Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Caesar vs Ariovistus (58 B.C.E.)

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Shortly after Caesar's victory over the Helvetii, he received

a barrage of messages from Gallic tribes thanking him for dealing with the invaders, and congratulating

him on his victory.

They then asked if they could come to see him in person.

It was all quite mysterious, and they insisted that everybody take an oath of secrecy before

the meeting.

Once face to face, they told Caesar about a German King named Ariovistus.

Apparently Ariovistus had been invited across the Rhine by some Gallic tribe to intervene

in a dispute, and had just started to gobble up territory for himself.

He then began to bring large numbers of Germans across the Rhine in an effort to colonize

his new territory.

He now had 120,000 Germans living in Gaul, with plans to bring more.

As a cherry on top, Ariovistus had also attacked Rome's closest ally in Gaul, and had forced

them to disavow their treaty with the Romans and to provide an annual tribute to Ariovistus


Nobody in Gaul was happy about this.

The Gauls then got around to the point of this secret meeting.

They formally asked Caesar to intervene on their behalf.

Caesar agreed to meet with Ariovistus to see if he could get him to moderate his behaviour.

I don't want to make it sound like Caesar was doing this for altruistic reasons.

A law had been passed in 61 B.C.E. instructing all governors of Transalpine Gaul to protect

Rome's Gallic allies whenever they were able.

In other words Caesar had a mandate from Rome to act on this if he wanted to.

But even more to the point, Ariovistus was encroaching on Rome's sphere of influence,

and doing nothing in response would do some real damage to Rome's credibility in the region.

Caesar sent a message to Ariovistus asking for a meeting on neutral ground.

Ariovistus wrote back, saying "no, if you want to meet, you come to me."

Obviously negotiations were off to a great start.

Caesar sent a second message, reminding Ariovistus that Caesar been the one to legitimize his

rise to power during his year as Consul.

This was a not-so-veiled threat.

He was saying "I made you, I could easily unmake you."

Caesar then listed his demands.

First, he instructed Ariovistus to immediately stop bringing Germans across the Rhine.

Second, he instructed him to return all of his Gallic hostages.

Third, he told him to immediately cease all military activity.

Ariovistus sent a simple reply.

He said that the Romans were free to run their conquests as they saw fit, and so was he.


Around the same time Caesar also received two pieces of intelligence.

First he got word that Ariovistus had mobilized an army and was marching on his neighbours


Second, he started to get reports of hundreds of thousands of Germans on the other side

of the Rhine preparing for a crossing.

This was getting serious.

Caesar gathered his men, and set off towards Ariovistus.

On the march, he got word that the German army was moving towards a town called Vesontio.

This was bad.

This town was well fortified, and Caesar wasn't interested continuing negotiations with a

guy behind strong walls, much less conducting a siege if it came to that.

He left his supply wagons behind, and pushed his men forward at a breakneck pace, marching

all day and all night, and arriving in Vesontio just before the Germans could reach it.

He stayed there for several days, allowing his men to rest while his supply wagons to

caught up.

When he was ready, Caesar marched out, and closed in with Ariovistus's army.

He sent messengers to set up a face to face meeting.

Ariovistus had some specific ground rules for the meeting.

He asked that exactly 10 men on horseback accompany each general.

Caesar had cavalry, but they all happened to be Gauls.

So, fearing some sort of trap or betrayal, he had some of his most loyal infantry mounted

on Gallic horses.

This lead to some of his men joking that he was treating them so well that he made them

into equites.

If you don't get the joke, it's a pun, equites means both horsemen and a wealthy Roman.

So the two generals and their retinues met on an open field.

Caesar simply reiterated what he had told Ariovistus in his letter.

He demanded that no more Germans cross the Rhine, that the Gallic hostages be returned,

and the cessation of all military activities.

Ariovistus said that this was now his province, just as Transalpine Gaul was Caesar's province.

He said that he and the Romans had won their respective provinces through conquest, fair

and square.

Ariovistus then leveled a threat, saying that many politicians back in Rome would probably

be overjoyed if he killed Caesar right now.


This comment caused a fight to break out between the horsemen.

Caesar would say that the Germans started it, but he would say that, wouldn't he?

Caesar immediately broke off negotiations and had his men return to camp.

A few days later, Ariovistus sent another message saying that he was interested in another


Caesar was understandably suspicious, considering how the last one ended.

He sent his favourite Gallic interpreter to go and see what Ariovistus wanted.

It's a good thing he did, because in fact it was a trap.

