Part 2, Vercingetorix and Battle of Alesia

Vercingetorix: Gallic Warrior, Pt. 2 Battle of Alesia

by Robert M Gunnİ
All Rights Reserved, by all copyright law exclusively to the author and İSkye-Net, RM Gunn

Part Two

Vercingetorix vs Caesar: Battle of Alesia

Victory and Defeat

Vercingetorix kept busy despite the victory. His spies were convinced that Caesar intended to withdraw into Gallia Narbonensis to clear passes in Northern Italy that were blocked by a Celtic tribe (Allobroges). Caesars forces, now receiving military support from some paid Germanic horsemen, were supposed to be on the march. To most Celts, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for ambush and victory. To Vercingetorix, it was a risk he would rather not take. But drunk with victory, his Celtic warriors would not be denied the chance, so they imagined, to wipe out the Romans. The best Vercingetorix could do was to persuade them to instead attack key Roman positions, forcing them to abandon their baggage trains -- contending it would be a much more effective tactic. What he was hoing to do is obvious -- to prevent his hot-headed Celts from charging headlong into Roman spears.

All of Vercingetorix's cautions were thrown to the wind, however, as the Celts forgot all of his instruction, charged at whatever was in front of them. All that they had gained by slow methods in the long guerilla war and from cautious ambush was in jeopardy. Caesar did not miss this opportunity.

[Celtic Horsemen by Wayne Reynolds] Allowing the Celts, in their battle furor, to engage the Romans in a pitched hand-to-hand battle, Caesar slowly began to encircle them in a pincer movement. Celtic confidence began to errode as their swords were shattered on Roman defences; Celtic temperament broke on Roman discipline. It was obvious that any hope for a quick victory was over. Suddenly, Celtic lack of discipline and frustration seized Vercingetorix's army. It began to disperse in disarray and retreat. Discouraged horsemen (pictured left) went in all directions as the Romans moved forward.

Although this again proved Vercingetorix correct, he was unable to make any capital from it as he had in the past. His army was scattered with no hope of reorganising. He began a hasty withdrawal -- and this was to be his fatal mistake - towards Alesia, where he and his army planned to hide behind its walls.


The Seige of Alesia

Caesar's "bulldozing legions", as one writer called them, were about to engage in one of their more famous constructions. It is a tribute to Vercingetorix's Celtic army that Caesar preferred to wall the Celts into the city rather than face a final battle. He opted for a wall that would surround the Celts hideout -- the city of Alesia.

The wall, verified by excavations in the 19th century, was estimated to be over 13 miles (22 km) long. He intended to completely surround the enemy to starve him out. It was an enormous construction that must have seemed insane to the watching Celts. Meanwhile, Vercingetorix made sallies against the constructors, harried their work efforts and made alliances with neighbouring tribes. He certainly was busy whilst Caesar concentrated his efforts on the wall. He ordered all his horsemen to leave whilst the wall was being constructed; return to their own tribes, make alliances and organise auxiliaries. Vercingetorix himself, stayed at Alesia.

Celtic War Horn
[Celtic Horn of War] None of this deterred Caesar. With single-minded determination and precision, he constructed the walls, displaying a zeal for perfectionism. The 18 foot ditch, found by excavators, was not the only one. Behind it was a second wall, a double one, filled with water from a nearby source. Then came a series of "man-traps" -- "iron calthrops, wholly buried" -- and carefully concealed holes in the ground, several feet deep and containing pointed stakes in the center that would easily impale. They were called "cippus" which is a combination of gravestone and pointed pillar. A third wall, far behind the others, was nine feet high and capped with tin and other breastworks. And parallel to it was another similar wall, but facing towards the exterior of the city, not inwards. It was 15 miles long. The total effect was not only of the enclosure of Alesia, but also of Caesars own army which surrounded it. It was constructed something like a layered cake: several layers (walls) and several areas of open space - a dead mans land - in between them, with the Celtic stronghold -- Alesia -- at the center.

It didn't take too long for the construction to have an effect: the Celts were running out of food. A war council was held to discuss options. Three ideas were obvious. One was surrender, but no-one actually felt Vercingetorix should, or even would be allowed by his Celtic comrades, accept this option at this point. Another option was to make an attack - a sortie -- on Roman positions, but this seemed like suicide. Third, to wait till the end, was finally agreed. But this decision was not made until a fanatic anti-Roman Celt, Critognatus, suggested an alternative option: to eat the old people and "lengthen their lives with the bodies of those too old to fight" -- not surrender. Vercingetorix didn't consider that option.

But he did make one that blackens his name. He (or a consensus) coldly recommended that the women and children be placed outside the inner walls -- the first set of walls that surrounded Alesia -- and left to their own devices. One likes to believe that he and the Celtic leaders felt the Romans would then take them, as prisoners or slaves, thus relieving the Celts of feeding them and burdening the Romans. But the end result is horrifying. The women and children, old and sick, were ordered out of Alesia. Where they were supposed to go no-one seems to have considered. In the midst of two opposing armies; in a no-man's land; in the out-of-doors conditions; they languished for days, making it as far as the outer walls before they might have known their fate. Asking the Romans to take them prisoner, so that they might get food, the women and children, old and young of Alesia, were rejected again. The Romans were ordered not to take in any extra mouths, for they were suffering from shortages of food almost as much as the Celts. The helpless and unwanted members of Alesia were left to die of exposure and starvation - one by one -- as both armies looked on from their respective positions.

