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Slings against Caesar (Read 9338 times)
Fundibularius
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Slings against Caesar
Mar 22nd, 2009 at 7:09pm
 
One of the rare defeats which Julius Caesar’s forces suffered during the Gallic Wars - or his entire military career -  was the battle of Atuatuca (or Aduatuca) , an unidentified place somewhere in the Ardennes, in the fall of 54 BC. One legion and a half (between 5.000 and 7.500 legionaries, not counting the auxiliaries, technicians, doctors, administrative staff, slave traders etc.)  under the command of lieutenants (legati) Sabinus and Cotta had been sent by Caesar to spend the winter of 54/53 among the Celto-Germanic tribe of the Eburones. Shortly after building up their winter fortifications, they were persuaded by the Eburone chief Ambiorix to leave their camp and head westward. An hour or so after their departure, Ambiorix and his men attacked them while they were marching through a valley. The legions were not able to break out of the valley, and only few legionaries survived the following battle and massacre.

Instead of giving you a boring summary of the battle in my poor English, I hint at a translation of the Caesar passage in http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/gallic.5.5.html, (chapters 26-37) or the Latin original on http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/caesar/gall5.shtml#26 (and on many other sites, of course)

Reading the description carefully, I am convinced that the sling played an essential and decisive role in this battle (which, by the way, inflicted the heaviest losses on Roman troops in the whole Gallic War). Although only once mentioned clearly in Caesar’s report of the battle, the sling was, in my opinion, the main weapon of the Eburones once the Romans had been pinned down in the valley.

My questions to our experts of Latin are:

1. Can telum, the Word that Caesar uses for the projectile that the Romans were volleyed with, have the common meaning of “sling projectile” or does it usually comprise other missiles (javelins, arrows, axes etc.)?

2. Does os in chapter 35 really mean “mouth”? I think it would be more appropriate to translate os funda vulneratur as “his face was wounded by a sling” (I found this in some other translations). If poor Cotta had really been hit by a slung stone or something like a Celto-Germanic kind of lead or ceramic glans in the mouth, it seems unlikely that  he would have been able to discuss with his colleague Sabinus afterwards. At least not in spoken language. A sling (projectile) wound in another part of his face was surely bad enough, though.

By the way and for the friends of other primitive weapons, the tragulae mentioned in the passage might have been something similar to the weapons discussed in http://slinging.org/forum/YaBB.pl?num=1224247036 If I read it right, then the passage in chapter 35 utrumque femur tragula traicitur says that one “slung” tragula pierced both thighs of Centurion Balventius.

Looking forward to your opinions and
sorry for the extended post

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Ferrugo numquam dormit.&&(Nigellus Iuvenis)&&&&

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Thearos
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #1 - Mar 22nd, 2009 at 7:49pm
 
I'll rise to the bait-- telum does not, I think, mean sling stones exclusively, but simply missiles. The running and retreating and running along + showers of missiles is the standard light infantry tactics in the ancient world, described in detail by Xenophon in his Hellenica for the engagement before Lechaion, where Iphikrates' peltasts wiped out a Spartan "mora"-- specifically, the throwing missiles on the unshielded side of any heavy infantry that has sallied out to drive off light armed missile troops. But this kind of game is best played by javelineers (quite difficult to sling while running, I think ?)

"os" should mean mouth, as opposed to "vultus' (face). Antiochos III was also said to have been hit in the mouth with a (sling ?) stone at the Thermopylai (Plut. Cato)
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Curious Aardvark
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #2 - Mar 24th, 2009 at 7:37am
 
Quote:
(quite difficult to sling while running, I think ?)

Not really. You're slinging at a masssed rank of enemy - aiming not a major consideration. So a simple helicopter style would work quite well.
Also bear in mind with a sling you've got a ten fold increase i range over a hand thrown javelin.
If you've got a roman legion trapped in a valley. what could be simpler than to stand outside the valley and bombard it from relative safety.

also your account is of greek infantry whereas the romans faced gaels in the ardennes. the sling is known to be a favoured weapon of the gaels and celtic tribes in general - plenty of them found in grave goods.
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Fundibularius
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #3 - Mar 24th, 2009 at 12:54pm
 
I imagine it a bit like this: After the Romans have been trapped in the valley, the Eburones shower them from the flanks of the surrounding mountains, probably also from the cover of the trees, with missiles and stones, for eight (or more) hours. The Romans can neither rest nor eat nor care for their wounded. Once in a while the Eburones provoke an outbreak of a Roman cohort, decimate it with "special units" of either swift spear throwers or slingers and withdraw when they get too close, giving them a stony farewell greeting in the backs when the Romans retreat to the orb. Classical hit and run. When the Eburones see that these tactics and the permanent use of sling projectiles have cut down the number of legionaries sufficiently, they eliminate the Roman officers in a very unsportive way, then go for the final attack and hand-to-hand-combat in which they give them the coup-de-grâce.

