The Challenge

In southern Belgium in 57 BC, the expansionist Romans under Julius Caesar fought against a confederation of several tribes of Belgian Gauls in the Battle of the Sabis. The Romans dealt a severe punishment to one Gallic tribe called the Nervii, forcing them to retreat. Four years later, the regenerated Nervii mounted an attack of their own against the 11th Claudian Legion of the Roman army led by Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of the famous orator, who had camped for the winter. The Nervii, using tactics they had learned from the Romans themselves, built a ten-mile circular wall and ditch around the Roman palisade, trapping the 11th within their own fortification. Before long, the Nervii assaulted the Roman position with towers, grappling hooks, and manpower, and the siege was on.

During this attack, two rival Roman centurions named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus each contended for the leadership position of Primus Pilus; literally, the "first javelin". Pullo taunted Vorenus, asking him, “Why do you hesitate?” After telling Vorenus that this will be the day for proving themselves, Pullo then picked up his shield and weapons and charged out the gates, directly into the thickest part of the attacking army. 

Roman soldiers at the time carried heavy iron-tipped javelins called pila (singular pilum), and Pullo immediately threw his, impaling one of the many Nervii charging him. Several of the Nervii covered their fallen comrade with the tall wooden shields, while many others threw their own javelins back at the charging Pullo. One lodged in Pullo’s shield, while another stuck in his thick leather belt.  Pullo reached for his sword, but the force of the javelin hitting his belt spun the scabbard around and out of his reach; armed with only his shield, Pullo found himself frantically defending from the swarm of Nervii soldiers who had closed in on him.


Fortunately for Pullo, Vorenus had accepted his challenge and had followed him out of the fort. Vorenus killed one of the Nervii, drawing the attention of many others; while backpedaling, Vorenus's foot slipped into a depression on the ground, twisting his ankle and forcing Vorenus to the ground. Pullo, now able to draw his sword, then rescued Vorenus from the gang of warriors. The two heavily armored men stood side by side, each able to kill several of the unarmored Nervii, before retreating back to their fortification walls.  Many of their brethren were cheering as the two friendly rivals, each having saved the other, returned to their cohorts.

Despite their heroics, the situation for Quintus Cicero and the 11th remained dire. The Roman commander desperately needed to send a message out to Caesar, who was not far away, pleading for reinforcements. The Romans sent out several fleet-footed runners, but they were invariably captured by the Nervii and executed within sight of the fort. Finally, the commander made use of a man named Vertico, a Nervian who had earlier defected to the Romans; they tied the message to his javelin, and sent him walking nonchalantly out. Vertico mixed in with the rest of his kinsmen, and was therefore able to slink through their lines to Caesar’s camp, whereupon he delivered the message. Caesar summoned troops to the location, and lead a relief army which successfully drew away the attackers from the besieged 11th. Caesar then soundly defeated the Nervii in a pitched battle.


Links and Sources:
Commentarii de Bello Gallico, by Julius Caesar, available online (and translated to English) here.
Image of Centurion by Angus McBride, and appeared in Warrior 71: Roman Legionary 58 BC - AD 69, by Osprey Publishing, 2003.
Image of Gauls by Angus McBride, and appeared in Men-at-Arms 158, Rome’s Enemies 2: Gallic and British Celts, by Osprey Publishing, 1985.

"The Challenge" © 2015 by James Husband.