The Web of Deceit and the Spirit of Sabinus

Sat, Nov 8, 2008 - 6:00am

The spider weaves a web out of its own body, toiling strand by strand. The work is fine and subtle. Once completed, the spider positions himself at the center of the web and waits for dinner. The unsuspecting fly, with its back to the sun, does not see the web. The fly blunders into the trap. Its delicate wings become stuck. Struggling to break free, the fly is helpless before the spider’s venom.

In the winter of 54 B.C., on the frontier of Germany, one of Julius Caesar’s legions faced a dilemma. The Eburones tribe had ambushed one of the legion’s foraging parties and attempted to storm a Roman encampment. The legion under attack was commanded by two legates: Quintus Titurious Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta. According to Caesar, “The Eburones realized that they had no hope of success, and retired from the attack; then they shouted aloud, after the manner of their nation, for someone from our side to go out and parley with them, declaring that they had something to say which concerned us as well as themselves, and which they hoped might bring the conflict to an end.”

The strategist’s tool box is more than a box of weapons. Like the spider, a military leader can weave a web of deceptive words. The Romans sent out a Spaniard to meet with King Ambiorix of the Eburones. His name was Quintus Junius, and he had negotiated with the Eburones on previous occasions. Ambiorix offered the following explanation of his attack on the Roman encampment: “I admit that I am greatly indebted to Caesar for the services which he has rendered me. It was he who relieved me of the tribute I formerly paid to my neighbors the Atuatuci, and restored to me my son and my brother’s son, who … had been enslaved and kept in chains. In attacking your camp I acted against my better judgment and my own wishes. I was constrained by my own subjects, for I am not an absolute ruler; the people have as much power over me as I have over them. And the reason the tribe took up arms was because it could not oppose the movement in which all the Gauls suddenly leagued themselves together. The insignificance of my power clearly proves the truth of what I say: I am not so ignorant as to imagine that my army by itself is strong enough to defeat the Romans. The whole of Gaul is united in this attempt, and they have arranged to attack all the camps today simultaneously, so that the legions shall not be able to help one another. It would have been difficult for us to refuse help to our fellow countrymen, especially as we knew that their object was the recovery of our national liberty. But having now discharged the duty which patriotism required of me, I remember what I owe to Caesar for his favors….”

We find, in the words of Ambiorix, a combination of truth and deceit. The king openly admits to a treacherous attack on the troops of his benefactor, Julius Caesar. “I acted against my better judgment and my own wishes,” he says. “I was constrained by my own subjects….” This explanation in itself is treacherous. For how can the Roman legionary commanders trust a king who does not speak for his people? If Ambiorix is so weak, why talk with him at all? The king has given the Romans a solid reason to disregard everything he says. But human nature generally overrides careful analysis of a situation. All that Ambiorix needed, to achieve his goal in this situation, was to bait a trap for the Roman commanders. And so, according to Caesar, he made the following offer: “I urge and implore Sabinus, as my friend and host, to consider his own and his soldiers’ safety. A large force of German mercenaries has crossed the Rhine and will be here in a couple of days. It is for you to decide whether you will withdraw your troops from the camp before the neighboring tribes can find out what you are doing, and take them either to Cicero, who is less than fifty miles away, or to Labienus – a somewhat greater distance. I swear to grant them safe conduct through my territory. In so doing I am acting in the interest of my people, who will be relieved from the burden of the camp in their midst, and at the same time repaying Caesar for his kindness.”

Here is the spider’s web. It is constructed of flimsy material indeed, but effective enough to trap and destroy an entire Roman legion. The Eburones are weak and cannot take a fortified camp by storm. Treachery is their only alternative. King Ambiorix has broken his oath previously, yet he “swears” to grant the Romans safe conduct. Nothing he says should be accepted at face value, yet the Roman commander Sabinus will take Ambiorix at his word. It may seem incredible that a hardened soldier should allow himself to be swindled, but human beings are subject to wishful thinking and easily convince themselves that a proven enemy is actually a friend. It should surprise no one that American policy today is directed by the spirit of Sabinus. It is a spirit willing to follow the suggestions of an enemy. Within the Roman camp there were those who understood the situation. Senior officers, including the legionary co-commander, noted that any attempt to leave their encampments was unauthorized and dangerous. “We can resist any number of Gauls,” they argued, “and a large force of Germans into the bargain, in this fortified camp.” The Romans were well-stocked with grain and other necessaries. “In any case,” they added, “what could be more irresponsible or unsoldierly than to follow the advice of an enemy in a matter of prime importance?”

The argument of the senior officers under Cotta would seem irrefutable. But General Sabinus was a modern man, like today’s American politician. He told the senior officers that once the Gauls and Germans had massed around their encampment, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. “Gaul is blazing with indignation at all the humiliations she has suffered by being brought under Roman dominion, and at the eclipse of her former military prestige.” Sabinus was infected with fear. It was General “Stonewall” Jackson who once said, “Never take counsel of your fears.” When reasoning partakes of fear, reason itself is corrupted. “My policy is safe either way,” Sabinus declared. “If nothing serious is afoot, we shall make our way to the nearest legion without any risk; if the Gauls are united and in league with the Germans, our only chance of escape is to act quickly.”

How strange that the word “safety” should be used to justify so dangerous a course of action. For Sabinus is proposing nothing less than putting the safety of his legion in the hands of a proven enemy. Ambiorix used the promise of safety to bait his trap. He frightened the Roman commander by saying that the Gauls and Germans had joined together. “I am not more afraid of death than the rest of you,” said Sabinus, masking his true motivation. The Roman commander thought only of escape, and his enemy offered him a way out. Cotta knew better, yet he gave in to Sabinus after a heated exchange. Deep inside, the Roman troops were also afraid. Caesar wrote: “They thought of every possible argument to persuade themselves that there was no danger in going….”

The Gauls prepared two ambushes. In the battle that followed, Roman commanders showed their respective dispositions. Sabinus panicked, running about the battlefield “nervously,” according to Caesar. “Cotta, however, who had foreseen the possibility of a surprise attack on the march, and for that reason opposed the idea of leaving the camp, did everything possible to save the army – calling upon the men and encouraging them as their commander-in-chief might have done, and fighting in the ranks like any soldier.”

As the Roman legion was trapped and desperate, Sabinus sent a messenger to Ambiorix. He asked for another parley, for safe passage as promised. Ambiorix agreed to meet with Sabinus and the Roman officers. But Cotta, wounded in the face, heaped scorn on this proposal. He would not meet with Ambiorix, who had broken his word twice. Sabinus took his immediate officers and men to Ambiorix, who asked them to lay down their arms. Once they had done so, the Eburones slaughtered them to a man. Cotta died fighting, though some of his men managed to escape alive.

The lesson of this story is clear. The spirit of Sabinus always turns to its enemy for safety. It is not a spirit of self-reliance and strength in adversity. It represents the worst weakness of all: namely, cowardice. Instead of accepting the necessity of battle, Sabinus always sought to negotiate. His method was to trust a deceptive enemy at every turn. The result of such leadership was a disgraceful massacre. This is always the outcome, and will be the outcome for any country that is governed by such a spirit.

About the Author

jrnyquist [at] aol [dot] com ()