Caesar´s Germanic Cavalry: An Elite Fighting Force

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On a site dedicated to the History of Rome and traveling to various regions to discover cool places and amazing things within what was the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire), we couldn’t not discuss one of the most polarizing and charismatic people to grace the pages of antiquity. Love him or hate him, Gaius Julius Caesar was a man known among everyone in Ancient Rome.

How was it that Germanic tribesmen began so trusted upon by one of Rome’s greatest Generals? When did their use come into fashion for Rome? Let’s find out!

Caesar’s German Auxiliary Cavalry

Time and again, Caesar’s German Cavalry had more than proven their worth. In Gallia, they gave Caesar the advantage over hostile horsemen while alongside siege craft in Alesia they helped bring about Caesar’s victory.

In Greece, Caesar’s Germans proved that they could fight as well on foot as they could on horseback, then in Egypt they helped clinch the victory over Ptolemy XII Auletes.

Bronze statue of Julius Caesar (Rimini, Italy).

Few in number, Caesar treated his German Cavalry as elite, often holding them in reserve until the situation became desperate. It was then, that Caesar’s elite German warriors could decisively influence the course of a war.

But it this wasn’t always the case. Of course, the Romans had used neighboring people as Auxilia though never in such an esteemed role as Caesar held his non-Romans.

By the time of Julius Caesar’s Gallic War (58-51 BC), it appears that the typical Equites Romani  (Roman Cavalry) may have disappeared altogether, and that Caesar was entirely dependent on allied Gallic contingents for his cavalry operations. This is deduced from an incident in 58 BC when Caesar was invited to a parley with the German king Ariovistus and needed a cavalry escort.

Since he didn’t yet trust the allied Gallic cavalry under his command, Caesar instructed them to lend their horses to some members his Legiōnēs. Thus was the beginning of the Legio X Equestris (10th Mounted Legion).

The infamous Legio X Equestris

After Caesar had beaten back German tribal intrusions into Gallia in 58 and 55 BC, the Germans decided to join Caesar. Four hundred strong, they were there as a both a show of goodwill and trust as well as for the loot and glory in battle.

Julius Caesar’s Germanic tribesmen were tall, muscular men with skin toughened by the elements and scarred from battle wounds. Hailing from the Usipetes and from the Tencteri, these tribesmen were built for war armed with spears, swords, shields, and helmets.

That the Germans would fight for former foes was not at all unusual. What mattered to them was that they got the spoils promised or deserved.

The Roman troops of Julius Caesar prepare to face the Helvetii and their allies at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC.

Caesar was impressed by the martial spirit of the Germans.  He wrote that, though in the past the Gauls had been more warlike than the Germans, the Gauls had come to “not even pretend to compete with the Germans in bravery”.

Caesar valued his German warriors so highly, that he replaced their pony-like horses with the larger steeds of his bodyguard, Tribunus Militum (Military Tribunes), and Equites (Knights). It was in 52 BC, during the final and most critical year of Caesar’s Gallic War, when his fortunes would fall to an all time low, that his German Cavalry would rise to the occasion.

As Caesar was accepting the surrender of the town of Noviodunum Biturigum, the cavalry of Gallic King Vercingetorix appeared. Caesar ordered his Allied Gallic Cavalry to take the field.

Caesar’s Cavalry Charge

Caesar’s Gauls had the worst of the ensuing fight, prompting Caesar to commit his 400 Germans. With a furious charge, the Germans scattered the enemy and inflicted heavy casualties.

Vercingetorix, however, regained the initiative with a defensive victory at Gergovia. With many of his Gallic allies having switched sides, Caesar recruited another 600 German tribal cavalry and light troops from across the Rhine.

In Gallia Narbonensis, Vercingetorix again attacked Caesar. The sudden appearance of Vercingetorix caught Caesar unprepared, but the Gallic cavalry failed to close in for combat with the Romans.

North face of the Mausoleum of the Julii in Glanum, southern France, showing a cavalry battle (c. 40 BC).

Meanwhile, Caesar’s Auxiliary Cavalry kept the enemy at bay which allowed his Legionaries to form a defensive square. It was at this moment when Caesar’s German Cavalry gained the summit of a nearby hill.

Never content with being on the defensive, Caesar’s Germans routed a body of Gallic horsemen and hurled them back upon their own infantry. The rout caused the entire Gallic cavalry to flee like rats from a sinking ship.

The Gauls placed the greatest reliance on their cavalry, and with its defeat their spirits sank. Vercingetorix retreated to the stronghold town of Alesia.

Perched on a plateau and surrounded by hills and streams, Alesia seemed impervious to assault. In addition to its supreme defensive location, there were ramparts below the town, a 6-foot wall, and a trench to enclose the Vercingetorix’s camp.

The Fortifications built by Caesar in Alesia according to the hypothesis of the location in Alise-Sainte-Reine.

Caesar surrounded the Alesia with over 14-miles of 2 concentric rings of earthworks, ditches, ramparts, spikes, stakes, covered pits, forts, and camps. An inner ring of fortifications faced the defenders of Alesia, while an outer ring protected the Romans from the anticipated Gallic relief army.

Construction of the Roman fortifications was still going on when Vercingetorix’s cavalry sallied out of the Gallic camp. Numbering close to 10,000 men, the Gauls were met in battle by Caesar’s Cavalry.

Romans vs Gauls in the Battle of Alesia.

The fighting swept over a 3-mile stretch of plains between the hills. The Gallic horsemen gained the upper hand over Caesar’s Auxiliary Gallic and Spanish Cavalry, but once again Caesar had kept his Germans in reserve.

