Ambiorix’s legacy survives through Caesar’s Gallic Wars. While his early life and what happened after he left Caesar’s notice is lost to history, his name lives on —or at least his title does, since Ambiorix is not a name but an epithet meaning “King in All Directions.”
Ambiorix was the co-ruler of the Eburone tribe of Gaul in what would become modern-day Belgium. He shared his kingship with Cativolcus, the elder leader of the tribe. Although Cativolcus was older (and perhaps wiser), he nevertheless bowed his head to Ambiorix when it came to handling the Roman occupation of Gaul. After the defeat of the Eburone’s Gallic overlords by Julius Caesear, the Eburones and Romans found themselves on relatively good terms - Roman intervention weakened the larger tribes and restored hostages to the Eburones. Ambiorix even directly benefitted since some of the hostages who were returned were family members of his.
But the Romans were still an invasive force on Gallic land. Ambiorix’s patience wore thin when winter came, and the Romans demanded that the tribes surrender some of their food to supply Roman garrisons, despite knowing that food was scarce due to an earlier drought. Indutiomarus, a fellow chief from a nearby tribe, finally decided that even friendly Romans were too many Romans, and urged Ambiorix and other Gauls to rise up against the Roman occupation.
The two kings attacked the Roman garrison under the command of Sabinus and Cotta. But the Gauls weren’t skilled in fighting a fortified camp. Ambiorix realized that outright warfare wouldn’t defeat his enemies here. He would have to use a different tactic. Ambiorix went to the gates and requested to negotiate with the Roman commanders. A consummate liar, Ambiorix put on a grand show when they arrived. It hadn’t been his idea to attack, Ambiorix wildly claimed. He was the leader of a small tribe, and he’d been bullied into submission—the Romans could understand that since they’d helped free some of his people from those dreadful bullies in the past. His own people were pressuring him to fight too, so what was a king to do? Ambiorix went on to warn the commanders of an impending attack. The Germans were coming, he cautioned, and their forces were much stronger and larger than what the Romans could face in this small garrison. Ambiorix advised them to leave the garrison to join up with their allies elsewhere and promised them safe passage through his lands along the way.
The Romans bought Ambiorix’s tale. They reasoned that the possibility of deception was low since the Eburones tribe was so small—why would a mouse attack a lion? They prepared to leave and make for another garrison. Meanwhile, Ambiorix prepared his attack. He set up a trap along the ravine on the path he knew that the Romans would march through. Sure enough, the Romans left their fort at dawn and followed the path that Ambiorix predicted they would, defenses low as they thought that the closest hostile army were these still far-off “Germans” of which Ambiorix spoke. They were wrong.
Ambiorix waited for half of the Roman forces to pass through the ravine, then started his attack. He launched volleys of javelins on the Romans, and by the time Sabinus realized what was happening, it was too late. He requested to speak with Ambiorix, who promised him safe passage if he would just come to the Gallic camp. But it seemed that Sabinus hadn’t learned his lesson. Ambiorix killed him upon arrival. Some survivors of the ambush fled back to their fort, but without the manpower needed to defend it, they committed suicide rather than be slaughtered or captured by the enemy. The other survivors escaped to a nearby garrison and warned the commander there of Ambiorix’s treachery. Even so, the word didn’t seem to spread to the rest of the Romans – namely, the Roman commander Cicero.
Ambiorix and his troops killed the forces outside of Cicero’s camp. However, once again, Ambiorix couldn’t breach the walls. Rather than continue to attack the gates, he decided to try and trick the commander like he did before. But this time it didn’t work. Cicero stated it wasn’t the Roman way to accept terms from the enemy and, while he stalled for time, secretly sent for help. Soon, Julius Caesar was on the march to face Ambiorix.
This time, it was the Roman’s turn to set a trap. Ambiorix was still feeling pretty good after his previous victory, and when he saw Caesar’s “small” army, he felt emboldened enough to attack. Caesar’s men seemed reluctant to fight, and the fort they’d built was small. Ambiorix ordered his men to attack, only to be surprised – the “small” fort had been hiding a large cavalry force. Most of Ambiorix’s army was wiped out, and he narrowly escaped capture. Ambiorix disappeared over the German border, taking with him only a few of his most trusted men. He was never heard from again.
Caesar, unfortunately, didn’t take well to being robbed of the satisfaction of killing Ambiorix. He also didn’t tolerate rebellion or trickery (unless it was his own, of course). He destroyed the Eburones with a combination of military repression and cutting off the Gauls’ food supplies, pushing the tribe to the point where its now-lone king, Cativolcus, poisoned himself, eradicating the last remnant of the forsaken tribe.