Caesar on the Siege of Alesia (2)
(52 BCE): one of the most important battles during Caesar's conquest of
Gaul. After he had taken the Gallic town, only mopping-up operations
Caesar has described the siege in his Commentaries on the war in Gaul, book 7, chapters 63-90. The translation is by Anne and Peter Wiseman. Part one can be found here.The Mandubii, who had taken the others into their oppidum , were forced to leave it with their wives and children. When they came up to our fortifications, they wept and begged the soldiers to take them as slaves and give them something to eat. But I had guards posted all along the rampart with orders not to allow any of them inside our lines.
Meanwhile Commius and the other chief commanders arrived before Alesia with the entire relief force. They occupied a hill outside our fortifications and encamped, not more than a 1½ kilometer from us.
Next day they led all their cavalry out of their camp and filled the whole of that plain, which was, as I have described, 4½ kilometers long. Their infantry they positioned a short distance away, concealed on higher ground.
From Alesia there was a view down over the plain, and when the Gauls inside saw the relief forces, they ran about congratulating each other; their spirits rose and they were overjoyed. They led out their forces and positioned them in front of the oppidum. Then they covered the nearest ditch with wattles and filled it with earth, getting themselves ready to break out and face all the dangers that would involve.
I posted all my infantry along both lines of our fortifications, so that if it should prove necessary, each man would know his post and hold it. I ordered the cavalry to be brought out of camp and to join battle. From all the camps on the surrounding hilltops there was a good view down, and all the soldiers were watching intently to see which way the battle would go.
The Gauls had put archers and light-armed infantry here and there among their cavalry to help any of them who had to give ground, and to hold out against the attacks of our cavalry. Many of our men were taken by surprise and wounded by these, and had to withdraw from the fighting. The Gauls were confident that their forces were getting the better of the fight, for they could see that our men were being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
From all sides, both those who were besieged and those who had come to relieve them shouted and yelled to encourage their men. The battle was being fought in full view of everyone, and it was impossible for any brave deed or act of cowardice to escape notice. Men on both sides were spurred on to acts of valor by their desire for glory and their fear of disgrace.
From midday almost to sunset the fighting continued, with neither side yet sure of victory. Then the Germans massed their squadrons together on one side, charged the enemy, and drove them off. When these Gallic cavalry broke and fled, the archers among them were surrounded and killed. The same thing happened at other points; our men pursued the fleeing Gauls right up to their camp, giving them no chance of rallying. Whereupon those Gauls who had come out in front of Alesia went back inside the oppidum, disappointed and having practically given up hope of success.
A day went by, during which the Gauls prepared large numbers of wattles, ladders, and grappling hooks. Then at midnight they quietly set out from their camp and moved towards our fortifications in the plain. They suddenly raised a shout to inform those besieged in the oppidum of their approach, and then set about throwing wattles on to the trenches, driving our men off the rampart with slings and arrows and stones, and doing everything necessary to take our position by storm. At the same time Vercingetorix, hearing the noise of the shouting, sounded the trumpet and led his forces out of the oppidum.
Our men moved up to the fortifications, each one taking up his allotted position, as on previous days. They kept the Gauls off with slings, large stones, bullets, and stakes, which they had put ready at intervals along the rampart.
It was impossible to see far because of the darkness, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. Many missiles were discharged by our artillery. The legates Marc Antony and Gaius Trebonius, who had been assigned to the defense of this sector, brought up men from the more distant redoubts and sent them in to reinforce any point where they had seen our men were under pressure.
As long as the Gauls were at a distance from our fortification, they derived more advantage from the great number of missiles they were hurling. But when they came closer, the extra devices we had planted there took them by surprise. They got themselves caught up on the 'goads', or they fell into the pits and impaled themselves, or else they were pierced and killed by the siege-spears that we hurled at them from the rampart and the towers. They suffered many casualties at every point, but did not succeed anywhere in penetrating our lines of defense.
