The Commander of Caesar’s Cavalry
References in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico
- (Book III,5) – Campaigns Against the Helvetii (57BC)
- (Book IV,21-23) – Reconnoiters Britain Prior to Caesars Venture (55BC)
- (Book VI,41) – Relieves Seige of Cicero’s Camp (53BC)
- (Book VIII,23) – Attempts to Assassinate Commius (51BC)
- (Book VII,48/9) – Wounded by Commius (50BC)
References in Caesar’s De Bello Civili
Before Caesar left Gaul for Italy following his piecemeal conquest of the Belgic tribes at the end of the campaign season of 57BC, he sent his legate Servius Galba with Legio XII and a detachment of cavalry to winter in the territories of the Nantuates, Veragri, and Seduni. After a short but successful campaign against these tribes, during which several fortresses were taken, Galba recieved envoys, took hostages then looked to encamp his forces for the winter. Two cohorts of the twelfth were quartered in the territory of the Nantuates, probably at Acaunum on the Rhodanus, while the bulk of the legion was housed at Octodurus, a village of the Veragri which straddled the river further upstream.
The complement of the main camp was noticably under-strength, and this fact enticed the Veragri to go-back on their previous promises ofpeace and to strike back. Before the camp had been completed, theVeragri, aided by a large contingent of the Seduni swept down from theencircling mountains and surrounded the Roman position, hurling spearsand sling-stones. Although Galba’s cohorts gave as good as theyreceived, after six hours of this mode of combat things were gettingpretty desperate because, unlike the Gauls who could replace wounded orflagging warriors by fresh participants, the Romans were unable to rest, although they had recieved far fewer casualties by dint of theirpartially completed defences.
At this moment in history, we are presented with our firstmention of Gaius Volusenus Quadratus, who was then serving as militarytribune in – or attached to (see below) – the twelfth legion, and wasnumbered among those in the beleaguered fortress, for we are told;
“… The situation was as bad as it could be; andBaculus – the chief centurion who, as already said, was disabled byseveral wounds in the battle with the Nervii – came running to Galbawith Gaius Volusenus Quadratus, a military tribune and a man of soundjudgement and great courage, and told him that their only hope of escape was to try their last resource – a sortie through the enemies lines…”
(de Bello Gallico; III.5)
We can glean much from this single sentence about the nature of theman; he seems to have been approachable and respected amongst thecenturions in the legion, for of all the military tribunes present inthe fortress, it was he who was petitioned by the centurions, the mostexperienced and war-hardened veterans in the legion, and he whoaccompanied the legions most accomplished centurion – the primus pilusor ‘first spear’ – Publius Sextius Baculus, in the deputation to Galba.There must have been at least five or six other military tribunespresent at Octodurus, given that the normal complement of a legion wassix tribunes and that at least one, possibly two were at this timecommanding the two cohorts stationed in the territory of the Nantuates.
We must not forget that there was another tribune present in theperson of the commander of the auxiliary cavalry regiment which had been stationed with the bulk of the legion at Octodurus. Volusenus may wellhave been this man, for in the hierarchy of the Roman military cursus, a military tribune in command of a cavalry unit ranked above legionarytribunes. This would explain why Volusenus was chosen from among theothers, and is seemingly backed up by the fact that he was madecommander of Caesar’s cavalry in the later campaigns; it does notexplain the use of the title of military tribune however, for the usualtitle of the commander of a cavalry unit was praefectus alae, or inmodern day parlance ‘wing commander’.
In this passage, Caesar describes Volusenus in very favourableterms, commending his judgmental skills and his couragous nature. Praise indeed for a man with Caesar’s outstanding abilities and impeccablynoble lineage to admit that he valued the opinions of this MilitaryTribune. If Caesars memoires of his Gallic Wars were ever displayed upon the public notice-boards in the forum in Rome, his mention ofVolusenus’ name would do his reputation nothing but good – at least inthe eyes of the common people of Rome.
To continue with the narrative, we are told that after recievingthe deputation of Volusenus and Baculus, Galba ordered his men to ceasetheir offensive and to resort merely to parrying enemy missiles withtheir shields in order to regain their strength. Presently, the Romansrushed out from all four gates of the fortress – presumably twolegionary cohorts and a contingent of cavalry from each gate – and tookthe surrounding enemy completely by surprise, killing a great many andforcing the rest to leave the vicinity in complete disarray. We are told that out of an army of thirty thousand Gaulish warriors over tenthousand were killed. The following morning, Galba destroyed hisfortifications and retreated through the lands of the Nantuantes,presumably picking up the two legionary cohorts left there, back to theterritories of the Allobroges in the Roman Gallic Province, where hespent the rest of the winter. The route which Galba’s expedition wasexpected to open was through the Great Saint Bernard pass across theAlps from Genava in Gallia Narbonensis to Augusta Praetoria in GalliaTranspadana. The primary reason for his failure was the inadequate sizeof his force.
