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The Belgae were a group of nations or tribes living in north-eastern Gaul, on the west bank of the Rhine, in the 1st century BC, and later also attested in Britain. Their name survives in modern Belgium.
Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico divided the people of Gaul at the time of his conquests (58 - 51 BC) into three broad groups: the Aquitani, Galli (who in their own language were called Celtae) and Belgae, all of whom had their own customs and language. He noted that the Belgae, being furthest from the developed civilisation of Rome and closest to the Germans, were the bravest of the three.
Origins of the Belgae
Whether the Belgae were Celts or Germans occupied 19th century and early 20th century historians. Caesar claims that most of the Belgae were descended from tribes who had long ago crossed the Rhine from Germania. However most of the tribal and personal names recorded are identifiably Celtic. It seems likely that the Belgae had a mixture of Celtic and Germanic ancestry. Perhaps they were Germanic people ruled by a Celtic Úlite, or were a political alliance of Celtic and Germanic tribes. In any case, the Romans were not precise in their ethnography of northern barbarians: by "German" Caesar may simply have meant "originating east of the Rhine", with no distinction of language intended.
Tribes who belonged to the Belgae included the Remi, Bellovaci, Suessiones, Nervii, Atrebates, Ambiani , Morini, Menapii, Caleti , Veliocasses and Viromandui . Caesar says one tribe, the Atuatuci , were descended from the Germanic Cimbri and Teutones, and describes four others, the Condrusi , Eburones, Caerosi and Paemani , as German tribes (although Ambiorix, a later leader of the Eburones, has a Celtic name). Other tribes that may have been included among the Belgae were the Leuci , Treveri, Tungri and Mediomatrici . Posidonius includes the Armoricani in Brittany as well.
Conquest of the Belgae
Caesar conquered the Belgae, beginning in 57 BC. He writes that the Belgae were conspiring and arming themselves in response to his earlier conquests, and in response to this threat he raised two new legions and ordered his Gallic allies the Aedui to invade the territory of the Bellovaci. Wary of the numbers and bravery of the Belgae, he initially avoided a pitched battle, resorting mainly to cavalry skirmishes to probe their strengths and weaknesses. Once he was satisfied his troops were a match for them, he made camp on a low hill protected by a marsh at the front and the river Aisne behind, near Bibrax (between modern Laon and Reims) in the territory of the Remi.
The Belgae attacked over the river, but were repulsed after a fierce battle. Realising they could not dislodge the Romans and aware of the approach of the Aedui to the lands of the Bellovaci, the Belgae decided to disband their combined force and return to their own lands. Whichever tribe Caesar attacked first, the others would come to its defence. They broke camp shortly before midnight. At daybreak, satisfied the retreat was not a trap, Caesar sent cavalry to harass the rearguard, followed by three legions, and many of the Belgae were killed.
Caesar next marched into the territory of the Suessiones and besieged the town of Noviodunum (Soissons). Seeing the Romans' siege engines, the Suessiones surrendered, and Caesar turned his attention to the Bellovaci, who had retreated into the fortress of Bratuspantium (between modern Amiens and Beauvais). They quickly surrendered, as did the Ambiani.
The Nervii, along with the Atrebates and Viromandui, decided to fight (the Atuatuci had also agreed to join them but had not yet arrived). They concealed themselves in the forests and attacked the approaching Roman column at the river Sambre. Their attack was so quick and unexpected that some of the Romans didn't have time to take the covers off their shields or even put on their helmets. The element of surprise briefly left the Romans exposed. However Caesar grabbed a shield, made his way to the front line, and quickly organised his forces. The two legions who had been guarding the baggage train at the rear arrived and helped to turn the tide of the battle. Caesar says the Nervii were almost anihilated in the battle, and is is effusive in his tribute to their bravery, calling them "heroes".
The Atuatuci, who were marching to their aid, turned back on hearing of the defeat and retreated to one stronghold, were put under siege, and soon surrendered and handed over their arms. However the surrender was a ploy, and the Atuatuci, armed with weapons they had hidden, tried to break out during the night. The Romans had the advantage of position and killed four thousand. The rest, about fifty-three thousand, were sold into slavery.
In 53 BC the Eburones, led by Ambiorix, along with the Nervii, Menapii and Morinii, revolted again and wiped out 15 cohorts, only to be put down by Caesar. The Belgae fought in the uprising of Vercingetorix in 52 BC.
After their final subjugation, Caesar combined the three parts of Gaul, the territory of the Belgae, Celtae and Aquitani, into a single unwieldy province (Gallia Comata, "long-haired Gaul") that was reorganized by Augustus Caesar into its traditional cultural divisions. The province of Gallia Belgica was bounded on its east by the Rhine and extended all the way from the North Sea to Lake Constance (Lacus Brigantinus), including parts of what is now western Switzerland, with its capital at the city of the Remi (Reims). Under Diocletian, Belgica Prima (capital, Augusta Trevirorum, Trier) and Belgica Secunda (capital Reims) formed part of the diocese of Gaul.
The Belgae outside Gaul
The Belgae had made their way across the English Channel into southern England in Caesar's time (Bello Gallica ii:4 and v:12), and settled in some of the southern counties where among their towns were Magnus Portus (Portsmouth) and Venta Belgarum (Winchester). Commius of the Atrebates, Caesar's former ally, fled to Britain after participating in Vercingetorix's rebellion and either joined or established a British branch of his tribe.
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