Ancient History & Civilisation



Caius Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 BC)

He would sometimes fight a battle after careful planning, but also on occasion on the spur of the moment – often at the end of a march, or in very bad weather, when everyone least expected it … He never let a routed enemy rally, and always therefore immediately stormed their camp.1

‘ALL GAUL IS DIVIDED INTO THREE PARTS’ (GALLIA EST OMNIS DIVISA IN PARTES TRES) – the opening words of Caesar’s The Gallic War still prompt fairly widespread recognition.2 For many generations of schoolchildren Caesar’s elegantly simple and grammatically correct prose provided their first acquaintance with Latin literature, so that recognition can often be tinged with bitter memories. Even now, when Classics rarely forms a part of the school syllabus, Julius Caesar is one of a handful of figures from antiquity whose names are generally remembered, thanks in part to his famous affair with Cleopatra and his spectacular murder, both of which have provided much inspiration for drama and cinema.

Whatever their main interests, military historians will probably know a little about Caesar’s campaigns, for he continues to be included amongst the ranks of the most successful and gifted generals of all time. Napoleon named Caesar as chief amongst the Great Captains from whose campaigns much could be learned, and at St Helena devoted some time to producing a detailed critique of the Roman’s generalship as described in The Gallic War and The Civil War. The French emperor was not the first to suggest that Caesar was sometimes prone to exaggeration in his account, although, given that his own official pronouncements in the Imperial Bulletins inspired the proverb ‘to lie like a bulletin’, it is unclear just how serious an offence he considered this to be. More recently a number of historians have used Caesar’s own narrative to assess his ability as a commander.

The sheer detail of Caesar’s Commentarii (Commentaries) ensures that more is known about his campaigns than those of any other Roman general. There are seven books describing operations in Gaul from 58–52 BC and three dealing with Civil War in 49–48BC. Additional books, not written by Caesar himself but produced after his death by officers who had served under him, cover the final operations in Gaul in 51 and the remainder of the Civil War. It is not clear whether each book was published at the end of the year’s campaigning or whether the entire collection was released simultaneously. The former seems more probable, and it is likely that they were intended to advertise Caesar’s achievements to the people of Rome whilst his operations were still continuing. Several sources attest to the great speed with which Caesar wrote and no less an authority than Cicero declared the Commentarii to be one of the highest expressions of the Latin literature. Few openly criticized their reliability, although one of Caesar’s own subordinates claimed that he took little care to verify accounts of events which he had not himself witnessed. Very rarely, especially for the Gallic campaigns, does any hint of an alternative version survive in the other sources covering this period. Therefore Caesar’s ability as a commander is assessed almost exclusively from his own narrative, a situation which it is probable many generals throughout history would envy.

The Commentarii certainly report events in a manner which is favourable to their author, although his use of the third person throughout the text makes this a little less obvious. It is, however, unlikely that Caesar had complete freedom to invent as he pleased, for it should be remembered that the many senatorial officers with the legions in Gaul wrote frequently to family and friends back in Rome. Cicero’s brother Quintus served as one of Caesar’s legates and the brothers corresponded regularly. A good deal was known about the army’s activities, and it is highly probable that the basic narrative in the Commentarii is accurate.

It is after all from Caesar’s own writings that many historians have felt able to criticize some of his actions on campaign. For many he appears as a flawed genius, a man prone to sudden rash acts, whose talent often shone out most clearly in extricating his army from desperate situations which his own mistakes had created. It is also often assumed that he was a maverick who commanded in a way very different from the mass of Roman generals, whom modern commentators are all too inclined to dismiss as plodding amateurs. The Romans certainly never developed any formal institution for training men for command and thus all their commanders, including Caesar, were in this sense amateurs. It is important now to discuss Caesar’s campaigns in the context of the operations of other Roman generals, and in particular his contemporaries such as Pompey, and judge whether or not he differed fundamentally from them in his style of command.3


Caius Julius Caesar was born around 100 BC. His family, the Julii Caesares, were patricians who claimed descent from the goddess Venus, but had only managed to produce a single consul during the entire second century. Caesar first attracted widespread attention during Sulla’s dictatorship when he publicly displayed images of Marius at the funeral of his aunt, and Marius’ widow, Julia. In 80–78 he began his military service, fighting in Asia and winning the corona civica. Whilst returning to Italy his ship was attacked by pirates and he was taken hostage. Throughout his captivity he continually declared that he would return and see every one of the pirates crucified. After his ransom had been paid, on his own initiative he raised forces from the nearest allied communities and went back to fulfil his promise, although as an act of mercy he ordered that the pirates should have their throats cut before they were fixed to the crosses. Caesar may have been a military tribune in 72 and perhaps served against Spartacus. In 63 he won both the praetorship and the office of Pontifex Maximus, Rome’s senior priesthood, the latter with the assistance of a tribune who passed a law changing the election procedure.4

In most respects Caesar’s early career was conventional, but there was a flamboyance about his behaviour which seemed to court controversy and won him many enemies. He spent lavishly, far beyond his resources, to win the favour of the poor by giving them feasts and entertainment and by associating himself with the popular causes of the day. All young senators pursuing a public career attempted to stand out from their peers, but Caesar took everything to extremes so that he was widely disliked, especially since his talents and intelligence were so obviously exceptional. Many senators believed that he was associated with Catiline’s rebels who attempted to stage a coup in 63, a suspicion which was strengthened when he argued in the Senate against imposing the death penalty on the conspirators. Most people also believed that Crassus was involved, but since so much of Rome’s aristocracy owed him money, it was felt politic not to make an issue of this.

Caesar was seen as politically unstable, a rake whose natural gifts and overweening ambition made him potentially dangerous. His affairs – almost always with senators’ or equestrians’ wives – were legion and frequently the subject for gossip. Rumour persisted that during his service in the east he had had a homosexual affair with the ageing King Nicomedes of Bithynia, so that he was dubbed ‘a husband to women, and a wife to men’. Such crude invective was the common coin of Roman politics, making it very difficult to know whether the story had a basis in truth, but Caesar’s womanizing was certainly both frequent and blatant. He is said to have seduced both Crassus’ wife Tertullia and Pompey’s third wife Mucia, whom the latter divorced on his return from Asia. A century later it would become a matter of some pride amongst the Gallic aristocracy to claim that a great-grandmother had become Caesar’s mistress during his campaigns.

At Rome Caesar seemed to attract scandals, though not all were of his own making. One of his duties as Pontifex Maximus was to employ his house for the celebration of the festival of the Bona Dea, a ceremony at which only women were allowed to be present. However, on this occasion a disreputable senator named Clodius was discovered to have dressed as a woman to gain access to the secret rites and was alleged to be conducting an affair with Caesar’s wife. Caesar claimed publicly to believe that there was no truth in this story, but divorced his wife anyway, declaring that ‘Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion’. Once again he set himself apart from other men, and, whilst his personal charm won over many – not least the numerous women who became his lovers – it was this attitude of superiority which made those who did oppose him so bitter in their hatred. Cato the Younger was the most prominent of these, a man whose fame rested upon a strict manner of life reminiscent of his famous forebear. His loathing for Caesar was deep and had as much or more to do with their conflicting characters as with differing politics. During the debate over the Catilinarian conspiracy Cato noticed that Caesar had just been slipped a note and demanded that it be read aloud, obviously hoping that it contained something incriminating. Caesar demurred and, when pressed, finally passed the note to Cato who was dismayed to find that it was in fact a passionate love letter from his own half-sister Servilia (the mother of the Brutus who would lead the conspiracy against Caesar in 44 BC).5

After his praetorship Caesar had gone as governor to Further Spain, where he had conducted a policing action against rebellious tribes and been awarded a triumph. However, faced with deliberate obstruction by his political rivals on his return to Rome, he voluntarily gave up the right to celebrate this honour in order to stand for the consulship. The sacrifice of a triumph gives an indication of just how confident Caesar was of gaining the higher office and winning even greater glory. His impatience to succeed quickly was matched by Crassus and Pompey and their support, in the latter’s case the physical support of gangs of his veterans who were active in the Forum, ensured that his election campaign and year of office were marred by disturbances and violence. Yet only gradually did most senators realize that these three men had joined in an alliance to dominate the Republic. The other consul for 59, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, was backed by more conservative elements in the Senate and at first attempted to block all of his colleague’s actions. Caesar responded by becoming ever more radical in his methods to force through his measures, most of which were objected to not because of their content but simply because he was proposing them. In one incident Bibulus had a basket load of dung emptied over his head and after this he virtually retired from public life for the remainder of the year. One wit declared that there were two consuls for the year – Julius and Caesar.

