The Germans and the Gauls were neighbours, the swift-flowing Rhine alone dividing them. Now two tribes of the Gauls, the Sequani and the Ædui, who dwelt along the borders of the Rhine, quarrelled, and after some time the Sequani asked Ariovistus, who was king over one of the tribes of Germans, to come to their aid.
This Ariovistus very gladly did. For the thought of battle, of rich plunder, and, above all, of the fair well-tilled fields of Gaul, drew his soldiers on. So a great army poured over the Rhine. But they did not come alone; they came with their wives and children, their cattle and their household goods.
The war against the Ædui was long, but at length they were defeated. Then the Sequani offered Ariovistus gold and precious booty as a reward, and bade him return to his own land.
But Ariovistus had no mind to go. The fields of Gaul were rich and fair, and he had a mind to make his home among them. So he subdued the Sequani and, taking a third part of their land from them, gave it to his own followers. As the years went on Ariovistus demanded ever more land and more tribute, until at length the people who had asked for a deliverer found that they had saddled themselves with a tyrant. It Was plain that Ariovistus had made up his mind to turn Gaul into a German kingdom.
The Gauls were too weak to drive him forth, so now they sought help from the greatest of all conquerors, the Romans.
Julius Cæsar had by this time been made governor of Southern Gaul. He hoped one day to bring the whole of Gaul under Roman sway. But he saw well that if Ariovistus was allowed to conquer at will there was danger that Gaul would become a German instead of a Roman province. He determined forthwith to make it Roman, and willingly came to help the oppressed tribes.
Caesar now sent a message to Ariovistus begging him to come to meet him, for there were weighty matters of state of which he wished to talk.
But Ariovistus received Caesar's messengers haughtily. "Tell Cæsar," he said, "that if he has aught to say he may come to me. I marvel what manner of business he has that may concern me, and I demand to know by what right he enters that part of Gaul which is mine by the power of the sword."
When Caesar received this proud reply he again sent a messenger to Ariovistus. This time he made known his terms. First, Ariovistus must promise that not another German should be allowed to cross the Rhine. Second, he must give back all the hostages he held. Last, he must promise to leave the Sequani and their friends in peace. If Ariovistus would keep these conditions then Rome would be his friend. If not, then let him look to himself.
Ariovistus again answered as haughtily as before. "I have conquered these people," he said, "and as a conqueror I have the right to treat my subjects as I will. I do not dictate to Rome how she shall treat her conquests, neither shall Rome dictate to me. If Cæsar desires war, he shall have it. He shall learn of what stuff the Germans are made, who have never known defeat and who, for fourteen years, have never slept beneath a roof."
So it was to be war, and Cæsar, gathering his army, marched to meet the haughty barbarians. But brave though the Roman soldiers were, as they marched to meet the German host their hearts sank. Such tales they had heard of these wild warriors, of their enormous size, of their lightning-flashing eyes, of their more than human courage. White terror shook the whole army; both men and officers were ready to flee.
When Cæsar heard of it he gathered his men together and spoke words to them, both brave and stern. He reminded them how fifty years before Marius had defeated the Teutons and the Cimbri; he bade them cease to tremble, and be true to their leader, for fight the Germans he would. If all the army deserted him, he vowed still to go forward with the 10th Legion alone, for they, he knew, were the bravest of the brave, and would never forsake him.
Cæsar's words put such heart into his men that they became ashamed of their fears, and from wishing to flee they became eager for battle. So the army marched onwards into the strange unknown country to meet this strange unknown foe.
At length the two armies came in sight of each other, and a great battle took place. The Romans were far outnumbered by the Germans; the Germans, too, fought fiercely and well, but in the end they were defeated. In wild panic the Germans fled towards the Rhine. Of the great army only a few reached and crossed the river in safety, among them Ariovistus.
Ariovistus is the first great German of whom we hear in history. But after he fled across the Rhine before the victorious Romans we hear no more of him. We know nothing of his after-life or of how he died.
This battle is one of the important battles of old times, but we do not know where it took place. It was, however, fought not far from the Rhine, and probably in Alsace, not far from the town of Besançon. By this one battle the Germans were driven back over the Rhine, and for hundreds of years the Rhine became the boundary of the Roman Empire against the Germans. But this boundary was not held without great trouble. Again and again the Germans overstept it. Again and again the Romans drove them back. Twice Cæsar himself crossed the Rhine, but he could not conquer the Germans. He could only show his strength, and by the terror of his name keep the barbarians to the right bank of the river.
Still better to shut the Germans into their own land, the Romans also built great walls along their frontiers. Upon these walls forts or watch-houses were built at short intervals, and in each a few soldiers lived to give warning of an attack by the barbarians. These walls were sixteen feet high, and they were further strengthened by a deep ditch twenty feet broad. There were about three hundred miles of them in all. Yet in spite of these tremendous barriers there was much coming and going between the Germans and the Romans. Roman traders came among the Germans, young Germans went to serve in the Roman army, and almost without knowing it the Germans began to follow Roman manners and customs and take on Roman learning.
Yet these years were not peaceful, for the Romans made many efforts to conquer Germany. The great Roman General Drusus made three expeditions into Germany, he overran the country as far as the Elbe, and won so many victories over the Germans that he received the surname of Germanicus. It is said that he would have crossed the Elbe and tried to carry his conquests beyond it. But upon the banks of the river there stood a wise woman. As Drusus and his host advanced she waved them backward. "Cross not the stream, great soldier," she cried, "for on the further side defeat awaits you. Death is not far from you, therefore be warned, and at the end of life do not darken your fame by defeat."
So Drusus turned backward from the Elbe, but he had not gone far before he fell from his horse and broke his leg. A few days later he died in the arms of his brother Tiberius, who sorrowfully carried his body to Rome, where it was buried with great honour.