The Eburones are described as "ignobiles" and "humiles" (c. 28). An insignificant tribe, for a long time suppressed by its neighbours and so probably without a great number of "real" (noble) warriors like  the well-known Celtic sword fighters and cavalrymen. The main body of their male population supposedly consisted of farmers and cattlemen. They cannot have, altogether, mobilised more than a few thousand men, only a small percentage of whom were experienced fighters. All the rest were people they had quickly recruited from the fields or pastures, with  simple and cheap weapons, like staffs and slings, fustibals if you combine these, very dangerous for a packed mass of heavily loaded, weary, hungry, demotivated and badly commanded Roman army in a valley.

There surely must have also been Eburone archers and spearmen and "traguleers" etc. These alone, however, can not have kept the Romans under almost permanent fire (as it seems) for more than eight hours without having been equipped with tons of javelins and arrows (which were neither cheap nor easy to produce). A few thousand slingers or fustibaleers could have used any piece of pebble or rock on the ground or broken ceramics or rotten eggs, things that most of us would not even consider as ammo. As CA said, it was probably not a matter of accuracy. The range and the terrain gave the advantage to the Eburones.

From a strategic and tactical point of view not bad for an unknown horde of barbarians. Okay, they paid the price in the following year when Caesar wiped them from the face of the earth...
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Ferrugo numquam dormit.&&(Nigellus Iuvenis)&&&&

Noch weiz ich an im mere daz mir ist bekant
einen lintrachen  slouch des heledes hant
do badet er in dem blvote  des ist der helt gemeit
von also vester hvte  daz in nie wafen sit versneit.
 
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Thearos
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #4 - Mar 24th, 2009 at 2:16pm
 
CA: the point about the parallel from Xenophon is not that they're Greeks, it's just that it's a very similar description of hit and run tactics-- done without slings, but simply with the trusty javelin adn lots of fancy, controlled footwork. With throwing thongs, a javelin reaches 80+ m (German experiments in the C19th). I assume (but never have read anything to this effect) that this kind of battle needs constant ammo resupply. (Am not sure how slings can be known as grave goods ?)

FE: nice description. Note that the Romans do whatever heavies do when faced with skirmishers-- charge, to try to close the gap and cut them down. The Eburones' counter is the normal one-- shoot and scoot, hit and run, etc. Clouds of sling-stones, and, as you say, javelins and arrows and hand thrown stones and anything that flies...-- tela proiciuntur !

The tragula that pins the ROman through both thighs: is this a Celtic heavy javelin, like the gaesum, with big barbed head ? Or a light thong propelled dart ?

The following bit is good to, the great siege of the ROman camp-- with the famous (and problematic) description of the Roman camp being showered with some kind of red hot ceramic sling bullets. Note, though, that the sally by the two centurions figures javelin-work.
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Thearos
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #5 - Mar 24th, 2009 at 2:42pm
 
In fact, a good project would be to go through Caesar's Gallic War, and notice how the sling is used (as well as other missile weapons: if I remember correctly, Vercingetorix at Alesia has a "flying brigade"-- like FE's special detachments-- of archers, who get surrounded and cut down by Caesar's specialist German cavalry)

Re. the Eburones vs. Romans battle: I wonder if part of the point isn't to provoke the Roman heavy infantry to sally out--for which you have to come close enough to goad them into responsiveness-- then take off, and then rally to accompany them back to their ranks with showers of missiles, to bleed them. As FA observes, these Celtic communities (esp. the ones on the Rhine border, cf. Helvetii) are pretty sophisticated in their fighting.
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Fundibularius
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #6 - Mar 24th, 2009 at 7:27pm
 
Thearos,
indeed, it would be very interesting to see how the Gallic peoples in general used the sling and other missiles against Rome (or how they should have used them but did not). Wish I had more time for these really important matters instead of a lot of the other stuff we are supposed to do during the day.

I think it is precisely because of the tactics you mentioned that Caesar criticized Sabinus' and Cottas decision to go into orb formation in this special case. Had there been no projectiles raining down on on the helpless legionaries all the time and perhaps provocations from light-footed warriors, it might have been a good formation to recover from the shock, regroup forces and counter-attack. The way it happened though, the Romans played the painful part of the sitting duck game, and the men soon lost, as Caesar said, all hope to ever get out.

It seems strange to me that Caesar does not say a word any more about the auxiliary Iberian cavalry units which, had they been disposable during the real battle, might have quickly overrun Eburone "stinging" detachments and maybe even certain slingers' key positions on the hillsides. Did they desert the field? Were they neutralised right at the beginning of the fight? Did the horses get crazy because of the bombardment? We'll probably never know.

And, yes, the "Cicero" chapter is very interesting, too, especially from our point of view as slingers and addicts of ancient missiles. I must say that I, in the few weeks that I have spent slinging and roaming about this site, I have learned a lot of absolutely new things and got a much deeper understanding for many aspects in "ancient" military history thanks to the fascinating articles and discussions found here.
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Ferrugo numquam dormit.&&(Nigellus Iuvenis)&&&&

Noch weiz ich an im mere daz mir ist bekant
einen lintrachen  slouch des heledes hant
do badet er in dem blvote  des ist der helt gemeit
von also vester hvte  daz in nie wafen sit versneit.
 
