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Julius Caesar – genocide of Germans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar, we evaluate today through the prism of the most famous facts from his life: the romance with Cleopatra, betrayal of Brutus and death as a result of the Ides of March 44 BCE, or the establishment of the Julian calendar. Caesar claims to be an excellent leader, humanist, excellent speaker, author of works written in beautiful Latin: “About the Civil War”, “About the Gallic War” and the creator of the quotes used until today: “the dice were thrown” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”.

In the military field, Caesar’s greatest achievement was undoubtedly the conquest of Gaul. During this conquest, he had to defeat not only the Gallic tribes but also the Germanic tribes, which were already pressing Gaul from across the Rhine. For the first time in 58 BCE, he defeated Suebi in the battle at the foot of the Vosges, and then in 55 BCE. two more Germanic tribes won: the Usipets and the Tenkter. This second victory has, however, more than a militarily glorious deed, the hallmarks of a treacherous genocide that shocked even the ancients, who were much more used than we were to the atrocities of war. Under what circumstances did this happen, and what could have prompted Caesar to do so?

The situation in Gaul before 55 BCE

The goal of Caesar’s political career was to take the governorship of the province in which he would gain the opportunity to win for the glory of Rome and, by the way, or perhaps above all, his own. This possibility appeared in 58 BCE. when he became governor of Narbonne Gaul. After all, he was over 40 years old, and admired by the divine Julius, Alexander the Great was very successful, being much younger than him. Caesar, taking advantage of the animosities among the Gauls and the confusion associated with the Helvetian fishing, entered Gaul. He first defeated the aforementioned ancestors of the Swiss at the Battle of Bibracte, and then the Germanic Swevs Ariovista who came from across the Rhine in the great battle on the slopes of the Vosges. The battle is quite forgotten today, and yet it prevented the Germans from entering Gaul for the next several hundred years. Both of these battles were fought in 58 BCE.

In 57 BCE Caesar managed to defeat the tribes in Gaul Belgica in the battles of Akson and Sabis. The following year, the tribes of the Venetians in Armorica (present-day Brittany) and more to the north, the tribes of the Moryn and Menapias living on the English Channel, opposed Rome. Thanks to the construction of the fleet, it was possible to defeat the sea people of the Venetians in the sea battle at the mouth of the Loire (battle in the Gulf of Morbihan or Quiberon). At the same time Caesar’s legates – Titus Labienus defeated the allies of the Venetians in the north, and Publius Crassus united the peoples of Aquitaine in the south. The rebellious Moryns and Menapias hid in the forests from Caesar’s armies. So all Gaul looked conquered by the Romans.

A bronze figure of a Germanic warrior, a Swewski-style warrior's hairstyle
A bronze Germanic warrior’s figure, a Swewski-style warrior’s hairdo. ]

The events of 55 BCE

In the winter of 56/55 BCE, over 400,000 people entered Gaul from across the Rhine. the Germanic Usipets and Tenkters. It happened in the vicinity of today’s Emmerich am Rhein, i.e. in the vicinity of the present German-Dutch border. The reason for the crossing of the river by the Germans is not unequivocally given by historians: probably the lands of the Usipets and Tensers beyond the Rhine were occupied by the great tribe of Suebi. An additional or other reason could be that they were summoned for help by the Gauls in order to fight together against Caesar. It is a fact, however, that some of the Gallic tribes, the Menapias, through whose lands they crossed the Rhine, did not interfere, and even encouraged the Germans to travel south into Gaul. Although many Gallic tribes secretly favoured the invaders from the east, they issued military contingents to help the Romans. When the Roman army stood one day’s walk from the Germanic camp, their envoys stood by Caesar. Their position was peaceful – they came to Gaul only because of their expulsion by the Swews and will settle in Gaul wherever Caesar tells them. The latter, however, did not agree to this proposal and suggested that the Usipetians and Tenkter should settle across the Rhine in the lands given to them by the Ubii, a tribe inhabiting today’s Koblenz and Bonn, which had previously assumed the sovereignty of the Romans. The deputies asked to detain the Roman army for three days, while they would consider Caesar’s proposal. Also, this request was denied due to concerns that this proposal was just an attempt to gain time so that the Teutons could link up with the previously disconnected ride. When the legions were about 18 km from the opponents’ camp, the envoys came to Caesar for the second time: this time they came with a proposal of three days of truce, which they would use to contact the Ubii and explore the possibility of settling in the place proposed by the Romans. They also asked that the Roman cavalry, being the vanguard, not start skirmishes. Caesar, this time, agreed to the Germanic proposals while proposing that the next day all the elders of the Usipets and Tenkters should appear in the Roman camp to discuss all issues. Both sides agreed to this arrangement, and the Romans advanced a few more kilometres to set up camp in a place with good access to drinking water. Despite the agreement, the 5,000 cavalry unit of Roman Gallic allies clashed with the 800-strong Germanic cavalry unit and, despite the advantage, was beaten. Caesar in his memoirs emphasizes that the skirmish was caused by the Germans, but it was probably the Gauls with the permission of the Romans who attacked the enemy cavalry. The Gauls could also believe in their great numerical superiority.