Traditionally the Senate still allocated provincial commands and his opponents, along with a large majority who were dismayed at the consul’s tactics, determined that Caesar should receive the non-job of caring for the roads and forests of Italy. Thus was the dangerous radical to be deprived of the chance for winning glory and enriching himself – his debts were widely known to be on a staggering scale. This move was thwarted when once again a tribune brought a bill before the Popular Assembly to confer a province on an individual. Caesar was given both Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum, to which Transalpine Gaul was added when news arrived that its current governor had died. His command was to last for five years – later extended to ten. Although not quite on the same scale as Pompey’s Mediterranean or eastern commands, this was still a huge responsibility for a single magistrate. It was all the more unusual because there was no war, or even known major threat, in this region to justify putting so many resources in the hands of one man. Caesar set out for his province desperately needing to win glory and plunder, but it is not at all clear that he had already decided where he would find these. It is more than likely that he planned a Balkan campaign against the strong and wealthy kingdom of Dacia (roughly in the area of modern-day Romania). Then an opportunity suddenly presented itself on the Transalpine frontier and the balance of his war effort moved in that direction instead.6


At the beginning of spring in 58 BC a people known as the Helvetii – a Gallic people occupying an area roughly equivalent to modern Switzerland – began to migrate, following a route which would take them across the River Rhône and through the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul. The move was motivated by a growing population which created a demand for more extensive and fertile land to cultivate, and Caesar states that they planned to move to the west coast of Gaul near the mouth of the Garonne. He also claims that, with much of their tribal territory surrounded by mountains, the Helvetii felt confined because they had only limited opportunity to raid their neighbours. Warfare was endemic amongst the Gallic and German tribes and most often took the form of plundering expeditions which allowed chieftains to win glory and loot and so maintain a band of warriors as their personal attendants. Many of the tribes, especially of Southern and Central Gaul, were evolving from primitive chiefdoms into organized states governed by elective magistrates. However, individual noblemen still controlled considerable power, based around the warriors in their train and supported by men tied to them by bonds of kinship or debt.

Caesar’s account is filled with attempts by such men to seize supreme power within their tribe and sometimes beyond. Just such a man, one Orgetorix, who had skilfully married off his female relatives to powerful noblemen in neighbouring tribes to gain wider influence, originally inspired the Helvetii with a desire to migrate, in 61 BC. However, whilst the Helvetii prepared for the migration, Orgetorix’s ambitions brought him into conflict with the tribe’s magistrates. After a failed attempt to overawe them with a display of the force at his disposal, he was placed on trial and died in slightly mysterious circumstances. Even so, at least one of Orgetorix’s connections, his son-in-law the Aeduan nobleman Dumnorix, was to assist the Helvetii during their migration. It may well be that factions in several Gallic tribes welcomed the arrival of the migrants, and hoped with their aid to win power amongst their own peoples or to dominate their neighbours. An army of Germanic tribesmen under King Ariovistus had several years earlier been invited into Gaul by a people called the Sequani and had subsequently come to dominate a wide area in the centre of the country. There was probably a good deal of political background to the Helvetii’s migration which Caesar chose not to explain, and some perhaps of which he was unaware.7

Orgetorix’s death certainly did nothing to deter the Helvetii from their enterprise and they continued to mass food supplies for the journey. As a mark of determination not to turn back, they burned their own villages and farms before setting out. Caesar claims that altogether some 368,000 people were on the move, stating that the figure was based on records kept by the Helvetii themselves and written in Greek characters which his legionaries captured at the end of the campaign. As usual we have no way of checking the reliability of this estimate and can say little more than that a substantial number of warriors and their families were migrating. Like the Cimbri and Teutones, they did not move in a single massed column but in many separate groups spread over a wide area. Caesar notes at one point that it took them twenty days to cross the River Arar (modern Saône), which reinforces the picture of many individual trains of settlers, much like the waves of wagon trains which swept across the American West in the nineteenth century AD. In his narrative Caesar made a concerted effort to raise the spectre of the Cimbri and Teutones, reminding his readers on several occasions and in some detail that some of the Helvetii, especially the Tigurini clan, had taken part in those earlier movements and defeated the army of the consul Silanus in 107.8

Caesar received a report of the migration whilst he was still in Rome, and immediately rushed to Cisalpine Gaul – the speed with which he could travel, either riding or in a light carriage, continually amazed his contemporaries. He was already determined to prevent any incursions into Roman territory and, more than this, scented an opportunity to fight the dramatic and successful war he so desperately craved. The garrison of his great province of the Two Gauls and Illyria consisted of four legions, numbered VII,VIII,IX and X, supported by an unspecified number of auxiliaries. The latter included Spanish cavalry, Numidian light infantry, and perhaps also horsemen, Cretan archers and Balearic slingers, along with numbers of locally raised Gallic troops. However, only one legion – Caesar does not say which one – and some auxiliaries were in Transalpine Gaul and immediately available to meet the threat. To delay the Helvetii, Caesar ordered the bridge across the Rhône near Geneva to be destroyed.9

A deputation from the Helvetii now came to Caesar asking for permission to move through part of the Roman province during their journey and promising to do no harm whilst they were there. The Roman commander had already decided to deny the request, but for the moment answered that he needed time to consider his response and asked them to return in several days’ time. In the meantime he ordered his soldiers to construct a line of fortifications stretching for more than 17 miles (19 Roman miles) from Lake Geneva to the Jura Mountains. When the envoys returned they were starkly informed by the proconsul that he would not grant them permission to pass through Roman territory and would forcibly resist any attempt to do so.

During the next few days small groups of tribesmen, most often under cover of darkness, tried to ford or cross the Rhône by raft and break through the Roman line. The delay imposed as they struggled to get over the Roman ditch and wall gave time for reserves to be summoned to the spot and each attempt was driven back under a shower of missiles. Rebuffed, the Helvetii turned back and, with the co-operation of Dumnorix who had some influence amongst that tribe and arranged friendly passage, took an alternative route through the lands of the Sequani. Leaving his legate Titus Labienus in charge of the troops holding the fortified line, Caesar went back to Cisalpine Gaul to fetch his three legions camped at Aquileia and raise two new formations, XI and XII. It is more than probable that orders had already been dispatched to set all of this in motion before he arrived. At the head of these five legions, he then returned by the shortest route, forcing his way through the Alpine passes in spite of attacks by the local tribesmen – the Alps were not fully conquered by the Romans until the lands all around them had long been under their control. The difficulty of operations in the mountains and the meagre plunder to be won made a campaign in this area an unattractive prospect for a magistrate out to win fame and fortune. It was not till the end of the first century BC, under the command of Caesar’s adopted son and Rome’s first emperor Augustus, that Roman authority was finally imposed here.10

Caesar had already crossed the Rhône when he received reports from allied tribes, most notably the Aedui, complaining that the Helvetii had been plundering their lands. He immediately advanced against them, and caught up with the rearmost of their columns, consisting mainly of the Tigurini, at the Saône. At the head of three legions, he left camp during the night and launched a sudden attack. Surprise was complete and the Gauls were massacred or dispersed with little loss to the Romans. (Apart from the significance of the Republic gaining revenge for 107, Caesar mentions at this point his personal satisfaction in the defeat of Tigurini, since his father-in-law’s grandfather had been killed with Silanus.) The Roman army then bridged the Saône and followed the main body of the Helvetii. Caesar now had all six legions, a force of perhaps 30,000 men, and 4,000 auxiliary cavalry, including a contingent of Aedui led by Dumnorix. Envoys from the tribesmen now asked the Romans for land, saying that they would happily settle wherever they were sent, but immediately refused Caesar’s demand for hostages to be handed over. On the next day the Helvetii withdrew, but their outnumbered cavalry inflicted an embarrassing defeat on the Roman auxiliary horsemen who pursued incautiously. It was rumoured that the rout was led by Dumnorix and his men. Encouraged, some of the Helvetii stopped to offer battle. Caesar declined, and for the next two weeks shadowed the enemy, his vanguard staying about five or six miles behind the nearest of the tribesmen.

