Unlikely really

Archaeologists say they have proven for the first time that Julius Caesar set foot on what is now Dutch soil, destroying two Germanic tribes in a battle which left around 150,000 people dead.

The two tribes were massacred in the fighting with the Roman emperor in 55 BC, on a battle site now at Kessel, in the southern province of Brabant.

That Jules might have killed Germans on Dutch soil, well, fine. But 150k of them?


That’s larger than the Vandals or the Goths were four centuries later.

15k possible, 1.5k why not? But 150k?

46 thoughts on “Unlikely really”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    There are tribes that large mentioned before Caesar conquered Gaul. The Aedui settled in lands with around 120,000 people. They were so small that no one remembers them.

    Are you comparing them with the Vandal Army? He would have, after all, not just killed the fighters, but all their women and children too. I can see that adding up quite quickly.

    Caesar is said to have killed one third of the population of Gaul and sold another third into slavery.

  2. I suspect how many were in the army depends on whether you are relying on the organisers of the army’s estimates or that of the Met Police.

    The organisers said a million were on the march that day but the police put the number at 37.

  3. Not an impossible number. More than once the Romans faced barbarians of 100k or more.
    With the usual Roman fighting advantage of 3 to 1. Units being much better than a bunch of individuals. Plus the changing of ranks so tired soldiers withdrew while fresh held the line.

    Tribes tended to call in allies – the romans could be beaten if they made major mistakes but the price was usually too high for one tribe.

  4. “Matthew L

    One thing it’s important to remember is that all the Roman sources exaggerated numbers of enemies.”

    At 2,000 or so years distance, your proof of this is?

  5. Everyone pretty much exaggerated numbers in pre-modern histories. A well known example is the ludicrous vast armies in the Bible histories.

  6. All good points.
    The only way one can reconcile the figures is to count ALL the tribesmen as warriors. In reality, one in six as combatant would be a very generous estimate.
    Germanic tribes moved en masse. Losing a battle meant there was no where to go.
    So yes, a massacre. And JC was rather notorious for that.

  7. Tacitus claims to have killed 80,000 at the Battle of Mancetter. Which always leaves me wondering why there is a big statue of Boudica, who led the Iceni to ANNIHILATION.

    The Romans are said to have lost over 50,000 at Canae. This is likely true, as it was reasonably easy to count Roman legions.

    150k dead at Kessel? Maybe.

  8. If Boudicca had won, the Romans would have been driven from Britain, thus there wouldn’t have been a weak, disarmed post-Roman population unable to defend themselves against the Saxons. She nearly did win. She deserves a statue.

  9. She could not win when her warriors faced odds of 3 to 1.
    The way to beat the Roman army at the time was ambush and prevent them forming lines.
    1 to 1 the Romans had trouble with facing a decent barbarian warrior. Which is why they preferred the usual 3 to 1 odds. The Gladius came into its own in unit fighting.

  10. Not forgetting that de Bello Gallico is quite the bit of propaganda, Roman accounting still tended to be pretty accurate.
    We dutch have “always” known there’s been something-roman in that area. The problem being the area is smack in the middle of Geology. Lots of it. Involving shifting rivers and …stuff.. So it’s pretty hard to find *anything* there, and actually *prove* anything. This, more than the number of alleged dead, makes the find pretty much significant.

    The site does make sense though. We know that Lith nearby is a Roman day’s march from Nijmegen ( Noviomagum in those days) and from other finds was a place romans liked to put forts down. It’s one of those places that’s been around as a ford/place/hamlet since, well… forever.. ( or at least late neolithicum, which amounts to about the same).
    It’s also key to controlling two, if not three areas of the most productive arable land in western Europe. And the Romans did, very much, control that area. Right up to where the Frysians put their foot down ( something that lot kept up far into the medieval period)

    So it makes sense for old Jules to ensure use of that land for Rome.. And given the volatility of the local tribes he simply chose the easy option: eradication.
    Which doesn’t mean 150.000 people were killed, actually.. It would mean their armed forces, or what could pass for it, would be killed, true. But the rest of the tribes would have been shipped out as slaves..

  11. Roman accounting still tended to be pretty accurate.

    Did Boudicca prevent the Romans from reaching Downham Market?

