The outbreak began among the Carnuti (the “horned ones”) when two chieftains led their retinues into the town of Cenabum (present-day Orléans) and massacred Roman tradesmen. Vercingetorix, a young Arverni nobleman previously favored by Cæsar, followed their example by embarking on a terror campaign targeting local merchants. Initially, Vercingetorix lacked support from his tribal elders — that is, until dozens of young warriors began flocking to join his band.
Vercingetorix was the son of Celtillus, a tribal leader. Through birth and a demonstration of the warrior ethos, he rose to power as a chieftain. Some scholars say that he proclaimed himself king and then called for fighters. This may be true because, within a short time, Vercingetorix had amassed a substantial army. Historians also point out that it was Vercingetorix’s experience serving in Cæsar’s legions that aided him in organizing his army. Moreover, the young warrior imposed a level of discipline on his men that were previously unknown in Gaul. Judging from his strategies, Vercingetorix believed he had discovered a way to defeat Cæsar.
Vercingetorix started his war by attacking Rome’s staunch ally, the Remi. Even though aware of these assaults, none of Cæsar’s junior legates took direct action. They did ask the Aedui to send help, but that tribe had already turned lukewarm in its allegiance to Rome. Observing that Rome’s legion had no interest in putting down the rebellion, even more, tribes joined Vercingetorix. Believing he was strong enough to sustain a protracted war against Rome, Vercingetorix initiated hostilities toward even more Roman allies. Still, Cæsar’s legates took no action — giving Rome the appearance of weakness and indecisiveness.
When word of the rebellion finally reached Cæsar, he expedited his return to Gaul, arriving in time to observe a raid into the Transalpine region. Since Cæsar’s regular legions were much further to the north, he raised local troops and used them to defend the province and launch counter-raids against the Arverni.
With relatively few troops at his disposal, Cæsar’s options were limited to forcing Vercingetorix’s hand. After clearing a pathway through deep snow in Cevennes, Cæsar sent his cavalry on wide-ranging patrols with orders to destroy Arverni settlements wherever found. The damage imposed by the cavalry was minimal, but it was enough to make tribal leaders nervous — and it was enough to petition Vercingetorix to come to their aid.
While his enemy was distracted looking for suspected legionnaires, Cæsar spread a false rumor that he was returning to Trans-Alpine Gaul to raise more troops. Instead, he hurried northward to join his army — consisting of the ten legions that were about to emerge from their winter quarters. It was a bold move — but that’s what Cæsar did for a living. His northward trek took him directly through the center of hostile territory. Still, even after marshaling his troops, the situation in Gaul remained grim. Once more, success or failure rested on logistics — Cæsar needed food for his men and his animals.
Meanwhile, Vercingetorix quickly recovered from Cæsar’s ruse and launched a series of attacks against the Boii. Leaving two legions to maintain a presence in the north, Cæsar led eight legions against Vercingetorix. Initially, the targeted areas are rich in forage. When the Legionnaires reached Orléans, they utterly destroyed it in Retribution for Vercingetorix’s assault on Roman merchants.
Cæsar believed he had drawn Vercingetorix away from the Boii — and while this is probably true, the young warrior chief continued to avoid Cæsar, preferring instead to maintain his plan of starving the Romans into submission. At a council of war, he persuaded the Bituriges Cubi tribe to burn most of their towns and villages to prevent the Romans from finding any supplies.
Cæsar, aware that Avaricum (modern Bourges) was the largest and best-fortified town of the Bituriges Cubi tribe, believed that if he could capture the town, then the entire tribe would surrender. Vercingetorix didn’t share this opinion.
Because of its strategic location, the Bituriges Cubi was sure that the town of Avaricum would receive a visit from Cæsar and his legions. Still, the people of Avaricum resisted Vercingetorix’s order. With protected access to water and enough food to feed forty-thousand people for a year, the townspeople demanded their right to defend their own community. Against his better judgment, Vercingetorix agreed to garrison the town.
