The Gallic Wars, Book VII

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52 BC: The Rebellion of Vercingetorix

When Caesar heard of the death of P. Clodius and of a senatorial decree that all Italians of military age were to be sworn in, he began enrolling recruits in Cisalpine Gaul. The Gauls, meanwhile, inventing a story that Caesar had been detained by political disturbances in Rome, began plotting another rebellion. The Carnutes took the lead and killed the Romans at Cenabum. Vercingetorix, of the Arverni tribe, whose father had been executed by other Gauls when he tried to make himself king of them all, quickly followed the Carnutes’ lead and began to stir up others. His uncle, Gobannitio, and other chieftains tried to stop him and expelled him from Gergovia but Vercingetorix won over the Arveri, drove out his opponents and was proclaimed king. He soon secured the support of all the tribes on the west coast who proclaimed him commander in chief.

A map of Gaul in the 1st c. BC, showing the relative positions of the Helvetii and the Sequani. (c) US Military Academy, Dept. of History.

With an iron hand, punishing those who did not comply, he demanded hostages, troops and weapons from each tribe and thus quickly raised an army which included the Bituriges; they had initially wavered and sought the help of the Aedui against Vercingetorix when he marched against them but, when the Aedui withdrew, they joined the rebellion.

Caesar was faced with the problem of how to rejoin his army as the various troops in winter quarers had been cut off by Vercingetorix. Firstly, he marched to Narbonne where Vercingetorix had sent Lucterius against the Ruteni and having left troops there and in surrounding districts, he advanced into the territory of the Helvii, adjacent to the Arverni, by crossing the Cevennes mountains. This took the Arverni by surprise as the mountain passes were blocked by snow but Caesar’s troops dug their way through. As Vercingetorix marched back towards Arverni territory, Caesar left, taking the opportunity to raise more cavalry at Vienne, then heading for the Lingones where two legions were stationed and finally sent word to his other legions to join him.

Hearing of this, Vercingetorix marched to attack Gorgobina, a stronghold of the Boii and under the command of the Aedui, Roman allies. Caesar had not expected this but sent word to the Boii to hold out until he reached them. On the way he successfully laid siege to Vellaunodunum, not wishing to leave any enemies in his rear and to facilitate the smooth movement of supplies. He then reached the town of Cenabum in Carnutes’ territory. Having captured, plundered and burnt the town that night as the townspeople tried to leave, he marched towards the territory of the Bituriges and laid siege to Noviodunum. While the inhabitants were surrendering, they saw Vercingetorix’s cavalry approaching in the distance and changed their minds. Caesar’s cavalry, reinforced by German horsemen he had with him, defeated them and they fled with heavy losses.

Vercingetorix statue by Frédéric Bartholdi, on Place de Jaude, in Clermont-Ferrand. (c) Fabien1309

Having secured the capture of Noviodunum, Caesar marched towards Avaricum, a Biturigan stronghold, as he thought its capture would ensure the capitulation of the whole tribe. After recent defeats, Vercingetorix decided he must drastically change tactics. Therefore, to cut off supplies from the Romans, he gave orders for the burning of their own and their neighbours’ villages and farms, forcing the Romans to forage farther afield where they could be attacked and killed more easily by his cavalry but, on the pleas of the Bituriges, saved Avaricum as it had natural defences. Having stationed guards here, Vercingetorix set up up camp sixteen miles away in a place protected by marshes and forests whilst Caesar encamped on the other side of the town and made preparations for a siege.

The Romans were close to starvation but refused to abandon the siege, instead advancing at night towards Vercingetorix’s camp to steal supplies. When the Gauls were warned of their advance and held a superior position, Caesar decided to withdraw as he did not wish to sacrifice large numbers of his men’s lives, willing though they were to fight. When Vercingetorix was accused of treachery for his actions by the other Gauls, he explained the reasons for his actions and convinced them, via prisoners he had captured, that the Romans were starving, would give up the siege within three days and retreat and they would have a great victory without having to fight. This renewed the Gauls’ trust in him and reinforced his leadership and they decided to send ten thousand men into Avaricum.

The Romans were constantly harassed by the Gauls undermining their siege works and raising their the height of their city walls as the Roman siege towers got higher and by the continuous rain but they overcame these obstacles to build, in twenty five days, a terrace three hundred and thirty feet wide and eight feet high, almost touching the enemy’s walls. When the Gauls set fire to this, fighting ensued as the Romans tried to put the fire out and move back the towers. The bravery of the Gauls was epitomised by one of them in front of one of the gates throwing flammable materials into the fire and, as he and subsequent ones were killed, another then another took his place until the Romans extinguished the flames. Having been warned of Vercingetorix’s intention to retreat, as they could not secure victory, which was then abandoned, Caesar completed the siege works on the following day and ordered his troops to scale the city walls, taking the enemy by surprise, who then fled to the gates. Only eight hundred from forty thousand escaped to Vercingetorix’s camp; the rest were massacred by the Romans.

