In Julius Caesar’s personal account of the Gallic Wars, De Bello Gallico, the Roman commander (and emperor-to-be) detailed the massacre of two Germanic tribes by Roman troops in 55 BCE. The tribes had asked Caesar for asylum. Instead, they were massacred. Caesar boasted that his troops killed 430,000 people, the majority of them women and children. Some died by sword or spear either in battle or while fleeing the Romans. Others attempting escape drowned in a nearby river.
The location of this horrific episode has never been confirmed. But now, archaeologists with VU University Amsterdam say they've found the first physical evidence that the battle took place in what is now the Netherlands, near the city of Kessel.
This is the first evidence of Roman intrusion into Dutch territory, and the earliest known battle on Dutch soil. While dredging an old riverbed near Kessel over the course of several decades—between 1975 and 1995—amateur archaeologists discovered iron swords, spearheads, a helmet, and German belt hooks, all indicating an early battle site. Most dated to the first century BCE.
They also found "large quantities" of human skeletal remains in Kessel that were radiocarbon dated to the Late Iron Age. Many bore clear traces of sword and spear injuries. It appears that the bodies of the victims of the slaughter were gathered up along with their weapons and deposited in the riverbed.
The Germanic tribes, the Tencteri and Usipetes, were not originally from the area, but had migrated across the Rhine River, an origin confirmed by geochemical analysis of dental enamel found in the remains.
Caesar said his troops slaughtered the entire population. However, the new discovery allows archaeologists to more realistically estimate the true death toll. They believe that between 150,000 and 200,000 people were killed.
The new number may be less than half of what Caesar claimed, but it's still appallingly enormous. VU archaeologist Nico Roymans wonders whether Caesar's actions constitute genocide:
Although Caesar does not explicitly express the intention to eradicate these German tribes, he must have realized that his actions would in fact result in, at the very least, the partial destruction of these ethnic groups. Interestingly, there were no moral objections in the Roman political culture of that time to the mass murder of a defeated enemy, certainly not when it involved barbarians. This explains why, in his accounts of the battle, Caesar provides detailed descriptions without any shame of the use of mass violence against Gallic and Germanic population groups who opposed the Roman conquest.
All images courtesy VU University Amsterdam