Common Errors (25): Caesar on the Sabis

7 August 2009
Battle of the Sabis

Battle of the Sabis

Among the mistakes in the new historical atlas (the subject of an earlier posting) is the identification of the river Sabis, where Caesar defeated the Nervians, with the modern Sambre. It is true that the words resemble each other, but that’s about all evidence there is for this identification.

A much more plausible place is the little river Selle, which empties itself into the Scheldt near modern Valenciennes. The obvious objection is that Selle does not look like Sabis at all, but looks can be deceptive. In 706, the river was called Save; in 964; we find a reference to the Seva; the change to Sevelle is a normal development in the twelfth and thirteenth century, and in 1476, presto, the little stream was known as Selle.

This identification also explains why the Nervians could surprise the Roman invaders. The Selle is crossed by a very ancient road, about which I’ve blogged before, which Caesar used: he writes that he left for the Nervians from the Ambiani, who lived near modern Amiens. The legions just took the main road, and were nearly defeated at a place that is now called Saulzoir, in northern France.

Literature

Pierre Turquin, ‘La Bataille de la Selle (du Sabis) en l’ An 57 avant J.-C.’ in Les Études Classiques 23/2 (1955), 113-156

<Overview of Common Errors>

Advertisements

Caesar’s Gallic War

2 June 2009
A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

A young (and unshaven) Julius Caesar (Museum of Corinth)

I’ve made several small additions to the Livius website during the Pentecost weekend. In the first place, I put online an article I wrote about a year ago on Caesar‘s literary aims in his Gallic Wars. It was originally published in Ancient Warfare. As you already guessed, the Roman general tried to cover up what went wrong and to broadcast what went right. Still, there may be some interesting notes about lesser known topics, like the way he presents the topography of Gaul. The article is here, but of course it is also possible to subscribe to Ancient Warfarehere.

Other additions are a brief article on ostraca and the photos of Taucheira, which have moved to another location, which is here.


A very, very ancient road in Northern Gaul

6 September 2008
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilda”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

That being said, the Chaussée Brunehaut or Via Belgica or whatever you prefer to call it, is an important monument. I am not certain, but it may be one of the oldest roads in the world that is still in use. You can find more information here.


Two Battles of Caesar

27 May 2008

I am moving some pages through my website (more…), and today did two battle sites where Julius Caesar defeated the Belgians: at the river Sabis, the modern Selle in French Flanders, he overcame the Nervians, and at Huy (map to the right) he besieged the Atuatuci. (Related: Alesia, Rubico, Dyrrhachium, Pharsalus, Zela.)

I also moved Segovia (the famous aqueduct) and two unimportant pages: the Pyrenees, and the limes castle at Böbingen.