When it was almost dawn they withdrew to their original position, afraid that we would break out of our camps on the higher ground and surround them on their right flank. As for the Gauls besieged inside the oppidum, they lost a considerable amount of time bringing out the equipment prepared by Vercingetorix for the sortie, and filling up the ditches farthest from them. Consequently they had not got close to our main fortifications before they heard that their fellow Gauls had retreated. So they went back into the oppidum without having achieved anything.
Having now suffered two costly defeats, the Gauls deliberated about what they should do. They called in men who knew the terrain and ascertained from them the positions of our higher camps and the state of their defenses. On the north side of Alesia there was a hill that our men had not been able to include in the circle of our siege works because its circumference was too great. They had had to build the camp there on a gentle slope, and this was slightly to our disadvantage. The legates Gaius Antistius Reginus and Gaius Caninius Rebilus held this camp with two legions.
The enemy commanders had scouts reconnoiter the position. They then chose from their entire force 60,000 men from the tribes that had the greatest reputation for valor, secretly decided what ought to be done and how it should be carried out, and fixed noon as the time for starting their attack. The Arvernian Vercassivellaunus, one of their four chief commanders and a relative of Vercingetorix, was put in command of this force.
He left camp soon after sunset and had almost completed his march before dawn. He concealed his men behind the hill, telling them to rest after that night's hard work. When he could see that it was almost midday, he marched towards that camp of ours described above. At the same time, the Gallic cavalry began to advance towards our fortifications in the plain and the rest of their forces appeared in front of their camp.
From the citadel of Alesia Vercingetorix could see these fellow Gauls. He therefore came out of the oppidum, bringing with him the wattles, poles, protective sheds, hooks, and other equipment he had prepared for the sortie. There was simultaneous fighting all along our lines and every sort of method was tried by the Gauls; they concentrated at any point where the defenses seemed most vulnerable.
The extent of our fortifications meant that the troops had to be thinly spread along them, and this made it difficult for them to meet the attacks that were being made at many different points. They were greatly unsettled by the noise of shouting they could hear behind them as they fought; it made them aware that their own safety depended on what happened to others. And, of course, people are almost always more unnerved by dangers they cannot see. I found a good place from which I could see what was happening at any point; where our men were in difficulties I sent up reinforcements.
Both sides knew only too well that this was the moment when a supreme effort was called for. The Gauls realized they had no hope of surviving unless they broke through our lines of defense; we knew all our hardships would be over if only we could hold out.
The difficulties were greatest at the fortifications on the hill, where, as already mentioned, Vercassivellaunus had been sent. The unfavorable downward slope of the ground was a factor seriously to our disadvantage. Some of the enemy hurled spears, others advanced on us with their shields held up to form a protective shell, and as their men became exhausted, fresh troops came up to relieve them. Their entire force threw earth against our fortifications, which allowed them to climb on to the rampart and also covered up the devices we had hidden in the ground. Our men were beginning to run out of weapons, and their stamina was failing too.
I saw what was happening and the difficulties they were experiencing, so I sent Labienus  and six cohorts to their relief. I told him that if it proved impossible for him to hold the position, he was to withdraw his cohorts and fight his way out. But I made it clear to him he was not to do that unless absolutely necessary.
I went to other parts of the line in person, and urged the men there not to give in under the pressure. I told them that the fruits of all their previous battles depended on that day, and on that very hour.
A fallen Gallic soldier. Bronze statuette from Alesia, second century CE. Musée des Antiquités nationales (St-Germain-en-Laye)
The Gauls inside the oppidum now gave up hope of getting through our fortifications on the plain because of their scale. Instead, they climbed up and attempted to attack the steep slopes, bringing up the equipment they had prepared. With a hail of missiles they dislodged the defenders from the towers. They then filled the ditches with earth and wattles, and tore down he rampart and breastwork with hooks.