Supplying his forces was and is always one of the prime concerns of any commander, and Caesar’s army was beginning to run short. He had been feeding his men from provisions brought up the Saône by boat, but as he moved further and further from the river this became impractical. The Aedui were supposed to have brought considerable quantities of grain to the army, but had so far failed to fulfil this obligation. Caesar summoned the two senior magistrates, or Vergobrets, of the tribe – one of whom was Dumnorix’s brother Diviciacus. Dumnorix was blamed for deliberately holding back the collection of wheat and placed under open arrest, but as a favour to Diviciacus he was not punished further.11

On the same day, Caesar’s scouts reported that the Helvetii had stopped for the night on a plain dominated by high ground some 8 miles from the Roman camp. A patrol was sent out to examine the hills themselves and the routes approaching them. These were discovered to be easy to traverse and Caesar decided to launch another surprise attack under cover of darkness. Labienus and two legions, guided by men who had taken part in the earlier patrol, were sent on ahead to seize the heights. Labienus was given strict orders not to engage until he saw the rest of the army going into the attack. An hour later Caesar himself took the main force along the same route. At the head of the column was the cavalry, preceded by scouting patrols all under command of the experienced Publius Considius, who had served under Sulla and Crassus and was probably a tribune. By dawn Labienus had secured the summit of the high ground and Caesar was no more than a mile and a half away. The Helvetii, who in common with many tribal armies moved clumsily and took little precaution to guard against surprise, were still blissfully unaware of the presence of either Roman force. However, Considius now galloped back to report that the hills were held by the enemy, claiming that he had recognized the troops holding these from their arms and insignia – probably shield devices or standards. Too far away to see such detail himself, Caesar had to assume that his advance party had at best got lost and at worst met with disaster. Halting, he led his men back to the nearest hill and formed them up for battle. It was several hours before patrols were able to establish that Labienus was in fact where he was supposed to be and by this time the Helvetii, still oblivious to all this enemy activity, had marched on. Caesar followed and camped 3 miles away from the nearest tribesmen.12

The attempt to surprise the enemy encampment had failed, but the incident is nevertheless highly informative. The method employed – initial scouting report confirmed by patrols who reconnoitre the ground and then act as guides for the main columns – would in essence not be out of place in the routine of a modern army. The ability to move large numbers of troops with confidence at night is a sign of a high level of military efficiency. Hannibal’s army had shown a marked superiority over his Roman opponents in their capacity to move at night, most notably before Trasimene and in their escape from the Falernian Plain. Only a few of the legions produced by the old militia system were sufficiently well trained and disciplined to attempt such manoeuvres, but by the time of Pompey’s and Caesar’s campaigns they seem commonplace. Like the speed with which Caesar bridged the Saône in a day, it reflected the greater professionalism and skill of the legions under their command. Yet night operations were always liable to confusion and in this case a false report resulted in the attack being aborted.

By this time Caesar’s army was running very low on supplies and, since the Aedui had not yet brought the promised grain, he decided to take the army to the supplies by marching to their main town of Bibracte some 18 miles away. News of this change in direction was carried to the Helvetii when some of the Gallic auxiliary cavalrymen deserted to them. They interpreted the move as prompted by timidity and decided that now was the best time to rid themselves of their pursuer. When the Romans turned away, the Gauls also changed direction and followed them, harassing the rearguard. Caesar led his men to a hill and, sending his cavalry to delay the enemy, formed the legions into battle. The four veteran units adopted the usual triplex acies halfway up the slope. Behind them were the raw XI and XII legions along with the auxiliary infantry and the baggage train. These were given orders to construct a camp, although it is unclear how far work on this proceeded. Caesar did not trust the recently recruited legionaries to stand in the main line of battle, but hoped that the sight of a slope filled with men would impress the enemy.

It is probable that a commander over and above the unit’s tribunes was appointed for each legion. (In another battle later the same year Caesar’s quaestor and five legates would each be placed in charge of a legion so ‘that every man might have a witness of his valour’.)13 Very visibly Caesar ordered his own horse, followed by those of his officers, to be sent to the rear. He also made an encouraging speech – probably several times as it would not have been possible to address the entire line simultaneously. Interestingly enough, Caesar very rarely recounts any of his speeches in detail except when wishing to make a political point. As the Romans prepared for battle the Helvetii drove back his cavalry and formed a dense line of bands at the bottom of the slope – they are actually described as a phalanx by Caesar. Behind the warriors were many of their families in carts to observe the fight and witness their men’s behaviour.

The Helvetii were extremely confident and readily advanced up the hill to attack the waiting Roman line. The legionaries waited until they came within the effective range of their pila – some 15 yards, or perhaps a little more given the slope – and then hurled a volley of these heavy javelins. The tactic was the same as that employed by Marius’ men at Aquae Sextiae, as was the result. The small pyramidal points of the heavy weapons punched through shields, occasionally pinning two overlapping shields together, and, as they were designed to, the long slim shanks slipped through the hole to strike the man behind. Some Gauls were killed or badly wounded, many more found their shields encumbered by a heavy pilum, which could not easily be pulled out, and dropped them to fight unprotected. The combination of the advance up the hill and the devastating Roman volley had broken the Helvetii’s formation and taken much of the impetus from their advance. When the Romans drew their swords and charged downhill in good formation they had a marked advantage.

Even so, it was a while – Caesar says tandem or ‘at length’ but it is as always difficult to quantify such an expression – before the Helvetii began to give way. They fell back for about a mile, and presumably for most of this distance the two fighting lines were not in contact. As the legions advanced to renew the battle they were suddenly faced with a new threat. The Boii and Tulingi, two subgroups within the migrants, had formed the rearguard and as a result had been late arriving at the battle. Now they threatened the Romans’ exposed flank. The legions detached the cohorts of their third lines to form a new fighting line facing towards this threat, whilst the first and second lines pressed on against the enemy’s main body. Fighting continued on the two fronts for about five hours, the Romans gradually forcing the Helvetii further and further up the hill and the Boii and Tulingi back amongst the carts and baggage, where they managed to push together numbers of carts to form a barricade. Some warriors threw javelins from the top of this improvised rampart whilst others flung missiles between the wheels, but in the end the legionaries forced their way in. Roman casualties were heavy enough for Caesar’s men to spend the next three days tending the wounded and burying the dead. Gallic casualties were, as usual for a defeated army, considerably higher and numbers of distinguished prisoners were taken, including one of Orgetorix’s daughters.14

The Helvetii retreated into the territory of the Lingones, but Caesar had sent messengers to the latter instructing them to withhold any aid and food from the fugitives or face a Roman attack. Threatened with starvation, the Helvetii sent envoys to beg for peace and this time submitted to his demand for hostages. The power of leaders within tribal societies was rarely absolute, and it may have been this independence of spirit which prompted one group of some 6,000 people to flee during the night. Caesar sent messengers to tell the tribes whose lands the fugitives might pass through to arrest them. Virtually all were returned to him and sold as slaves. The remainder of the Helvetii were instructed to return to their homeland. The Allobroges, a neighbouring people who lived within the Roman province, were told to give the Helvetii a considerable quantity of grain to tide them over as they rebuilt their own communities and planted seeds for the next year. However, one subgroup within the migrants, namely the Boii, were on the express request of the Aedui allowed to settle amongst the latter. The settlement was intended to secure the Roman province and Rome’s allies. Caesar claims that only 110,000 Helvetii were left to return home, but, given the Roman desire to measure military success in spectacularly large and seemingly precise numbers of killed and captured, we must treat the implication that some 258,000 people had perished or been enslaved in the campaign with extreme scepticism.15


Shortly after the defeat of the Helvetii, Caesar received appeals from a number of Gallic tribes including the Aedui for aid against Ariovistus, who was said to lead an army of some 120,000 German warriors. There was an element of irony in this, for the German leader had recently been granted the title of King and Friend of the Roman People by the Senate during Caesar’s own consulship.16 Explaining that the need to protect Rome’s allies and the Roman province overrode such a consideration, the Roman commander readily advanced to confront this new enemy. For all their general’s confidence, it seemed for a while that the spirit of his army would fail as rumours were spread by traders and Gallic auxiliaries of the size and ferocity of the Germanic warriors. The tribunes and other senior officers were infected first, but the panic swiftly spread amongst the ordinary soldiers and nearly produced a mutinous refusal to advance any further.