For the full account of the unsuccessful Alpine campaign of Galba in 57BC, see de Bello Gallico Book III chapters 1 thru 6.
After Caesar had returned from his first expedition across the Rhinewhich, so he tells us, he had performed to “overawe the Germans, punishthe Sugambri [who had the audacity to order Caesar to stay on thewestern bank of the Rhine], and relieve the Ubii from the harrassingpressure of the Suebi.” This was a very successful strategic move, which showed the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine that he was prepared totake the fight to them.
The Suebi (or Suevi) had abandoned thousands of square miles ofland, dispersed their non-combatants into the surrounding forests, andassembled their entire fighting force at a single location deep insidetheir territory as soon as they heard that Caesar had bridged the Rhine. This is the story Caesar himself tells us, implying that the powerfulSuebi were afraid of meeting him in battle. Their response, in myopinion, is the logical one – remove the women, children and the infirmto places of safety and concentrate their fighting forces.
The Rhine bridge – and the implied threat it’s mere existenceprovided – was a powerful persuasive to the tribes close to the Rhine to remain in their own lands. This allowed Caesar to temporarily move thetroublesome Germanic tribes to the back of his mind and to concentratehis energies to the west, and Britain. He wanted to send anexpeditionary force comprising two legions plus cavalry support toBritain. In order to land a force of this size – around fifteen thousand men – he needed to identify a British seaport he could capture, orfailing that, another suitable landing place along the British coast.
Caesar at first rounded-up all of the merchants in the Gaulishseaports and questioned any whom his informants said had connectionswith Britain, but his off-hand treatment of the merchants which pliedtheir trade between mainland Gaul and the British tribes earned him nomore information than he already knew, which was little enough. He soonrealised that in order to get any reliable information, he would have to use an unimpeachable first-hand source, which is where Volusenus againsteps into the limelight of history’s stage. In Caesar’s own words;
“In order to get this information before riskingan expedition, he [Caesar) sent a warship in command of Volusenus, whomhe considered a suitable man for the job. His orders were to make ageneral reconnaissance and return as soon as he could. Meanwhile Caesarmarched the whole army into the country of the Morini, from which therewas the shortest crossing to Britain…”
(de Bello Gallico; IV,21)
This passage raises a question; for if Caesar sent Gaius Volusenus on his fact-finding mission before he himself marched with his army intothe country of the Morini, from where did Volusenus begin his journey?The passage implies that Volusenus started for Britain somewhere otherthan Portus Itius (Boulogne?) which was probably the major seaport ofthe Morini at this time and was where Caesar’s fleet later sailed. Mostmodern scholars think that Caesar’s bridge over the Rhine was somewherenear Confluentes (modern Koblenz), but this is dependant on anemendation to the surviving text of Caesar’s de Bello Gallico, where itstates that the preceeding battle in which the Germanic tribes theUsipetes and the Tenctheri were massacred took place near the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine. It is possible, on the basis of thetextual difficulties described above, that the massacre was furtherdownstream to the north, near the confluence of the Meuse and the Rhine; this could put the bridge somewhere in the region of Noviomagus(Nijmegen). If Caesar’s chronology is to be taken verbatim, then I would be more inclined to believe the latter interpretation, and place thescene of the massacre near Noviomagus, for if Volusenus set out in hiswarship from the region of Confluentes, a further 150 miles upstream,his journey from there to the North Sea would have taken a further twodays, leaving him no time at all in which to reconnoitre the approachesto Britain.
Another point which supports the Noviomagus locale, is the factthat Caesar himself states in de Bello Gallico (IV.1) that the Germanictribes; “crossed the Rhine in large numbers not far from its mouth”, inother words from the north. It would not be too controversial therefore, to assume that once Caesar started to get the better of them in battle, the surviving warriors would attempt to escape by retracing theirsteps, for whatever means they had used to cross the Rhine, be it byboat, raft or bridge, would still be in place, and the disspiritedGermans would seek to return by the same method. It may be as well atthis point to quote from the works of Lucius Annaeus Florus;
“Further complaints against the Germans werebrought by the Tencteri. On this occasion Caesar took the initiative and crossed the Moselle by a bridge of boats and made for the Rhine itselfand the enemy in the Hercynian forests ; but the whole tribe had fledaway to their woods and marshes, so great was their panic caused by theappearance of the Romans on the further bank of the river.”