Whatever standards we may judge this cruel and savage act by must be tempered by the reality that this was a different time and a different mind-set than any standards we might apply today. Technically, it does seems to have some merit, albeit heartless and cruel. Classical history if full of examples of unbelievable and inhuman cruelty of man against man, especially during times of war. It was also ineffective. The Romans, under Caesar's guidance, weren't about to be burdened with their enemies own people; they simply ignored the problem. It was shortly after this tragedy that the Celtic relief force showed itself.

Siege at Alesia - A McBride
[Celtic warriors] According to Caesar's exaggerated figures, about 250,000 Celtic tribesmen and 8,000 horsemen came to the relief of Vercingetorix. The layered walls Caesar carefully built now showed his genius. Placing his men, those on the outer walls -- on the inside now -- he was able to face the relieving forces and still keep Alesia surrounded. Not only that, but the walls served as tremendous protection from both Celtic fronts. It might be the only time in history that an army involved in a seige became a seige-target themselves and still maintain an advantage. It seems like Caesar must have forseen this and it makes his intentions -- genius or insanity -- seem all the more plausible.

The intial two attacks on the Roman's walls were viscous and brutal. The first attack came from a joint relieving force of Celtic tribes and was bloodily repulsed. Caesar had all the advantages. He didn't have to do the attacking, which would make easier targets of his men, and he could defend all fronts from behind these great walls. The second attack came at night. It would have probably succeeded in prying the Romans away from their protective walls had it not been for the traps. The pit-traps and calthrops impaled and maimed men and horses in sufficient numbers to slow down the forces. This allowed the Romans time to adapt to the shifting Celtic lines and to repel, this time with difficulty, the second wave of attacks. But it was not easy for the Romans who had to fight in many different places at once and were constantly unnerved by the "loud yelling that sounded in the rear of the attackers".

The Celts could still evoke fear and dread in their opponents, but it was not sufficient to deter the Romans. After five long days of continued fighting, the Celtic leaders met to decide a course of action. Vercingetorix, in a speech later described by Caesar and colourful Roman historians, sounds as if he is delivering lines in a play when he offers:

"I did not undertake the war for private ends, but in the cause of national liberty. And since I must now accept my fate, I place myself at your disposal. Make amends to the Romans by killing me or surrender me alive as you think best"
[Caesar, quoting Vercingetorix]

Vercingetorix surrenders
[Vercingetorix surrender himslef to Caesar]

Caesar goes on to describe that on the next day, Vercingetorix was "handed over" to him as well as some tribal chieftains.

The Greek historian Plutarch, born a century later, has it differently. He says that Vercingetorix put on his most colourful armour, had his horse carefully groomed and rode from his camp to Caesar. Once there, he rode a circle around Caesar, came down from his horse, removed all his armour and surrendered himself at Caesar's feet. Dramatic? Probably. But very Celtic in its romantic nature.

Whatever the exact truth, Vercingetorix did surrender to Caesar, and the revolt in Gaul was over.

Over the next few years the Romans played the role of administrator; one with which they were so familiar. They divided up the lands of defenseless Gaul. Most of it went to tribes that pledged loyalty to Rome. In just a few short years, it became a part of the Roman Empire and was never Celtic in its nature again. It became Romanised much as Britain would in the next few decades and century.

So many Gauls must have fled Gaul for southern and western Germany for a Celtic flavour was again in evidence in the area. Also, may tribes fled to the British Isles where the Romans would appear again shortly. Tribes that may have originally come through that land once, had returned many years later. Gaul ceased to exist as a Celtic nation.

The fate of Vercingetorix isn't a particularly inspiring one nor an eventful one. He was kept a prisoner, taken around as a 'show piece' from place to place, and was eventually given a reprieve from his humiliation only after six years.

It was during Caesar's triumphal procession, in 46 BC, that Vercingetorix, son of Celtillus, a prince of the Averni and leader of the Celtic resistance in Gaul, was ritually strangled before a crowd of Romans.

[Vercingetorix statue, France] Many writers have attempted to discredit Vercingetorix's memory by pointing out his pitiful demise. But this does a disservice to his memory, to all Celts, and most of all to history. Rome ritually executed hundreds, perhaps thousands of political enemies. The fact that Vercingetorix's was ended in this manner is no disgrace to him. It was part of the Roman Empire's legacy. It is part of Celtic lore....and, it is history.

Caesar held a tight grip on Gaul as did his successors. Any attempt at rebellion was met with terrible reprisal. Those Celts that did not flee to Germany did to Britain, or ceased to exist as a Celtic people entirely.

Caesar himself was executed (assassinated) in 44 BC. He outlived Vercinetorix by only two years. His memory has lived through history for eternity. Perhaps it is time we all remember the name of his foe -- Vercingetorix !

  • Vercingetorix - Menu

    İSkye-Net, R. Gunn, 1995/2009

    | Home | History Messageboard | Scottish Timeline | Scottish Battles | Awards | About |