Caesar called together the centurions – there were sixty in each of his legions – and other officers and sought to reassure them. He concluded by declaring that, irrespective of what the rest did, he intended to advance alone with just Legio X on whom he was sure he could rely. This flattery immediately won over the soldiers of Legio X, who thanked their commander for his faith in them, and swiftly shamed the rest of the army who did not wish to be outshone by any other unit. This was one of the first instances where Caesar displayed his skill in manipulating the fierce unit pride of his legions. Ariovistus was soon brought to battle – Caesar had discovered from prisoners that the women who acted as soothsayers for the Germans had pronounced that the warriors could not win any battle fought before the new moon and so he deliberately provoked an immediate encounter – and defeated them after a hard fight. This time the newly raised legions were placed in the main battle line rather than in reserve, which suggests that participation in the previous campaign had increased their effectiveness. Throughout his campaigns Caesar attempted to prepare raw units for combat, promoting able centurions from veteran legions to senior positions within them, and gradually exposing them to the rigours of campaigning.17

The utter defeat of the Helvetii and Ariovistus in a single year represented massive achievements. Either victory would normally have satisfied a Roman governor as providing ample fame and plunder. Winning both together would guarantee a man a prominent place in the Senate. Yet for Caesar, secure in his special command, they were just the beginning. In the next year he responded to an attack on another allied tribe, the Remi, by moving against the Belgic peoples of north-eastern Gaul. An initial confrontation when both armies occupied a strong position and were reluctant to leave it and attack the enemy at a disadvantage ended when the Belgians ran out of food – a frequent problem for tribal armies without any organized commissariat. Disengaging when so close to the enemy was always a risky operation, and the warriors suffered badly as they straggled away under cover of darkness. Caesar then advanced and began systematically ravaging each tribe’s territory as he came to it. It took some time for the Belgians to muster their main army again, but when it had re-formed they were able to launch a surprise attack on the Roman army as it was constructing its camp near the River Sambre. Caesar’s description of this confused fight is one of the most famous passages in The Gallic Wars:

Caesar had to do everything at the same time: to raise the standard, which was the signal to stand to arms, to sound the trumpet call which recalled the soldiers from work, to bring back the men who had gone further afield in search of material for the rampart, to form the line of battle, to address the soldiers, and to give the signal for battle.18

As he and his legates, who had been ordered to remain with their men until the camp’s fortifications were complete, sought to create some semblance of a fighting line, Caesar rode along the battle line going from legion to legion.

After addressing Legio X, Caesar hurried to the right wing, where he saw his men hard pressed, and the standards [a shorthand term for the unit’s formations] of Legio XII clustered in one place and the soldiers so crowded together that it impeded their fighting. All the centurions in the fourth cohort had fallen, the standard-bearer [signifer] was dead and his standard captured; in the remaining cohorts nearly every centurion was either dead or wounded, including the primus pilus Sextus Julius Baculus, an exceptionally brave man, who was exhausted by his many serious wounds and could no longer stand; the other soldiers were tired and some in the rear, giving up the fight, were withdrawing out of missile range; the enemy were edging closer up the slope in front and pressing hard on both flanks. He saw that the situation was critical and that there was no other reserve available, took a shield from a man in the rear ranks – he had come without his own – advanced into the front line and called on the centurions by name, encouraged the soldiers, and ordered the line to advance and the units to extend, so that they could employ their swords more easily. His arrival brought hope to the soldiers and refreshed their spirits, every man wanting to do his best in the sight of his general even in such a desperate situation. The enemy’s advance was delayed for a while.19

In battle, Caesar was very mobile, riding – apart from the defeat of the Helvetii there is no mention of his commanding on foot in any other field action – along close behind the battle line to observe the combat and respond accordingly. In this case, as he says, ‘there was no other reserve available’ and so the commander went himself to join the fighting line. Once there he tried to inspire the flagging troops – calling out to the centurions as individuals, men whom he knew and recognized (and could therefore reward), and to the legionaries less specifically – and gave orders to reorganize and push forward the line. Although Caesar acknowledges the danger of the situation by his need to borrow a shield, he at no point says that he actually joined in the fighting. Instead he emphasizes his role in encouraging and directing the troops.

There are no stories told of Caesar equivalent to the tales of Pompey fighting sword or spear in hand and inflicting or receiving wounds. The heroic tradition embodied in Marcellus and to some extent Pompey had no place in Caesar’s style of command. Throughout the Commentaries his physical courage is taken for granted, and his moral courage to cope with any crisis and never doubt that he would ultimately be victorious is more prominent. In Caesar’s account his legionaries are disciplined, staunch, adaptable and brave; their centurions, both as individuals and collectively, utterly reliable and disdainful of danger. His treatment of more senior officers varies. Sometimes these take the wrong decision or become nervous and panic. Only very rarely do centurions or soldiers waver. The general himself never loses his calm certainty in his ultimate success. In battle he moves along just behind the fighting line, going from one crisis point to another. All along the line his senior officers act in the same way, encouraging and directing the soldiers in a similar, if not quite so gifted, manner, but each of these men was tied to a particular sector and unable to rove at will. Only on a few occasions does Caesar admit that he had not anticipated a crisis, but usually another officer was able to respond. In the battle against Ariovistus, it was Publius Crassus – younger son of Caesar’s political ally – ‘who commanded the cavalry and was able to move more freely than those in the main line’ – who spotted a German threat to the Roman flank and ordered up the cohorts of the third line to meet it.20

The Sambre was one of the hardest fought of Caesar’s battles. It was in many ways a soldiers’ battle, won by the stubbornness of his legionaries who refused to give in, but the general and his commanders did what they could to direct the fighting. Caesar managed to stabilize his embattled right wing consisting of the XII and VII, but the position was only saved when Labienus, who had broken through on the left and taken the enemy camp, observed the situation and sent Legio X back to take the Belgians in the rear.

The rest of the summer was spent in suppressing the Belgic tribes. In 56 Caesar faced no strong confederation of tribes and divided his army to campaign in several regions of Gaul simultaneously. Perhaps the most notable achievement of the year was the defeat in a sea battle of the Veneti, who lived in what is now Brittany. Caesar was somewhat preoccupied by political worries in this year, for it seemed for a while as if the triumvirate was breaking down. Only a hastily arranged meeting with Pompey and Crassus, accompanied by over a hundred senators who wished to win their favour, at Luca in Cisalpine Gaul allowed him to resolve the argument between these two. Both men agreed to become consuls in the following year and arranged for Caesar’s command to be extended to ten years.21

There is a strong similarity between Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul and Pompey’s operations in the Near East. In each case they enjoyed far greater resources and freedom of action than the vast majority of Roman governors. Both men also had the assurance that they would not find themselves replaced by a new proconsul until they were ready, and so could afford to plan ahead rather than simply scrabbling for immediate glory. The wars they fought were, at least by Roman standards, both justified and for the good of the Republic – Caesar was at pains to stress this throughout the Commentaries. They were waged to protect Rome’s allies, interests or simply her power. An independent people who failed to show sufficient respect for Roman might were guilty of pride and thus a potential threat who deserved to be taught a lesson. The verb pacare, to pacify, was a common Roman euphemism for forcefully imposing their will on others and appears with some frequency in the Commentaries. In this way the legions marauded through Gaul until they had reached the Atlantic in the west, the Channel and North Sea in the north, and the Rhine in the east.

