Julius Caesar's Massacre of the Usipetes and Tencteri and Recent Archaeological Developments

The Tusculum Portrait, a copy of a contemporaneous portrait of Julius Caesar. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent discoveries in the Netherlands have shed new light on a massacre ordered in 55 BCE by Roman general Julius Caesar.

The massacre remained obscure until December of 2015, when a group of archaeologists at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam announced that they had discovered the site of the massacre in the present-day Netherlands. The discovery has led to significant media attention. For example, the Guardian reports:

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

Skeletons, spearheads, swords and a helmet have been unearthed at the site over the past three decades. But now carbon dating as well as other historical and geochemical analysis have proved the items dated to the 1st century BC, the VU University in Amsterdam said.

“It is the first time the presence of Caesar and his troops on Dutch soil has been explicitly shown,” said Nico Roymans, an archaeologist at the institution.

A report at Past Horizons features photographs of items from the excavation sites.

In chapters 13 and 14 of book 4 of his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Julius Caesar describes how he ordered a massacre of the children and women of the Usipetes and the Tencteri during a truce. These two peoples had fled the territory of the Suebi, a large confederation of Germanic peoples. Plutarch records that Roman statesman Cato the Younger—a contemporary and major critic of Julius Caesar—responded to news of the massacre by saying that Rome should turn Caesar over to the remaining Usipetes and Tenchtheri (see chapter 51 of Plutarch's biography on Cato the Younger).

This, of course, didn't happen—history would certainly have turned out differently if it somehow had!—and Caesar went on to play a pivotal role in the conversion of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Whether the Usipetes and the Tencteri were Germanic or Celtic peoples (or both) is unclear. While Caesar describes them as Germanic and they lived among the Suebi, their names appear to be Celtic.