First I sent some cohorts with young [Decimus Junius] Brutus, then others with the legate Gaius Fabius. Finally, when the fighting was getting fiercer, I went in person, taking fresh troops to relieve them. Battle was renewed, and the Gauls were driven back.
I then hurried to the point where I had sent Labienus, taking four cohorts from the nearest redoubt; I ordered some of the cavalry to follow me, and told others to ride round the outer fortifications and attack the enemy from the rear.
Labienus realized that neither ramparts nor trenches were proving capable of checking the Gauls' violent attacks. Fortunately, he had been able to collect together 11 cohorts, drawn from the nearest redoubts, and he now sent messengers to tell me what he thought must be done. I hurried on so as to arrive in time to take part in the action.
The enemy knew who was approaching by the color of the cloak I always wore in action to mark me out; and from the higher ground where they stood, they had a view of the lower slopes and so could see the squadrons of cavalry and the cohorts I had ordered to follow me. They therefore joined battle.
A shout went up on both sides, answered by the men on the rampart and along the whole line of the fortifications. Our men dispensed with their javelins and used their swords. Suddenly our cavalry could be seen to the rear, and fresh cohorts were moving up closer. The Gauls turned tail, but our cavalry cut off their flight.
There was great slaughter. Sedulius, the military commander and chief of the Lemovices, was killed; the Arvernian Vercassivellaunus was captured alive in the rout; 74 of their war standards were brought in to me; out of all that great army only a few got safely back to camp.
The Gauls in the oppidum could see the slaughter and the rout of their countrymen; they gave up all hope of being saved and took their men back inside from the fortifications.
When news of our victory reached them, the Gallic relief force immediately fled from their camp. But for the fact that our men were exhausted by their exertions throughout the entire day and their constant efforts to relieve the threatened points, the Gauls' entire army could have been wiped out. Cavalry, which I sent out, caught up with the enemy rearguard about midnight and killed or captured great numbers of them. The survivors fled, making off to their various tribes.
Next day Vercingetorix called a council. He pointed out that he had undertaken the war not for any personal reasons but for the freedom of Gaul. Since he must now yield to fortune, he was putting his fate in their hands. They must decide whether they wanted to kill him, and so make amends to the Romans, or hand him over to them alive.
Vercingetorix Bound: nineteenth-century statue at Alesia (©**)
Envoys were sent to me to discuss this. I ordered that their weapons should be surrendered and their tribal chiefs brought before me. I took my place on the fortifications in front of the camp and the chiefs were brought to me there. Vercingetorix was surrendered, and the weapons were laid down before me. I kept the Aeduan and Arvernian prisoners back, hoping to use them to regain the loyalty of their tribes. The rest I distributed as booty among the entire army, giving one prisoner to each of my men.
When this business had been settled, I set off for the territory of the Aedui, and received the submission of that tribe. While I was there, the Arverni sent envoys to me, promising to obey any orders I gave them. I told them to provide a large number of hostages. I then sent the legions into winter quarters. I restored to the Aedui and the Arverni about 20,000 prisoners.
I told Titus Labienus to take two legions and some cavalry and set out for the country of the Sequani; I sent Marcus Sempronius Rutilus to serve under him. I stationed the legate Gaius Fabius and Lucius Minucius Basilus with two legions in the territory of the Remi, to prevent them suffering harm at the hands of their neighbors the Bellovaci. I sent Gaius Antistius Reginus into the country of the Ambivareti, Titus Sextius to the Bituriges, and Gaius Caninius Rebilus to the Ruteni, each with one legion. I stationed Quintus Tullius Cicero and Publius Sulpicius in Aeduan territory near the river Saône, at Cabillonum and Matisco, to organize the grain supply. I myself decided to winter at Bibracte.
Coin, showing a Gallic captive (British Museum)
When dispatches made these successes known at Rome a public thanksgiving of 20 days was decreed.
Oppidum was the Roman name for Gallic towns on hill tops. The Mandubians were the tribe that was living in Alesia.
Jona Lendering for
Revision: 25 May 2008