Caesar’s and Pompey’s activities differed from most Roman warfare because the key decisions of where they were to operate were made to a large extent by the commanders themselves with virtually no guidance from the Senate. The overwhelming majority of senators acknowledged that their operations were of benefit to Rome, however much they may have resented or envied two individuals winning so much personal glory, but as a body they had virtually no control over what these commanders were up to. Yet even political opponents could not help revelling in the legions’ wonderful achievements. On one occasion Caesar was suspected of breaching faith by attacking a German tribe whilst engaged in negotiations with its leaders – a charge which even his own account suggests had some substance. Cato made a speech in the Senate suggesting that Caesar be handed over to the Germans, but may simply have wanted to confirm his reputation for pitiless virtue since he can have had no expectation that this might actually be done. Even he seems never to have questioned whether the campaigns being waged in Gaul were actually in Rome’s interests. As with Pompey in the east, Caesar’s opponents let him win wars for the good of the Republic, and waited to oppose him on his return to Rome when he would become a private citizen again.22

Caesar’s operations in Gaul were consciously intended to be spectacular, for he had ever an eye on opinion back at Rome. In 55 he constructed a bridge across the Rhine, and he described the project in loving detail in The Gallic War, for such feats of engineering were almost as praiseworthy as successful battles or sieges. Crossing over the bridge he was the first Roman general to march against the German tribes on their own soil, though in fact they avoided battle and he achieved little other than to display his might and ability to reach them. In the next year the exercise was repeated, emphasizing to the tribes the legions’ capacity to construct such wonders at will. In both 55 and 54 he also led expeditions across the sea to Britain, an island of mystery only barely part of the real world.

His own stated reason for mounting the invasion was that he believed that the Gauls had been aided by the Britons during recent campaigns. This is not impossible, but it is unlikely that such support had been on any great scale. Suetonius gives us another motive, claiming that his personal fondness for pearls led him to Britain which was believed to be rich in these. Yet more than anything else it was the Roman desire to achieve something never done before by another commander. Britain was a land of wonder, where the inhabitants fought from chariots in the manner of the heroes of the Iliad, a technique which the Gauls had abandoned centuries before. Caesar won the formal submission of the south-eastern tribes, imposing an annual tribute on them, although we do not know whether this was ever paid. More importantly the Senate declared a longer period of public thanksgiving for this achievement than had ever been declared before. It did not matter that both expeditions had come near to disaster when much of the invasion fleet was damaged or destroyed in storms and it seemed as if the expeditions would be stranded on the island. To many modern commentators the British expeditions seem ill-prepared and rash to the point of dangerous recklessness. There is no indication that any of Caesar’s contemporaries shared this view. Caesar was no more bold than the majority of senators placed at the head of an army, but he was certainly far more successful.23

In the winter of 54–53 BC he suffered his first serious reverse when a rebellion began amongst the Eburones and rapidly spread to other Belgic tribes. The recently recruited Legio XIV and another five cohorts were attacked in their winter quarters and, having negotiated with the chieftain Ambiorix, accepted a truce under which they would march away to join up with the rest of the Roman army. Whether by design or as a result of spontaneous action by individual warriors – the truth of such matters is usually very difficult to establish, as with the similar massacres during supposed truces at Fort William Henry in 1757, Kabul in 1842 and Cawnpore in 1857 – the Roman column was ambushed in wooded country and virtually annihilated. Caesar blamed the disaster on a divided command, for which he was obviously responsible though he does not mention this, and in particular to the craven and un-Roman behaviour of the legate Sabinus. Our other sources refer to this as one of his few serious defeats, blaming him even if he had not actually been present. Suetonius tells us that on receiving the news of the massacre he took a vow not to shave or cut his hair until his dead soldiers had been avenged.

After their success the main force of the Ambrones dispersed, each warrior content for the moment with their plunder and glory, but Ambiorix rode on with his bodyguard and persuaded the Nervii to attack the legion wintering in their territory. This was commanded by Quintus Cicero, the orator’s brother, who led a much stauncher defence and refused to begin discussing a truce with the enemy. Caesar rapidly mustered the only immediately available forces – two understrength legions and some auxiliary cavalry which together numbered no more than 7,000 men – and marched to relieve Cicero’s garrison. Although outnumbered and having sufficient supplies only for a very brief campaign, he managed to lure the Nervii into fighting in unfavourable circumstances and swiftly routed them. When the beleaguered legion was relieved, it was found that virtually all of its soldiers had been wounded.

It was still winter, making it very difficult to find food and forage, and so there was a lull in the fighting for several months, but it was still before the normal campaigning season that Caesar once again took the field, launching the first of a succession of fast-moving punitive expeditions against the rebellious tribes. In turn the tribes were surprised and unable to resist effectively as their lands were devastated. Most capitulated, but when the Eburones proved reluctant Caesar declared that anyone was free to plunder their land. He preferred that any casualties in the inevitable skirmishes occurring when the land was laid waste in this way should be suffered by the eager bands of freebooters who soon arrived from all over Gaul and Germany, rather than by his own legionaries.24


Caesar’s early interventions in Gaul had come at the invitation of the leaders of allied tribes, just as Ariovistus had been summoned to Gaul to assist the Senones in their struggle with the Aedui. Although the Gallic peoples shared a common language and culture, the individual tribes were fiercely independent and often hostile to each other. Neither tribe nor individual chieftain seeking to dominate his own people ever scrupled to seek external aid against an enemy or rival. Many tribes, most especially the Aedui, benefited from the arrival of the legions, but by the winter of 53–52 BC a widespread resentment of the Roman presence in Gaul had arisen. A group of noblemen from many tribes – both those who had suffered the attack of the legions and a few who had at first welcomed their arrival – met secretly and planned a co-ordinated rebellion. Their motives were neither nationalist nor entirely altruistic, since many hoped that the glory gained by defeating Rome would bring power or kingship amongst their own and other peoples.

The man who soon emerged as the principal leader of the rebellion, Vercingetorix of the Arverni, had first to overcome opposition from his own people when his followers proclaimed him king. Yet soon he was raising an army recruited not merely from his own tribesmen but from most of the peoples of western and central Gaul. Compared to the normal tribal armies, the force he created was both larger and a good deal more organized and disciplined, if still inferior to the Romans in the latter respects. More care was taken over supply than was usually the case in Gaul, giving Vercingetorix the capacity to remain longer in the field and not be forced into fighting a battle in unfavourable circumstances in the few weeks before his men would be forced to disperse for want of food. In 52BC the Gauls were able to adopt a far more subtle strategy than had ever been the case in their earlier encounters with Caesar.25

The first outbreak of the rebellion came very early in the year at Cenabum in the land of the Carnutes, where two chieftains and their followers massacred all the Roman traders to be found in the town. The Roman army was currently dispersed in winter quarters throughout the conquered territory, whilst Caesar himself was in Cisalpine Gaul. It had been his habit throughout the campaigns to spend the winter months there, carrying out his judicial and administrative activities as governor as well as keeping a close eye on the politics of Rome. When Caesar heard of the rising he hurried to Transalpine Gaul. The only forces at his immediate disposal were some recently raised cohorts and local levies, and he was reluctant to send messengers summoning the legions to join him, in case they were attacked individually and overwhelmed. Such an apparent withdrawal could also have been interpreted as a sign of fear and weakness and encouraged other tribes to join the rebels. Therefore, the general himself would have to go to the legions, but before he could do this it was important to do as much as possible to protect the Roman province.

There had already been some raids against the provincial communities who were themselves Gauls and so might be persuaded to join the rebellion. Caesar sent some of his troops to the threatened sectors and concentrated a small striking force near the passes of the Cevennes which led into Arvernian territory. It was still winter and the main pass was considered to be impassable, but Caesar led his men through, clearing paths through 6-foot deep drifts to launch a raid on the enemy. Surprise was complete and for two days the Roman column plundered and ravaged at will, with the auxiliary cavalry galloping on ahead to spread panic through as wide an area as possible. Soon Vercingetorix was deluged with panicky messages from his countrymen demanding immediate aid. He shifted his main army in the direction of the incursions, but by this time Caesar had placed his force under the command of Decimus Brutus and himself ridden off, publicly announcing that he would return in three days with more levies. Instead he rode swiftly to Vienne where he joined a force of cavalry – probably including a unit of 400 Germans whom he had mounted on good horses and kept at his immediate disposal – previously ordered to muster at this place. Not even resting for the night he took the horsemen on through the lands of the Aedui and into the territory of the Lingones and joined the two legions wintering in this spot. Messengers were dispatched instructing all the other legions to concentrate, and Caesar had united his army before the first intelligence reached Vercingetorix that his opponent was no longer with the raiding column.26