This passage shows that Florus may have had difficulties himself with the discrepancies in Caesar’s account and tried to make the necessarygeographical emendations in his own rendition of events during theGallic War. He states that Caesar’s first bridge was not across theRhine, but merely the Moselle (Mosella), although he could have meantthe Meuse (Mosa), which would have made more sense, for if Caesarcrossed the Moselle it would have placed him far to the south of Germany near Switzerland. He also infers that the bridge was of the pontoonvariety, again in direct contradiction of Caesar’s account. This passage shows just how much doubt there is concerning the actual location ofthe bridge, and therefore, the starting point of Volusenus’ journey.
To continue with the account of Caesar, he briefly narrates hispreparations for the crossing to Britain, and mentions his audienceswith several British envoys; he then concludes the same chapterdescribing Volusenus’ return;
“… He sent Commius to visit as many tribes aspossible, to urge them to entrust themselves to the protection of Rome,and to announce his impending arrival. Volusenus reconnoitred the coastas far as he could without disembarking and putting himself into thepower of the natives, which he dared not do, and returned four dayslater with his report.”
(de Bello Gallico: IV,23)
We are not given the details of his report, however, but it is plainfrom this passage that Volusenus did not spend very long touring roundthe coastline of Cantium, and one must wonder if this speedysurveillance later had some bearing on Caesar’s difficulties with hischosen landing site on the beaches between Deal and Walmer Castle. Thefault does not lie with Volusenus, however, for his instructions hadbeen in essence to ‘have a quick look and get back as soon as possible’. It also seems that he was acting in a timid manner in refusing todisembark and look more closely at the lie of the land away from thecoast, but this was merely being expedient, for what use would be anyinformation he gathered, if he was unable to make his report to Caesar?It should be noted that Caesar had also sent Commius the Atrebatean toBritain in an ambassadorial capacity, to represent his interests to theBritish tribes. This fact is mentioned here, because Commius theAtrebatean was at a later moment in history to have a profound effect on the life of Gaius Volusenus Quadratus.
There is a further passing reference to Volusenus in de BelloGallico, when Caesar was anchored off the coast of Britain near theWhite Cliffs of Dover;
“… Caesar thought this a quite unsuitable placefor landing, and therefore rode at anchor until three o’clock, in orderto give the rest of the ships time to come up. Meanwhile he assembledthe generals and military tribunes and, telling them what he had learned from Volusenus, explained his plans. …”
(de Bello Gallico: IV,23)
It is my opinion that Gaius Volusenus Quadratus was not present among the tribunes at this meeting, and my reasoning behind this is hinted at in the excerpt quoted above. It is obvious from the passage that Caesar had not imparted the reconaissance information gathered by Volusenus to his officers until his fleet was stationed before the White Cliffs ofDover. The other ships to which Caesar refers in the excerpt were theeighteen transport vessels that had been unable to join his fleet atPortus Itius, and had been held up at Ambleteuse, eight miles to thenorth. Just before Caesar set off with his legions aboard the mainfleet, he had sent his cavalry overland to Ambleteuse, with orders toboard the transports there and to follow him as soon as possible. Taking all these factors into account, how was Caesar to have the recon. datapassed to the officers in charge of his cavalry? It is my belief thatVolusenus had been sent with the cavalry for that express purpose, which explains why Volusenus was not present at the briefing off Dover, andalso lends credence to the argument in the previous discussion where itis assumed that Volusenus was a cavalry officer.
Following his second crossing of the Rhine in the summer of 53BC andhis apparently ineffectual campaign against the Sugambri, Caesarwithdrew to the western (Gallic) bank and employed a ruse to secure hiseastern flank while he dealt with the Eburones in Gaul, the tribe of his arch-enemy Ambiorix. In order to dupe the Germans into thinking that he would soon return, Caesar dismantled the last two hundred feet of theeastern (Ubian) end of the bridge, keeping the greater part of itslength intact, thus implying that he would use it again in the nearfuture. He then built a strong fort at the Gallic end – which included a remarkable four storey watch-tower – and garrisoned it with adetachment of twelve cohorts under the command of a young tribune namedGaius Volcacius Tullus. The idea being to keep the Germans guessingabout his next move, thus keeping them on the defensive and hopefully,on the eastern bank of the Rhine.