  12. IanB

    She already has a statue:

    thus there wouldn’t have been a weak, disarmed post-Roman population unable to defend themselves against the Saxons.

    We simply cannot know that on the sketchy archaeological and historical evidence available. The local Brythonic tribes were often at war with each other: the invading/settling Saxons could have developed alliances with some tribes. Who knows? Counterfactual history is only instructive when there is a lot of detail.

  13. Theo-

    Indeed. I’m speculating 🙂

    Nonetheless, England was easy pickings for the Saxons because Romans depended entirely on the Legions for defence- as today, the citizenry was disarmed by law. They did not know how to fight, even if given the sword they did not have. When Honorius withdrew the Legions and told Britannia it was on its own, they were defenceless. The Brythonic barbarian tribes on the other hand, would have been much more capable of self-defence, and not presented an obvious target for the Angles, Saxons, etc.

  14. IanB

    If you are speculating, say so – rather than make dogmatic-sounding, unqualified pronouncements.

    Are you an archaeologist, by any chance?

  15. Ian B, towards the end in Britain the Romans turned a blind eye to armed warriors. They recruited them as auxiliaries.
    Armed individuals were accepted all along, it was independent warbands the Romans were not keen on.
    This was a world of danger. You would have not have gone outdoors unarmed. Knife at the very least, axe or sword commonly, spear pretty common.

  16. So Much For Subtlety

    john77 – “He would have killed the women and children in a battle?”

    It wouldn’t be the only battle when the Roman fells on the accompanying families and massacred them. Although as they had a re-sale value and were probably the only thing worth fighting for, I am surprised. You would think he would have sold them.

    Martin Davies – “Armed individuals were accepted all along, it was independent warbands the Romans were not keen on.”

    Soldiering requires trust. Being armed is irrelevant. This is the lesson of the Middle East. They all have guns but they cannot soldier because they are all paranoid everyone else is going to f**k them. Quite literally, actually. That is why tribal groups usually dominate the Middle East. They are armed and they have tribal solidarity. As we used to before mass immigration.

  17. SMFS – you talking middle east or USA?
    Don’t recall us being particularly armed or unarmed different after immigration than before.
    Romans, Angles, saxons, vikings, Irish, Normans etc. Heck, even in early 20th century Britain we’d have had only a small percentage of individuals armed.
    Bit like now – guns are legal here, simply little desire to own them.

  18. So Much For Subtlety

    Dennis the Peasant – “When can we expect Italian Prime Minister and/or President to issue a tearful apology to the Dutch and/or Germans?”

    Or to Israel for nailing Jesus up? I would like to see that.

    Martin Davies – “you talking middle east or USA?”

    Well the former. But I could talk about the latter. The 1965 immigration reforms were a military disaster but so was the immigration before that. You can see by the fact that the children of those immigrants declined to fight America’s wars. Anglo-Saxon America fought and won two world wars. The more diverse post-65 population lost in Vietnam. Worse, the children of immigrants have fairly consistently opposed America’s wars. Norman Mailer wrote a book about WW2 in which the real enemies turned out not to be the Japanese but WASP America. Joseph Heller wrote a book in which the real enemies turned out not to be Italian Fascism but WASP America. After a while you start to see a pattern. The only two wars non-WASP America has supported were fighting the Nazis and now the War on Terror to a limited extent.

    “Don’t recall us being particularly armed or unarmed different after immigration than before.”

    We have not yet had to fight another world war. I doubt that we will win.

  19. “The more diverse post-65 population lost in Vietnam.”

    The US didn’t lose the Vietnam war; it betrayed the Vietnam peace. And the betrayal was by the half of the “WASP” population that drank the Marxist cool-aid.

    Your white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant (male) perspective may be a little narrow.

  20. So Much For Subtlety

    PJF – “The US didn’t lose the Vietnam war; it betrayed the Vietnam peace. And the betrayal was by the half of the “WASP” population that drank the Marxist cool-aid.”

    I agree half the educated WASP population did. The educated half. They went to schools and universities dominated by the non-WASP children of immigrants and took up the politics of their teachers. For a while. If that immigration had not taken place, a lot of Cambodians would be alive today.