Despite this skirmish, all the Germanic elders appeared in the Roman camp as agreed. However, trusting in Caesar’s word, the Germans were tricky, and the legions attacked the unsuspecting Germanic camp. Despite the surprise, the Germans tried to defend themselves, but the panicked crowd of women and children began to flee, which contributed to the chaos in the defence. The Romans threw cavalry on the fleeing crowd, which resulted in the massacre of both Germanic peoples. Nobody died among the Romans, and the Germans, according to Caesar, were killed 430,000.

After the massacre, the Roman leader cynically freed the tribal elders, but those who had nothing to return to and who remained in the Roman camp. Caesar in his memoirs “On the Gallic War” explains that the Germans had hostile intentions from the beginning, they started the skirmish with the Gallic cavalry, and the visit of the tribal elders was to appease Caesar for this event and gain time. However, this is not confirmed by the complete unpreparedness of the Germans for the fight and the logical negotiations of the tribal chiefs. The number of killed 430 thousand. representatives of the tribes is probably exaggerated, but the massacre of defenceless civilians in the Germanic camp may be called genocide. Caesar’s cynical behavior is noteworthy: lying during negotiations, imprisonment of MPs, which even in the harsh reality of ancient wars was perceived as breaking the law. Caesar himself in the previous year of the Gallic campaign punished the Venetians for the imprisonment of Roman envoys. Well, apparently Caesar believed that the same act committed by a Roman and a barbarian deserves a different moral judgment… It is a very common cause of atrocities for centuries until today.

Pickup in Rome, aftermath and possible motivations

In Rome, Caesar’s supporters were delighted with his dealings with the Usipets and Tenkters, only his famous political opponent Cato the Younger, a model of righteousness, demanded in the Senate that the treacherous leader be stripped of his leadership and handed over to him. the people he cruelly murdered. Throughout Rome, prayers to the gods should also be made, asking for forgiveness for the violation of the most sacred laws of the inviolability of the envoys and for the bestial murder of so many people. The proposal of such resolutions, however, did not captivate the people and the Senate… On the contrary, Caesar attacked further: he set off for the Rhine under the pretext of searching for the Germanic cavalry, separated from the main forces of the Usipets and Tensers. 400 thousand as you can see, there were not enough victims for him…

Perhaps, however, the Roman leader had foreseen the future and knew that the annihilation of the Germans was crucial for Roman rule in Gaul, and their indulgent treatment could encourage more tribes to cross the Rhine and eventually lose the entire land to the Romans. Five centuries later, we are dealing with the settlement and formation of barbarian states within the borders of the Empire, which ended with the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

In 2015, the remains of the victims of the Uzypet and Tenkter massacre were found in the Dutch town of Kessel. The area of ​​the estuary of the Meuse and Waal – one of the mouths of the Rhine – is also given as the site of the annihilation of the Germanic camp.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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