‘The chieftains of Gaul called councils in remote spots deep in the forests and bemoaned the death of Acco; they realised that the same fate could well befall any of them; they pitied the common plight of Gaul; by pledges and gifts they encouraged men to start the war and risk their own life in the cause of the liberty of Gaul.’ - Caesar.1
Successful imperial powers have always relied as much - or even more - on diplomacy and political settlement as on military force. Armies could and can smash formal opposition, and were and are capable of curbing guerrilla warfare, although they may not be able to destroy it. Yet if military actions were not to be constantly repeated, then a settlement needed to be reached which was acceptable to enough of the occupied peoples, and in particular those with power and influence. This principle was as true for men like Wellesley in British India or Bugeard in French North Africa as it was for Caesar in Gaul. All of them were gifted soldiers who won great battlefield victories, but each realised that this was not enough without effective diplomacy and competent administration. For senators, the intimate connection between war and politics in the Roman Republic helped to prepare them for this aspect of their role as a provincial governor. It was also important that Roman expansion outside Italy was not a question of eradicating the indigenous population and replacing them with Roman colonists, or even of imposing a Roman elite who would exploit a subject population. For all the massacres and mass enslavements that accompanied Roman imperialism, the province of Gaul that Caesar created would be lived in by the tribes who were there when he had arrived. In most day-today affairs they would be ruled by leaders drawn from the existing aristocracy.
A permanent conquest relied on persuading the tribes and their leaders that it was more in their interest to accept Roman rule than to oppose it.2
From the beginning Caesar understood this and embedded his campaigns firmly within a political context. His initial interventions in Gaul all came in response to appeals from allied tribes. Invaders were expelled, but Gaulish opponents were treated far less harshly than German enemies, and following a defeat became Roman allies deserving of his protection. Caesar met with the tribal leaders frequently - there was invariably at least one council every year, and usually two or more. He paid close attention to the balance of power within each tribe, and tried to gain some idea of the character and inclinations of individual leaders. Certain men were favoured, strengthening their position within the tribes to provide leaders who were indebted to Caesar. One of these was Diviciacus, who virtually became the leader of the Aedui for a few years, and was also able to place other tribes in his debt by seeking favours for them from the proconsul. Commius, the man who acted as Caesar’s envoy in Britain, was made king of his own tribe the Atrebates and was also given overlordship of the Menapii. It would be wrong simply to dismiss such men as mere quislings, no more than tools of the Roman imperialists. Each had ambitions of his own. The arrival of Caesar’s legions in Gaul could not be ignored. The alternative powers - the Helvetii, Ariovistus and the German migrants - had all been driven out and could no longer be used to counterbalance the Romans. Winning Caesar’s favour offered chieftains great advantages, and as far as they were concerned they were using him just as much as he was using them. The proconsul’s influence was considerable, but he could not control the internal politics of the tribes, as was shown by the rejection of the kings he had raised up amongst the Senones and Carnutes. The Gaulish aristocracy was not changed in any fundamental way by Caesar’s arrival and chieftains still competed for power. Alliance with Rome brought advantages, but these were not necessarily overwhelming, and there were other sources of prestige and wealth. The position of king was a precarious one in most tribes, so that even if Caesar elevated a man to the monarchy there was no certainty that he would be able to remain there.3
Caesar’s understanding and manipulation of tribal politics was generally good, but over the winter of 53-52 BC, his policy failed badly. There were a number of reasons for this failure, but at its root was the growing sense of the extent to which his presence had changed things. This was especially true of the Celtic/Gallic peoples of central and southern Gaul, one of the three broad groups into which the Commentaries divided ‘the whole of Gaul’. These tribes had not yet fought against Caesar to any meaningful degree, although it was in their lands that the campaigns against the Helvetii and Ariovistus had been waged. Dominating the trade routes with the Roman world, tribes like the Aedui, Sequani and Arverni were wealthier and more politically sophisticated than the peoples to the north. They had aided Caesar, and he in turn had favoured the tribes and leaders most sympathetic to him and had fought - or so at least he claimed - on their behalf against the Helvetii and Ariovistus. Now, over the course of the next year, virtually all of them would turn against him. This was not simply a question of rebellion by those who had not received the proconsul’s favour and had watched as their rivals were elevated above them. The rebels eventually included many chieftains who had done rather well under Roman dominion. That was at the heart of this new mood, the realisation that Caesar and his legions were in Gaul to stay, and would not be returning to the confines of the Transalpine province after a few swift campaigns. Rome now expected her power to be acknowledged on a permanent basis throughout Gaul. The ally had become the conqueror without ever facing serious resistance from the Celtic peoples.
Some of Caesar’s own actions had brutally exposed this new reality The summary killing of Dumnorix and the flogging and beheading of Acco - probably especially humiliating because the head had a great importance in Gallic religion - showed that the proconsul had no qualms about disposing of leaders accused of plotting against him. It was shocking to see great chieftains disposed of in this way, and suggested that no one was entirely safe. With hindsight Caesar’s actions could be viewed as misjudged, but it is not easy to see how either situation could have been handled more effectively. Ultimately, the execution of Acco was the spark that ignited rebellion, but the rising probably would have happened at some point. Throughout the Commentaries Caesar openly acknowledged that many of his opponents were fighting for their freedom, which Rome’s best interests required him to take from them. A large part of the Gaulish aristocracy decided that continued Roman domination would mean their losing more than they would gain. The Romans spoke of peace as the product of victory, but peace in a real sense was imposed on the tribes as a result of Caesar’s campaigns. Yet warfare had long played a central role in Gaulish culture and society, and chieftains were first and foremost war-leaders, whose power was shown by the number of warriors in their retinue. Tribes were no longer as free to fight each other and martial glory could now only be won fighting as allies of the Roman army. Powerful chieftains knew that seizing kingship amongst their own people would invite swift retribution if the Roman governor did not approve. It was also harder to create a network of friends, allies and clients within the leadership of other tribes. The world had changed, and the leaders of the tribes now found that they lacked full liberty to govern themselves in the traditional way. Even if Caesar only occasionally interfered in the tribes’ day-to-day affairs, it was still evident that he could. Political liberty had been curbed by a supposed ally, and along with it had gone the freedom to raid and behead your neighbours, or to seize power by force within your own tribe. Chieftains were judged by the size of their retinues, but such followings of warriors were hard to support without regular warfare and raiding. Throughout Gaul resentment was widespread and during the winter months there were secret meetings where rebellion was discussed and planned. Many took place in the territory of the Carnutes, perhaps because these contained cult sites sacred to all of Gaul. The leaders could not exchange hostages to cement their new alliances, since this would probably have come to the attention of the Romans. Instead they symbolically stacked their standards together and took oaths.4
