Sabinus and Cotta: A Roman Disaster



Caesar began his conquest of Gaul in 58 BCE with the defeat of the Helvii, and then proceeded to subjugate the rest of Gaul. By winter of 54 BCE this had been fairly well accomplished, most Celtic Gaul and Belgae tribes had either been defeated or submitted to Roman rule, up to the Rhine River and the Channel coast. Having lost the major engagements with the romans, the Celts had learned a hard lesson when dealing with roman armaments.

In the winter of 54 the Celts although weary of the conflict still resented the presence of the romans among them. Caesar knowing this decided to post his legions in with the most troublesome tribes. Also a grains shortage as the result of a drought in the year caused him to place them where provisions could be attained.

Sending his commanders which were assigned as such; Legate Gaius Fabius (one legion) in the country of the MORINI, Quintus Cicero (one legion) to the NERVII; Titus Labienus (one legion) with the REMI, which borders the TREVERI.

Three legions were sent to the Belgae under the command (one legion each) of Questor Marcus Crassus, Legates Lucius Munatius Plancus and Gaius Trebonius.

One Legion and five cohorts under the Legates Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta in to the territory of the EBURONES, who’s land lies between the Muse and Rhine Rivers, and who’s chieftains were Ambiorix and Catuvolcus.

BOOK V (3) The Winter Camps : Sabinus and Cotta

[“About a fortnight later there was sudden trouble. A revolt broke out, and the instigators of it were Ambiorix and Catuvolcus….they had been induced by messages from Indutiomarus the Treveran to summon all their people to Arms.

They made a sudden attack on a group of our men who were getting wood, and then came with a large force to attack the Roman camp…. The enemy gave up all hope of success and withdrew from the attack.

Gaius Arpineius a Roman of Equestrian rank and friend of Sabinus, was sent to parley with them. (Note: Also Quintus Junius)]

Ambiorix addressed them as such, he acknowledged his indebtedness to Caesar for his kindness and blaming the whole of Gaul for his attack upon the Roman camps, saying “…My tribe’s reason for making war was that it could not stand out against the sudden joint action to which all the Gaul’s pledge themselves….the whole of Gaul agreed on a common plan..” He therefore urged Sabinus to remove his troops from the encampment and retire to the camps of Cicero of Labienus, claiming a large force of German mercenaries had crossed the Rhine and would be upon him in two days. Offering them safe conduct through his lines.

An argument ensued between Sabinus and Cotta over the logic to leave or stay, the disagreement spread through out the Roman camp, but the next morning at dawn the legion left the camp.

(32)”The enemy hearing the noise and aware of activity in the night realized that our men were going to leave the camp. So they placed two ambushes in a good spot in the woods about two miles away and waited there, hidden form view, for the Romans to arrive. When the greater part of our column had descended into a deep defile the Gauls suddenly appeared at each end of it and began to harass the read-guard and stop the head of the column climbing the hill to get out. They forced our men to engage in battle on ground that was very unfavourable to them”

Sabinus failed to foresee the assault and now panic stricken ran from cohort to cohort. Cotta on the other hand though it a possibility, now encouraged the soldiers to fight and joined the line to fight.

The Gauls fought in earnest, intent upon the destruction of the Romans, falling back when charged and advancing when the Romans regrouped. The fighting continued most of the day, until Sabinus decided to parley with Ambiotix.

(36)” ….When he caught sight of Ambiorix…he sent Gnaeus Pomperius to him to ask quarter for himself and his men…In reply…Ambiotrix said that Sabinus was free to come and speak with him,….would guarantee that Sabinus himself would certainly come to no harm”

(37) ” Sabinus ordered the military tribunes andsenior centurions who were with him at the moment to follow him. When he was quit close to Ambiorix, he was told to lay down his weapons. He obeyed and told those with him to do the same… Sabinus was gradually surrounded and then killed.”

“At this the Gaul’s, as is their custom, Raised a shout of victory and with loud yells charged at our men and broke through our ranks. Cotta was killed fighting there and so were most of the soldiers with him. The others retreated to the camp from which they had come. One of these surviors, Lucius Pretroidus the standard bearer of the legion, was beset by great numbers of the enemy: he threw the eagle inside the rampart and died fighting valiantly in front of the camp. The rest, with difficulty, managed to keep the enemy off until hightfall: in the night, because they had no hopeleft, every single one of them committed suicide. The few who had slipped away during the battle made their way …to Labienus camp”

All for the glory of the roman senate and people.

CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pomeraan