Ariovistus took Caesar's interpreter prisoner, and would spend the next several days arguing

with his religious advisers over whether or not they should burn him alive as a religious


Ariovistus mobilized his army, and in a surprise move, marched all the way around Caesar's

position, and encamped on a hill behind him.

This put him in a good position to intercept Caesar's grain shipments.

Not great for Caesar.

Ariovistus was leading an army of about 30,000, and Caesar had somewhere around 25,000.

Caesar and Ariovistus both deployed for battle 5 days in a row.

There was the occasional cavalry skirmish, but no outright attack.

Caesar was now under pressure to attack before he ran out of food, and with Ariovistus holding

the high ground this was a recipe for disaster.

So Caesar came up with a plan.

He marched his army out of his camp in three columns, leaving a small garrison behind.

He then marched just beyond the German hill.

Ariovistus saw what he was doing and sent out his cavalry and half of his infantry in


Why only half?

We'll get to that in a minute.

Caesar had expected a German response, which is why he had his men in three columns rather

than one.

He instructed two columns to turn and hold the Germans off, while the third one began

to construct a second fortified encampment.

There was some skirmishing back and forth, but Ariovistus never really pushed in a coordinated

attack, even though the Romans were out in the open, and undeniably vulnerable.

When the third line completed its construction, the Romans pulled back, and the Germans didn't


Caesar was now in a position where he could intercept his food shipments unmolested, which

meant that he could take his time figuring out how to deal with the Ariovistus.

The next day was pretty uneventful, but late in the day, the Germans sent a raiding party

to attack the first Roman camp.

But Caesar had left a garrison, and they were easily repulsed.

During this engagement, some German prisoners were captured.

Under questioning, they revealed that Ariovistus had been told by his religious advisers that

victory was impossible until the next full moon.


That explains why he was being so cautious.

Caesar decided to take full advantage of this.

The next day he marched his army straight up the hill, and Ariovistus did not challenge


Now, both armies were on the hill.

Caesar then deployed for battle so close to the German camp that they had no choice but

to fight.

If you remember back to when Caesar fought the Helvetii, he had kept his two inexperienced

legions in reserve at all times.

Here, for the first time, he put them up front, which is a sign of their growing competence.

As Ariovistus's army prepared for battle, Caesar observed that the Germans on the Roman

right looked a little weak.

That's where he positioned himself, and that's where he intended to win the battle.

All of a sudden, the Germans attacked with amazing speed.

It all happened so fast that the Romans didn't even have time to throw their javelins, they

just had to drop them where they stood.

Caesar ordered his first two lines forward, and keeps his third in reserve.

Ariovistus fought with some pretty unusual tactics, which are worth getting into here.

His infantry & cavalry coordinated very closely, and were organized in mixed groups of 100.

The infantry acted as a solid wall, similar to a phalanx, while the cavalry would hide

behind them, and launch hit and run attacks, coming back to regroup when needed.

Each group acted independently, which meant that there were hundreds of hits and runs

going on at the same time.

It was extremely frustrating to deal with.

As the battle dragged on, the Roman frustration started to show.

Some dealt with the German walls of infantry by throwing themselves into them, and ripping

away the enemy's shields with their bare hands.

I 'aint never seen that in a movie.

After some effort, Caesar was able to break through on the Roman right, just as he had


But with all of his attention devoted here, he was unaware that at the same moment, the

Roman left was beginning to crumble.

The commander of the Roman cavalry, Publius Licinius Crassus, son of Caesar's political

ally, saw what was happening, and launched into action.

On his own accord, he went to the Roman third line, who were totally oblivious, and ordered

them to come and reinforce the Roman left.

The third line got there just in time, and the left held.

This is an early example of the growing initiative of Caesar's subordinates, which would turn

out to be a feature of the Gallic wars.

Soon afterwards, the German collapse on the right reverberated throughout the entire army.

The Germans fell apart, and fled.

They continued their retreat all the way back across the Rhine, pursued by a horde of angry


Those hundreds of thousands of Germans waiting to cross the Rhine heard news of this defeat

and went home.

As luck would have it, after the battle Caesar's favourite Gallic interpreter was found alive

but traumatized by the constant conversations about being burned alive.

Caesar would later say that discovering that he was alive gave him as much pleasure as

the victory itself.

With these back-to-back victories over first the Helvetii and then Ariovistus, Caesar would

later say that he won two wars in a single summer.

Rome was now well established as an indispensable power broker in the region.

Caesar left his army in Gaul under the command of Labienus for the winter, and returned to

his provinces to tend to his duties as governor.

He'd be back next spring.

The Description of Caesar vs Ariovistus (58 B.C.E.)