The Roman field army was together, but spring had not yet arrived and no great store of provisions had been mustered to allow them to operate together for any length of time. When Vercingetorix advanced to besiege Gorgobina, the main town of the Boii who had been permitted to settle in Aeduan territory in 58, Caesar was faced with a dilemma. His army was not provisioned for a long campaign and could not hope to draw significant quantities of food and fodder from the winter landscape, but any failure to protect allied communities would be interpreted as weakness and encourage defections to the enemy. Revolts were always weakest in their early phases as many potential rebels waited to see whether prospects of success were sufficiently good to make the risk of joining worthwhile. Roman defeats, however small, helped to encourage the waverers to commit themselves, and even inaction was usually interpreted as a sign of weakness. In the previous winter Caesar had moved immediately with a small and poorly supplied force to attack the Nervii and relieve Cicero’s camp. In 52 he responded with similar boldness, deciding that it was better to assume the offensive immediately in spite of the risks than to remain inactive and appear impotent. This was the characteristic Roman response to rebellion, wrenching back the initiative from the rebels at the first opportunity and then trying to keep it by launching one attack after another with whatever troops were quickly available rather than waiting to muster a stronger force. The approach suggested supreme confidence in the inevitability of Roman victory and, even if this was no more than a façade and the attacking troops poor in numbers or quality or inadequately supplied, it was often enough to overawe and crush the rebellion.27

Caesar ordered the Aedui to gather grain and bring it to him as soon as possible and, leaving two legions to guard the army’s baggage, immediately advanced to the aid of the Boii, reducing any hostile strongholds he passed en route and confiscating any supplies and pack animals he could find. One of these strongholds was Cenabum, which was thoroughly plundered and burnt as punishment for the killing of the Roman businessmen. The advance of the legions persuaded Vercingetorix to abandon his blockade of Gorgobina and close with the enemy. Caesar had just accepted the surrender of another walled town, Noviodunum, when the Gallic army appeared, reviving the townsfolks’ enthusiasm for resistance. Fighting developed between the cavalry of the two armies, the advantage swaying one way then the other in the usual whirling manner of such combats. Finally, Caesar fed in his German horsemen and this reserve of fresh men, combined with the significant moral advantage Germanic warriors enjoyed over their Gallic counterparts, prompted the flight of the enemy. The town surrendered once more, and the legions pressed on to attack Avaricum, one of the most prosperous and important of the communities of the Bituriges. Caesar was confident that capture of this town, coming after his earlier successes, would be enough to persuade the tribe to capitulate.28

Vercingetorix decided that it was better for the moment to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy and instead wear the legions down by depriving them of food. He camped some 16 miles from Avaricum and ordered his cavalry to harass Roman foraging parties. A cat and mouse game developed as the Romans became more cautious and tried to avoid using the same routes more than once and so falling into ambush. The Bituriges were persuaded to carry off or destroy their animals and food stores to prevent their falling into enemy hands, and even went so far as to burn many of their own towns and villages. Caesar sent back frequent messages calling for the Aedui and Boii to bring him fresh supplies of grain, but the latter were few in number and what they could supply was swiftly exhausted. The Aedui could have done more, but were beginning to waver in their loyalty and so sent virtually nothing.

Undeterred, Caesar set about the siege of Avaricum, ordering the construction of a huge siege ramp across the valley between his camp and the hilltop town. Eventually, after twenty-five days of toil, a ramp 80 feet high and 330 feet broad led up to the Gallic wall. It was another example of the legions’ skill in engineering and willingness to undertake prolonged heavy labour, in this case whilst the weather was cold, the rain heavy and frequent, and their rations small. Caesar personally supervised the project and talked to the work party from each legion as it went about the task, telling the legionaries that he would abandon the siege if they felt the lack of food had become too serious. The soldiers’ pride in themselves and their units kept them going, so that each group assured their commander that they would finish what they had begun.

As the siege progressed, the Gallic army also began to run short of provisions. Vercingetorix’s authority over the army was by no means absolute and the other chieftains persuaded him against his better judgement to move closer to the town and attempt to relieve it. An attempt to ambush a Roman foraging party was detected and prompted Caesar to march out with the bulk of his forces. Vercingetorix offered battle from a very strong hilltop position, but refused to come down and fight in the open. Although the legions were eager and confident of their ability to beat the enemy on any ground, Caesar refused to attack, announcing to his soldiers that he valued their lives too highly to win a victory with heavy casualties when it could be achieved at lesser cost by other means. Vercingetorix managed to send 10,000 warriors in to reinforce the townsfolk, but was otherwise unable to assist them.

The defenders were very active throughout the siege, launching sallies to burn the Roman siegeworks. As these grew in size, and siege towers were raised so that men could shoot down on the defenders on the town’s wall, the Gauls added wooden turrets protected by stretched hides to raise the height of their own positions. Many of the locals worked in nearby iron mines and put this experience to good use in tunnelling underneath the ramp. When the latter was virtually complete the Gauls filled the mine with incendiary material and tried to set fire to the ramp during the night. The attempt was backed by groups of men running out to fling torches on to the Roman works, whilst others hurled flaming missiles from the wall.

It was the practice during the siege for two legions always to be in a state of readiness and these quickly moved forward to meet the attacks. The fighting was vicious and Caesar himself paid particular tribute to a Gallic warrior who stood above one of the gateways hurling lumps of grease and pitch. The man was shot with a scorpion, one of the Roman army’s light catapults, which fired a heavy-tipped bolt with great accuracy and terrible force, but another immediately took his place, only to be picked off in turn. Again and again a warrior came forward to continue the task and was killed. Only when the sallies were finally repulsed and the fire extinguished did the Gauls give up.

The Gauls now realized that the defence was hopeless, but an attempt by the warriors to break out was thwarted. On the next morning, during a heavy rainstorm when the enemy would least expect an attack, Caesar ordered his legionaries to assault. The walls were swiftly taken, but for a short while dense knots of warriors formed up in the lanes and marketplace of the town to meet the attack. The Romans ignored them, concentrating on securing the key points of the defences, and the Gauls swiftly gave way to panic. The sack of the town was brutal in the extreme, as the weary legionaries vented their frustration after their prolonged and difficult labour and extracted another revenge for Cenabum. Virtually all men, women and children were slaughtered as the soldiers ran amok. The army remained in the town for several days to recuperate and Caesar was pleased to discover sizeable stores of grain there. It was now almost spring and certainly no time to slacken the pace of his offensive, so after this short break he took the main force of six legions against the Arvernian town of Gergovia and sent the other four under Labienus against the Parisii and Senones to the north. Rarely in the Commentaries does the author give precise figures for the number of troops under his command, but it seems probable that his veteran legions were by now somewhere between 50 and 75 per cent strength – some 2,500–4,000 men – although the more recently raised units may still have been larger.29

If anything the loss of Avaricum, against whose defence he had counselled, reinforced Vercingetorix’s influence and he was able to persuade more tribes to join the alliance. For a while even the favoured Aedui rebelled, although swift action by Caesar was able to stamp out this rising quickly. The main Gallic army was camped on a ridge outside Gergovia. The Roman general rode out to reconnoitre the town in person and swiftly decided that a direct assault was unlikely to succeed. He was also reluctant to commit himself to a long blockade until he had made arrangements to secure his supply lines. He therefore pitched camp and waited. During the next few days there were frequent skirmishes between the cavalry and light troops of the rival armies. In a night march Caesar secured a hill nearer the town, taking the small enemy force there by surprise and setting two legions to occupy and fortify the position. The Roman camps were then connected with each other by a route defended by a ditch on either side to ensure uninterrupted communications. After some time, for part of which he was absent dealing with the Aedui, Caesar resolved on mounting a major attack against an exposed part of the ridge on which the Gallic army was camped. As usual his planning was based on personal observation of the ground and interrogation of prisoners, which informed him that the enemy had reduced the number of men there in order to fortify another section which they felt to be vulnerable.

