Caesar on the Siege of Bourges

Gaius Julius Caesar (13 July 100 - 15 March 44 BCE), Roman statesman, general, author, famous for the conquest of Gaul (modern France and Belgium) and his subsequent coup d'état. He changed the Roman republic into a monarchy and laid the foundations of a truly Mediterranean empire.

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 Avaricum (modern Bourges), an important Gallic stronghold.

Caesar has described the siege in his Commentaries on the war in Gaul, book 7, chapters 14-30. The translation is by Anne and Peter Wiseman.

[7.14.1] Vercingetorix had now suffered a series of setbacks, at Vellaunodunum, Orleans, and Noviodunum.

[7.14.2] 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.

[7.14.3] This would not be difficult, he said, because the Gauls were strong in cavalry and the time of year was in their favor.

[7.14.4] 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.

[7.14.5] 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.

[7.14.6] 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.

[7.14.7] Not so the Romans, who would either starve or have to take the great risk of venturing too far from their camp.

[7.14.8] 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.

[7.14.9] Vercingetorix proposed that they must also set fire to any oppidanote 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.

[7.14.10] 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.

[7.15.1] This proposal was approved unanimously, and in a single day more than twenty towns of the Bituriges were set on fire.

[7.15.2] 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.

[7.15.3] The Bituriges fell down at the feet of all the other Gauls, begging not to be compelled to set fire with their own hands

[7.15.4] to what was perhaps the most beautiful town in the whole of Gaul, at once the pride and the chief protection of their people.

[7.15.5] 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.

[7.15.6] 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.

[7.16.1] Vercingetorix then followed my march by easy stages and chose for his camp a site protected by marshes and forests, some twenty-four kilometers from Bourges.

[7.16.2] There he was hourly informed by a well-organized system of patrols of what was going on at Bourges, and gave appropriate orders.

[7.16.3] 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.

[7.17.1] 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.

[7.17.2] 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.

[7.17.3] 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.

[7.17.4] But even so, no one uttered a word that was unworthy of the greatness of Rome or of the victories they had already won.

[7.17.5] 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.

[7.17.6] 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,

[7.17.7] and they would rather endure any hardship than fail to avenge the Roman citizens who had been killed at Orleansnote through the treachery of the Gauls.

[7.17.8] They made these same feelings known to the centurions and military tribunes, with requests that they should pass them on to me.


[7.21.2] The Gauls decided to choose 10,000 men from their combined forces and send them to Bourges.

[7.21.3] 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. 

[7.22.1] 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.

[7.22.2] 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.

[7.22.3] All along the entire wall they had built storied towers and had covered these with hides.

[7.22.4] 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.

[7.22.5] 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.]

[7.24.1] 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 twenty-five days they raised a siege-terrace a hundred meters wide and thirty meters high, and this almost touched the wall.

[7.24.2] 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;

[7.24.3] the enemy had dug a tunnel underneath and set it on fire.

[7.24.4] 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.

[7.24.5] 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.

[7.25.1] 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.

[7.25.2] 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.

[7.25.3] 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.

[7.25.4] 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.

[7.26.1] Having tried everything, but without success, the Gauls decided next day to escape from Bourges, at the urgent insistence of Vercingetorix.

[7.26.2] 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.

[7.26.3] 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.

[7.26.4] 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.

[7.26.5] This frightened the Gauls into abandoning their intention - they were afraid that our cavalry would seize the roads before they could get away.

[7.27.1] 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.

[7.27.2] 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.

[7.27.3] The soldiers suddenly darted out from every point and quickly got control of the wall.

[7.28.1] 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.

[7.28.2] 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.

[7.28.3]  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.

[7.28.4] 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.

[7.28.5] 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.

[7.28.6] 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.

[7.29.1] Next day a council of war was called. Vercingetorix encouraged his people [...].

[7.30.1] 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.

[7.30.2] 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.

[7.30.3] 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.

[7.30.4] 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.