Gaul Revolts, Part IV – The Battle of Alesia and the End of the Gallic Wars

When a miracle is done by a man, we call that man a genius–in this case, a military genius.

Map of Gaul, 1st Century B.C.

Since the failed siege of Gergovia, the destruction of supplies at Noviodunum, and the joinder of the Aedui to the rebellion, the Gallic revolt gained momentum. Another conference of the Gauls was called in which Vercingetorix was again re-elected to be the commander-in-chief of the whole new rebel army; this to the behest of the Aedui who nonetheless obliged the second fiddle. Vercingetorix then decided to assault Caesar in open country where was he marching on Sequani and Lingones land (modern: central-east France). This happened to be a poor decision.

With ten out of his twelve legions back under his command and a large contingent of foreign auxiliary to boost his numbers, Caesar commanded his largest army yet. He did not comment on how many he men he had, but later estimates put it at 60,000 men; 50,000 Romans and 10,000 Germans.

Caesar ordered his legions well to counter the formation of the oncoming enemy. Vercingetorix’s attack failed and led to a Gallic flight–his mistake being that he steered away from his pronounced strategy of starving the Romans out. Instead, likely fueled by the passion of his barbarism and an inability as a barbarian leader to control the massive rebel horde who likewise was insane with passion and lacked the sophistication, training, and discipline to stop and consider prudent alternatives while their egos are fired up by the slightest of victories, he decided to take on the Romans directly.

The Romans won with valued assistance from their new German cavalry who were well trained with anti-cavalry tactics. Vercingetorix’s key strengths as a leader now became his crippling weaknesses. His passion led to folly. And his Gallic cavalry were countered by German cavalry under the command of elite Roman officers.

After this failed attack, the Gauls fled to the fortified stronghold of Alesia (modern: Alise-Sainte-Reine, France) in Mandubii territory (modern: Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, France, central-east France).

Alesia was a major Gallic oppidum, or stronghold or fortified town, situated on a high hilltop, surrounded by hills and rivers, with a plane three miles wide on one side. The Romans, here on this plane, set up camp while the Gauls defended the hilltop and the stronghold. Similar to Gergovia, the town was so naturally defended and fortified by structure, the best chance of winning it over was by blockade until the town starves. What’s more is that this time there were about 80,000 Gauls defending Alesia against about 60,000 Romans, whereas there were 30,000 on both sides at Gergovia.

Map of the Siege of Alesia, 52 B.C.

The Romans built such a mighty siege camp at Alesia that the Gauls reckoned they had thirty days before they would run out of food. A few cavalry engagements outside the town confirmed that the Gauls would not fare well against the Romans in direct combat. So, another council was called in secret, and the result was the creation of a grand war force from all Gaul.

The Roman encampment was designed thusly. Three rows of trenches were dug. The first, the outermost, closest to the walls of Alesia, was twenty feet wide and tunneled with straight walls so that if fallen in, escape would be nigh impossible unless pulled up by rope or ladder. Then, the two innermost trenches, between the exterior tunnel trench and the interior of the Roman encampment, were dug fifteen feet wide and fifteen feet deep; the innermost one was filled with water diverted from one of the rivers and so made into a moat. Then, a palisade was built–a fence of sharpened wooden stakes; and a wall 12 feet high. Along the wall, at every 80 feet, guard towers were built. Furthermore, outside of the trenches, a bevy of spiked wooden inventions were dug into the ground vertically, disguised under pits and buried just under the dirt. Just as well, sharpened wooden stakes were laid down at a slight angle to point out horizontally and placed under heavy weights so that they could not be moved and would cause certain death by impalation if pushed on or climbed over.

That grand war force that Vercingetorix called for summoned 258,000 Gauls comprised of 250,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, formed in promise to relieve the besieged Gauls at Alesia. However, when the day came that they should have arrived, they were absent. To this, the Gauls descended into a panic, fearing abandonment and sure death by the hands of Caesar’s army. One man of high esteem among the Gauls, Cristognatus, gave a speech, which in short embarrassed those who considered any course but fighting and called for a resort to cannibalism if starvation should set in. As blushed faces must have nodded their shameful eyes in agreement to such a plan, the relieving Gallic army arrived. So, unfortunately for us and our retrospective amusement, there was no cannibalism in Alesia.