Growing resentment of the Roman presence in Gaul spurred the plotters on, but they also sensed an opportunity. Caesar had gone south to Cisalpine Gaul and they knew from experience that his legates were unlikely to act aggressively until he returned in the spring. There was even the hope that he would not be able to come back at all, for rumours spread of chaos at Rome. The stories were not invented, for after Crassus and Pompey had left to take up their commands the public life of the city had been turbulent. Bribery on a scale that was staggering even by the standards of the Republic had been uncovered in the consular elections for 53 BC, and after repeated disruptions these had still not been held when the year began. Clodius was standing for the praetorship for 52 BC, promising electoral reform that would benefit freedmen, and many of these swelled the ranks of the gangs who used force to back his campaign. Against them his old enemy Milo, who was seeking the consulship himself, ranged his own band of thugs and gladiators, and the ensuing violence made it impossible to hold elections once again, so another year opened without consuls or senior magistrates to guide the Republic. On 18 January 52 BC, the rival gangs encountered each other on the Appian Way just outside Rome, and in the ensuing fighting Clodius was killed. The next day his supporters carried his body into the Senate House, built a pyre there and cremated him, burning the building down in the process. Not for the first time there was talk of making Pompey dictator to restore order by force. A levy of all male citizens of military age and living in Italy was also decreed in case emergency forces would be needed. Caesar duly performed this in Cisalpine Gaul, and naturally watched events in Rome with a keen interest. A chance remark from a letter written over two years later, tells us that Cicero travelled up to Ravenna in the Cisalpine province for a meeting with Caesar. The orator was doubtless not the only visitor, and it may have been around this time that Caesar put forward his proposals for renewing the marriage bond with Pompey The Gauls were wrong to believe that the troubles in Rome would prevent Caesar from returning, but they were certainly right to guess that they would not be the main focus of his attention during these months. If his legates in Gaul gained any inkling of the planned rebellion, then they ignored or disbelieved the reports. The outbreak came as a complete surprise to the Romans.5
The Carnutes had pledged themselves to launch the first strike. Two of their chieftains led their warriors to the town of Cenabum (modern Orleans) and massacred the Roman traders who were living there. Also killed was an equestrian who had been given charge of the grain supply by Caesar. News of the massacre spread rapidly, the Commentaries claiming that it was known 160 miles away by midnight. The next to take up arms was a young Arvernian aristocrat named Vercingetorix. His father had for a while dominated much of Gaul, but had been killed by the tribe when he tried to make himself their king. Vercingetorix was known to Caesar and seems to have been one of those young aristocrats whom the proconsul had tried to win over. Past friendship was now set aside and he began raising an army, but was forcibly expelled from the Arverni’s main town of Gergovia (probably a few miles from modern Clermont) by his uncle and other leading men of the tribe. Not disheartened, he recruited more men - Caesar says vagrants and outcasts, but they may actually have been warriors who simply lacked a chieftain to support them. With this new strength he returned, forced his opponents out of Gergovia and was proclaimed king by his men. Virtually all the tribes to the west as far as the Atlantic coast rapidly joined him, their chieftains acknowledging him as their war-leader. From the beginning his attitude was markedly different to most Gaulish commanders, and he tried to impose discipline on his army and organise its supply. Caesar claims that disobedience was punished by death or mutilation.6
Vercingetorix was soon ready to attack, targeting tribes allied to Rome. While another chieftain took one force against the Remi, he led his main army against the Bituriges, who lived to the north of his own people. The Bituriges were dependants of the Aedui and immediately appealed to them for protection. They in turn consulted Caesar’s legates, who advised the Aedui to send an army to help the Bituriges. It is striking that the Roman officers did not themselves act, and suggests that they did not yet appreciate the scale of the uprising. With the exception of Labienus, Caesar’s legates appear to have been men of modest talent, and he did not encourage too much initiative on their behalf. It was still winter, making operations difficult - though not impossible, as Caesar had shown a year before. Revolts are at their weakest when they begin, while many prospective recruits are waiting to see whether or not it seems likely to succeed. Normally Roman commanders tried to strike as soon as possible at the first sign of rebellion, but in this case the reaction was half-hearted. The Aedui were similarly tentative in their response. Their army reached the Loire, marking the border between their own lands and the Bituriges. There they halted for a few days, before withdrawing, claiming that their dependants were in league with Vercingetorix and planned to attack them as soon as they crossed. Caesar says that even after the rebellion he was not sure whether the leaders of the Aeduan force actually believed this, or were already plotting treachery. After they had retreated the Bituriges openly joined the rebellion.7
Perhaps by this stage Caesar’s officers were beginning to realise that something big was occurring, and their report on this episode was enough to convince him of the need to rejoin the army. The situation in Rome had stabilised by this time, Pompey having been made sole consul rather than dictator, and having brought troops into the city to restore order by force. Caesar crossed the Alps to Transalpine Gaul. By this time more tribes had joined Vercingetorix and the rebels - some willingly and others through coercion. The revolt was gaining momentum. Tribes loyal to Rome or her close allies were being systematically attacked, and most were switching sides. Caesar was in one of the worst possible situations for any general, separated from his army by hundreds of miles at a time when an enemy was in the field against him. If he ordered the army to march to join him, then it might encounter the enemy’s main force on the journey and have to fight without him. That could mean defeat, or at best a victory where the credit went to Labienus or one of the other legates. There were also great risks if he went to the legions, since his escort would be small and with so many tribes defecting to the rebels he would not know which chieftains could be trusted. It is doubtful that he took long reaching his decision. For Caesar danger to himself was preferable to risk to his army. Even after six years of victories, he knew that one bad defeat would be all the ammunition needed by his domestic enemies to destroy his reputation. He also knew that it would be quicker for himself, his attendants and probably some staff, and his escort of 400 German cavalrymen, to hasten to the army than for the legions to march to him. Yet before he could set out, there were threats to the Transalpine province itself. A number of tribes living on the borders had gone over to the rebels, and now a rebel force had invaded the province and was moving against the colony of Narbo.8
Caesar rushed to the town and organised its defence. There were no legions in the province, but there were a number of locally raised cohorts as well as drafts of new recruits he had brought from Cisalpine Gaul. He probably also had cavalry from the tribes of the province. Some of these he stationed in a defensive line to protect against attacks and soon forced the raiders to withdraw, but he ordered the bulk to concentrate in the lands of one of the Gaulish tribes living in the province, the Helvii. From there he led this improvised and largely inexperienced force over the Pass of the Cevennes and down to attack the Arverni. Surprise was complete, for it was still winter and even the locals assumed that the road would be closed by snow. Caesar’s men toiled to clear a path through 6 foot drifts, and then pushed on to reach Arvernian territory. Once there Caesar sent his cavalry out in small detachments, ordering them to range over a wide area, burning and killing. The damage they inflicted was probably slight, but the attack gave the impression of the beginning of an all-out invasion. Messengers went to Vercingetorix who was camped with his main army about 100 miles north amongst the Bituriges. The Gaulish leader started his army marching south to reassure his own people. After two days of raiding the surrounding country, Caesar left Decimus Junius Brutus in charge, telling him to continue sending the cavalry on marauding expeditions. The proconsul announced that he needed to return to the province to raise more levies and allied cavalry, but that he would return in three days. He seems to have been confident that this news would swiftly reach the enemy, for after recrossing the mountains he rode quickly to Vienna (not the modern Austrian capital but Vienne in the Rhone Valley). Earlier he had arranged for a force of cavalry to be waiting there for him. Without halting even for one night, he took this force on, riding hard through the lands of the Aedui, until he reached the two legions wintering amongst the Lingones to the north. Once there he halted, but sent despatch riders to the other legions and ordered them to concentrate at Agedincum (probably near modern Sens). It had been a bold ride through potentially hostile territory. (Suetonius tells a story of Caesar disguising himself as a Gaul to reach his army during a rebellion, which, if true, may refer to this incident.) The commander and his army were reunited. Now it was a question of seizing back the initiative.9
