The Eburones (Greek: , Strabo), were a Gallic-Germanic tribe who lived in the northeast of Gaul, in what is now the southern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, and the German Rhineland, in the period immediately before this region was conquered by Rome. Though living in Gaul, they were also described as being both Belgae, and Germani (for a discussion of these terms, see below).
The Eburones played a major role in Julius Caesar's account of his "Gallic Wars", as the most important tribe within the Germani cisrhenani group of tribes, i. e. Germani living west of the Rhine amongst the Belgae. Caesar claimed that the name of the Eburones was wiped out after their failed revolt against his forces during the Gallic Wars. Whether any significant part of the population lived on in the area as Tungri, the tribal name found here later, is uncertain but considered likely.
Caesar is the primary source for the location of the Eburones. The exact borders are difficult to be certain about, but the region that they and their fellow Germani inhabited corresponds to some extent with the later Roman district of Germania Inferior, enclosed by the northern bend of the river Rhine, and including a stretch of the Meuse river (Dutch: Maas) stretching from the Ardennes until the river deltas of the Rhine and Meuse. In the early medieval church this evolved into the original church province of Cologne (later stretching beyond the Rhine), which included the Diocese of Liège that had evolved from the Civitas Tungrorum. This large area included large parts of what are now the southern Netherlands, eastern Belgium, and the German Rhineland.
At one point Caesar reported that the greatest part of the Eburones settled between the Mosa (Maas or Meuse) and the Rhine. And "on this basis German scholars place them in the northern Eifel". On the other hand, Caesar places Atuatuca, the fort of the Eburones, about the middle of the territory of the Eburones; and it is possible this was Tongeren, which had the ancient name of Aduatuca Tungrorum. (This identification is also uncertain however, because Atuatuca might have been a word for fortress, or some other type of population centre. Other sites have been proposed, including nearby Mount Saint Peter, on the Maas river itself, but also places such as Spa, in the Ardennes.) More generally Caesar's description of a narrow defile to its west, suitable for ambush, is a type of landscape less common as one goes north in this region, towards the low-lying Campine.
In the same passage, Caesar describes the Segni and Condrusi as being south of the Eburones, between them and the Treviri, who lived near the Moselle. This is difficult to reconcile with a territory near the Eifel because the Condrusi are the origin of the name of the Condroz region in the Ardennes, south of the Meuse, and west of the Eifel. "No cultural groupings can be isolated to suit the Eburones in the north Eifel" according to Edith Mary Wightman. In contrast, she also writes that
Belgian archaeologists identify them with the cultural group in northern Limburg and Kempen (Campine) which showed such strong continuity in Urnfield times. This would certainly account for the propinquity of Eburones and Menapii mentioned by Caesar; the distribution of war-time staters attributed to the Eburones (a mixture of transrhenine and Treveran elements) also corresponds with this group."
Furthermore, to the north and northwest, the Eburones bordered on the Menapii, who lived near the mouth of the Rhine river, though "protected by one continued extent of morasses and woods", and had ties of hospitality with them. And at one point Caesar indicates that when the Eburones went into hiding, they not only dispersed into the Ardennes and morasses, but "those who were nearest the ocean concealed themselves in the islands which the tides usually form". This is also seen to indicate that at least part of the Eburones lived west of the Maas, closer to the river deltas. Nico Roymans has argued, based on concentrations of coin finds, that there were Eburones as far north as the eastern part of the Dutch river-area, an area later inhabited by Batavians, a Roman-era Germanic group who may have included remnants of the older Eburonic population.
When the Tencteri and Usipetes, who were Germanic tribes, crossed the Rhine from Germania in 55 BCE, Caesar reported that they first fell on the Menapii, then crossed the Maas towards a tribe called the Ambivariti (otherwise unknown) and then advanced into the territories of the Eburones and Condrusi, who were both "under the protection of" the Treveri to the south.