The principal tribe behind the revolt in Gaul during 54-53 BCwere the Eburones who were governed by two chieftains, one of them being Ambiorix the instigator of the rebellion, the other was a venerable and seemingly respected nobleman named Catuvolcus. Caesar marched with hisarmy through the Ardennes, sending his entire cavalry force under thecommand of Lucius Minucius Basilus ahead of his legions with orders toeffect a swift strike into the homelands of Ambiorix. He was instructedto dispense with the usual campfires which could emit smoke trailsduring the day or tell-tale lights at night, so as not to give the enemy any forewarning. The cavalry attack succeeded almost beyond allexpectations when the Romans burst upon the camp of Ambiorix himself,taking the Eburones completely by surprise, but the wily Gallicchieftain managed to evade capture by the narrowest of margins whilemembers of his household valiantly kept Basilus’ horsemen at bay.
Catuvolcus, who was then a frail old man, upon hearing of theattack on the home encampment of Ambiorix, and unable because of hisinfirmity either to offer resistance or suffer the hardship of aprotracted flight through the difficult terrain of his homeland, decided to honourably commit suicide. As he did so – according to Caesar bypoisoning himself with Yew – he repented being so easily led by thepersuasions of his younger fellow magistrate to believe that their tribe could succeed against the strength of Caesar where others had failed.After the defeat of Ambiorix and the death of Catuvolcus, the dispirited Eburones melted into the surrounding countryside, some into the forestof the Ardennes, others into the tidal islands of the northern coastline of Belgica.
Caesar placed all of his heavy baggage at Atuatuca in the centreof the territory of the Eburones, making use of the fortifications ofthe old winter fortress of Sabinus and Cotta which was still servicable. He placed it under the command of Quintus Tullius Cicero – the youngerbrother of Marcus Cicero the famous orator – giving him the fourteenthlegion, newly-levied from Italy and a small company of two hundredcavalry. Caesar then split his forces; Titus Atius Labienus, the ablestand most trusted of Caesars legates was given three legions and orderedto march “towards the coast, into the region bordering on the Menapii,…”; another three legions under the command of Gaius Trebonius weresent to “ravage the district lying on the frontiers of the Atuatuci….”; the three remaining legions – at this point in time Caesar’s total legionary force numbered ten – were taken by Caesar himself and marched “to the river Scheldt, which flows into the Meuse, and to the westernend of the Ardennes, …” where his intelligence reported Ambiorixhimself had gone accompanied only by a small number of cavalry.
Cicero was told that Caesar would return to the fortress atAtuatuca in seven days hence, and Labienus and Trebonius were alsoinstructed to do likewise if it were tactically expedient. The threeRoman forces then dispersed; Labienus headed north west, Treboniusmarched towards the west-south-west, and Caesar advanced due south.
Having no large strongholds to speak of, nor any standing army,the Eburones had abandoned their farmsteads and dispursed in smallfamily groups into the surrounding forests. This had the effect ofrendering Caesars most effective offensive forces ineffective, for itrobbed Caesars legions of any tangible strategic objectives. He wouldhave to seek out each surviving pocket of Eburone resistance, whether it was an individual warrior hiding out in some woodland bolt-hole, or asmall band of desperate men holed-up in a naturally defended rockyoutcrop, or a peasant family fled into the relative safety of marshlandnearby his home and accompanied by their livestock, or a noble and hisretinue. Caesar was of the opinion that it was far too risky to riskexposing his legionary troops to the sort of campaign that the situation imposed for he believed that their training was unsuited to the task of supressing an enemy using such guerilla tactics, so he declared an open house amongst the allied Gaulish nations, inviting them to plunder theterritories of the Eburones.
To protect his eastern flank during these operations Caesarrelied on his ruse with the bridge to keep the Germans on their own side of the Rhine – this was to prove a costly gamble. News of the pillaging of the Eburones quicky spread, and was soon to reach the ears of theSugambri, who wanted a share of the spoil quickly put together a forceof two thousand horsemen, and by means of a number of commandeered boats and purpose-built rafts, crossed the river at a point some thirty miles downstream of the site of Caesar’s bridge garisson. The Sugambrientered the territory of the Eburones from the east, and there were noRoman forces in this direction, for upon hearing from Eburone tribesmen captured whilst fleeing eastwards that the Romans baggage – and plentyof loot – was lying at Atuatuca virtually unprotected. Due to thedistribution of Caesar’s legions to north, west and south of Atuatuca,the Sugambri horsemen swept through the countryside towards Atuatucatotally unopposed.
