were given their freedom in the Autumn of 57 BCE. Their appreciation of this act of liberation would be short-lived if it existed at all.
Belgic Gauls, according to Caesar himself, were the bravest of all Gauls. He attests this valor to their near-constant warring with the germanic tribes on their border. Caesar further claims that their hardiness stemmed from the fact that Roman traders seldom made it that far north. Without the luxuries of Roman prosperity, the Belgic Gauls wouldn't be as civilized. Once again we see that Roman exceptionalism at work in Caesar's writing. Everything that Rome touches is made more civil by the divine purity of Roman culture.
The Eburones and several other tribes in the Meuse Valley would soon learn the extent of the Roman occupation. Roman forts were built near all of the villages in the valley in order to maintain order. This would normally not have been too harsh a burden for the locals to bear, they were after all great wheat farmers. Surplus resources had been the norm for the Gauls.
Unfortunately for the Romans who built their forts in the winter of 55-54 BCE, there was a famine approaching. The poor harvest meant there was less food to support the foreign occupiers. Local Gauls were suffering and their Roman overlords chose to ignore their plight.
Eburones are the Flint to Spark Rebellion
Caesar had spent the years between 57-55 BCE conquering the British isle. He defeated the united British tribes before returning to mainland Europe. His legions were split up and settled into the newly constructed forts littered throughout Belgium. This was a normal, routine thing for the legionnaires.
The Gauls had been brewing up a secret plan. They would run the occupiers out of their forts and slaughter them while they were divided.
Indutiomarus was the leader of a tribe called the Trevarians. For reasons lost to history, the Trevarians held power over the Eburones. So, in the winter of 55/54 BCE, Indutiomarus ordered Ambiorix to attack the Roman fort on his land.
Ambiorix knew that taking the fort in a frontal assault was folly. He set up his warriors to ambush the Romans along a path they would use to retreat from their fort. Ambiorix had to get them to retreat without attacking them first, which proved to be no problem for the crafty king.
The fort near the Eburones' land was commanded by two Roman lieutenants, Sabinus and Lucius Cotta. Ambiorix sent a herald to set up a meeting with the lieutenants. He came bearing grave news of a secret plot to attack the fort, which was only half a lie. Of course, Ambiorix himself wanted no part of the attack, he was powerless to stop his countrymen though. Ever the loyal subject, he urged the Romans to flee as the attack would happen that very night. They believed him and ordered the fort to be cleared out.
The Romans fled just after nightfall along the road where the Gauls were hidden. Warriors erupted from the land around the Romans. The hills, as they say, had eyes. Soon the Roman legionnaires were overwhelmed and slaughtered. Cotta died in the initial assault, but Sabinus managed to survive. He was called to appear before Ambiorix, and still thinking him to be a friend, he went.
Ambiorix stripped Sabinus of his weapons and armor before stabbing him with his javelin. He is quoted by the Greek historian, Cassius Dio, as having said the following over Sabinus' body:
"How can such creatures as you wish to rule us who are so great?"
The Rebellion of the Belgic Gauls
Following the slaughter of the Romans in Eburonia, other tribes soon rose up in rebellion. The Nervii who had been so brutally subdued by Caesar joined up with Ambiorix to get some old-fashioned revenge. They assaulted the Roman fort commanded by Quintus Cicero, the brother of the famous Roman orator, Marcus Cicero.
Ambiorix tried to trick Quintus out of his fort in the same way that he had done with Sabinus and Cotta. Quintus was having none of it and dug his forces in for a siege. The Gauls surrounded the Romans with wooden palisades and ditches. Numerous battles took their toll on the Roman soldiers. They simply didn't have the numbers to sustain the fighting. More and more soldiers were getting injured or dying. Despite, according to Cassius Dio, killing many times more of the enemy than they lost of their own, they couldn't keep it up for much longer.
Quintus sent out several messengers to the nearby Roman forts but all were captured by the Gauls. This was probably because they were dressed as Romans. It wasn't until a Nervian, who had thrown in with the Romans, sent his slave out as a messenger. The slave was himself a Gaul, and he was able to walk through the enemy camp without incident. He managed to reach Caesar before the latter had made it all the way back to Rome. Armies travel much more slowly than a single man can.