Avaricum was easy to defend because the town was protected by a river and a sizable marsh — with only one narrow approach to the city. Cæsar camped outside that narrow entrance and began to build a giant mound and siege towers. The marshy location of the town prevented the Romans from their typical construction of a line of circumvallation by the river and marsh.
Vercingetorix followed behind the Romans and set up his camp fifteen miles from the town. A swamp protected Bituriges camp from Roman attack. Scouts kept the two Gallic forces in touch with each other while Vercingetorix concentrated on attacking Roman foraging parties that traveled too far from their main camp. The Romans soon ran short of supplies, partly because of these attacks but also because the Aedui, Cæsar’s most valuable allies in Gaul, were reluctant to provide him with supplies.
When he discovered that the Romans had completed their siege towers, Vercingetorix moved his camp nearer to the town and prepared to ambush the next day’s foraging party. When scouts reported this move, Cæsar decided to attack the new camp. Early the following day, while Vercingetorix was waiting in vain for the Roman foragers, Cæsar, and the main Roman army, advanced towards his camp, where they discovered the Gallic army formed up on a hill. For a short time, it looked as if a major battle was about to break out, but a swamp separated the two armies, and neither side was willing to risk the first move.
Eventually, the Romans returned to their camp. When Vercingetorix returned to his camp, his officers accused him of planning to betray the army, and he was forced to defend his decision to withdraw.
The siege lasted for twenty-seven days. The Bituriges had become much more skilled at defending their towns against Roman siege engines, and many of the inhabitants of Avaricum were experienced iron miners, which gave them the engineering skills needed to counter Cæsar’s mound ramp. The Gallic miners dug countermines when the Romans attempted to dig tunnels under the walls. When the Romans tried to use grappling hooks to pull stones off the walls, the Bituriges trapped them and used their machines to drag the grappling hooks inside the city.
After twenty-five days, the Roman mound was 330 feet wide, 80 feet high, and getting close to the city walls. Just after midnight on the 25th day, Cæsar realized that the mound was sinking. The Bituriges had dug tunnels under the mound and had set fire to its wooden pit props, which collapsed the tunnel and denied its use to the Romans.
At the same time, the Bituriges launched sallies from gates on either side of the mound. The lateness of the hour and the flames caused great confusion in the Roman camp, but eventually, with the help of the entire besieging army, the situation was restored, and the Bituriges attack failed.
On the following day, the garrison of Avaricum decided to attempt an escape from the town and cross the marsh to join Vercingetorix. The Romans became aware of the attempt when sentries were alerted by the sounds of arguments from within the city. Bituriges women were overheard pleading with tribal warriors not to abandon them to the Romans. It wasn’t long before the Bituriges became aware that the Romans were on to their plan, and they abandoned it. Still, the incident convinced Cæsar it was time to attack the town.
On the next day, under cover of a storm, Cæsar’s lead elements successfully reached the top of the town walls. The Bituriges formed up a wedge in the open marketplace, ready to resist the expected Roman attack, but instead of climbing down into the town, the Roman infantry spread out along the top of the walls. This unnerved the defenders, who began a foot race to see who could get out of the walled town first. Roman infantry killed some of these men in the narrow approaches to the gate, but Roman cavalry caught most of the fleeing men outside the town.
A massacre of the inhabitants followed the fall of the Avaricum, women, and children included. Of 40,000 inhabitants, only 800 joined Vercingetorix in his camp. Cæsar described this as having been caused by a combination of the legionnaire’s anger at the massacre of the Romans at Cenabum and their frustration with the difficult siege. Yet, Cæsar gave no indication why the people were massacred rather than enslaved (where Cæsar would profit from the sale of slaves).
The fall of Avaricum didn’t have the effect Cæsar had hoped, even though the town had enough grain to meet the army’s immediate needs. Cæsar gave his soldiers a few days’ rests as his two additional legions joined the army. With the arrival of spring came greater opportunities for foraging, and Cæsar’s instinct was to press his advantage and continue his counterattacks against Vercingetorix.