Apart from being under the protection of the Treveri, the Eburones also had close dealings with the Nervii, a large Belgic tribe to the west of them, who much later had their Roman provincial capital in Bavay (later moved to Cambrai). Neighbouring both the Nervii and the Eburones, possibly between them, were also the Aduatuci (or Atuatuci). Caesar reported that Ambiorix had been forced to pay tribute to them before the Romans came, and that his own son and nephew had been kept by them as hostages in slavery and chains. It was with these two tribes, that the Eburones could quickly form a military alliance against Caesar's forces. The location of the Aduatuci is not clear, but their name appears to be related to the names of both the capital of the Eburones "Aduatuca" and the capital of the later Tungri "Aduatuca Tungrorum" (modern Tongeren) which may have been the same place.
Caesar also reports that during his conflict with them, the Eburones had some sort of alliance, organized via their allies the Treveri, with the Germanic tribes over the Rhine.
Caesar's forces clashed with an alliance of Belgic tribes in 57 BCE in the Battle of the Sabis. Before that battle, information from the Remi, a tribe allied with Rome, stated that the Germani (the Condrusi, the Eburones, the Caeraesi, and the Paemani) had collectively promised, they thought, about 40,000 men. These were to join 60,000 Bellovaci, 50,000 Suessiones, 50,000 Nervii, 15,000 Atrebates, 10,000 Ambiani, 25,000 Morini, 9,000 Menapii, 10,000 Caleti, 10,000 Velocasses, 10,000 Viromandui, and 19,000 Aduatuci. The whole force was led by Galba, king of the Suessiones. However, the alliance did not work. The Suessiones and Bellovaci surrendered after the Romans defended the Remi and then moved towards their lands. And after this the Ambiani offered no further resistance and the Nervii, along with the Atrebates and Viromandui, formed the most important force on the day of the battle. The Eburones are not mentioned specifically in the description of the battle itself, but after the defeat the Eburones became important as one of the tribes continuing to resist Roman overlordship.
In 54 BCE, Caesar's forces were still in Belgic territory, having just returned from their second expedition to Britain, and needed to be wintered. Crops had not been good, due to a drought, and this imposition upon the communities led to new conflict. This insurrection started only 15 days after a legion and five cohorts (one and a half legions) under the command of Caesar's legates, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta arrived in their winter quarters in the country of the Eburones. The Eburones, encouraged by messages from the Treveri king Indutiomarus, and headed by their two kings, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, attacked the Roman camp; and after inducing the Romans to leave their stronghold on the promise of a safe passage, massacred nearly all of them (approximately 6000 men). Encouraged by this victory, Ambiorix rode personally first to the Aduatuci and then to the Nervi, arguing for a new attack on the Roman wintering in Nervian territory under the command by Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of the famous orator. The Nervii agreed and summoned forces quickly from several tribes under their government, Centrones, Grudii, Levaci, Pleumoxii, and Geiduni. Caesar reported that this was thwarted by his timely intervention, and the Belgic allies dispersed, Caesar "fearing to pursue them very far, because woods and morasses intervened, and also [because] he saw that they suffered no small loss in abandoning their position".
In the meantime Labienus, one of Caesar's most trusted generals, was wintering in the territory of the Treveri, and also came under threat when news of the Eburones rebellion spread. Eventually, he killed the king of the Treveri, Indutiomarus. "This affair having been known, all the forces of the Eburones and the Nervii which had assembled, depart; and for a short time after this action, Caesar was less harassed in the government of Gaul."
In the following year Caesar entered the country of the Eburones, and Ambiorix fled before him. Cativolcus poisoned himself with a concoction from a yew tree. The country of the Eburones was difficult for the Romans, being woody and swampy in parts. Caesar invited the neighboring people to come and plunder the Eburones, "in order that the life of the Gauls might be hazarded in the woods rather than the legionary soldiers; at the same time, in order that a large force being drawn around them, the race and name of that state may be annihilated for such a crime". The Sicambri, from east of the Rhine, were one of the main raiders. While Caesar was ravaging the country of the Eburones, he left Quintus Tullius Cicero with a legion to protect the baggage and stores, at a place called Aduatuca, which he tells us, though he had not mentioned the name of the place before, was the place where Sabinus and Cotta had been killed. The plan to take advantage of the Sicambri back-fired when the Eburones explained to the Sicambri that the Roman supplies and booty, not the refugees, were the most attractive target for plundering.
