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The Siege of Bourges (2)

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; this is the last of two articles (the first can be found here).
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A fallen Gallic soldier. Bronze statuette from Alesia, second century CE. Musée des Antiquités nationales, St-Germain-en-Laye (France). Photo Jona Lendering.
A fallen Gallic soldier. Bronze statuette from Alesia, second century CE. Musée des Antiquités nationales (St-Germain-en-Laye)

One night, I was staying up as usual with the working parties, urging the men not to leave off their efforts even for a moment, when shortly before midnight smoke was seen rising from the terrace; the enemy had dug a tunnel underneath and set it on fire.

At the same moment a shout went up all along the wall and the Gauls came pouring out of the oppidum by the two gates on either side of our towers. Others began to throw burning torches and dry wood down from the wall on to the terrace, and they poured down pitch and every other kind of inflammable material.

It was hard to know where first to direct our resistance or which threatened area to relieve. But it was my practice always to keep two legions in front of the camp ready for action throughout the night, while larger numbers of men worked on the siege operations in shifts. So we were able to act quickly, some men fighting off the Gauls who had come out of the oppidum, while others dragged the towers back and made a gap in the terrace, and all the men still in the camp rushed out to extinguish the fire.

Throughout the rest of the night, fighting went on everywhere, and the enemy's hope of victory was being renewed all the time; they could see that the sheds that protected the men moving our towers had been burnt, making it difficult for our troops to advance without cover to help their fellows, whereas in their own ranks fresh men were continually relieving those who were exhausted. They thought the whole fate of Gaul depended on that very moment, and, as we looked on, there was an incident I consider so remarkable I must not leave it out.

One Gaul stood in front of the gate of the oppidum taking lumps of tallow and pitch that were handed to him and throwing them into the fire opposite one of our towers. He was pierced in the right side by an arrow from a catapult and fell dead. Another Gaul, standing nearby, stepped across the body and did the same job. When he too was killed in the same way by a catapult shot, a third man took his place, and then a fourth. The post was not abandoned by its defenders until the fire on the terrace had been put out, the enemy pushed back at every point, and the fighting brought to an end. Having tried everything, but without success, the Gauls decided next day to escape from Bourges, at the urgent insistence of Vercingetorix. By making their attempt at dead of night they hoped to succeed without serious loss; Vercingetorix's camp was not far away and the continuous stretch of marshland would hamper the Romans' pursuit.

At night they were already getting ready to escape when suddenly the wives came running out into the open. Weeping, they flung themselves down at the feet of their menfolk, begging and praying that they should not abandon them and the children they shared to the cruelty of the enemy, since they were not by nature strong enough to join in the flight.

People facing extreme danger are usually too afraid to feel any pity, and so the men remained unpersuaded. Realizing this, their womenfolk began to shout out and make signs to our troops, betraying the planned escape. This frightened the Gauls into abandoning their intention - they were afraid that our cavalry would seize the roads before they could get away.

Next day one of our towers was moved forward, and the other siege works I had had made were brought into position. There was a heavy rainstorm, and it occurred to me that this would be a good opportunity to launch an assault, because I noticed that the guards on the wall were not quite so carefully posted as usual. I told our men to go about their work less energetically and explained to them what I wanted done.

The legions got ready for action outside the camp. They were under the cover of the protective sheds and thus concealed from enemy view. Now at last, I urged, they could taste the fruits of victory, the reward for all their labors. I offered prizes to those who would be first to climb the wall, then I gave the signal to attack.

The soldiers suddenly darted out from every point and quickly got control of the wall. The Gauls had not expected this, and they panicked. They were dislodged from the wall and towers, but formed up in the marketplace and other open spaces in wedge-shaped masses, with the intention of fighting a pitched battle against attackers coming from any direction.

When they saw that no one was coming down to meet them on level ground, but instead our men were going right round them, occupying the whole circuit of the wall, they were afraid they would be cut off from all hope of escape. So they threw their weapons away and, rushing in a mass, made for the farthest parts of the oppidum. There some of them were killed by our troops as they were crammed together in the narrow gateways; others got out through the gates but were then killed by our cavalry.

None of our men stopped to think about booty; they were so infuriated by the massacre of Romans at Orleans, and by the efforts they had had to make over the siege, that they spared neither the old nor the women nor the children.

Of the whole population, which had numbered some 40,000, barely 800 got through safely to Vercingetorix; these people had rushed out of the place at the very first sound of the attack. Vercingetorix took them into his camp silently, late at night. He was afraid there would be a mutiny in his camp if they came in en masse and so aroused the compassion of the common soldiers. He therefore stationed his friends and the tribal leaders on the road some distance from his camp with orders to sort them out and see that they were conducted to whatever part of the camp had been assigned to each tribe at the beginning of the campaign.

Next day a council of war was called. Vercingetorix encouraged his people [...]. His speech was well received by the Gauls, especially because Vercingetorix himself had not lost heart after suffering so great a defeat, and had not gone into hiding to avoid being seen by his troops. He was thought to have shown particular foresight and intuition because, even before things became desperate, it had been his view first that Bourges should be burned, and later that it should be abandoned. And so, although most commanders have their authority diminished by failure, with Vercingetorix just the opposite happened - his reputation grew with every day that followed his defeat.

At the same time, through his assurances, the Gauls became optimistic about their chances of inducing the other tribes to join them. And then, for the first time, they set about building a fortified camp. They were unused to hard work, but had been so shocked by the experience of defeat that they thought they must put up with all they were told to do.

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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