    But America lost the war. The peace was face saving to make the defeat look less of a defeat. They were not defeated on the battle field. They were betrayed at home.

    “Your white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant (male) perspective may be a little narrow.”

    It may be. But I am not sure it is wrong.

  21. So Much For Subtlety

    Dennis the Peasant – “You’ve been reading too much Julius Streicher. Last time I checked, Pontius Pilate was still a Roman, not a Jew.”

    Yes. And Jesus was a Jew. So therefore the Italians should apologise to the Israelis for nailing him up.

    I am sorry that may not have been very funny but what precisely do you think was difficult about it? Or Nazi.

  22. @ SMFS
    Part two of my post said that was a massacre – it’s not a battle if the “enemy” you are killing cannot lift a sword

  23. For comparison the population of Britain was about 1m at this time. 150,000 killed in just one small part of NW Europe, in or just after one battle? Even including dependants…not all would have been wiped out…sceptical.

  24. So Much For Subtlety

    Ian B – “The Jews demanded that the kind and gentle Pontius Pilate execute Jesus even though he didn’t want to. Supposedly.”

    Clearly neo-liberal sophistry.

    Rob – “He should have washed his hands of it and claimed “full responsibility”. Home and dry.”

    He should have bought a Native Life Offset. Which would enable him to nail up half a dozen locals if at about the same time Julius Caesar’s heirs promised not to behead twenty Germans.

  25. So Much For Subtlety

    Grikath – “You are severely underestimating the historical population density of this little part of europe.”

    Gaul, pre-Caesar, was said to have a population of 3 million.

    So in one battle, Caesar killed 5% of the population of France?

    Oooookaay. It is possible I suppose.

  26. And drawing warriors from a distance too.
    Your enemies would help the invaders, your allies would send many of their warriors.
    To defeat 1 legion with 150,000 warriors would be possible. Difficult but possible. Two or more legions? Pretty much impossible.
    All down to fighting outnumbered. Swing a sword but face 3 people with shields poking back at you.

  27. I’d say we need to be very cautious about the numbers on the Roman side. The paper numbers of any military formation can be very different from its fielded numbers. It may not have started out at full strength. It may have suffered casualties along the way. And disease has always been the biggest killer in armies.

  28. Armies as large as 150,000 almost certainly never fought in Roman times; and only the Romans had the logistics to field armies even a third of that size. Except for very short periods one could not even assemble an army of anything that size in one place. *No comment on the Chinese armies, they too may well have had the logistics capability at the time. Note that Greek Successor states couldn’t assemble that many and they were more “civilized” than most. Possibly the Persians could on occasions assemble large numbers, not however the “million men” of legend; campaigns fought by the sea were easier to supply with food, but water and sanitation were significant issues.

    Typical battles involved a maximum of 30K, probably closer to 20 than 30, but numbers were often extremely inflated in reports. In fact what often (though not always) enabled the Romans to win wasn’t their ability as soldiers but their ability to campaign and gain strategic and tactical advances from the same. An army without logistics can’t easily sustain positions no matter how strong. The Romans did fight well also, but not necessarily as individuals, but as trained and especially disciplined units. And disciplined soldiers with the right equipment and training usually beat the undisciplined handily. An excellent example is Xenephon’s 10,000, a relatively small army able to march a very long distance through foreign territory, and basically no one could stop them.

    Of course various warrior types could beat disciplined armies, famously the Teutoburger Wald, but there certainly are other examples. Actually, Shaka understood the benefits of discipline and fought one of the last major campaigns based on merely human powered weapons very successfully.

    So I doubt the Julius Caesar fought any army that was really more than 40-50K (in Gaul he did probably did as he was in a fixed position and the Gauls could concentrate) except against other Romans. There may have been a massacre of 150K people, suggests an army of maybe 30K, but it does sound like a lot and wasteful, slaves were valuable. He could of course have been making an example, pour encourager les autres etc.

  29. “The Brythonic barbarian tribes on the other hand, would have been much more capable of self-defence, and not presented an obvious target for the Angles, Saxons, etc.” Hence, perhaps, the story of a Brythonic army from the Edinburgh area being used to expel Irish settlers from North Wales. Sorry, Irish “refugees”.

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