Vercingetorix had been wrong-footed by the raid over the Cevennes and it had taken him several days to realise that this was only a feint. Then he returned to his plan of moving against the tribes still loyal to Rome. He came north again and attacked the Boii, who had accompanied the Helvetii in 58 BC and been permitted to settle on their lands at the request of the Aedui. The Gaulish army besieged one of their main towns at a place called Gorgobina. It was still winter and it would be difficult to supply the legions if they took the field, since there had been no time to prepare for operations and to gather food and transport animals. Yet if Caesar delayed the Boii might be forced to capitulate and join the rebellion. Vercingetorix would then be free to attack other tribes and clans allied to the Aedui, demonstrating to all that even the Aedui, the people closest to Rome, were unable to protect their friends. If this happened, then there was little incentive for any tribe to remain loyal to Rome. Rather than accept such a ‘shameful humiliation’, Caesar sent envoys to the Boii telling them that he and the army were coming to their relief. The Aedui were instructed to gather sufficient grain supplies for the army’s need. Then, leaving two legions to guard his baggage train at Agedincum, he led the remaining eight to help the Boii. Only weak cavalry forces accompanied the column, for Caesar had not had a chance to raise the usual levy of allied contingents from the tribes. The Romans also had little food, which meant that they could not afford to remain in the field for very long unless they were able to find a new source of supply It was a gamble, but it was better than sitting idly by and watching the revolt gain strength and momentum. Inactivity would be seen as weakness, but putting on a bold front and counter-attacking was likely to make wavering tribes and chieftains pause, at least for the moment.10
After a day Caesar reached Vellaunodunum, one of the walled towns of the Senones. The legions began to besiege the place and on the third day the inhabitants surrendered, promising to hand over their weapons, 600 hostages and - most important of all for the army’s immediate needs - pack animals. Moving on the Romans came swiftly to Cenabum, the place where the rebellion had begun with the massacre of the Roman merchants. Caesar reached it in only two days, surprising the townsfolk who had not yet finished their preparations to resist a siege. It was late when the legions arrived, so the proconsul decided to postpone his assault until the following morning.
Yet he also ordered two legions to stand to arms during the night, in case the townsfolk chose to flee across to the far bank of the Loire. The guess proved correct, and at about midnight the Roman scouts reported that crowds of people were heading from the town for the bridge over the river. There was no significant resistance when he sent his two legions into the town, while congestion at the bridge prevented many of the people from escaping captivity. Caesar ordered the town to be sacked and then burned down, and presumably had most of the prisoners sold as slaves. Then he crossed the Loire and advanced against the Bituriges. The Romans had regained the initiative, forcing Vercingetorix to respond to their actions and not vice versa. The latter had already abandoned his attack on the Boii and hurried back to protect the Bituriges. The Gaulish army arrived just as the Romans were accepting the surrender of the town of Noviodunum, and prompted the townsfolk to renew the fight, chasing out the centurions and small groups of soldiers who had entered their walls. A cavalry combat took place in the fields outside the town, and the Romans eventually won this when Caesar threw in his band of 400 Germans. This minor success, as well as the fact that the Romans were close outside their walls and the bulk of the Gaulish army still some way away, prompted the people of Noviodunum to change their minds for a second time, and they surrendered again, handing over the men responsible for breaking the truce. Caesar resumed his advance, heading for Avaricum (modern Bourges), one of the most important and certainly the best defended town of the Bituriges. Having regained the initiative, it was vital to keep it and give the enemy no chance to recover.11
From the beginning Vercingetorix was sceptical about his ability to defeat the legions in battle, and the speed with which the Romans had taken three towns had only confirmed his respect for their fighting power and siegecraft. Instead he planned to shadow the enemy, ambushing small detachments but not risking a massed encounter. He wanted to deprive the Romans of supplies, and to do this he told his followers that they must be utterly ruthless: ‘... private possessions must be disregarded, villages and houses put to the torch in all areas as far afield as the enemy foragers were likely to range from their main route of march’.12 Even entire towns that could not be protected from the enemy were to be destroyed, to prevent the legions from capturing the food stores within them. The Bituriges set fire to twenty of the main settlements in response to this order. Vercingetorix argued that terrible though this was, the alternative was death for the warriors and enslavement for their families. His strategy was considerably more sophisticated than that employed by Caesar’s earlier opponents, and Vercingetorix must clearly have possessed considerable charisma and force of personality to persuade his followers of the necessity of such uncompromising measures. It was remarkable just how much the tribes were willing to sacrifice, but unsurprising that they occasionally balked at the prospect. After pleas from all the leaders of the Bituriges, Avaricum itself was not destroyed. Vercingetorix grudgingly made an exception of the town, although he lacked their conviction that its natural and man-made defences rendered it impregnable.13
Avaricum was certainly a more daunting prospect than the towns taken so easily in the past weeks. Surrounded by river or marshes on most sides there was only one practical route for an assault, and it was next to impossible to create a solid blockade. Caesar’s army camped at the foot of this slope and began to build a ramp that would allow them to reach the wall. The legionaries also made mantlets and sheds to shelter the workers as they got nearer to the enemy, and two siege towers to climb the ramp when it was finished. Caesar’s eight legions were most likely under strength, so that he had perhaps 25,000-30,000 men, along with a few thousand auxiliaries and many more slaves and camp followers. It was very difficult to feed such a force while it was moving. When it settled down to besiege Avaricum the task became almost impossible. Foraging was unproductive and dangerous, since Vercingetorix was camped no more than 16 miles away and shadowed every detachment the Romans sent out, cutting up any group that became exposed. The proconsul sent repeated messages to the Aedui and Boii asking them to send him convoys of provisions, but very little arrived. The Aedui showed no enthusiasm for this task, although - perhaps in part because - they had been one of his main sources of supply since 58 BC. The Boii were still grateful for his support, but were too small a people to have much of a grain surplus available. The scorched earth tactics of Vercingetorix were beginning to bite. At one point the Romans completely exhausted their stocks of grain, but fortunately the foragers had brought in enough cattle for these to be slaughtered and a meat ration supplied. Caesar praised his men for their fortitude in keeping on working while receiving only a meagre and monotonous issue of food. (The persistent myth that Roman legionaries were vegetarian is based on a misunderstanding of this and a couple of other passages. Normally they ate a balanced diet of meat, grain and vegetables. What was exceptional in this case was that they were receiving only meat, not that they were eating it at all.)14
In spite of the shortages, and the watching menace of the main Gaulish army - for Vercingetorix kept in close communication with the defenders of the town - the legionaries kept toiling at the siege works. Caesar toured the lines as they laboured, inspecting the work and encouraging the men. On several occasions he offered to abandon the siege and withdraw if they felt that the task was beyond them. It was a clever way of exploiting the legionaries’ pride in themselves and their units, as no one wanted to be seen as the first to quit. The men implored him to let them finish the job, rather than suffering the shame of giving up. The memory of the massacre of the Romans at Cenabum was still strong and provoked widespread anger. Caesar tells us that the soldiers requested their officers to emphasise to him their determination to continue and their absolute faith in their ultimate victory By this time the ramp was getting bigger, so that the siege towers could move close to the walls, though not yet close enough for the rams mounted in them to begin creating a breach.
