Just yesterday, I heard one of our presidential candidates make a ridiculous remark that “with courage, all things can be accomplished.” Presidential candidates need to know more history.
Caesar shared control of Rome with Pompey, but being Caesar, he naturally wanted more—the problem was how to get it. Quickly escalating almost nothing into a national crisis, Caesar invaded Gaul in 58 B.C. (When I say Gaul, you think France. This is not even close to being completely historically or geographically accurate, but it is close enough for this government employee.)
Six years later, Caesar had all but vanquished his enemies when suddenly, a young, energetic, and passionate leader, Vercingetorix, rallied the people and launched a new uprising which did what Caesar had feared most—it gave hope and a sense of nationalism to the all-but-defeated people of Gaul.
Caesar reacted with characteristic swiftness and sought to engage the rebels, but the wily Vercingetorix had adopted a brilliant strategy—'Don't directly fight the nearly invincible Roman Army.' Instead, as the Gallic army marched northward, it adopted a scorched-earth policy, destroying the crops and food supplies that Caesar’s army depended on. This forced Caesar’s army to send out numerous scouting parties to forage for food, and those small scavenging parties are what Vercingetorix attacked.
Note. For most of human history, the hardest part of winning a battle was getting an army to the battleground in good enough condition to fight (Remember the saying, "An army marches on its stomach."? Well, it fights "on its stomach", too.) The fighting was generally secondary. This is why, for example, throughout most of American colonial history, a remote small wooden fort supplied with nothing more than a single small cannon and a barrel of moldy flour could control vast interior areas. In a pinch, the fort could give up the cannon.
Caesar has to stop this, and since he could not force Vercingetorix to fight in the field, he attacked Avaricum, a Gallic high-walled stronghold that was generally thought to be impregnable. Caesar laid siege to the city, cutting off supplies from the outside while he began a brutal assault on the town. He built a huge platform of logs 80 feet high, positioned two towers on it to strafe the battlements, and launched an all-out undermining effort against the city's walls. The Gauls fought valiantly, but it was all to no avail. The city fell after a siege of one month’s duration.
After starving for a month—even while they labored to defeat the city—the Roman Legions were pissed. Caesar’s account of his campaign in Gaul is understandably self-serving, but even he admitted that only 800 survived out of a population of 40,000.
This defeat did not stop Vercingetorix; if anything, it spread a sense of nationalism, even carrying the revolution to tribes that formerly had been longstanding allies of Rome—a sure sign of its seriousness.
Vercingetorix then attempted to ambush Caesar’s army on the march, but was foiled. So the Gauls retired to the hilltop fortress at a place called Alesia in central France. As a fortress, Alesia was considered impregnable (kind of like Avaricum...). It had steep cliffs on all sides and the only approach was a three mile long plain on the west side.
Caesar recognized immediately that assault was impossible and decided to starve the Gauls out by blockade. Paradoxically, his best weapon would be the 80,000 troops of the enemy army--surely such a large number of men would exhaust the town’s food supply quickly.
Caesar constructed eight camps around Alesia, and joined them together with ramparts and 12 foot wooden walls that ran for 10 miles. Technically, such works are called circumvallation since they are fortifications set up, facing the fortifications of the besieged.
Caesar’s circumvallatlon was a substantial undertaking. It had two ditches out front, 15 feet deep and 15 feet across. Since the plain to the west was clearly a draw for enemy sorties, the innermost ditch here was filled with water. An extra ditch, 20 feet across, had been dug across the plain some 650 yards in front of the palisade, to protect the legionaries as they worked, and to offer a further obstacle to any attempt to break out on the part of the Gauls trapped inside Alesia.
The wall, itself, was also formidable. The excavated earth from the trenches was used to make fighting platforms within the wall and 23 forts were incorporated into the wall.
From within Alesia, Vercingetorix could see what Caesar was doing. Avoiding an open battle that the Romans would surely win, he pulled his infantry inside the walls of Alesia and sent his cavalry out, not only to escape, but to gather reinforcements. Part of the reason to send the cavalry out, of course, was also not to waste grain on the horses. (The grain it takes to feed a horse for a day will feed ten men.)