After two attempts to overrun the Roman camp, one during the day and one in the mid of night, the Gauls lost a great number of their men while only accomplishing to fill in the two outermost trenches with dirt. Many were impaled on the spiky defenses strewn throughout the ground.

For a few days they convened with some locals who pointed out a portion of the Roman siege camp that was not heavily fortified because it lied on a wide section of sloping hillside. There, two Roman legions had been placed–at most 10,000 soldiers. And there, the Gauls sent their best 60,000 men.

A new battle then raged. The Romans’ fortifications limited the scope of contact between the two sides so that the great disparity in the number of soldiers was minimized. But, still, the Romans were stretched thin there. The Gauls put their excess men to use by filling up the Roman entrenchments and covering the various defenses with dirt. But, Caesar moved busily hither and thither within the siege camp to organize a flexible defense as his legions fended off the Gallic forces coming down from the town and surrounding the camp from all around. Caesar’s scarlet sagum cloak could be seen flying all over the battlefield like a Roman eagle blood-soaked in brilliant red as he rode all around adroitly leading cohorts to bolster certain points of the fortification lines and dispatching his officers to do the same. Whenever and wherever a line grew weary, he rotated his troops. The soldiers there would always happen to see a friendly cohort or troop of cavalry come up behind them and renew them. They fought with valor, digging deep within themselves, because they could trust their leader, Julius Caesar, would not let them down, that they were set up for victory. That if they fought where Julius commanded them to fight, they stood the best chance to win. All this was done to the effect of a victory.

By Ssolbergj - The vexilloid of the Roman Empire was a red banner with the letters SPQR in Gold surrounded by a gold wreath hung on a military standard topped by a Roman eagle or an image of the goddess Victoria made of silver or bronze.[1][2][3][4], CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4249122

The combination of the fortifications, the armory of the Romans, their discipline and valor, and steadfast obedience to their quickly adaptable commander-and-chief who ordered them around and positioned them strategically without error was too much for the simplistic onslaught of a horde counting on winning by outnumbering.

The siege of Alesia became a slaughter of Gauls. The enemy generals began to be captured and killed and a great many soldiers slain. The Romans would have killed many more if time and energy permitted, but the enemy host was so large that it was difficult to stop them all from fleeing. And they fled far off into distant states.

The next day, Vercingetorix called a final council of the Gauls and surrendered himself to its will. Having failed in the great defense he was elected to lead, he asked for nothing, no mercy nor forgiveness, nor chance to renew hope for the rebellion. That he should be handed over to Caesar dead or alive was his last idea.

Caesar received their surrender in a court set up in the Roman siege camp. The rebellion was now largely finished. He doled out punishments, taking arms and prisoners. Each Roman soldier received at least one Gallic slave and piece of the plunder. Then, Caesar divied up his army throughout Gaul, each legion going to a different state for the winter, except for Titus Labienus who was given two legions to march on the Sequani.

Triump of Julius Caesar, Roman Military Parade

For all this, once news was published in Rome, a twenty day public celebration was held. 52 B.C. became a glorious year from Rome and Julius Caesar.

Two years were left on Caesar’s term of pro-consulship in Gaul. As he did not want to leave the region in a state of war for another person unaccustomed to it to assume, he set about pacifying the various Gallic states by means of force and favor. Some states readily accepted his protection. He offered them words of hope and favors from Rome in exchange for the peaceful exchange of their hostages—the handing over of their important persons. Others still took up arms, and those he punished by beating them in battle and then massacring their populations. He went as far as disarming every soldier of an entire tribe, literally, by cutting off their hands.

He took to this business of pacifying Gaul quickly and busily, wasting no time in tidying up his conquests. The next two years were spent securing his position of dominance in like fashion, assuring with his constant and dynamic energy that Rome was no longer a presence in Gaul but that Gaul was now a part of Rome.

This conquest by means of military pressure granted Caesar the title of imperator, which was a title commonly conferred upon victorious commanders by their legions. So, when his grand-nephew Octavius Augustus Caesar later inherited his role and defeated his rivals in battle, he assumed the permanent title of imperator because it was by means of military victory and ever-presence that he controlled Rome and that Rome controlled the world. Thus, from the title imperator we have the words emperor and empire, denoting a form of government that acquires and controls lands with its military.

Julius Caesar’s return home to Rome in 49 B.C. marked the end of the Gallic Wars and the start of a new one, the Civil War.

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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