It was not only the Romans who were facing supply problems, and there were serious shortages in the Gaulish camp. In part this was simply because of the season and the need to remain in one place, but it also highlights the lack of logistic organisation in tribal armies. Vercingetorix was a better commander than most Gaulish leaders, and his army more flexible and better prepared than the average tribal force, but it still lagged a long way behind the Roman army in these respects. The progress of the siege may also have made him feel that he needed a fresh victory to encourage his men. The Gaulish army moved a little closer to the town. He then led out his cavalry and light infantry in person, hoping to mount an ambush on the Roman foragers. Caesar found out about this, either from his patrols, from prisoners or from deserters, and took the bulk of his army out to threaten the Gaulish camp. The enemy formed up to meet him, but were in too strong a position for him to attack without suffering heavy losses. The legionaries were keen for battle - encouraged by their own record of success and brimming over with the frustration caused by hard work and short rations. Caesar told them that he would not suffer casualties needlessly, for ‘their lives were more important than his own needs’. The Romans watched the enemy for a while and then marched back to camp. The threat had been enough to cause Vercingetorix to change his plans and return to his main force. Caesar had made it clear that he could not press too closely if he was unwilling to fight. For a while there was dissension in the Gaulish army, some even claiming that Vercingetorix was in league with the Romans and wished to be made king of all Gaul with Caesar’s aid. It is more than likely that the two men had met, and fairly probable that Vercingetorix had even received some favours from Caesar during his cultivation of the Arvernian aristocracy.
Eventually he calmed them, bringing out captive Roman slaves and claiming that they were legionaries. The men had been coached to tell a plaintive story of the hardships and shortages in the Roman camp. Having convinced the men of the wisdom of his plan, he and the other chieftains selected 10,000 warriors and sent them to reinforce Avaricum.15
Sieges were tests of ingenuity as much as sheer determination. Some of Avaricum’s importance came from the iron mines in the area and as a result skilled miners were available to try to undermine the Roman ramp. Other men worked to run up wooden towers strengthening the wall, and kept adding to these as the Romans increased the height of their own works. As the defender or attacker gained an advantage, so the other tried to devise a countermeasure to rob them of it. Yet in the end the Romans had greater engineering skill and, in spite of frequent sallies aimed at setting light to it, after twenty-five days the ramp was virtually complete. All in all it measured 330 feet wide and 80 feet high and had almost reached the town wall, so that soon the battering rams in the towers would be in range. That night the defenders set light to the timber supports in their mine, hoping either to collapse the whole ramp or to set fire to it. In the small hours Roman sentries spotted smoke coming from the wooden ramp. Almost immediately a shout went up from the wall and two groups of defenders charged out of separate gates carrying torches and incendiary material as well as weapons. According to Caesar’s standing orders, two legions were on piquet duty throughout the hours of darkness. More Roman troops were sent in to support them as the furious combat swayed back and forth. Some of the legionaries fought off the enemy, while others dragged the siege towers back to safety, although they were not able to save some of the mantlets and shelters further up the ramp. It was a desperate struggle, and in the Commentaries Caesar makes one of those rare mentions of a minor incident that he witnessed. A Gaulish warrior stood near one of the town gates and kept hurling lumps of pitch and tallow at the Roman works. He was killed by the bolt from a scorpion - one of the Romans’ light artillery pieces that shot its projectile with great accuracy and appalling force. As soon as he fell, another took his place, then another and another, as each was struck down by a bolt from the same ballista. Caesar was clearly impressed by their courage, something that the Commentaries never tried to deny the Gauls, even if Caesar tended to depict it as somehow not quite as good as the disciplined bravery of the legions.16
After bitter fighting the defenders were driven back inside their walls, having failed to inflict enough damage to seriously impede the Romans. A day later they willingly obeyed Vercingetorix when he urged them to escape from the town. Under cover of darkness the warriors tried to sneak out of the town and make their way through the marshes to the main army The attempt failed when their abandoned families realised what was happening and raised such loud cries that it was feared the Romans would discover their purpose. On the following day - the twenty-seventh of the siege - the legionaries completed the ramp. It was raining heavily and Caesar decided on an immediate assault, judging that the defenders were likely to be off their guard. Orders for the storming were issued, and the necessary preparations made, the attacking troops forming up under cover of the sheds and shelters of the siege works to conceal the Roman purpose. Roman generals were always keen to encourage individual boldness, and the proconsul promised great prizes to the first men over the wall. At a signal the men suddenly erupted from cover and charged forwards, overcoming the surprised defenders and quickly seizing the rampart. A few parties of Gauls formed up in such open spaces as the market place, but their nerve cracked when they saw the Romans swarming around the walls. Throughout history troops who have stormed a fortified position have often been inclined to run amok once inside. Sieges have always been difficult and dangerous operations, the actual assault even more hazardous, and it was often hard for men who had endured both to switch off once they were inside, especially since in the narrow streets they were no longer under the close gaze of their officers. When a town was stormed it was normal for anyone who showed even the slightest resistance to be killed, while women were raped. This time the mood of the soldiers was more ferocious even than was usual on such occasions. Caesar says that the legionaries: ‘Remembering the massacre at Cenabum and the labours of the siege, did not spare the elderly, the women and the infants. In the end from the whole number, about 40,000 people, little more than 800 who had fled the town at the first shout escaped to join Vercingetorix.’17
About a century earlier Polybius had described how the Romans sometimes deliberately massacred the inhabitants of a captured town, killing even the animals they found there, so that this would inspire terror and persuade future enemies to surrender and render an assault unnecessary. There is no reason why Caesar should not have told us if he had ordered the slaughter of Avaricum’s population as a warning to others. He was candid about other massacres or mass executions, and no Roman reader was likely to be too upset about the fate of foreign enemies. It does seem that it was sheer rage on the part of the legionaries, frustrated and weary after a difficult siege in cold weather and with very poor provisions, that led to the slaughter. Killing the inhabitants - and even if it was perhaps not quite as total as Caesar implies, the death toll must have been substantial - was not really in their interest on a pragmatic basis, since every defender killed was one fewer to be sold as a slave for the profit of all. Having said that, Caesar does not seem to have made any effort to restrain his men, although it is highly questionable whether he would have been able to do so even if he had tried.18
SETBACK AT GERGOVIA
Caesar rested his army for several days after the sack of Avaricum. Large stores of grain and other provisions were discovered inside the town, greatly easing the supply situation. Spring was also beginning, making foraging more practical. The two legions left to guard the baggage train were brought up to join the main force. Caesar was eager to resume the offensive to make it harder for Vercingetorix to wrest back the initiative, but he now received an appeal from the Aedui that he could not afford to ignore. Two men were both claiming to have been elected to the tribe’s supreme magistracy, the post of Vergobret. Dissension amongst the chieftains of his largest and most important ally was obviously dangerous at a time of rebellion, for it would be all too likely that one side or the other would seek support from Vercingetorix. Therefore Caesar hastened south to meet with the rivals - the Vergobret was forbidden to leave tribal territory in his year of office, so this restriction, as well as the reluctance to offend an ally at this time, meant that he could not make them come to him. The proconsul decided which man was the rightful magistrate, having discovered that tribal law effectively barred his opponent. He then asked that the tribe supply him with as many cavalry as they could as well as 10,000 infantry to be used to defend his supply lines. Hurrying back to the army, Caesar decided to divide into two columns. Labienus was to take four legions and move north against the Senones and Parisii, while he took the remaining six southwards and attacked the Arverni. It was clearly dangerous to divide his resources in this way, but given the reluctance of the rebels to risk a pitched battle, he must have judged that the risk was acceptable. The rebels had no single capital or even a united army, the defeat of which would convince them to surrender. For all the charisma of Vercingetorix, he still led many fiercely independent tribes and each of these would need to be suppressed. If an area in rebellion was left unmolested, then this would only cause the rebels to grow in confidence and in numbers, and make it likely that more neighbouring peoples would be encouraged or coerced into joining.19
