Gallic Tribes: The Nervii, Bravest of the Brave

Updated on January 23, 2018
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ata1515 is a student of history, focusing on the modern, medieval, and ancient histories of Europe.

Belgica
Belgica

Long Haired Gaul

European history is the unfolding of a Graeco-Roman story starting in the democracy of Greece and ending with the fall of the Roman Empire to the Ostrogoths. Politics in Europe trace their roots to the Roman Empire and its inexorable march across history. Looking back it appears destined that the civilized polity of Rome would become the dominant power in Europe, but at the time of Caesar a grave threat loomed over Italy.

The Celtic people of Gaul and Belgica were the descendants of the armies that had sacked Rome and imprinted the fear of barbarians on the Roman psyche early in the republican period. While Rome had defeated the Gauls of Transalpine Gaul, and Narbonensis, the Celtic people of what became France and Belgium lived a tribal existence in the dark forests of Europe.

Fear of the Gauls drove Rome to great lengths to defend its border, and Gaius Julius Caesar would manipulate the Roman fear of Gauls to ultimately invade and conquer all of Gaul, but to do so he had to face down the most feared Celts in Europe, the Nervii.

Nervii coin depicting a horse
Nervii coin depicting a horse

Belgica

The Nervii lived in what would become Belgium and the Netherlands, fighting and raiding their neighbors. Despite being called barbarians by the Romans the Celts had an advanced culture and iron working skills. Jewelry, coins and weapons were all fashioned by Gallic smiths in Gaul and Belgica alike.

Culturally the celts had a nature religion based on the druids, forest and sacrifice. Caesar believed the Nervii were the bravest warriors in all of Gaul. This was partly founded in a Celtic religious belief that death was just another stage in life. Archeological evidence points to the Celts believing that death led to instantaneous rebirth, and was therefore not to be feared.

The Celts in Gaul traded with Rome for wine and other goods. In his writings Caesar described how this made them weak. Though the Gauls were once mighty warriors, those that traded with Rome steadily imported more and more wine, and they lost their edge because of its consumption.

The Nervii however refused to trade, going so far as banning merchants from existing in their land. They lived a laconic life focused on being peerless soldiers. Within the Nervii lands warriors followed strict rules regarding weight, muscle tone and health standards for battle. This focus on fielding strong brave warriors made the NerviI leaders within their community.

Gaius Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar

The Gallic Wars

Rome and the Gauls would meet in a series of conflicts throughout the first century. Caesar would lead the Roman armies in a series of campaigns against various Gallic tribes, ostensibly for the protection of Roman allied tribes.

In his war dispatches, compiled in The Gallic wars, Caesar wrote about the various Gallic people. After compelling the Germanic tribes to leave Gaul, Caesar conquered the celts one by one. The Belgica formed an alliance to fight Caesar, but were unable to hold the army together due to supply issues. Caesar waited for the army to break and then laid siege to the Belgae cities.

While the campaign was heavily tilted toward the Roman forces there was a moment in the campaign that the Gauls had a moment for victory. At the Battle of Sabis the Nervii led an ambush of Caesars army in between two hills. A screaming horde of barbarians broke from the woods and swarmed down over the Roman legions, but the distance was too much, and while Caesar states that lesser men would have broke and run, the Nervii fought to the last man as Roman reinforcements came up from the rear of the Roman column and slew the cream of the Nervii people on the battlefield. Caesar claimed to have killed 60,000 people at Sabis, including almost all of the Nervii tribal leaders.

Aftermath

After Sabis the Nervii never recovered as an independent people. They joined in later Gallic rebellions, fighting on as counterparts to the other Gauls, but never again as the focal point.

Some of the Nervii emigrated to Brittania where they settled and left archaological evidence. The proud, brave Celts of Belgica were overrun by the Romans, but their courage has made their name eternal.

Further Reading

Caesar, Julius The Gallic Wars

Tacitus Germania

Ellis, Peter Beresford The Celts: A History

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    • ata1515 profile image
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      ata1515 3 weeks ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Thanks for stopping by! There are many people that we’ve lost throughout history that are simply fascinating!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing the information about the Nervii. I've never heard of them before. They sound like an interesting people.

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