Et tu, Ambiorix?


An exhibition at Tongeren's Gallo-Roman Museum introduces the city's icon, the heroic Ambiorix, to visitors

The first-ever exhibition dedicated to the “Belgian” hero who defeated Caesar’s army

In Tongeren, Ambiorix rules. The first century BC leader of the tribe called the Eburones, renowned for its staggering defeat of Caesar’s army, is believed to have lived in and around this area in what is now southern Limburg. The small city – Belgium’s oldest – shouts its ancient origins from the rooftops: there is the Ambi hotel, the Eburons Restaurant and the Julianus Shopping Centre (where “the customer is emperor!”).

A statue of Ambiorix by French sculptor Jules Bertin has been gracing Tongeren’s Grote Markt since 1866. Shirtless, his mass of muscles bulge forth as he gazes into the distance, his countenance both fierce and noble. Back at the Julianus, there is a permanent exhibition about the statue.

Like Brussels’ (much tinier) mascot, Manneken Pis, Ambiorix is sometimes dressed in special costumes by the townspeople, and one can buy a souvenir Ambiorix statuette.

It might seem strange, then, that the city’s more than 50-year-old Gallo-Roman Museum has never staged an exhibition dedicated to Ambiorix. But the museum, with a permanent collection that spans pre-history through to the Germanic Iron Age, is based on archaeology, not tourism, and there has been little archaeological evidence to prove the existence of Ambiorix and the Eburones. But now there is.

Ambiorix vs Caesar

The story is indeed one that rouses the imagination. The Eburones were one of many tribes living in the region the Romans called Gaul (including what is now Belgium, part of the Netherlands and much of France). In the first century BC, the Eburones, like other tribes, fought against Julius Caesar’s encroaching armies. But the Eburones distinguished themselves.

Ambiorix convinced the Roman legion’s commanders that several local tribes were banding together to attack them and that the Eburones would allow them safe passage through their territory. The commanders took him up on the offer, and, while the legion marched through a valley, the Eburones (assisted by members of other tribes) attacked them from both sides, killing nearly all of the 8,000 Roman soldiers. It was the greatest defeat Caesar’s legions ever knew in Gaul, and Ambiorix and the Eburones were catapulted into history.

It was in 54 BC, and, over the next two years, Caesar made it his mission to wipe out the Eburones. He reported that he did so, but archaeological evidence suggests the tribe still existed 10 years later. And the best part? He never got Ambiorix.

Eight hundred years to contact

In the last decade, proof has been found of the existence of the Eburones in the form of coins used by the tribe. Ambiorix probably paid his soldiers in coins, and the largest cache of them has been found in the region around Tongeren.

The Gallo-Roman Museum, in fact, somewhat uses the legendary story of the fearless leader on which to hang 800 years of Celtic culture. Although it ends with the Eburone coins and a nice little film dramatising the events leading up to the battle, the real focus is on the archaeological finds in the area known as Gaul from 800 to 50 BC.

But even if those finds don’t have much to do with the Eburones, they are impressive and certainly offer a timeline of history. Much of the more than 600 objects from 40 collections around the world was found in Belgium – around Tongeren, the only Roman city in the country, but also from a rich archaeological area on the Kemmel hill near Ypres. Burial mounds in particular often offer the best-preserved artefacts, and the exhibition starts off with superb specimens from graves of the wealthy from as far back as 800 BC.

One of these, a burial mound found near Oss, the Netherlands, contains the ashes of a man now known as the King of Oss. Along with personal artefacts, his sword is here, but it has been curled into a spiral. “In some graves, they put these curved swords,” explains Guido Creemers, the museum’s curator. “Of course, they had to make it fit in the urn, but I don’t think this was the main reason. They were probably afraid of the ghosts of these people coming back and using the swords.”

The most visually intriguing of burial artefacts are the gold torques the rich wore around their necks. Restored to its original gleam, gold is beautifully preserved over the centuries because it doesn’t corrode.

Further along is a pot from about the fifth century BC, which a farmer dug up on his property in the southern part of the Netherlands in the 1940s. “His wife put it in their farmyard with flowers in it,” says Creemers. “It stood there for many years until an archaeologist happened to pass by and see it.”

The exhibition makes a few things clear about the period’s Celtic culture. The presence of Greek pottery proves there was considerable contact and trade with the southern regions. And Celtic tribes copied Greek designs – but tweaked them, making them their own. There is also a sense of the progression of townships, where tribes manufactured or processed different goods, like salt, coins and glass. “They might have been busy building cities,” says Creemers. “That’s a process that was interrupted by Caesar, so we’ll never know.”

A highlight of the show is an 800-year old copy of Reports on the War in Gaul, Caesar’s year-by-year accounts of the Gallic campaigns. There are four books in existence – all hand copied in French monasteries – but this one borrowed from Amsterdam University Library is the most complete.

Ambiorix: King of the Eburones
Until 13 June
Gallo-Roman Museum
Kielenstraat 15, Tongeren

Audio tours available in Dutch, English, French and German

The mighty Belgae

Heroism and nationalism, as explained by an ancient history curator

In the exhibition Ambiorix: King of the Eburones, you’ll find a number of fascinating finds from burial sites in what is now Belgium, France and the Netherlands. One of these was the first excavation of Guido Creemers, the curator of Tongeren’s Gallo-Roman Museum.

Flanders Today: A few years ago, Ambiorix was on the short list for the Greatest Belgian of all time. Isn’t it a bit strange to call someone a Belgian who lived 1,800 years before Belgium was founded?

Guido Creemers: In 1830, when Belgium gained independence, a kind of nationalism arose, like in other countries, and they had a need for national heroes. Ambiorix is an important hero because he defeated the Roman legions of Julius Caesar, but also we have strong reasons to believe that his camp, Atuotica, was right in this region.

Is it true that the only written history of Ambiorix and the Eburones comes from Caesar himself?

Yes. Caesar wrote several books about the Gallic wars. He went into great detail about the situation in this region, and much of this we’ve been able to corroborate through archaeology. A great deal of what he wrote was accurate. He described three big groups of Celts who lived in Central Europe: the Aquitani, the “real” Celts – or the Gauls – and the Belgae, who lived in northern France. He wrote: “Of all these people, the Belgae are the most brave.” Essentially, he found them more rough, more violent than the others.

To which tribe do the Eburones belong?

Caesar in fact defined them as a Germanic tribe that had crossed the Rhine and lived with Celtic tribes in Gaul. We do think that there was a small group of German people who came to this region. It’s possible that these were the Eburones, but, archeologically speaking, we can’t prove anything.

photo: An idea of how Ambiorix probably looked 

Et tu, Ambiorix?

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