That night the Romans sent out cavalry patrols with orders to range in all directions, making as much noise as possible. At dawn Caesar sent out a great mass of camp followers and slaves wearing basic equipment and mounted on pack animals in a rather similar ploy to the one used by Pompey. These were ordered to rise in a wide circle around the enemy-held high ground and it was hoped that from a distance they would be mistaken for real cavalry. One legion very visibly marched in the same direction, but, once in dead ground, it concealed itself in a wood. The feint worked, and the great bulk of the Gallic army shifted over to meet this apparent threat, leaving their main camp virtually empty. Gradually, during the morning, small parties of legionaries went from the main camp to the smaller one, until the bulk of the army had in this way shifted its position. Then Caesar led them into the attack, each of the legions working its way up one of the series of re-entrants leading up to the ridge, with 10,000 auxiliary infantry provided by the once again loyal Aedui taking another route. The attack was swiftly successful, and there was virtually no resistance as they broke into three of the Gallic camps dotted around the ridge. In one of these King Teutomatus of the Nitiobriges was almost captured, awaking from his slumbers just in time to gallop off half-naked on a wounded horse.

The attack had been highly successful, and Caesar now tells us that he ordered the recall to be sounded by the trumpeters. The unit he was with, his favourite Legio X, immediately halted, but the signal did not carry well along the rolling ridgeline and was not heard by other units. He claims that he had specifically ordered the legates and tribunes not to let the soldiers get out of hand and press the attack too far. However, in spite of all their efforts, these men were unable to restrain the exhilarated legionaries who swarmed on up the slope to attack the walls of Gergovia itself. At first it seemed as if the impetuous and ill-organized attack would succeed through sheer enthusiasm as panic spread amongst the few defenders of the town:

Married women hurled down clothing and silver from the wall and, baring their breasts, stretched out their hands to beg the Romans to spare them, and not massacre women and children as they had done at Avaricum. Some of the women even lowered themselves by hand from the wall and gave themselves to the soldiers. Lucius Fabius, a centurion of Legio VIII, who was known to have announced to his unit that he was inspired by the rewards at Avaricum, and would not permit anyone to climb the wall before him, got three of his legionaries to lift him up so that he could climb on top of the wall. He then pulled each of them up onto the rampart.30

However, the Gauls swiftly began to recover and large numbers of warriors moved to meet the incursion, forming up in dense blocks behind the wall. The women stopped begging for mercy and began to cheer their menfolk on. As yet only a small number of Romans had broken into the town and they were both tired and disorganized. For a long time the enthusiasm of Caesar’s men did not permit them to give up, but they were fighting at a great disadvantage and casualties were heavy. The appearance of the Aeduan auxiliaries on the attackers’ flank created a panic when they were mistaken for the enemy, in spite of the fact that they had their right shoulders bared to mark them out as allies and not enemy warriors.

At the same time the centurion Lucius Fabius and those who had climbed the wall with him were surrounded, killed and flung from the rampart. Marcus Petronius, another centurion from the same legion, who had tried to hack through the gate, was being overwhelmed by numbers and was now in a desperate situation. Wounded many times, he called out to the men of his unit who had followed him: ‘Since I cannot save both myself and you, whom I led into danger through my own lust for glory, I can at least manage to save your lives. When you get the opportunity look after yourselves.’ Straight away he charged forward into the midst of the enemy, killed two of them and forced the rest back from the gate a short distance. His men tried to come to his aid, but he said, ‘There is no hope of you saving my life, for my life’s blood and strength are draining away. So escape whilst you have a chance and make your way back to the legion.’ So, before long he fell fighting and saved his men.

Fabius and Petronius were two of the forty-six centurions and just under 700 men who were killed during the fighting. Caesar’s only criticism of his troops in the Commentaries is to say that they were simply too confident and eager to win his praise, whilst the prominent place given to the heroism and self-sacrifice of a few individuals helped to conceal the scale of the defeat. During the fighting he summoned two cohorts of Legio XIII, who had been left to guard the smaller camp, to support Legio X as he tried to cover the flight of his men. On the following day the army was paraded and reprimanded for its disobedience of his orders, but Caesar issued no punishments. He then marched them out of the camps and deployed into battle order in a very strong position. Vercingetorix not surprisingly refused to attack in such unfavourable circumstances, and the Roman commander was able to assure his men that, in spite of their recent reverse, the Gauls were still frightened of them. He then withdrew, deciding that there was little point remaining outside Gergovia and anyway there were renewed problems with the Aedui, some of whom had massacred the Roman garrison at Noviodunum. The town was then put to the torch, and great quantities of grain which had been massed there taken, burnt or spoiled in other ways.

Following up their success, the rebels sent out many small groups of cavalry to threaten the Roman supply lines from Transalpine Gaul. Caesar had lost the initiative at Gergovia, and his reverse was enough to encourage more tribes to join the rebels, but now he launched a counter-offensive in a different direction, hurrying back towards the Roman province by forced march. His army forded the swollen Loire, with cavalry forming a screen upriver and the infantrymen lifting arms and equipment above their heads as they waded through the chest-deep water, just as Pompey’s men had crossed the Cyrus. Further north Labienus had campaigned with considerable success against the Parisii and Senones, but now felt that it was better to rejoin Caesar and confront the enemy with their full strength. Caesar fully approved his decision, and provides a detailed account of the skill with which his legate deceived the Gallic leaders about his intentions and was able to cross a river unopposed before engaging and smashing the enemy army. According toThe Gallic War, as the battle opened Labienus encouraged his men by asking them to imagine that Caesar himself was present to observe their behaviour. However gifted a legate, the Commentaries make it clear that their author was always the true hero.31

For a short while both sides regrouped. Vercingetorix was able to increase the number of warriors in his main army and encourage other tribes to attack the Romans wherever they could. Caesar had been joined by Labienus and also mustered more levies from his provinces and hired more German horsemen and light infantry from across the Rhine, replacing the small ponies they rode with more expensive mounts, mostly provided by his officers. Then he advanced against the Sequani and Lingones of eastern Gaul. Vercingetorix mustered a large force of cavalry to attack the Roman army on the march, the warriors binding themselves with a solemn oath not to leave the field until they had each ridden twice through the enemy column. The Gallic leader divided his men into three groups and threatened both flanks and the head of the column simultaneously. To counter this Caesar also divided his auxiliary cavalry into three detachments and sent one against each of the opposing groups. Whenever the Gallic horsemen seemed to be gaining an advantage, cohorts of legionaries were ordered to form up in close support of their own horsemen. This helped to stabilize the combat, since it provided a solid refuge behind which the auxiliaries could rally and re-form before returning to the fray, but it also slowed down the army’s progress.

In the end the German cavalry, who were facing the enemy attacking the right of the Roman column, forced their way to the top of some high ground and, charging down the slope, routed their opponents. This defeat prompted the retreat of the rest of the Gallic cavalry. Discouraged by the failure of an attack launched by what was felt to be their strongest arm, Vercingetorix and the Gallic army retreated to the town of Alesia. Caesar pursued, forcing the pace with the main body whilst leaving his baggage train protected by two legions on a convenient hill. For the rest of the day the Roman harassed the Gallic rearguard, inflicting heavy losses. The next morning the entire Roman force moved on Alesia, where they discovered the Gallic army camped on high ground outside the town.32

With his army now concentrated and carrying with it ample supplies, this time Caesar did not hesitate to begin the blockade of the town and Vercingetorix’s camp. Whilst his cavalry screened the work and fought a number of skirmishes with their Gallic counterparts, the legionaries began construction on a line of fortifications some 11 miles in length with twenty-three forts connected by a ditch and rampart. Before the circuit was closed, the Gallic commander ordered his cavalry to escape, telling each contingent to return to their own tribes and raise troops for a massive relief army which would return and defeat the enemy. Caesar claims that some 80,000 Gauls remained encamped outside the town, and that they had sufficient food for at least thirty days. However, it seems highly unlikely that the Gallic army was as large as this, especially since it let itself be besieged by a Roman force of perhaps 40,000 men – Caesar does not state his own strength, and the size of each legion in 52 BC as well as the number of auxiliaries is not precisely known.