The short lull had given Vercingetorix time to recover from the loss of Avaricum. In some ways the defeat strengthened his own prestige, since he had spoken against defending the town from the beginning and had only reluctantly been persuaded to relent. His plan remained much the same, to harass rather than confront Caesar and his army, and to try to win over more chieftains and tribes to his cause. As the Romans marched along the line of the River Allier, Vercingetorix kept pace with them on the opposite bank, sending men out to break down all the bridges and to guard all the spots where a new one might be built. Caesar needed to cross if he was to threaten Gergovia, the town where Vercingetorix had first declared himself as the leader of the Arverni, but at this time of the year the river could not be forded by an army. That day the Roman column camped in wooded country close to one of the destroyed bridges. When the army marched out the next day, Caesar and two legions stayed behind under cover of the trees. The other four legions ‘opened out some of their cohorts, so that the number of units looked the same’. The Gauls suspected nothing as the Roman column marched on and eventually built its camp in the same way that it had done on all the other days. They in turn moved on, ready to deny all the crossing places further down to the enemy. However, late in the day, by the time he thought that the main force would have halted, Caesar brought out his two legions and set them to constructing a bridge. Once that was complete they went across and began work on the ditch and wall of a camp. Messengers went to the main force recalling them. By the time that Vercingetorix discovered what had happened, it was too late to do anything about it. He headed away from the river, eager to put more distance between himself and Caesar since he had no wish to stay too close. His plan was still to avoid battle. Caesar followed him and in five days reached Gergovia.20
The proconsul rode forward to inspect the enemy position and soon realised that it was a strong one. The town itself stood on a hill, and on the rolling high ground around it Vercingetorix had camped his army, each tribal contingent having been allocated a position to hold. Direct assault looked impractical and would certainly be costly. The enemy might be starved into submission, but the Romans could not hope to mount an effective blockade until they had secured their own stocks of food. A convoy from the Aedui was on its way but had yet to reach the army. As Caesar waited he mounted a night attack to capture one of the Gaulish outposts, giving him a position from which to threaten the enemy’s water supply and access to forage. A smaller camp occupied by two legions was built on this spot and connected to the main camp by a route enclosed by a deep ditch on either side. Both sides settled down to watch their opponents warily, sending out their cavalry and light infantry to skirmish, but neither willing to risk a full-scale battle. Vercingetorix held daily meetings for his chieftains and for the moment continued to impose an unusually high standard of discipline for a tribal army21
The loyalty of the Aedui was beginning to waver. Convictolitavis - the man whose claim to the post of Vergobret Caesar had upheld - was in secret contact with representatives from the Arverni and had accepted gifts from them. At his instigation a chieftain called Litaviccus, who commanded the 10,000 warriors escorting the food convoy to Caesar’s legions, resolved to turn against his Roman allies. Halting the convoy when he was 30 miles from Gergovia, he announced to his men that the Aeduan cavalry serving with Caesar had all been executed by the Romans on a charge of negotiating with the enemy. Their only choice was to join Vercingetorix and so save themselves from a similar fate. Like the Arvernian chieftain, Litaviccus was said to have produced men who claimed to be survivors of this massacre and told a dreadful story of Roman treachery. The ruse worked and the Aedui swiftly turned on the Romans accompanying the column, torturing them to death and plundering the food they were escorting. When news of this reached the Aeduan chieftains leading the cavalry with Caesar’s army, one of them went straight to the proconsul to report what he had learned. Caesar immediately led out four legions in marching order, urging the troops on until they managed to cover 25 miles and had come within sight of Litaviccus’ men. The proconsul sent the Aeduan cavalry on ahead, telling them to show themselves to their fellow tribesmen and so expose the lies of Litaviccus. The warriors of the escort promptly surrendered, while Litaviccus and his retainers fled and made their way to join Vercingetorix. Giving his legionaries only three hours rest Caesar force marched the weary men back to the positions outside Gergovia. On the way they met despatch riders sent by Fabius, the legate left in charge of the two legions outside the town. He reported that they had come under heavy attack throughout the day and, with two legions having to cover positions built for six, had barely managed to hold their own, aided by the power of their artillery. Caesar quickened the pace and managed to bring his force back to the camps before dawn. Their presence was enough to deter Vercingetorix from another direct assault on the Roman positions.22
Caesar had sent messengers to reassure the Aedui, but riders sent by Litaviccus arrived first and prompted Convictolitavis to raise his people against Rome. At the town of Cabillonum, a military tribune and some Roman merchants were persuaded to leave and then set upon by a mob. As more and more Gaulish warriors arrived to share in the spoils, Caesar’s messengers arrived, informing them that their cavalry contingent and the 10,000 infantry were all now in Caesar’s camp - and thus not only still loyal to him, but effectively in his power. The Aeduan leaders officially repented of their actions, blaming the common folk of the tribe. For the moment Caesar was content merely to remind them of his past favours and urge them to renewed loyalty, but privately he knew that the alliance with Rome hung by the slightest of threads. His position was no longer good. Although he had regained the initiative for a while by launching an offensive, now he was stuck outside Gergovia without the resources to drive off Vercingetorix and his army or to take the town. Staying where he was would achieve nothing, but withdrawing would mean a huge loss of face. Since he had raided the Arverni from Transalpine Gaul months before, he had kept on attacking and advancing almost without pause. In practical terms this had forced Vercingetorix to react to him, but even more important was the impression it created of absolute confidence in Rome’s overwhelming might and the inevitability of her ultimate victory. It did not matter if the impression was largely a facade, it was still powerful in the minds of those who were as yet undecided on whether or not to join the rebellion. Once Caesar stopped advancing and began to retreat, then the illusion of Roman invincibility would be shattered. Withdrawal in the face of the enemy was always a dangerous operation, and in this case it would be seen as an admission of failure and was very likely to convince uncommitted tribes that the rebellion was going to succeed. However, it would allow him to regroup and add Labienus’ four legions to his force - with ten legions he would probably have had sufficient strength to win at Gergovia. Caesar chose the lesser evil and decided to withdraw, but hoped first to win a minor victory and so make his pulling out seem less of a retreat.23
While inspecting the smaller fort the proconsul noticed that one of the hills, which had been strongly occupied by the Gauls on previous days, was now virtually empty. Interrogating some of the many deserters who had come into the Roman lines, he was told that Vercingetorix had become very worried that the Romans might take one of the other hilltops and so had drawn off most of his men to fortify it. Caesar saw the opportunity and began to feed the enemy’s insecurity. That night cavalry patrols were sent out to look at the hill Vercingetorix was busy fortifying. The horsemen were told to make more noise than usual, just to ensure that the Gauls were aware of their presence. On the following morning he mounted large numbers of the army’s slaves on pack horses and mules, gave them helmets to wear and, putting a few genuine cavalrymen around them to make the deception more convincing, sent the whole mass off towards the same spot by a roundabout route. Later on a legion followed them, but halted in some dead ground and then took cover in a patch of woodland. As the Gauls’ attention was drawn towards the place where they expected and feared attack, Caesar saw their forces shift to meet it. Then he quietly moved his legions to the smaller camp, telling them to keep their shields covered and have their crests out of sight. They moved not as organised cohorts but as dribs and drabs, strolling along without any impression of purpose. Caesar briefed the legates put in charge of each legion, explaining what he wanted them to do and emphasised that they must ‘keep their troops under control, and not let their enthusiasm for battle or hope of plunder carry them too far forward’.24