Spies told Caesar about the approaching army coming to rescue Alesia. Prudence (or just plain common sense) dictated a strategic withdrawal (Run Away!). Now, if you remember, the whole point of Caesar's coming to Gaul was to build power, and to add dignitas and gravitas to his image, so retreating was out of the question.
Caesar’s army constructed a second set of walls--this time facing outward. This contravallation had to be even bigger, totaling 14 miles in length, with a three-story tower roughly every 80 feet. In effect, the Roman army was besieging Vercingetorix in Alesia while being besieged by a second army of Gauls on the outside: the Romans were caught in a fort that was a giant wooden doughnut.
Caesar had 65,000 men inside Fort Krispy Crème, which faced 80,000 hungry soldiers in Alesia, while a force of 250,000 men was gathering to attack him on the outside. (Caesar said it was 250,000—Plutarch said it was 300,000—but then the first liar never has a chance. Let’s be a little more realistic and say 100,000.)
While they waited, the Romans got creative. In front of the walls, rows of sharpened stakes were placed into the trenches. With black humor the soldiers nicknamed these obstacles cippi, which means “boundary markers” and also “tombstones.” In front of these, pits three feet deep were dug and one sharpened stake embedded into each, and then the hole concealed with twigs and grass. These obstacles the Roman troops nicknamed “lilies".
Finally, in front of the lilies, small blocks of wood with barbed points or hooks nailed into them, nicknamed “stimuli”, were hammered into the grass so that the points were concealed. The Gallic infantry, which generally fought in the nude (and therefore, barefooted!), faced a world of hurt before even reaching the wooden walls.
With his foraging hampered by the threat of the army coming to relieve Vercingetorix , Caesar ordered his men to collect 30 days’ rations and to retire between the two lines, which were about 200 yards apart. Then he waited for what would come next.
To preserve rations (and to place a burden on Caesar) Vercingetorix drove the noncombatant population—women, children, and the elderly—out of Alesia. The poor wretches approached the Roman lines and begged to be either admitted or to be allowed to pass through both walls. But the Romans were in no better shape to feed them than were the Gauls, so Caesar just left them to wander in the no-man’s land between his lines and the walls of Alesia. At best, this was a blow to the morale of Vercingetorix’s men as they daily watched those poor souls starve and die of exposure.
It says something about the character of both Caesar and Plutarch that neither recorded the eventual fate of these damned innocents. And it says something about the naiveté of Vercingetorix if he really thought Caesar would feed them.
The relieving Gallic army began assaulting the outer Roman lines, starting with a surprise nighttime attack. Despite several attempts, the Roman lines held. Finally, the Gallic forces attacked at all points along the Roman fortifications, both inside and out of the fortifications.
This was the key moment of the whole engagement and it is a testament to Roman discipline that the legionaries held their ground and defended the palisades stubbornly. Caesar noted how unnerving it was for them to hear the shouts and sounds of battle coming from behind them, knowing that their lives were in the hands of their comrades who were defending the other siege line—But the Romans held their posts anyway.
Both Vercingetorix and Caesar participated in this last battle. Caesar, wearing a scarlet cloak and leading the reserve forces, personally joined in the fighting. The interior Gallic forces attacking the fortifications eventually broke and fled, leaving Caesar victorious. The sight of this defeat caused the relieving army to retire in some disorder.
The next day, Vercingetorix surrendered himself to Caesar. The survivors from Alesia were given to the Roman soldiers as prizes. Vercingetorix’s fate was worse: he was kept alive to walk behind Caesar’s chariot in the triumphal procession in Rome, and was eventually executed by garrote as an enemy of the Roman people. Two years later, of course, Caesar himself lay dead, killed by his own people as a tyrant.
Note. If you watched the HBO series ‘Rome’, the first episode begins with the surrender of Vercingetorix, but there is no mention of the Battle of Alesia. Caesar, of course, would gain the power he craved, as well as wealth beyond imagination. He was to bring back so much gold from Gaul that the market temporarily collapsed, with the price of the metal falling by half. While Rome chose to honor his army for the victory at Alesia, the Roman Senate refused to honor Caesar, so he took his army and crossed the Rubicon, then became dictator perpetuus.
So, in one sense then, the contest at Alesia was between disciplined Roman perseverance and flamboyant Gallic courage. Unfortunately, for all its admirable passion, the latter proved insufficient.