The Roman commander learned of the flight of the enemy cavalry and Vercingetorix’s determination to withstand a siege. The legions were set to strengthening the Roman siege lines which at first had consisted of a ditch and wall no more than 6 feet high. Now a trench 20 feet wide with steep sides surrounded the enemy position. This was intended to slow down any enemy trying to cross and provide sufficient warning of an attack for troops to be rushed to the spot. The main earth and timber rampart was set back about 400 paces from the ditch, and this was protected by two more ditches, each 15 feet in width and the inner one flooded wherever this was possible. The wall itself was 12 feet high, topped with a parapet and walkway and with a high turret every 80 feet. Sharpened stakes were set in tight rows in front of the rampart, and in advance of these were rows of smaller stakes concealed in pits – traps which the soldiers nicknamed ‘lilies’ from their circular appearance – and, even further forward, rows of iron spikes fitted to pieces of wood and buried so that the sharp point just projected above the ground. These obstacles might in some cases wound or even kill enemies who charged across them too quickly and carelessly, but this was not their main purpose. Men moving carefully and slowly would probably be able to thread their way between them without suffering injury, but this would inevitably rob any massed attack of momentum.33

The construction of the fortifications at Alesia was an enormous task, effectively doubled in scale when Caesar ordered that another, almost identical line of contravallation (i.e. wall facing outwards) should be built to prevent any relieving army from attacking the lines of circumvallation (i.e. wall facing inwards). Archaeological excavation, begun on a large scale under the aegis of Napoleon III and backed up by more modern expeditions, has substantially confirmed the accuracy of Caesar’s description. Once the fortification was completed Caesar’s army, which had carefully massed food and forage sufficient for a month, was protected from attack from any direction. Although Vercingetorix had attempted to launch attacks intended to hinder the work, he had not been able to prevent its eventual completion. In the meantime the tribes were putting together a relief force and, if we are probably wise to take Caesar’s figure of 8,000 cavalry and 250,000 foot soldiers with more than a pinch of salt, this was certainly substantial and may well have enjoyed a marked numerical advantage over the Roman army. Such a force mustered slowly and took a considerable time to provide itself with food and other supplies. As the siege lengthened, the entire population of Alesia which could not fight – women, children and the elderly – was expelled from the town in order to preserve the dwindling store of food. Caesar was not willing to let the refugees through his lines, and these unfortunates were left to starve to death in the no-man’s-land between the rival armies. Whether he feared that in the confusion the enemy might launch an attack or simply wished the Gauls to be depressed by this terrible sight, Caesar does not say.34

Soon afterwards the relief force arrived and camped on high ground a mile from the Roman lines. On the following day they paraded their great strength in a plain clearly visible to the besieged, the cavalry spread over some 3 miles and the infantry behind. Vercingetorix led his men out of the camp and town and began to fill in sections of the wide ditch 400 paces ahead of the Roman lines. Caesar divided his own troops to defend against attack from either direction, and then sent out his own cavalry to engage the Gallic horsemen. Interspersed amongst the latter, and not at first visible, were small knots of archers and javelinmen, whose unexpected missiles caused some loss to the auxiliaries. When a few of the Roman cavalry were driven back the relieving army and besieged warriors sent up a great shout of triumph. Yet cavalry combats often involved withdrawals by men who would swiftly rally and go forward again, and this combat was no exception, continuing sporadically for most of the afternoon. Once again Caesar’s German cavalry proved their superiority over Gallic horsemen and launched a final charge which routed the enemy. The Gallic light infantry, abandoned by their own horsemen, were almost all cut down.35


There was no fighting on the following day, as the Gauls prepared ladders to scale the ramparts and fascines to fill in the ditches. Their main attack came at midnight and was begun by the relieving force. The noise of battle announced their arrival to Vercingetorix, who ordered a trumpet sounded which sent his own men in to battle. The Gauls flooded in to the attack, weaving their way between the obstacles and filling in the ditches as a barrage of slingstones, arrows and javelins was sent at the rampart in an effort to drive the defenders back. The Romans replied with javelins and stones which had been collected and placed in readiness on the walkway and with the fire of the scorpions from the towers. The fighting was fierce and confused, for the darkness made control difficult, but two of Caesar’s legates – one of whom was Mark Antony – took troops from forts in an area which was not threatened to reinforce the legionaries under attack. Both of the main assaults were eventually beaten back.

The next morning the Gauls launched their main effort against the most vulnerable section of the line, a fort held by two legions on a gentle reverse slope which gave little advantage to the defender. A picked force – 60,000 strong according to Caesar – moved before dawn and concealed themselves behind high ground in a position previously discovered by scouts from which they could launch an attack on this fort. At midday this assault went in, whilst other groups of warriors made demonstrations and feint attacks on other parts of the line. Vercingetorix was not in communication with the relieving army and once again only ordered his own men to advance when he saw their attacks going in.

Caesar rode to a vantage point – his lines of fortification followed the contours of the rolling landscape – and began directing the battle. Whenever he saw a section of his line hard pressed he sent orders for reserve troops to reinforce the men there. The greatest threat was against the camp on the hill, and as the Gauls managed to fill its protective ditches and even cover most of the stakes and pits, a breakthrough seemed imminent. This time the general sent Labienus at the head of five cohorts to strengthen the two legions in the fort. This trusted legate was given considerable freedom in his orders, Caesar expressly permitting him to concentrate the cohorts and fight their way out if he felt that the position could not be held. The general himself now also began to move around the lines, encouraging the hard-pressed legionaries.

Vercingetorix’s men, aware of their desperate need to make contact with the relieving army, managed to drive most of the defenders from one section of the wall with concentrated missiles. The warriors charged, and some started to tear down the earth wall with tools. Caesar ordered Decimus Brutus with several cohorts to drive them back. Soon afterwards another legate, Caius Fabius, was given more reserves and told to reinforce this sector. Finally, he placed himself at the head of another group of cohorts, some of whom he pulled out from one of the forts which was not under heavy attack. He ordered some of his cavalry to leave the line by one of the gates away from the fighting and told them to move round to the camp on the hill by a wide circuit. Caesar himself led the rest of his men to the camp’s relief. There the hard-pressed Labienus had been forced back from the rampart, but had put together a solid fighting line inside the fort from his own troops and any others that he had been able to gather. The battle had reached its crisis. Perhaps it is best to allow Caesar himself to describe the conclusion: his

arrival was known through the colour of his cloak, which he always wore in battle as a distinguishing mark; and the troops [turmae] of cavalry and the cohorts which he had ordered to follow him were also visible, because from the higher parts of the hill these downward slopes and dips could be seen. Then the enemy joined battle: both sides cheered, and the cry was taken up by a shout from the men within the fortifications and rampart. Our troops threw their pila and got to work with their swords. Suddenly [the Gauls] spotted the cavalry behind them; other cohorts approached. The enemy turned around and were caught as they fled by the cavalry; and a great slaughter ensued … seventy-four captured war standards were carried to Caesar; very few of this vast host escaped unscathed to their camp.36

The Roman victory was completed the next day when Gallic envoys came to his camp and accepted his demand for their unconditional surrender. Caesar sat in state on the tribunal in front of the rampart as the leaders each arrived to give themselves up. According to Plutarch Vercingetorix dressed in his finest armour and rode in on his best charger. After walking the horse around the tribunal he dismounted, laid down his weapons and sat on the grass waiting mutely to be led away. The number of captives was vast – every soldier in the army being given a prisoner to sell as a slave – adding to the vast total taken by Caesar’s men during the Gallic campaigns. Pliny believed that more than a million people were sold into slavery as a result of his conquests, and as many again killed. Caesar had gone to his province massively in debt, but the profits of his campaigns not only allowed him to pay off his creditors, but made him one of the wealthiest men in the Republic. Twenty days’ public thanksgiving was decreed by the Senate to celebrate the defeat of Vercingetorix.37

The operations in Gaul were not quite over. Another smaller rebellion occurred in 51 BC and Caesar met this in his accustomed manner, immediately sending columns out to attack any signs of resistance. The town of Uxellodunum was taken by siege, and the warriors who had defended it had their hands cut off as a permanent and highly visible warning of what happened to those foolish enough to oppose Rome. It was not the first time that Caesar had imposed such a harsh punishment – he had once ordered the execution of the entire ruling council of a tribe – nor was it unusual for a Roman commander to act in this way. Again like other Roman generals Caesar also acted generously when this seemed likely to bring practical advantage. Both the Arverni and the Aedui were treated leniently after the 52 BC rebellion, their captured warriors being returned to them rather than sold. Caesar’s attitude did much to win these tribes back to their traditionally friendly attitude to Rome. For Vercingetorix, as for Jugurtha and so many other leaders who had opposed Rome, there was no leniency. He was held captive for years until he could be led in procession and ritually strangled at the end of Caesar’s triumph.

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