At a given signal the legions attacked up the slope, while the Aedui went up the opposite side of the same spur. Each group made its way as best it could, but the ridge was broken by re-entrants and it was often difficult for one group to see the others. There were very few defenders and the legionaries easily scrambled over a 6-foot wall of piled stones that the Gauls had built halfway up the hill. The obstacle did not delay the Romans for long, but it must have caused some disorder in the formations, and this was made worse as they charged through the Gallic camps that were dotted around the slope. The king of one tribe who had not long before defected to Vercingetorix was surprised in his tent and was still only half dressed when he managed to gallop away. Caesar was with the Tenth and, when he decided that the attack had done enough damage, halted the legion and ordered the trumpeters to sound the recall. The sound did not carry well. Some officers heard it and tried to get the legionaries to obey, but most of the men kept on going. They surged up through the camps against the wall of the town itself. In the past they had overwhelmed and destroyed far more numerous opponents in surprise attacks, and perhaps memories of these successes spurred them on. For a while it looked as if Gergovia might actually fall, for there were very few defenders at this spot and the inhabitants panicked:
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 Eighth, 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.25
By this time the Gauls working on the fortifications beyond the far side of the town heard the noise of the Roman attack and realised that they had been duped. Vercingetorix also started to get messengers bringing pleas for help from the townsfolk. He sent his cavalry back to meet the Roman attack and the warriors on foot followed. As they arrived thoughts of surrender were banished from the minds of the townsfolk and the women on the walls now started to implore their menfolk to save them. The Roman attack had run out of steam, the men being tired and disordered and unprepared to meet fresh opponents. Many panicked when the Aedui suddenly appeared on their flank, mistaking them for hostile Gauls and failing in the heat of the action to notice that they had their right shoulders bared - the accepted sign of a Gallic ally in Caesar’s army The elation of success soon turned sour:
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.’ Straightaway 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.26
Caesar could do little more than cover the retreat, using the Tenth and quickly ordering up the cohorts of the Thirteenth that had been left behind to guard the small camp. In this way the Gauls were prevented from pursuing too far, but even so casualties were very high. Around 700 soldiers and no less than 46 centurions had been killed. Centurions led from the front and normally suffered a disproportionately high casualty rate, especially if things went wrong. On the day after the defeat, Caesar paraded the legions and spoke to them, praising their bravery but sternly reprimanding their lack of discipline. In conclusion he assured them that they had only lost because of the difficult ground, the enemy defences and their failure to obey orders - the fighting power of the Gauls had had little to do with it. To ram the message home, for the next two days he selected a good position - probably on a ridge - and deployed in battle order, challenging Vercingetorix to come out and fight. When the Gaulish leader was understandably reluctant to risk a battle with the ground in the enemy’s favour, Caesar was able to assure his men that the enemy were still frightened of them. On the following day he marched away, moving towards the lands of the Aedui and not the way he had come. The Romans reached the Allier in three days, rebuilt another of the destroyed bridges and crossed. The Gaulish army made no serious attempt to stop them. Caesar had already decided that he must accept the bad impression created by a withdrawal. His attempt to lessen this by a token success had ended in failure. Word of this soon spread and over the next weeks more tribes openly joined the revolt. The Aedui were amongst the first. The leaders of the cavalry serving with Caesar asked permission to go home. He granted the request, since even though he no longer trusted them he did not want to make the situation worse by holding them against their will, so feeding fresh stories of Roman ‘treachery’.
Shortly afterwards the Aedui in the town of Noviodunum slaughtered the small Roman garrison and the Roman traders who were there. This was a doubly serious blow, for the town contained not only huge grain depots gathered to support the army but also the main baggage train, with its records and the hostages taken from the various tribes. Judging that they could not defend the position, the Aedui burned the town, carrying off or spoiling all the grain. Then they used the hostages to begin negotiations with the other tribes. Vercingetorix and chieftains from all over the country were summoned to Bibracte. There the Aedui tried but failed to have one of their own men appointed to replace the Arvernian as overall commander. Rather sullenly, they agreed to obey him for the common good. Now almost all the Celtic or Gallic tribes were ranged against Caesar, and most of the Belgic peoples had joined as well. Vercingetorix was determined to persist with his strategy of avoiding battle, instead harassing the Romans and preventing them from getting food for their men and forage for their animals. Roman military slang called this style of fighting ‘kicking the enemy in the stomach’. Keeping the same number of infantry that he already had with him, Vercingetorix asked the tribes to supply more cavalry to increase his force to 15,000 riders. To divide the Romans’ effort, he arranged for the Aedui and other tribes to launch fresh attacks on Transalpine Gaul, hoping that the peoples there - notably the Allobroges, who had rebelled only a decade before - would join the rebellion.27
Hearing of the defection of the Aedui, Caesar pressed northwards in an effort to join up with Labienus’ command. By forced marches he reached the Loire unexpectedly and managed to ford the river even though it was running high with melted winter snows. Cavalrymen formed a chain upstream of the legionaries as they waded chest deep through the water, carrying their equipment in the shields raised over their heads. A few days later he was met by Labienus, who was fresh from a victory near Lutetia (Paris). The Roman field army was now once again concentrated, and its ten legions probably mustered somewhere in the region of 35,000-40,000 men, supported by some auxiliaries. Unable to get many horsemen from his dwindling supply of Gaulish allies, Caesar sent across the Rhine to the German tribes for cavalry and their supporting light infantry When these arrived Caesar replaced their small German ponies with better mounts taken from his tribunes and other equestrian officers, as well as wealthier veteran soldiers who had been recalled to the colours. The attacks on Transalpine Gaul were worrying and he led the army through the borders of the Lingones into the territory of the Sequani so that he could be nearer to the province. In the event the attacks were dealt with by the levies from the province and the tribes themselves, all under the command of his distant cousin Lucius Julius Caesar, a member of the other branch of the family who had been consul in 64 BC and was currently serving as a legate. Yet the initiative had for the moment passed back to Vercingetorix and the Gaulish leader now resolved to press the Romans more closely. With his great force of cavalry he would attack the legions on the march, while they were encumbered with their baggage. Either the enemy would have to leave their train and press on with the march or stop to protect it and so be slowed to a snail’s pace, making the problems of supply even worse. Spontaneously the warriors took an oath not to ‘go back under roof, or see their parents, children or wives’ unless they had ridden twice through the Roman column. On the following day the Gaulish cavalry attacked in three groups - one striking the head of the column and the others threatening the flanks. Caesar’s cavalry were heavily outnumbered but he likewise divided them into three groups and moved up infantry as close support whenever they were hard pressed. The legionaries could not catch the enemy horsemen, but they provided a solid block for their own horsemen to rally behind and re-form. In the end the Germans won the combat on the right, routing the warriors facing them and causing the rest to withdraw.
