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The Siege of Bourges (1)

Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. In the winter of 54/53, the tribes of Gaul, which had seemed to be quiet, suddenly revolted. The Belgians started the rebellion. Eburones, commanded by Ambiorix, destroyed the Fourteenth Legion and it took Julius Caesar a whole year before he had restored order. Next year, 52, the Gauls unitedly rebelled under Vercingetorix. It was well-timed, because the situation in Italy was unquiet too, and Caesar could not be reinforced. For the first time during this war, the Romans were was forced to defend themselves. However, Caesar was able to seize the initiative and took Bourges, an important Gallic stronghold. Caesar has described the siege in his Commentaries on the war in Gaul, book 7, chapters 14-31. The translation is by Anne and Peter Wiseman. 
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Map of Gallia Belgica in the age of Caesar. Design Jona Lendering.
Vercingetorix had now suffered a series of setbacks, at Vellaunodunum, Orleans, and Noviodunum. He therefore called his supporters to a council of war, and pointed out to them that the war must be waged in quite a different way from hitherto. They must direct all their efforts towards cutting the Romans off from forage and supplies.

This would not be difficult, he said, because the Gauls were strong in cavalry and the time of year was in their favor. At that season it was not possible to cut grass, so the enemy would have to send out groups of men to get fodder from barns; as these foraging parties went out, the Gallic cavalry could pick them off daily. In addition, since their lives were at stake they must forget their rights as individuals. All villages and isolated buildings must be set on fire in every direction from the Romans' line of march as far as foragers seemed likely to be able to reach.

They themselves, he claimed, had plenty of supplies because they were supported by the resources of the tribes in whose territory the war was being waged. Not so the Romans, who would either starve or have to take the great risk of venturing too far from their camp. It did not matter whether the Gauls killed them or merely stripped them of their equipment, for without that they could not continue the war.

Vercingetorix proposed that they must also set fire to any oppida [1] that were not made absolutely safe by man-made fortifications or natural defenses. This would prevent them being used by Gauls as refuges to escape the fighting, and also by Romans as sources of supplies and plunder. If these measures seemed harsh and difficult to bear, they would reckon it much worse to have their wives and children dragged off into slavery, and to be killed themselves: that was the inevitable fate of the vanquished.

This proposal was approved unanimously, and in a single day more than 20 towns of the Bituriges were set on fire. The same thing was done in the other tribes and fires could be seen in every direction. Although it grieved them all greatly to do this, they consoled themselves with the thought that victory was practically theirs and that they would quickly recover all they had lost.

There was discussion in a joint council whether Bourges should be burned or defended. The Bituriges fell down at the feet of all the other Gauls, begging not to be compelled to set fire with their own hands to what was perhaps the most beautiful town in the whole of Gaul, at once the pride and the chief protection of their people. They said they would easily defend it because of the strength of its position; it was almost completely surrounded by a river and marsh, with only one very narrow way through.

Their request was granted, though at first Vercingetorix argued against it, only later yielding to their pleas and the pity shown to them by all the others. Troops were chosen specially to defend the oppidum. Vercingetorix then followed my march by easy stages and chose for his camp a site protected by marshes and forests, some 24 kilometers from Bourges. There he was hourly informed by a well-organized system of patrols of what was going on at Bourges, and gave appropriate orders.

He kept a close watch for all our parties going out for grain or fodder. When these became scattered because they were obliged to go farther afield, he would attack them and inflict heavy losses, even though we, for our part, took all precautions we could possibly think of against him, varying the times and routes of our foraging parties.

I had placed my camp on the side of the oppidum where there was a gap in the circle formed by the river and marshes, which, as I have already mentioned, offered a narrow way in. I began to build a siege-terrace, bring up protective sheds, and construct two towers on the terrace, for the nature of the terrain made it impossible to construct a ring of fortifications around it.

All the while I kept urging the Boii and the Aedui to supply us with grain. The Aedui were not at all enthusiastic and gave little help; the Boii, a small weak tribe, had very limited resources and soon used up what they did have. So the army was in very serious difficulties over grain supplies, what with the limitations of the Boii, the negative attitude of the Aedui, and the burning of the barns. Things were so serious, in fact, that for several days the men had no grain at all and managed to avoid starvation only by bringing in cattle from distant villages.


But even so, no one uttered a word that was unworthy of the greatness of Rome or of the victories they had already won. Indeed, when I went round and spoke to the men of each legion as they worked, saying that I would raise the siege if they were finding their privations too much to bear, every man of them begged me not to. They had now served under me, they said, for many years without ever losing their good name or anywhere abandoning a task they had once begun. They would be disgraced if they gave up the siege they had started, and they would rather endure any hardship than fail to avenge the Roman citizens who had been killed at Orleans [2] through the treachery of the Gauls. They made these same feelings known to the centurions and military tribunes, with requests that they should pass them on to me. [...]

The Gauls decided to choose 10,000 men from their combined forces and send them to Bourges. They did not think their national security should rest with the Bituriges alone; if the Bituriges saved the oppidum, they realized it would be they who won the glory for the final victory. 

Our soldiers showed extraordinary courage, and the Gauls had to resort to all kinds of devices; they are a most ingenious race, very good at imitating and making use of any ideas suggested to them by others. For instance, they pulled our siege hooks away with nooses, and when they had them fast, hauled them inside with windlasses. They also undermined our siege terrace, all the more skillfully because there are extensive iron mines in their country, and so they know all about the various methods of underground working. All along the entire wall they had built storied towers and had covered these with hides.

At that stage they were making constant sorties, day and night, and either setting fire to our terrace or attacking our soldiers when they were at work there. As our ramp grew and the height of our towers increased day by day, they added extra stories between the uprights of their own towers to ensure they were not overtopped by ours. They also countermined the subterranean tunnels we constructed, using sharpened stakes that had been hardened in fire, boiling pitch, and enormous rocks to prevent them being extended closer to the wall.

[Caesar describes Gallic walls.]

Devices of this kind hampered our operations, as did the constant cold weather and continual rain. But our men worked ceaselessly and overcame all these difficulties; in 25 days they raised a siege-terrace 100 meters wide and 30 meters high, and this almost touched the wall.

part two

Note 1:
Oppidum was the Roman name for Gallic towns on hill tops.

Note 2:
At Orleans, the Gauls had destroyed a garrison. Ultimately, the town had been recovered by the Romans. 

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