Caesar reports that he burnt every village and building that he could find in the territory of the Eburones, drove off all the cattle, and his men and beasts consumed all the corn that the weather of the autumnal season did not destroy. He left those who had hid themselves, if there were any, with the hope that they would all die of hunger in the winter. Caesar says that he wanted to annihilate the Eburones and their name, and indeed we hear no more of the Eburones. Their country was soon occupied by a Germanic tribe with a different name, the Tungri. However, as discussed further below, the report of Tacitus that the Tungri were the original "Germani" that came earliest over the Rhine, and the way this matches the description by Caesar of the Eburones and their neighbours, leads to the possibility that they survived under a new name.
Under the Romans, one of the tribes associated with the Tungri, and apparently living in the north of their area, in the modern Campine, were the Toxandrians. Like the Tungri, they were never mentioned by Caesar. Like the Condrusi (whom Caesar had mentioned, and who continued to exist under Roman rule), the Texuandri or Toxandrians were recognized as a distinct grouping for the administrative purpose of mustering troops. The etymology of this name is uncertain, but it has been proposed that it may be a translation of the original Gaulish name of the Eburones, referring to the yew tree (taxus in Latin).
As mentioned above, in the extreme north of the possible Eburone range, the area where the Maas and Rhine enter the Netherlands today, it has been proposed that some Eburones, together with Germanic immigrants from further east, joined the new Batavian tribal grouping who contributed an important fighting force to the Roman military.
It is probable that the Eburones contained both Gallic and Germanic elements. Despite being regarded as Belgae, a type of Gaul, Julius Caesar says that the Condrusi, Eburones, Caeraesi, Paemani, and Segni were called by the collective name of Germani and had settled there some generations ago having come from the other side of the Rhine. The Eburones are therefore amongst the so-called Germani cisrhenani 'Germans on this side of the Rhine', i. e. Germanic peoples who lived south and west of the Rhine and may have been distinct from the Belgae. It is clear that the Belgic tribes of Gaul were culturally influenced by both Gaulish and Germanic neighbours, but the details, for example which languages they spoke, remains uncertain.
The name Germany, on the other hand, they say, is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans [Germani]. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, until all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans, which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror.
This is often interpreted as implying that the Tungri, a name later used to refer to all the tribes of this area, were descendants of several tribes including the ones Caesar said were called Germani collectively. The name may even be an artificial name meaning "the sworn ones" or confederates.
There is still discussion about the possibility of these Germani not being "German" in terms of language and ancestry. A number of arguments have been proposed in favour of them having spoken a Celtic language.
On the other hand, studies of placenames such as those of Maurits Gysseling, have been argued to show evidence of the very early presence of early Germanic languages throughout the area north of the Ardennes. The sound changes described by "Grimm's Law" appear to have affected names with older forms, apparently already in the 2nd century BCE. It is argued furthermore that the older language of the area, though apparently Indoeuropean was not Celtic (see Nordwestblock) and therefore that Celtic, though influential amongst the elite, might never have been the language of the area where the Eburones lived.
A further complication is that the population of the Eburones may have been made up of different components. As mentioned above, archaeological evidence implies continuity going back to Urnfield times, but with signs that militarized elites had moved in more than once, bringing forms of the Celtic-associated cultures known as Hallstatt and later La Tène. No clear archaeological evidence has been found to confirm Caesar's account that the Eburones came specifically from over the Rhine. However, these Celtic cultures were also present there, and in the period when Caesar supposes that they arrived, the peoples immediately over the Rhine were most likely not speakers of a Germanic language.