The lull in fighting gave Vercingetorix the time he needed to recover, while the failure of Avaricum to hold out helped convince his followers of the wisdom of avoiding direct fighting with the Romans. Vercingetorix managed to restore the morale of his army with a rousing speech, and he was soon able to replace the troops lost during the siege.
More importantly, however, the Aedui finally abandoned their long attachment to the Roman cause and joined the revolt. Cæsar lost one of his best sources of cavalry and faced an ever more powerful coalition of Gallic tribes.
Cæsar’s next move was his attack on Gergovia. It was his only major defeat in the Gallic Wars, but Vercingetorix then attempted to defend Alesia. It was his last mistake.
After Avaricum, Cæsar had lost the initiative and was in a desperate position. He withdrew from Gergovia, shadowed at a safe distance by the Gallic army. Forcing the pace, the general headed north and joined his cavalry commander, Titus Labienus before the enemy could intervene.
The proconsul now led all ten legions — between 40 and 45 thousand men, roughly — and a few thousand auxiliaries, including Labienus’ cavalry. But the fact was that allied Gallic tribes had always supplied the bulk of his horsemen. Comparatively speaking, the Roman cavalry was weak. To compensate, Cæsar hired German mercenaries from beyond the Rhine, giving them horses taken from his own officers because their mounts were of poor quality.
With these few modifications, Cæsar had assembled a powerful and concentrated force. Shortages in supplies and forage continued to plague him, however. Additionally, news reached him of fresh Gallic raids on the Transalpine province, so he headed southward to be nearer to his bases there.
Vercingetorix viewed this withdrawal as another retreat. Encouraged and with far more cavalry than the Romans, Vercingetorix drew closer in his pursuit. Traditionally, horsemen were the battle arm of the Gallic aristocracy.
Divided into three groups, the Gallic cavalry struck at the head and flanks of the marching Romans. Cæsar divided his badly outnumbered horsemen into three units to match the enemy. Fighting with infantry in close support, the Roman cavalry could hold the Gauls at bay until Cæsar’s German horsemen finally learned how to defeat Vercingetorix’s mounted warriors. The route, once started, spread throughout the rest of the Gauls’ forces.
This was the smallest of successes, but its impact on the campaign proved massive. Cæsar immediately abandoned any thought of retreat and instead advanced to attack the Gallic army. Vercingetorix retreated with the Romans in hot pursuit and, after a few days, reached the town of Alesia, thus setting the stage for the Gallic warrior’s final act.
Cæsar claimed that the Gauls had eighty thousand infantry and a large cavalry force camped outside the walled town. We have no way of verifying his account. We do know that a solid wall surrounded Alesia, and the high ground on which it lay offered a strong position. Unlike Gergovia, however, Cæsar had a much stronger force. It was also summer, which made foraging easier — and especially since the region had not seen heavy campaigning up to that point. Cæsar resolved to blockade the enemy and set his legionaries to constructing massively fortified lines. Archaeological excavation reveals that Cæsar’s description of the place, while simple, is amazingly accurate. Here’s something even more amazing: Cæsar’s legions constructed a rampart eleven miles long surrounding Alesia. The circumvallation was strengthened by twenty-three forts.
Cæsar was aware that Vercingetorix had sent for help. He knew that it was only a matter of time before Gallic reinforcements arrived. To protect his troops from that eventuality, the Legate ordered a second defensive line facing outward — a second line of contravallation —which was three miles longer than the first. In front of both defensive lines, the legionnaires dug ditches, flooded where possible, and placed lines of stakes and other obstacles.
In his commentaries, Cæsar claimed that Gallic reinforcements numbered 250,000 infantry and 8,000 mounted troops. We must question such a precise figure when even their chieftains could not have known an exact figure — but we do know that the number of enemies approaching the Roman line was massive. Were they all “warriors?” Not likely — which means that their effectiveness against the Romans was on the light side of the spectrum. Even so, Cæsar’s men were greatly outnumbered — and from the moment these reinforcements arrived, the legionnaires would have to subsist on what they already had.