Vercingetorix memorial statue at Alesia. (c) Myrabella

Despite this huge loss, Vercingetorix managed to retain the support of the Gauls by saying they had lost Avaricum because the Romans were superior in siege warfare but they would not be able to withstand the whole of Gaul once he had united all the tribes. Vercingetorix then quickly strengthened his forces, taking the unusual step of building a fortified camp, brought in archers and gained the support of Teutomatus, king of the Nitiobroges. Within a few days Caesar’s troops recovered from their exhaustion and lack of food and he was about to march against Vercingetorix again when he was called to Aedui territory to settle a dispute between two noblemen, Convictolitavis and Cotus, both claiming to have been legally appointed magistrate for the year. Caesar could not risk a civil war between them, especially as the Aedui were a powerful tribe, loyal to Rome, and the weaker nobleman might call on Vercingetorix for help.

Caesar quickly settled the dispute by ordering Cotus to stand down as he had been elected illegally. Caesar then ordered the Aedui to send all their cavalry and ten thousand infantry to be distributed at various points to protect his convoys. He then divided his army into two, with T. Labienus marching against the Senones and Parisii while he himself with six legions and the rest of the cavalry marched into Arverni territory along the River Allier towards Gergovia. Vercingetorix destroyed all the bridges across the river, prevented the Romans building more bridges and marched along the opposite river bank. Caesar, however, outwitted him by sending ahead all of his army except for two legions concealed in a wooded area near one of the destroyed bridges. When both armies had moved well ahead, he quickly rebuilt the bridge on the original piles, took the legions across, made camp and recalled the other legions. Vercingetorix was afraid of fighting the Romans in a pitched battle and pushed ahead with forced marches.

Caesar caught up with Vercingetorix five days later at Gergovia, a town situated on a high mountain and difficult to access. Caesar gained control of a steep hill opposite the town, dug a double trench which connected to his camp thereby providing easy movement between the two for his troops whilst the positioning of two legions restricted the movement of the enemy gaining supplies. A further complication for Caesar was the betrayal of Rome by Convictolitavis whom Caesar had recently supported.

The Battle of Gergovia, 52 BC. (c) A. von Kampen

Convictolitavis was bribed by the Arverni, by Litaviccus and his brothers in particular, to join with them since, if the Aedui abandoned the Romans, all the other Gallic tribes loyal to Rome would also join them. In command of ten thousand Aedui seemingly marching to help Caesar, Litaviccus persuaded them to change sides by lying that two of their leading citizens had been accused of treason and put to death by the Romans. He said it was only a matter of time before the Romans killed them too. It was only the appearance of these two citizens, Eporedorix and Viridomarus, alive that prevented the Aedui turning against the Romans. They surrendered to Caesar’s troops who had marched to meet them and begged forgiveness but Litaviccus escaped to Gergovia.

Meanwhile Caesar’s weakened camp had been attacked and was in danger of being captured before being relieved in the nick of time on Caesar’s return. A further problem for Caesar was that messengers sent by Litaviccus to Aedui territory saying that they were changing sides were believed and the Aedui began murdering Romans and plundering their goods. When the Aedui heard their army was in Caesar’s power they played a double game: they sent a deputation to surrender to Caesar whilst also secretly preparing for war and trying to gain support of other tribes. Caesar knowing what they were up to and fearing a widespread rebellion, was, however, conciliatory towards them but planned how to leave Gergovia and reunite his army without looking like he was fleeing in fear of a rebellion.

In the meantime, Caesar decided to attack a hill within enemy lines which appeared deserted, but lost almost seven hundred men in the ensuing events as his troops did not obey orders: the Gauls were engaged in fortifying a ridge so Caesar gave orders for a surprise attack on three of their camps which lay higher up, beyond a six foot high wall. These attacks were successful [Teutomatus only narrowly escaped] but not all the legions heard the recall and pursued the Gauls to the walls of Gergovia where they were at a disadvantage because of uphill fighting and subsequent tiredness and the arrival of more Gauls from the other side of the town building defence works. Caesar moved troops forward but circumstαnces [a sighting of the Aedui mistaken as being the enemy and the deaths of L. Fabius and M. Petronius and forty four other centurions] conspired against them and the Romans were driven back pursued by the Gauls until the tenth and thirteenth legions prevented further bloodshed and Vercingetorix withdrew.

Gold stater of Vercingetorix, Cabinet des Médailles.