Just as before, Caesar’s Germans turned the tide and harried the Gauls back against either their outer wall or trench. Behind the attacking Germans, the Roman Legions readied for battle.

Below them at the camp ramparts, frantic Gauls jammed up the narrow gates as they abandoned their horses to scramble across the trench and up the wall. The Germans were right behind them, swords slashing and spears thrusting.

Riding down their panicked foes and capturing a number of horses into the bargain, Caesar’s German Cavalry galloped on. Vercingetorix was forced to remain on the defensive, and even sent out his own cavalry to raise a relief army among the nearby tribes.

Roman Cavalry counter attacks a Celtic force which is attacking the Romans that are laying siege during the Battle of Alesia.

As the siege dragged on, the rebellious Gauls and non-combatants of Alesia were reduced to near starvation. Their spirits rose with the sighting of the arrival of the Gallic relief army under Commius, King of the Atrebates, who had an army estimated at 120,000 men (or 3-times larger than Caesar’s worn down men).

With his Legionaries defending against Vercingetorix’ men, Caesar sent his Cavalry to engage Commius’ troops. The hard fought battle lasted until the sun neared the horizon.

Caesar’s Germans then massed all their squadrons for a charge. The German Cavalry struck Commius’ Gallic horsemen like lightning, causing the Gallic cavalry to flee and thus allowing his archers to be easily cut down.

Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Royer (1899).

A second Gallic assault at night died in the fire of Roman siege engines, and a third attack saw Caesar’s Cavalry seemingly destroy Commius’ infantry from the rear. With no help left, Vercingetorix surrendered more or less bringing an end to the Gallic Wars.

Caesar plunged the Roman Republic into the Great Civil War of 50 BC, when he marched his Legions across the Rubicon and into Italy. For 4 years, Caesar’s Gallic and Germanic Cavalry accompanied his Legions through the Civil War against the Pompeians and the interludes of the Egyptian and Pontic wars.

Caesar Crossing the Rubicon

In 48 BC, Caesar blocked Pompey from reaching his supply base at Dyrrachium only to find his own supply route to Italy severed by Pompey’s naval dominance of the Adriatic. When Pompey tried to break through Caesar’s entrenchments, the Germans fought on foot beside Caesar’s Legions.

The German sortie slew several Pompeians before returning back to Caesar’s camp. Nevertheless, Pompey eventually managed to pierce the blockade.

Caesar’s force was demoralized, low on supplies, and forced to withdraw into Thessalia. Caesar stormed the defiant town of Gomfoi and gave it over to be ransacked by his half-starved troops.

Battle of Pharsalus

The whole army, especially the Germans, embarked on an orgy of gluttony and drinking. At Pharsalus, Caesar overthrew Pompey’s initially successful cavalry charge and inflicted a crushing defeat.

Pompey fled to Egypt where the ministers of Ptolemy XII assassinated him. After a lightning campaign against Pharnaces II of Pontus, who had occupied Armenia and Cappadocia, Caesar returned to Italy.

In 46 BC, Caesar continued the war against the followers of Pompey in North Africa. At first Caesar was vastly outnumbered, but after being reinforced he was able to bring the campaign to a victorious end at Thapsus.

Caesar rallying his Tenth Legion at Munda.

The Great Civil War was brought to an end in 45 BC, when Caesar faced the last Pompeius’ forces at Munda. Caesar possessed 8 Legions with over 8,000 cavalry, including his veteran Gauls and Germans, plus King Bogud of Maurentia with his corps of Moorish horsemen.

The Legio X Equestris caved in the enemy’s left flank. The Cavalry, with Bogud in the lead, vanquished the enemy horsemen and fell upon the enemy’s flank and rear.

Caesar returned to Rome and became Dictator. For their allegiance and service to him, Caesar rewarded his veteran Legionaries with a generous gift of gold coins equal to 27 years pay (not too shabby).

Caesar disbanded his Praetorian Guard and his Spanish Cohortes (Tactical Military Units). Likely his Gallic and German Cavalry disbanded as well, with plunder and coin, and maybe even the coveted Roman citizenship.

Rome’s German Warriors

Upon the Assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, a new civil war erupted. No doubt, this gave many of Caesar’s Germans a chance for more military service for the Romans.

Fierce, fast, and ferocious, the Germanic Cavalry of Julius Caesar inspired those who would become Emperor to charge the Germans with their protection. This trend would last until the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths (Germanic peoples), and ultimately lead to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.

While it lasted, the Germanic Auxilia of was a thing of beauty. We hope you enjoyed today’s adventure and look forward to having you back again.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

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Cowan, Ross. ‘Head-Hunting Roman Cavalry‘, Military Illustrated 274 (March 2011).

Delbrück, Hans. The Barbarian Invasions. trans. Walter J. Renfroe. University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Dyke, Ludwig. ¨Caesar’s Elite Germanic Cavalry¨. War History Online, 8 June 2016.

Fuller, J.F.C. Julius Caesar, Man, Soldier, and Tyrant. Da Capo Press, 1965.

Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. The Roman Army at War 100 BC-AD 200. Oxford Claredon Press, 1998.

Macdowall, Simon. Germanic Warrior 236-568 AD. Osprey Publishing, 1996.

Macdowall, Simon. The Late Roman Cavalryman 236-565 AD. Osprey Publishing, 1999.

McCall, Jeremiah. The Cavalry of the Roman Republic. Routledge, 2002.

Wilcox, Peter and Trevino, Rafael. Barbarians Against Rome. Osprey Publishing, 2000.