Ambiorix, a symbol of resistance against invaders
When it gained independence, Belgium sought heroes to stoke the embers of the nationalist sentiment of the people. It is in this context that Ambiorix became one of Belgium’s national heroes in the second half of the 19th century, carried on the wake of the same nationalistic movement that sparked romanticised retellings of history and gave the French Vercingetorix.
Ambiorix was the leader of the Eburones, a Gallic people from the North of Gaul (called Belgic Gaul in antiquity). According to Julius Caesar, he shared this leadership position with Catuvolcos, "the king of half of the Eburones". Caesar wrote in Bellum Gallicum that the Eburones lived "between the Meuse and the Rhine", in the region of Tongeren – at the time called Atuatuca Tungrorum, located "at the centre of the territory" – as well as in the Ardennes and the Campine.
In 57 B.C., tensions in the region appeared to have been calmed by Roman troops, but in 54 B.C., the assassination of the Gallic leader Dumnorix ordered by Julius Caesar and hardship stemming from the year’s disastrous wheat harvest led to unrest, which turned against the occupying armies, who had settled down for the winter. This was the beginning of resistance by the Eburones, under the command of Ambiorix, along with several other Belgian tribes (Aduatuci, Nervii, etc.). Acting strategically, Ambiorix drew Cotta’s and Sabinus’s 14th Roman Legion into an ambush, devastating it in the Battle of Aduatuca, which was waged in a deep valley (probably the valley of the Geer between what is now Tongeren and Liège). He then marched on the camp of Quintus Cicero, brother to the famous statesman of the same name. Besieged, the Roman troops held fast. Caesar intervened just in time to save them.
Ambiorix succeeded in fleeing, taking refuge with the Germans, but the vengeance carried out by Caesar’s legions was so fierce (inhabitants were shipped off and sold as plunder) that the Eburones – although attested to in the work of Strabo – ended up disappearing from the official pages of history, as they became the civitas of Tongeren.
Photo: © Johan Neven