Gaul Revolts, Part II – The Siege of Avaricum, 52 B.C.

Oh, no, he’s coming, he sees us, he’s going to conquer us! Help!

To the sudden coming of Julius Caesar, Vercingetorix, leader of the new Gallic rebellion, responded with a scorched earth policy ordering that every unfortified Gallic town, hamlet, and homestead be burned down and destroyed. Recognizing that the Gauls could not defeat the Romans in battle, he determined that their only hope was to destroy the local farms and villages that the Roman army relied upon for food and supplies so that the Romans would then have to leave Gaul to resupply. This plan was announced at another secret convention held in Avaricum (modern: Bourges, France) in the territory of the Bituriges (modern: Centre-Val de Loire, France), one of the biggest towns in Gaul. Vercingetorix went so far as to argue that that town itself should be burned down, thus revealing his insanity as Avaricum was a heavily fortified place, one of the most prosperous towns in all of Gaul, and naturally defended by a surrounding river and marshland. In showing an apparent lack of reason in this, his seemingly poor judgment as a leader was only countered by the madness and ruthlessness with which he led his people. The slightest hint of cowardice was punished with the gouging out of one’s eyes or the cutting off of an ear. Deserters if caught were executed. Fearmongerer that he was, Vercingetorix did well at effecting his plan against Caesar.

Now that the de facto headquarters of the rebellion became Avaricum, where the secret conference had just been held, the Romans marched on it. Outside, they set up battlements to besiege it. For over a week they built up their siegeworks and surrounded the city. As the Romans’ food supply was indeed dwindling, Caesar a few times offered to lift the siege so that they could find food elsewhere if his men were famished. However – and here we can see the key with which Caesar would later unlock his power and win over Rome during its Civil War – his men would not dare abandon Caesar’s plans because his guidance up until then over the last approximately 7 years in Gaul had brought them such great glory, and having never once given up on a single task yet, that they would in no way suffer the disgrace of quitting now and would stay loyal to Caesar even through hunger.

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Because Vercingetorix had set up his camp elsewhere outside of Avaricum, which he wanted burned, on small hilltop surrounded by a marsh with only a fifty foot wide entryway into it, the rebels within Avaricum developed a theory – Gauls loved believing in rumors, Caesar commented – that Vercingetorix was plotting in secret to ally with Caesar and thus win kingship over Gaul by winning favor with Rome rather than victory over her.

Vercingetorix countered this accusation with a speech laying out the intelligible reasons for each of his actions and the rational behind all of his decisions up to that point. His answer satisfied the people of Avaricum. He also showed off some Roman prisoners of war he had caught foraging for food around the area. These Roman prisoners of war had been trained by Caesar’s camp to tell the Gauls that the Romans were starving and would leave in three days. So then, Vercingetorix sent 10,000 more soldiers into Avaricum to help its defenses. Though, he still stayed in his camp outside.

The walls of Avaricum were mighty and well-built. It took the Romans 25 days to build a ramp 330 feet wide and 80 feet high to get over it. Right after it was built, the Gauls began to burn the ramp and charged out of their city to attack the Roman camp. A day and night were spent extinguishing the fire and fighting outside, both parties in defense of their own works. Ultimately, the fire was extinguished and the ramp was damaged but not totally destroyed. The Gauls lost hope of keeping up this defense and Vercingetorix ordered them to abandon the town at midnight, secretly.

That night, the women of the town begged the men not to leave because they feared they and their children would not survive the escape through the surrounding marshland. But, their men were so frozen by fear that they were unmoved by these pleas and were ready to abandon their women and children. It was not until the women screamed aloud about their plan to escape so to alert the Romans that the men, no longer able to sneak away in secret, stayed inside the walls of Avaricum.

The next morning, a heavy rain poured down. Likely on account of this weather and their newly demoralized state, the Gauls were seen to be less busily occupying their walls and defenses. And considering the difficulty with which fire could rage in so wet a condition, Caesar seized this opportunity. He ordered his men to slowly and casually approach the walls so as to not draw any suspicious attention. Then, he offered prizes to his men who could get onto the walls of Avaricum first. Their siege began so suddenly, that the wall was instantly cleared. The Romans surrounded Avaricum inside and out. The Gauls huddled up in the central market square of their town, and seeing no hope, dropped their weapons and tried to run. They were mowed down by Roman infantry in their streets as they crowded through the narrow passageways and gates of the city; and those that could make it out were cut down by Roman cavalry in the surrounding fields. About 40,000 people were massacred in a veritable blood bath. No mercy was given. None, not even the elderly, the women, and children were spared as the Romans exacted their revenge for the massacre of the Roman citizens at Cenabum. 800 Gauls survived and received refuge in Vercingetorix’s camp nearby.

Vercingetorix response to this devastating loss was, in essence, “I told you so.” He knew they stood no chance against the Romans toe to toe.

He then sought the alliance of more Gallic tribes and soon replaced the number of people lost at Avaricum with a new host of soldiers from the farther reaches of Gaul.

The food and supplies plundered at Avaricum was a great boon for the Roman army. What came next was news from the Aedui that their state was on the verge of civil war due to two of its rival chiefs vying for their annually reelected seat of chief administrator. Delegates from the Aedui asked Caesar to get involved. Caesar did not want to abandon suit of Vercingetorix, but he knew how devastating a civil strife could be, especially at such a crucial time in war. Fearing that the Aedui state might split and one side may go against Rome – the Aedui being so large a state – Caesar had to help.

As it turns out, the matter was easily resolved. A simple point of Aedui law, which Caesar learned of and enforced, settled the dispute. From them, for this, he levied all of their horsemen and 10,000 infantry to join his forces.

So, there in Aedui territory, Caesar turned back to the war. He divided up his army and marched on the hunt for Vercingetorix.

Julius Caesar

Source: Caesar. The Gallic War. Translated by H. J. Edwards. Loeb Classical Library 72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917

Source Purchase: Caesar: The Gallic War (Loeb Classical Library)

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