Inside Alesia, Vercingetorix was also running low on supplies. Historians argue that one can measure his desperation by the fact that he expelled all inhabitants of Alesia unable to fight. If Vercingetorix expected Cæsar to let these non-combatants through his lines, he was disappointed. Cæsar refused to let them pass; he ordered his men to let the people starve between the city walls and the inside defensive line.
The two Gallic armies, unable to communicate directly, launched a series of heavy, if not quite coordinated, attacks on the Roman fortifications. All were repulsed — although, in several instances, by the narrowest of margins.
The culmination came in a day of massive assaults, the heaviest coming from the relief army against the camp that was the weakest position in the Roman lines. The camp was overshadowed by higher ground, as it would have taken too much effort for the Romans to include the heights within their lines. Two legions held the camp, but when the main attack was launched at noon, these came under massive pressure.
Cæsar sent Labienus to take charge, giving him six cohorts to bolster the garrison. Moving to a vantage point that gave him a better view of the areas under threat, Cæsar sent reserves and senior officers to plug gaps in the line. The Gauls broke into the fort, but Labienus managed to hold them by forming a line inside, adding eight more cohorts to his existing forces.
But Labienus’ men were barely holding their own. Cæsar decided to lead his last available reserve in person. He divided the force, vectoring some between the two Roman lines and sending a body of cavalry outside to hit the enemy in the rear. According to the Commentaries, his —
… arrival was known through the color 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 and were caught as they fled by the cavalry, and a great slaughter ensued. Seventy-four war standards were carried to Cæsar; very few of this vast host escaped unscathed to their camp.
The next day, the Gauls admitted their defeat. The great reinforcing army dispersed, and Vercingetorix rode out to surrender. Cæsar had won a remarkable victory, but he knew that the peace would only last if he could put together a viable political settlement. From the first, his treatment of the tribes reflected this.
Vercingetorix knew that he could expect no mercy because tradition held that an enemy leader must be ritually strangled at the end of a Roman triumph. However, Cæsar treated Vercingetorix’s own people — the Arverni — (as well as the treasonous Aedui) generously. He did not sell captives from these tribes into slavery like other prisoners, nor did he direct reprisals against any of their communities. It was not true elsewhere —
On 31 December 52 B.C., Cæsar led the first of a series of punitive expeditions against the other rebellious tribes. These campaigns lasted for much of the following year and culminated in the siege and capture of the town of Uxellodunum (near present-day Vayrac, in Southwest France. The warriors who surrendered there had their hands cut off. They were then released as visible reminders of the price of opposing Rome.
Cæsar met open resistance with overwhelming force, but he spent much of his time in a concerted diplomatic effort. One of Cæsar’s officers recorded that the legate’s primary goal was keeping the tribes “friendly” and giving them neither opportunity nor cause for hostility. By dealing with the tribes honorably, granting rich bounties to chieftains, not imposing burdens, and keeping the peace. The Gallic tribes had become weary of war.
Cæsar’s Gallic conquests enrolled Gaul as part of the Roman Empire for over five centuries. His success was as much careful diplomacy as military skill. Richard Wellesley and Lord Wellesley found this true in India, as well. Rarely does any imperial power have enough “force” to hold down large, well-populated countries. In time, the Gauls became Roman — and carried forward Roman traditions. In time, Gauls served in the Senate of Rome. Cæsar didn’t go to Gaul to establish democracy; he went there to conquer and seek advantages for himself and the empire he sought to rule. But the unintended consequence of his actions was, in time, the beginning of western civilization.
- Canfora, L. Julius Cæsar: The People’s Dictator. Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
- Freeman, P. Julius Cæsar. Simon & Schuster, 2008.
- Goldsworthy, A. Cæsar: Life of a Colossus. Yale University Press, 2006.
- Griffin, M. A Companion to Julius Cæsar. Wiley & Sons, 2009.
- Trollope, A. The Commentaries of Cæsar. Online.
 Titus Labienus (100 – 45 B.C.) was a military genius and a lieutenant of Julius Cæsar .
Part II was well worth the wait. Well done, old friend.
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Thank you, Andy. And thanks for sticking with it. It was a bit long.