On the morning of the seventh day following Caesar’s departurefrom the camp, the day on which he stated he would return, Cicero hadauthorized five cohorts of his legionaries – half of his available force – to gather corn and fresh supplies from the fields in the immediatevicinity of the Roman fortifications, which had been left abandoned anduntended by the Eburones in their flight. very day that the Germans came within striking distance of Atuatuca, and despite Caesars orders not to do so; …
“As the Germans saw that the Roman troops had nowmanned the fortifications, they gave up hope of taking the camp bystorm, and retired with the booty that they had hidden in the woods.Even after their departure, the defenders were still so frightened thatVolusenus, who was sent ahead by Caesar with the cavalry and arrivedthat night in the camp, could not make them believe that Caesar wasclose at hand, with his army safe and sound. Fear had so completelypossessed them all that they nearly took leave of their senses, andwould have it that the whole army had been cut to pieces, and that thecavalry had managed to escape by flight: if the army were notedestroyed, they maintained, the Germans would never have attacked thecamp. The panic was eventually stopped by Caesar’s arrival.”
(de Bello Gallico; VI.41)
“Returning to their countrymen at night, the envoys reported Caesar’s reply and obtained the required number of hostages. The deputies of the other tribes, who had been waiting to see what success the Bellovacihad, now hastened to make their own submission, to supply the necessaryhostages, and to comply with the demands made upon them. Only Commiuskept away, being afraid to entrust his life to any man. For the yearbefore, when Caesar was away holding the assizes in northern Italy,Labienus had discovered that Commius was intriguing with various tribesand plotting against Caesar, and decided it would be no treachery todestroy such a traitor. It was useless to summon him to the camp; hewould not have come, and the summons would have put him on guard. SoLabienus sent Volusenus with orders to stage a sham interview and havehim put to death. Some centurions specially picked for the purpose wentwith him. At the interview Volusenus gave the pre-arranged signal bygrasping Commius’ hand, but the centurion who made the first swordthrust failed to dispatch him, only inflicting a severe head wound;either his nerve failed him because he was unused to such work, orCommius’ friends were too quick for him. Both sides drew their weapons,but more with the object of getting safely away than of fighting; forthe Romans thought that Commius was mortally wounded, and the Gauls,realizing that they had been led into a trap, were afraid that more menmight be concealed somewhere. After this experience Commius was said tohave resolved never to come again into the presence of any Roman.”
(de Bello Gallico; VIII.23)
“There he heard how Commius the Atrebatean came to blows with a party of our cavalry. Antony had reached his winter quarters and theAtrebates were quiet; but Commius, ever since he was wounded at hismeeting with Volusenus, as related above, had always been ready to actas an agitator and ringleader in any intrigues or warlike plots thatmight be hatched among his fellow tribesmen. As the Atrebates were atpresent submitting to Roman control, he organised a band of horsemen and supported himself and his followers by brigandage, intercepting bymeans of raids several convoys destined for Roman camps.
“Volusenus, who was attached to Antony’s legion for the winter as cavalry commander, was detailed to pursue Commius’ horsemen – a taskfor which his outstanding courage fitted him, and which he undertook all the more willingly because he detested Commius. At length, in aparticularly fierce encounter, he and a few of his men made a determined effort to catch Commius himself by pursuing him closely. Commiusgalloped off and drew them some distance away. Then, in his hatred ofVolusenus, he suddenly appealed to his followers to help him avenge thewound which had been so treacherously inflicted on him, and turning hishorse round rode forward alone and daringly chaged his enemy. The others followed his example and Volusenus’ handful of men were forced to flywith the Gauls in pursuit. Putting spurs to his horse Commius rode close up behind Volusenus and with his lance couched made a hard thrust clean through his thigh. Seeing their commander wounded, our men drew reinwithout a moment’s hesitation, wheeled round, and repulsed theirpursuers. A number of the Gauls were knocked down and wounded by theviolence of the charge and either trampled under the horses’ feet in the pursuit or taken prisoner – a fate which Commius escaped by theswiftness of his horse. Thus our horsemen had the best of the fight; but Volusenus was carried back to camp with a wound so severe that itlooked as if it might prove fatal. Either Commius was satisfied with his revenge, or else he had lost too many of his followers to be able topursue the quarrels further; in any case, he sent to Antony and offeredhostages as a guarantee that he would live where he was bidden and do as he was told. His only request was that as a concession to the fearwhich haunted him he should not be required to come into the presence of any Roman. Antony decided that his fears were justified and thereforegranted his petition and accepted the hostages. …”
(de Bello Gallico; VIII.48, 49)
“… They talked with a few of their adherents, together with whomthey dared to undertake such a crime, and first of all they attempted,as we learned after the war, to kill the cavalry commander GaiusVolusenus, so as to have some token of their support to show when theydeserted to Pompey. …”
(de Bello Civili; III.60);