The Romans pursued, two legions staying behind to protect the baggage train while the remaining eight followed closely behind the cavalry Gaulish casualties were heavy Caesar noted with considerable satisfaction the capture of a number of notable Aeduans, including two chieftains who had fought under him earlier in the year, as well as the man whose claim to the post of Vergobret he had rejected. He does not mention their fate.28
CLIMAX - THE SIEGE OF ALESIA
The fortune of the campaign had swung once again. Vercingetorix had misjudged the situation, believing that Caesar was retreating and that he needed to be harried mercilessly if the Romans were not simply to return in the future in greater strength. In fact Caesar and his men were far from beaten, and rapidly switched back to the offensive now that the Gaulish army was close and provided them with a clear target. Vercingetorix retired to camp outside Alesia (modern Mont Auxois in the hills of Cote d’Or), a hilltop town of the Mandubii. A day later Caesar camped facing the town and went out to reconnoitre the position. The town lay on a long hill with steep slopes. To the west was a wide, open plain, but on the other three sides there was high ground, intersected by a number of valleys. Together these hills and ridges were roughly crescent shaped. A stream ran to the north and south of the central hill of Alesia. Direct assault would be risky and involve heavy casualties whether or not it succeeded, since Vercingetorix and his men would have the advantage of ground. Caesar claims that he now had 80,000 infantry in addition to his cavalry, but as usual it is hard to know how reliable this figure is. Napoleon was sceptical and doubted that the Gauls can have outnumbered the Romans at all. Even if this is correct, a direct assault was an unattractive option, but in other respects the situation was very different to that at Gergovia. Now Caesar had his full army and, looking at the lie of the land, he was confident that they could enclose and blockade Alesia and the Gaulish army.29
The Romans began to work on a monumental set of siegeworks, with a rampart stretching for 11 miles and including twenty-three fortlets as well as larger camps in which the soldiers would rest. The Gauls did not let this go unmolested and sent their cavalry down to attack. They were met by the auxiliary and allied cavalry, but it was not until Caesar committed his reserve of German horsemen and formed up some of the legionaries in support that the Gauls were driven back. Reconciling himself to enduring a siege, Siege of Alesia: plan based on recent and nineteenth century excavations. Not all of the area has been fully excavated, given the vast size of the site.
Vercingetorix sent his cavalry away before the blockade was closed, telling them to return to their tribes and raise a relief army. The fate of Gaul would be decided at Alesia, for Caesar would be pinned there just as surely as he had bottled up Vercingetorix. Stocks of grain in Alesia were taken under central control to be doled out as a fair ration, while the cattle were distributed to individuals to look after them until they were slaughtered. The Gauls settled down to wait for rescue and the final clash with Caesar. The Romans toiled on to complete their line of circumvallation, completely surrounding the hill. The site was located and excavated under the aegis of Napoleon III, who had a personal passion for this episode of France’s history. More recently, modern techniques and further work has added to a picture that in all important respects strikingly conforms to the description given in the Commentaries - the dimensions of the actual trenches are not always as regular as Caesar suggests, but since these were so extensive this is unsurprising.
In the west where the plain was open, the Romans dug a straight-sided ditch some 20 feet in width, which ran from one stream to the other. This was intended as an obstacle to delay any attack and give warning of its approach. Four hundred paces (c. 130 yards) further back was the main defence line. This consisted of a double ditch, the inner one flooded wherever this was possible, and behind this a 12-foot high rampart strengthened with high towers at 80- foot intervals. In front of the ditches were a series of obstacles and traps to which the legionaries gave macabre nicknames. The stakes with ends that had been sharpened and fire hardened were ‘marker-stones’ (cippi), those hidden in circular pits covered in foliage were lilies (lilia), from their shape, while the caltrops and spikes half buried were spurs (stimuli). Such traps might cause an attacker some casualties, especially if he came under cover of darkness, but their main function was to slow a charge down and rob it of momentum, as men were forced to walk past them somewhat gingerly. The defences were strong enough so that even a small number of men could hold the lines under all but the heaviest assault, so that much of the army would be free to forage and to continue building. As soon as this line was complete, the proconsul set his men to building another, even longer line - a line of contravallation - facing outwards to defend against the relief army that was bound to come. It was vital to hunt out as much grain and round up as many farm animals as possible before it arrived, and Caesar instructed his men to gather sufficient to supply the entire army for thirty days. The labour and effort involved in these tasks had been massive, but Caesar now had his whole army and his ablest senior officers. In addition to the legates, who included Quintus Cicero and Caius Trebonius, he also had young Decimus Brutus and his new quaestor Marcus Antonius - Shakespeare’s Mark Antony The Romans worked and the Gauls in Alesia watched them, occasionally launching harassing raids but unwilling to chance a major encounter until outside aid arrived. Both sides were waiting for the storm to break.30
It took time for the tribes to mass a relief force. The chieftains met and agreed on the numbers of warriors to be supplied by each people. Caesar gives a long list of the contingents requested from each tribe and claims that the army eventually mustered 8,000 cavalry and 250,000 infantry. His information may have been incorrect, and he may deliberately have inflated the figure, but it is worth noting that the numbers are in keeping with those he gives throughout the Commentaries for tribal forces, although that may mean no more than that he was consistent in his exaggeration. Nevertheless, even if he exaggerated, the circumstances of such a big coalition, aware that it was fighting the critical battle, would make it likely that this was one of the largest Gaulish armies ever to take the field. Caesar says that the tribes did not call out everyone who could bear arms, since they judged that such a host would be too vast, making it clumsy to control and almost impossible to feed. Even so we would guess that many men who would normally only have fought in defence of their own lands were included in the army, whether willingly or at the command of their chieftains. Four leaders were appointed. One was Commius, the king of the Atrebates, and two of the others were the chieftains who had commanded Caesar’s Aeduan cavalry at the beginning of the year. The other was Vercassivellaunus, a cousin of Vercingetorix, the only one who does not seem to have served with Caesar’s army at some stage in the past. The army gathered slowly and then moved slowly, as was inevitable with such a big force. The men surrounded at Alesia grew nervous as aid failed to arrive and decided on desperate measures. The people of the town itself - the women, children and the elderly who could not fight effectively - were driven out so that these ‘useless’ mouths would no longer consume provisions needed by the warriors. Vercingetorix may have assumed that the Romans would permit them to pass through their lines to safety. If so, then he was disappointed. Caesar strengthened the sentries on the rampart and would admit no one. He may have feared that the passage of so many refugees could shield an attack by the warriors, or have been reluctant to let them go into an area where his army was still foraging and use up resources that he needed for his army. Perhaps he just felt that the Gauls would be forced to take the civilians back and so make his blockade more quickly effective. They did not. At this stage of the campaign each commander was able to match the other’s cold ruthlessness. The townsfolk’s pleas were ignored and they were left to starve to death between the lines. Caesar may have felt that the sight would demoralise the Gauls. It certainly made the final clash an even grimmer affair.31
