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The Tencteri and Usipetes were an ancient people group, described by the Romans as Germanic, located on the eastern bank of the lower Rhine in the 1st century BC. They are known primarily from Julius Caesar's account of his campaigns against them in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico.

Tacitus does not mention the Tencteri or Usipetes in his Germania, an ethnographic account of Germanic peoples and customs, but records in his Agricola that a cohort of Usipi, perhaps synonymous with the Usipetes, took part as auxiliaries in the military campaigns of the general Agricola in Britain.[1]

While the Usipetes and Tencteri were referred to by the Romans as Germanic rather than Gallic, their recorded names are most reasonably explained as Celtic: Usipetes translates as "good riders" and Tencteri as "the faithful".[2]

Tencteri and Usipetes in the account of Julius Caesar

Caesar describes how the Tencteri and Usipetes had been driven from their traditional lands by the Suebi, whose military dominance of the region led to constant warfare and neglect of agriculture. In the winter 55 BC, having failed to find new lands elsewhere in Germania, they came to the mouth of the Rhine, into the territory of the Menapii, a Belgic tribe which had land on both sides of the river and had not yet submitted to Roman rule. Alarmed by the scale of the incursion, the Menapii had withdrawn from their territories east of the Rhine and successfully resisted the Germans' bid to cross it for some time. The Germans feigned a retreat, allowing the Menapii to return to their territories east of the Rhine. Their cavalry then returned and made a surprise night attack. They crossed the river in seized Menapian ships, occupied Menapian villages and towns, and spent the rest of the winter living on Menapian provisions.

Caesar, fearing that the Gauls might ally themselves with the newcomers against him, hurried to deal with this threat to his command of the region. He discovered that a number of Gallic tribes had attempted to pay the Germans generously to leave, but the Tencteri and Usipetes, interpreting this as weakness, had ranged further into Gallic territory into the lands of the Condrusi and Eburones. Caesar convened a meeting of the Gallic chiefs, and, pretending he did not know of their attempts at bribery, demanded cavalry and provisions for war against the Tencteri and Usipetes.

The Tencteri and Usipetes sent ambassadors to Caesar as he advanced. While they boasted of their military strength, claiming that they could defeat anyone but the Suebi, they offered an alliance, requesting that Caesar assign them land. Caesar refused any alliance so long as the Tencteri and Usipetes remained in Gaul. He proposed settling them in the territory of the Ubii, another Germanic tribe who had sought his help against the aggression of the Suebi, there being no land available in Gaul.

The ambassadors requested a truce of three days, during which time neither side would advance towards the other, while they took Caesar's counter-proposal to their leaders for consideration, but Caesar would not accept this, believing the Germans were buying time for the return of their cavalry, who had crossed the Meuse to plunder the Ambivariti a few days previously. As Caesar continued to advance, further ambassadors requested a three-day truce for them to negotiate with the Ubii about his settlement proposal, but Caesar refused for the same reason. He offered a single day, during which he would advance no more than four miles, and ordered his officers to act defensively and not to provoke battle.

The Germanic cavalry, although outnumbered by Caesar's Gallic horsemen, made the first attack, forcing the Romans to retreat. Caesar describes a characteristic battle-tactic they used, where a horsemen would leap down to their feet and stab enemy horses in the belly. Accusing them of violating the truce, Caesar refused to accept any more ambassadors, arresting some who came requesting a further truce, and led his full force against the German camp. The Usipetes and Tencteri were thrown into disarray and forced to flee, pursued by Caesar's cavalry, to the confluence of the Rhine and Meuse. Many were killed attempting to cross the rivers.[3][4]


  1. ^ Tacitus, Agricola 28
  2. ^ -ipetes (*epetes) is a cognate of the Latin equites. Tencteri seems to be Celtic rather than Germanic (germ. *Tincteri), but could well be either. R├╝bekeil, Diachrone Studien zur Kontaktzone zwischen Kelten und Germanen, Wien, 2002, p. 81f., 383f.
  3. ^ Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 4.1-15
  4. ^ Lee, K.H. "Caesar's Encounter with the Usipetes and the Tencteri." Greece & Rome 2nd vol. 2 (1969): 100-103.


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