Friday, March 23, 2012

The Challenge

In 57 BC, the Battle of the Sabis was fought in what is now southern Belgium, pitting the expansionist Romans under Julius Caesar against a confederation of several tribes of Belgian Gauls. The Romans won, and the Nervii, one of the tribes of Gauls, was beaten severely and forced to retreat. Three years later, they mounted an attack of their own against the 11th Claudian Legion of the Roman army, led by Quintus Cicero, who were camped for the winter. The Nervii, using tactics they had learned from the Romans themselves, built a ten-mile circular wall and ditch around the Roman palisade, trapping the 11th within their own fortification. Before long, the Nervii assaulted the Roman position with towers, grappling hooks, and manpower. The siege was on.

During this attack, there were two Roman centurions - that is, officers - named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, and there was a rivalry between them, as they were both contending for the position of Primus Pilus, or lead centurion. Pullo taunted Vorenus, asking him “Quid dubitas?” which translates to “Why do you hesitate?” He then asked Vorenus what better chance there will be to prove themselves, and this will be the day for it; Pullo then picked up his shield and weapons and charged out the gates, directly into the thickest part of the attacking army.

Roman soldiers at the time carried heavy iron-tipped javelins called pila (singular pilum), and Pullo immediately threw his and impaled one of the many Nervii charging him. The Nervii typically each carried a tall wooden shield; several of the Gauls covered their fallen comrade with these shields, while many others all threw their own javelins back at the charging Pullo. One lodged in Pullo’s shield, while another stuck in his thick leather belt, spinning it around; as Pullo’s sword is hanging from his belt, he suddenly couldn’t reach it in time, and before long he was frantically defending from the swarm of Nervii soldiers who had closed in on him.

Fortunately for Pullo, Vorenus had accepted his challenge and followed him out of the fort. Vorenus killed one of the Nervi, and the rest turned on him; while backpedaling, his foot got twisted in a depression on the ground and Vorenus fell over. Pullo, now able to draw his sword, returned the favor and in turn rescued Vorenus from the gang of Gaulish warriors. They each were able to kill several of the enemy - not surprising, considering the Romans, unlike the Nervii, are heavily armored - and retreat back to their fortification walls. Many of their brethren were cheering as the two friendly rivals, each having saved the other, returned to their cohorts.

Despite their heroics, the situation for Quintus Cicero and the 11th was still dire. It was imperative that they got a message out to Caesar, who was not far away, so the commander could send reinforcements. They sent out several runners, but they were invariably captured by the Nervii and executed within sight of the fort. Finally, they made use of a man named Vertico, a Nervian who had defected to the Romans earlier; they tied the message to his javelin, and sent him walking nonchalantly out. Vertico mixed in with the rest of his kinsmen, and was able to make it through their lines, and then to Caesar’s camp to deliver the message. Caesar summoned troops to the location, and lead a relief army which successfully drew away the attacking Nervii from the besieged 11th. Caesar then defeated them in a pitched battle.

Links and Sources:
Wikipedia entries on Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico, by Julius Caesar, available online here.

Image of Centurion by Angus McBride, and appeared in Warrior 71: Roman Legionary 58 BC - AD 69, by Osprey Publishing, 2003.
Image of Gauls by Angus McBride, and appeared in Men-at-Arms 158, Rome’s Enemies 2: Gallic and British Celts, by Osprey Publishing, 1985.


  1. Cool story. I want a pilum. That could come in handy.

  2. They're also good for prisoners to use to pick up trash from the city park.


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