Having heavily criticised the surviving troops’ disobedience and impetuosity, Caesar said the defeat was due to unfavourable terrain and not to their quality of fighting. When Vercingetorix refused to engage in fighting over the next two days, Caesar withdrew and marched towards Aedui territory, reaching the River Allier in three days and, having repaired a broken down bridge, he and his army crossed. Vercingetorix did not follow. Two Aeduans, Viridomarus and Eporedorix, came to tell Caesar that Litaviccus was trying to break the Aeduans’ loyalty to the Romans. Having been reminded of how much the Aeduans owed to Rome in terms of power and prestige, these two went to Noviodunum, where Caesar’s hostages and many supplies had been left. When they heard that Litaviccus and Convictolitavis had sent an embassy to Vercingetorix to negotiate peace and an alliance against the Romans, they massacred the garrison and merchants there and burned the town and then placed detachments along the Loire to try to force out the Romans through lack of supplies.

Caesar refused to retreat to the Province but, using forced marches, appeared suddenly on the bank of the Loire and the cavalry crossed without loss. Having given provisions to the army he marched towards Senones’ territory. Labienus and his troops, meanwhile, while approaching Lutetia, a Parisii town on an island in the Seine, were prevented from crossing the Seine by some Gauls under the command of Camulogenus. Labienus withdrew to Metlosedum, another Senones’ town on an island in the river, and having seized and lashed together fifty boats so that his troops could cross, the islanders were taken by surprise and surrendered. Labienus crossed to the other river bank and marched back towards Lutetia, which the Gauls then burnt and encamped on the river bank opposite Labienus.

In response to rumours of Caesar’s retreat from Gergovia, his return to the Province because of lack of food and the Aeduan rebellion, the Bellovaci, reputedly the bravest fighters amongst the Gauls, made preparations for war. Faced with these on one side, Camulogenus and his army on the other and separated from provisions by the river, Labienus faced formidable difficulties but overcame them by his clever leadership: leaving the least reliable troops in action in charge of the camp, he sent other troops downstream by boat while he and three legions marched downstream. At dawn the enemy, thinking the Romans were crossing in three different places in order to retreat from the Aeduans, divided their forces into three to counteract these. The seventh and twelfth legions with Labienus defeated the enemy’s right and left wings and then the seventh attacked from the rear. All the Gauls, including Camulogenus, were killed, after which Labienus rejoined Caesar.

Celtic warriors of the 3rd-2nd c. BC. (c) Angus McBride

The Aedui then sent embassies to other Gallic tribes to urge them to join them, using the hostages Caesar had left in their keeping as leverage. When, at their invitation, Vercingetorix visited the Aedui to plan their campaign, they claimed overall leadership but he refused to accept and the other tribesmen unanimously confirmed Vercingetorix as chief in command. He gathered cavalry forces at Bibracte, ordered the tribesmen to burn their crops to prevent the Romans getting their hands on them, built up his infantry forces, tried unsuccessfully to seduce the Allobroges from their allegience to Rome and sent a successful assault against the Helvii.

Caesar, meanwhile, supplemented his cavalry with reinforcements from tribes he had subdued in Germany and marched into Sequani territory and Vercingetorix set up three camps about ten miles away from the Romans. He encouraged his cavalry to attack the Romans on the march whilst they were hindered by baggage by saying the Romans were retreating from Gaul but would return stronger. After swearing an oath not to allow anyone who had not ridden twice through the enemy to return home, they divided into three sections, one on each flank of the Romans and one to bar their rear. Caesar divided his forces likewise and eventually gained the upper hand, forcing the Gallic cavalry to flee and be cut down. Cotus, Cavarillus in command of the Aeduan cavalry and Eporedorix were taken prisoner.

Siege and Capture of Alesia

Vercingetorix then withdrew and went to Alesia, a stronghold of the Mandubii, situated high on a hill and impregnable except for blockade, with Caesar following and, after killing three thousand of the Gallic rearguard on the march, he started to build around Alesia siege works ten miles in circumference with eight camps placed in strategic positions and twenty three redoubts which were guarded day and night.

Map of Caesar’s siege works at Alesia. (c) Muriel Gottrop

Whilst the building was taking place, the Romans were victorious in a cavalry battle on a nearby plain, killing many and forcing the survivors back to the Gallic camp and the arrival of the legions caused panic amongst those inside. That night, Vercingetorix sent the remaining cavalry back to their own tribes for reinforcements, demanding all men of military age should come to help him. He then rationed what provisions he had and brought all of his troops inside Alesia to await reinforcements.