Caesar rushed back, gathering up the forces from each fort he passed. His fear that Quintus would surrender had him dress up a Gaul in the clothes of an Eburone. He sent this loyal Gaul on horseback to deliver a message, encoded in Greek, to Quintus. This way, even if the messenger was to be captured, the message would be meaningless to the enemy. Upon reaching the Roman camp, the messenger could go no further. The Romans within would surely assume he was of the Eburones and kill him on sight. He tied the letter to a javelin and, pretending to throw it at the enemy, cast it into the Roman camp. That is how Quintus learned of the approach of his savior, Julius Caesar.
Growing suspicious of the besieged Romans' sudden cheerfulness, Ambiorix and the other leaders sent out scouts. They came back with reports of Caesar's army approaching quickly. Apparently, Caesar had his army marching at night and camping in hard-to-reach places. Despite his attempt to surprise the Gauls, Caesar still had the advantage.
The Gauls set off to meet the Romans in battle. They hoped to catch Caesar off guard as he marched, but their plan would not succeed as they were themselves spotted by scouts. Damned scouts, they ruin everything. Caesar set up camp atop a hill and didn't march that night. He had his soldiers pretend to be scared as the Gauls approached, luring them into a headlong assault. So many ancient battles start off with a bit of theatre.
Ambiorix's Gauls attacked with the certainty that they would strike a decisive blow against the Romans. They ran up the hill and came face to face with fearless veterans that were drawn up in formation. It is said that the Gauls suffered so severe a defeat that the rebellion ended then and there.
Indutiomarus took the initial success of Ambiorix's forces as a good omen and attacked the Roman fort on his own land. The battle didn't go quite as well as he had planned, because the Romans there had been aware of his treachery for a while. They were ready for him and he was killed during an ill-fated battle.
Roman Retaliation - You side with him, and I'll crush you
Caesar was miffed. The loss of Sabinus and Cotta made him look bad. He requested reinforcements from Rome and was granted them. Soon enough Caesar found himself in charge of almost 50,000 heavily armed soldiers. Despite the windfall, he still wanted revenge on Ambiorix. No one puts Caesar in the corner.
To avoid Ambiorix slipping away during a frontal assault and seeking refuge among his allies, Caesar attacked them first.
The Nervii were the first to fall. After slaughtering their army, the women, cattle, and land left over were divided up among the Romans as plunder. Human life meant very little back then, often conquered people were considered little more than cattle and could be traded as possesions.
Next to fall were the Menapians. They lived in the modern Netherlands and relied on the difficult terrain to shield them from invaders. Caesar burned the villages he found and took what prisoners he could until they begged for peace. He made them promise not to help Ambiorix should he come to them, and they agreed.
The Trevarians had already been defeated, and following a failed invasion of Germany, Caesar was ready to take on the Eburones. He would take care of Ambiorix soon enough.
The Fall of the Eburones
It seems that Ambiorix had earned some measure of respect from Caesar. The future emperor of Rome saw the need to crush Ambiorix's allies before he dared move on the Gaul. Respect has its limits, and Caesar wouldn't deign to face Ambiorix himself.
He order a cavalry commander, Lucius Minucius Basilus, to take Ambiorix by surprise and capture him. Lucius took the assignment with glee. He moved into the Eburones' territory with unprecedented speed and managed to overpower and capture a bunch of people in a field. This feat of military might will surely go down as one of the greatest accomplishments of Roman history, or maybe not.
The captured farmers told Lucius Minucius Basilus where he could find Ambiorix. He was holed up in a house in the woods along with a few of his own cavalry. Lucius had arrived in Eburonia so fast that the news hadn't reached Ambiorix by the time that Lucius was already moving on his location.
The Romans surprised the Gauls and a desperate battle erupted in the woods. Ambiorix's warriors fought valiantly, but all could see that the day was lost. One of his loyal soldiers gave Ambiorix a horse and sent him off into the woods to escape. He would never be seen again, but his final message to his people would bring about the end of the Eburones.
Ambiorix sent out messengers declaring that every man was officially on his own. Run for your lives, the enemy is too great and far too brutal! Or something like that.
The Eburones scattered to the four winds. Some fled into the marshes, other into the forests, others into the Ardennes mountains, those that lived on the coast fled to islands, and others went seeking refuge from their neighbors.
What followed was basically a genocide against the Eburones. Caesar was dead set on hunting down the scattered tribesmen and brutally murdering them. He called in the neighboring Gauls with promises of free plunder if they hunted down the Eburones in hiding. Soon enough the Eburones were being hunted for sport.
They were stricken from history by the stroke of a Roman sword.