The relief army finally arrived and camped on high ground, probably to the south-west, little more than a mile from the outward facing line of contravallation. On the following day the army massed, with the cavalry in advance on the plain and the vast crowds of infantry on the slopes behind, showing their great numbers to the enemy and their beleaguered friends. In response Vercingetorix brought his warriors out of the town and their camp. They moved forward and filled in a section of the wide trench Caesar’s men had dug in advance of their lines. There they waited, ready to attack in concert with the relief army. The legions were ready, men deployed on both of the siege lines to meet attack from each direction. As a gesture of confidence, Caesar sent his cavalry out from the lines to engage the horsemen of the relief force. A whirling fight developed and lasted throughout the afternoon, and seemed for a long time to have been going the Gauls’ way, when once again Caesar’s German cavalry charged and won the day for the Romans. The Gauls did not commit their infantry, and the armies returned to their camps as darkness fell. The next day was spent in preparation, the Gaulish warriors working to make ladders and gathering ropes to climb the Roman rampart and preparing fascines - bundles of sticks to fill the enemy ditches. The relief army attacked at midnight, raising a great cheer to let Vercingetorix know what was happening - with the Romans between them the two Gaulish armies had no means of direct communication. The Arvernian ordered trumpets to be sounded as a signal for his own warriors to attack, targeting the corresponding stretch of the line of circumvallation. However, it took them a long time to organise, and then even more time to fill in more stretches of the Roman ditch. In the end they were too late to help their comrades. Fighting was bitter but eventually Mark Antony and the legate Trebonius, who were in charge of this section of the lines, moved up reserves and repulsed both attacks. The defences constructed with so much labour by Caesar’s men had proved their worth.32
Before launching another assault the four leaders of the relief army took more care to scout and to speak to locals who knew the ground. They decided that the vulnerable spot was a Roman camp on the slopes of a hill that formed the north-western tip of the crescent-shaped high ground surrounding the town. The Romans had been unable to include the hill within their lines, since this would have massively increased the already huge task of building the lines. Only two legions occupied the camp, but Commius and his fellow chieftains resolved to send almost a quarter of their infantry, some 60,000 picked warriors, against the position. Vercassivellaunus took his men out at night, leading them to the reverse slope of the hill where they could wait out of sight of the enemy Diversionary attacks would be launched elsewhere before the real assault began at noon. Vercingetorix saw some of the preparations and, although he did not know the details of the plan, resolved to give what aid he could by launching an all-out attack on the inner lines. At midday Vercassivellaunus and his men spilled over the brow of the hill and poured down the slope against the vulnerable camp. Attacked in so many places simultaneously, the Roman defenders were spread thinly and came under great pressure. The lines were very extensive, but Caesar went to a position from which he could see most of the action and began ordering reserves up to reinforce threatened sectors. Even so, he was especially reliant on his senior officers to keep him informed and to take the initiative where there was not time to consult him. Vercassivellaunus steadily began to make headway against the camp on the hillside, so Caesar sent Labienus - his best subordinate - with six cohorts to reinforce the men there. The senior legate was told to use his judgement, giving up the position and getting the garrison out if he felt that it could not be held.
Caesar now moved, knowing that it was not enough simply to observe and direct. He went to the men and encouraged them as they fought, telling them that this day would decide the whole war. Vercingetorix and his warriors had been repulsed in their first attacks against the weakest sections of the line of circumvallation. Now they switched to assaulting several spots that were better protected by the slopes, but only thinly guarded by the Romans. At one point they got over the rampart and used grappling irons and ropes to pull over one of the Roman towers. Caesar sent Decimus Brutus to the spot with some troops, but he could not hold the enemy back. More cohorts led by the legate Caius Fabius were despatched to support them and the gap in the line was plugged. The crisis over, Caesar galloped off to see how Labienus was coping at the fort on the hillside. He did not go alone, but hastily gathered four cohorts from one of the nearby fortlets. Most of the army’s cavalry was also uncommitted and he split these into two, keeping one force with him and sending the other outside the line of contravallation to come round and take Vercassivellaunus’ men in the flank. By this time Labienus’ men had lost control of the fort’s rampart, but the legate had managed to find fourteen cohorts to add to the six he had brought and the two-legion garrison. With this formidable force he had patched together a fighting line inside and near the fort and sent messengers to Caesar letting him know what was happening. Everything was set for the crisis of the siege and the campaign - in many ways, at least as far as the Commentaries were concerned, the culminating point of Caesar’s campaigns since 58 BC. In his account the skilful actions of Labienus and the other legates are noted, but the focus at the end is on the author himself. His:
... arrival was known through the colour of his cloak, which he always wore in battle as a distinguishing mark; and the troops 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. . . 74 captured war standards were carried to Caesar; very few of this vast host escaped unscathed to their camp.33
The Roman counter-attack tipped the balance irrevocably in their favour. The attempt to break into Caesar’s lines ended in bloody repulse. Vercingetorix and his men had also been unable to break out and withdrew when they saw the utter failure of the relief army’s efforts. Although the fortunes of the day may not have turned quite as quickly or simply as Caesar suggests, the decisive nature of his victory is unquestionable. The heart went out of the rebellion. Vercingetorix and his men were now very short of food and saw no prospect of escape. The relief force had made two great attacks and failed in both. Such an enormous tribal army could not hope to supply itself in the field for very long and there was no prospect of mounting a successful assault before they had to disperse.34
The next day Vercingetorix summoned his chieftains to a council. He suggested that they surrender, saying that he was willing to hand himself over to the Romans. None of the council seem to have demurred. Envoys went to Caesar, who demanded that they hand over weapons and that their leaders surrender. In the Commentaries the act of capitulation is briefly described. According to Plutarch and Dio, Vercingetorix put on his finest armour and rode out of the town on his best warhorse. Approaching Caesar on the tribunal where he sat on his magistrate’s chair, the Arvernian chieftain rode once around his adversary, dismounted, lay down his weapons and sat down at his feet waiting to be taken away. The Commentaries could not allow their hero to be upstaged in this way.35
Virtually all the tribes involved in the rebellion capitulated. In many ways Caesar’s final victory was all the greater because so many peoples had joined. The Celtic/Gallic tribes had finally tested the military strength of the legions and been utterly defeated. Virtually all of them now accepted the reality of conquest. Caesar was generous to the captives from the Aedui and Arverni, and probably also those from their dependent tribes. These men were not sold into slavery, although Vercingetorix was held as a captive until the celebration of Caesar’s triumph, when he was ritually strangled in the traditional Roman way. However, there were plenty of other captives who could be sold and the profits shared amongst the army. The Aedui and Arverni were important peoples whom Caesar would prefer as more or less willing allies, hence his leniency. He had won military victory, but knew that creating an enduring peace was now a question of politics and gentle diplomacy. In the case of both tribes, it seems to have worked.36