Meanwhile, Caesar strengthened his siege works, digging a trench twenty feet wide and keeping other works behind this to prevent surprise attacks, two trenches fifteen feet wide, a palisaded rampart twelve feet high and towers at intervals of a hundred and thirty yards around the whole circuit. He also placed sharpened branches in the trenches to impale any attackers, and in front of these in pits three feet deep were sharpened logs, hidden by earth except for three inches projecting above ground, nicknamed lilies, and in front of these were blocks of wood a foot long with iron hooks in them. Caesar then built similar fortifications in a circuit of fourteen miles facing outwards to ward off any attacks from the outside and ordered all of his troops to provide himself with a month’s rations.

Reconstruction of the siege works at Alesia. (c) TimeTravelRome

The Gallic tribes decided not to send all men of military age, as Vercingetorix had demanded, but a percentage in accordance with the size of their tribe. The Bellovaci only sent one fifth of what was expected, wanting to fight the Romans in their own way. Commius, their leader, had been loyal to Caesar in the past but could not stand against the rest of the Gauls, who were determined to free themselves from Roman rule. Eight thousand cavalry and two hundred and fifty thousand infantry assembled in Aedui territory with Commius, Viridomarus, Eporedorix and Vercassivellaunus, a cousin of Vercingetorix in command and set out for Alesia.

When the Gauls in Alesia were despairing of reinforcements arriving and had run out of food, various opinions were expressed as to their next move, to surrender or make a sortie out of the town and attack the Romans. Critognatus, an Arvernian, was strongly against both these suggestions. He said they should remain in the town, endure hardship and, if necessary, follow the example of their ancestors in the war against the Cimbri and Teutoni by eating the flesh of those too young or old to fight. It was decided to send out of the town those unable to fight including the Manubians with their women and children, with cannibalism as a last resort. Caesar refused these admission to his camp as his men had barely enough food themselves and so they were left to starve.

Soon the Gallic reinforcements arrived and camped on a hill outside the Roman lines about one mile away, lining up their cavalry on the plain and their infantry on the slopes of a hill, in full view of those in Alesia, who came out of the town and prepared for an attack. Having lined up his infantry along the two lines of entrenchments, Caesar sent out his cavalry to fight the Gallic cavalry. Initially taken by surprise and receiving significant casualties from archers and infantrymen who had been placed among the Gallic cavalry, the Romans were finally victorious and the Gauls outside Alesia went back in.

Illustration of the Battle of Alesia.

The Gauls then launched a two-pronged attack, with the reinforcements attacking the Roman fortifications from the outside and driving the Romans from the ramparts while Vercingetorix led his troops out of Alesia. The Romans kept these at a distance but there were heavy casualties on both sides; however, the Gauls failed to overcome the Roman defences. After this second defeat the Gauls held a council of war and decided to attack with sixty thousand of their bravest men, under the command of Vercassivellaunus, a Roman camp guarded by two legions on a hill to the north which was not within the circuit of the siege works. The Gauls then simultaneously attacked this camp, the other camps and the Roman fortifications and the Romans found themselves under attack from every side. It was make or break for both sides. The greatest danger point for Caesar was the attack by Vercassivellaunus on his camp on the hill. When the Romans were weakening here, Caesar sent T. Labienus with six cohorts to help them whilst he himself moved among the troops encouraging and stressing the importance of victory on that day.

When the Gauls were unable to penetrate the huge fortifications on the plain, they stormed one of the ascents and dislodged those defending the towers. Caesar came himself with reinforcements and repelled the attack. He then went to help Labienus, clearly visible by his scarlet cloak to both the enemy and his own men and loud cheers followed. He sent cavalry to attack the Gauls in the rear while he attacked from the front. The enemy fled and many were killed by the cavalry in the rear, with only a few escaping. Vercassivellaunus was taken prisoner. When the rest of the Gauls saw this, they lost heart and recalled their troops from the rest of the fighting. If the Romans had not been tired from a long day’s fighting, they would have annihilated the Gallic army; instead a large number were killed or taken prisoner by the Roman cavalry and the survivors dispersed home.

Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, painting by Lionel Royer, 1899.

Vercingetorix surrendered himself to the Gauls to decide his fate. They handed him over to Caesar along with the other tribal chiefs. Setting aside the Aeduan and Arvernian prisoners in the hope of using them to regain the allegiance of their tribes, he distributed the rest of the prisoners as booty to his army, one to each soldier. The Aedui and Arverni surrendered and handed over large number of hostages and twenty thousand prisoners were restored to them. The legions were then sent to winter quarters, distributed among the tribes, and Caesar wintered at Bibracte. A thanksgiving of twenty days was celebrated in Rome when they heard news of his campaigns and victories. This was one of the most important campaigns and victories in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. The subsequent campaigns were ‘mopping up’ exercises in comparison.

Book VI Book VIII