Gaul Revolts, Part III – The Battle of Gergovia

Learn to fight another day.

Territories of the Aedui and allied peoples

After the successful siege of Avaricum and the prevention of an Aedui civil war, Julius Caesar divided up his army. Two legions were still stationed in Germany. Four legions went north with Titus Labienus to the territory of the Parisii and Senones near Belgae. And Caesar commanded six legions en marche on Vercingetorix who had returned to his homeland in Arverni territory and was moving towards the town of Gergovia (modern: Auvergne, France) beyond the River Elaver (modern: Allier River, France).

Caesar marched along that river while Vercingetorix stayed on its other side. All the previously built bridges there had been torn down by the Gauls, so upon reaching a forest’s edge, Caesar turned and rebuilt one bridge, then crossed and marched five days to Gergovia (modern Gergovie, France). Beneath the plateau the city was perched on, he set up camp.

Gergovia was a town set high on a plateau. It was so situated on such a naturally defensive position and so fortified. That—and that the man Caesar had just made chief of the Aedui had just accepted a bribe from the Arverni to join the rebellion—made the Roman position difficult. Those 10,000 Aedui infantry who were meant to join Caesar’s forces instead now marched against him: a significant turn of events because, otherwise, both sides had approximately 30,000 soldiers.

Caesar left two legions back at the camp below Gergovia, took four legions to intercept the turncoat Aedui force who immediately surrendered to Caesar, and then returned to Gergovia.

Now, the Roman encampment at Gergovia was as thus. There was a main camp situated on a low plane extending from the foothill of the plateau. The top of the plateau was only accessible by this hill, which was heavily guarded by Vercingetorix’s army. Vercingetorix rarely defended towns from within, preferring to guard them from the outside if he had to at all – for he preferred to beat Rome by way of starving them out than through head on military engagement.

In the same way, Caesar, this time seeing no choice location from which to siege the town, saw that the inhabitants of the plateau could be besieged by means of constriction of their resources – a method considered to always be the smarter choice in formal Roman military officer training. That is, he set up a camp and blockaded a local water source the town relied on. Occasionally skirmishes broke out around Gergovia, but overall the Romans had little real chance of victory.

Caesar ruminated for some time over ways to drop the siege without showing defeat. When he was visiting the lesser camp, the second camp near the water, Caesar noticed that a portion of the slope near the top of plateau, usually heavily occupied, was vacant. Why? Because the Gauls had found a narrow passageway on the other side of the hill and were building fortifications there. So, at midnight, Caesar snuck up the hill and the next day seized three camps idling about at noontime.

Inspired by this quick success, the Roman army went ahead of itself and charged at the town’s walls. Due to the complexities of the terrain, Caesar’s calls, the blasting of horns, to halt and retreat were not heard by his men. A battle ensued in which, at first, the Gauls were struck with great fear and nearly surrendered, but ultimately defended their town. Reportedly, 700 Roman soldiers were killed.

The next few days, after chiding the troops and emphasizing the importance of discipline and self-restraint as a virtue equal to courage and valor, the Romans won a few light skirmishes and cavalry encounters on the outskirts of the town–enough to boost the morale of his men, keep the Gauls on the defensive. Because Vercingetorix would not come down to face Caesar for battle, the Romans left Gergovia and proceeded to Aedui territory to deal with the new rebels there.

There in Aedui territory was the town of Noviodunum, earlier conquered by Rome, and served as a supply headquarters possessing a richness of food, horses, and Roman trade goods, as well as a civilian Roman population. The Aedui burned this city down, as was the policy of Vercingetorix.

At the same time, Titus Labienus arrived at Lutetia (modern: Paris, France). He found there an enemy army situated too defensively to be vulnerable to attack. So, through a series of feints and disguised marches over and along a river in middle of the night, Labienus lured the enemy away from their camp. The Gauls, perceiving the Romans to be splitting up and running away, chased after them. In so doing, they split up themselves up and found themselves vulnerable on a distant field favorable to the Romans. There, Labienus won a victory over the Parisii and the sizable war force that had joined them. Having won, he resupplied at the nearby town of Agedincum and then marched for three days to rejoin Caesar.

Meanwhile, Caesar received 22 new cohorts recruited from Roman provinces, as well as large contingent of German cavalry and light infantry whom he recruited from the recently pacified Germans over the River Rhine. 

With a renewed force in hand and no love lost with his troops despite their failed attempt to take the heavily defended town of Gergovia, Julius Caesar refreshed his army in time to face a Gallic offensive.

Statue of Vercingetorix in Clermont-Ferrand, France
Statue of Vercingetorix in Clermont-Ferrand, France

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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