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Thearos
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #7 - Mar 24th, 2009 at 7:56pm
 
The archers at Alesia: Caesar, Gallic Wars, 7.80 (archers and light armed mixed with cavalry-- when the Germans drive off the cavalry, the Gauls' light armed stay on the field-- cut off, then cut down).

About the Eburones' victory: can it be that they shoot missiles for 8 hours straight ? I wonder if it's not more structured than that-- e.g. relays of shooters, close up "provokers" with javelins, fast pursuit teams to harry the "cohortes" when they fall back, ammo carriers to keep the rain of *tela*. After all, the Roman legion isn't going anywhere very fast. Of course, these sort of roles can emerge during the battle field, as formations shake into place and position-- and after the first few reverses, when Caesar tells us that legionaries did make contact with Eburones who stood their ground, and got cut down.

Two signs of discipline: the Eburones don't run out and pillage the Roman baggage train; they're very good at falling back, because of light equipment, and *training*
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Fundibularius
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #8 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 7:41am
 
Very good points. Yes, it seems more probable that the Eburones used some kind of "mixed" tactics, according to the situation and the Roman (re)actions. One more hint at what you said about their discipline and training.

I wonder how they learned this. After having been tributaries to the Atuatuci for a couple of years at least, they cannot have had great fighting experience. Maybe some raids across the Rhine to the Germanic peoples on the other side or quarrels with other "insignificant" tribes in the Ardennes, not more. My theory is that Ambiorix did some kind of secret manoeuvres / exercises with them before the battle in order to get the parts of his army coordinated. He must have been a very interesting person. A traitor from the Roman perspective, of course, lying his tongue away, forgetting all the thankfulness he owed to them. As a strategist... remarkable at least.

Quote:
The tragula that pins the ROman through both thighs: is this a Celtic heavy javelin, like the gaesum, with big barbed head ? Or a light thong propelled dart ?


Frankly: I don't know but I suppose it was the light version. On the internet I haven't found any information about it; actually, the first hints were in the other discussion in this forum which I have mentioned above. I had learned about the fact that it was a javelin thrown "by a thong" by the comments in a German Bellum Gallicum edition/translation where it was also described as a typical Gallic weapon, and I found more or less the same definition in Latin-German dictionaries. For a long time I could not really figure how this throwing could have been done until I saw a documentary some years ago on the original Olympic games where they showed one re-enacting Greek (!) throwing a spear with a thong that had been wrapped around the shaft before and gives it a rotating ("drilling") motion throughout the flight. I could then imagine its devastating effects on targets like Centurion Balventius.
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Ferrugo numquam dormit.&&(Nigellus Iuvenis)&&&&

Noch weiz ich an im mere daz mir ist bekant
einen lintrachen  slouch des heledes hant
do badet er in dem blvote  des ist der helt gemeit
von also vester hvte  daz in nie wafen sit versneit.
 
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #9 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 7:56am
 
Quote:
Am not sure how slings can be known as grave goods ?

Simply because they are often found in graves.
Ancient gaels and celts were buried with many of their treasured possessions and often this included slings Smiley
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #10 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 8:48am
 
This is news to me! Do you have any pics or descriptions of surviving Celt etc slings?
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #11 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 9:00am
 
This is a fascinating discussion.

On the matter of the weapon and the centurion: I get the impression that specific mentions of such details may, depending on the writer, be in the manner of expressing something exceptional about the event. Given the choice of the two weapons, I would have thought such injuries from a heavy javelin were quite commonly seen, but to have come as a surprise from a lighter and perhaps less familiar weapon?

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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #12 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 10:34am
 
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Thearos
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #13 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 10:42am
 
C-A: I too, would be interested in references to slings in Celtic graves (I have a feeling that, for one thing, being made of organic matter, leather or fibre, they wouldn't last).


The only sling I know from the ancient world is referred to in one of the articles on this site (Thom Richardson)-- the woven sling from Egypt, ca. 800 BC, found by Flinders Petrie and now in the Univ College London museum.

It is true that sling bullets have been found in ancient tombs (Aigilia / Cerigotto / Antikythera: C. Foss, Journal of Hellenic Studies / Archaeological Reports, 1975), also an example quoted by T. Rihll-- but they might be from people's bodies...

Celtic slings: the best evidence is the huge number of sling stones found in "ammo dumps" in various British hillforts, Maiden Castle being the best known (20,000+ ones in a single depot). BTW, these were not just any stones, but carefully calibrated big round things, and brought in from a river bed, I think about 5 km from the hillfort.

For what it's worth.
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Re: Slings against Caesar
Reply #14 - Mar 25th, 2009 at 11:42am
 
F-e: note, in the account of the siege that follows (Eburones, Nervii), that the Gauls build siegeworks: they have Roman prisoners to teach them Roman style tactics !

But I would say that the Eburones might have learned this sort of fighting, or the basics, during cattle raiding and 'anti cattle raiding' with their Germanic neighbours ? You mention their cattle, and the following book shows Caesar inviting Germans to come in and raid the Eburones while they're busy fighting the Romans...
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