Caesar’s Greatest Victory: The Battle of Alesia, Gaul, 52 BC, by John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville, Casemate Publishers, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2016, $32.95
“There were a large number of reasons, of course, why the conflict at Alesia became famous: It was the occasion for deeds of daring and skill the like of which have never been seen in any other battle.” So wrote Plutarch, perhaps the greatest of Julius Caesar’s ancient biographers, of the 52 BC siege of Alesia (near present-day Alise-Sainte-Reine in central France).
Facing Caesar was the huge army of Vercingetorix, the ruthless Gallic leader who had burst on the scene after the recent assassination of his father, Celtillus. The subsequent rebellion against Roman rule triggered warfare on a scale and intensity not previously witnessed in Gaul. Within a matter of days his followers torched more than 20 cities to deny them and all they contained to the Romans.
One remained intact: Avaricum (near present-day Bourges), which stood on a prominent spur surrounded by marshes. The Romans besieged it, and when they ultimately breached the defenses, the legionnaires engaged in a ruthless slaughter. According to Caesar, the death toll reached 40,000 with only 800 making their escape. Among the survivors was Vercingetorix, who resolved to rally the whole of Gaul, for only such an unprecedented effort would drive out the Romans.
Vercingetorix made his stand at Alesia, considered a second Troy, such were the formidable defense lines surrounding the plateau. The authors suggest the Gallic commander sought to weaken the Roman forces through ambush, skirmishing and siege work. Masterly tactics, though not masterly enough, as Caesar, having seized a hill that threatened the defenders’ water supply, ultimately gained his victory—justly counted among history’s most remarkable feats of arms.
The casualties numbered in the tens of thousands. Vercingetorix surrendered and languished in prison for six years before his captors quietly strangled him. He remains a legendary figure in French military history and is memorialized near Alise-Sainte-Reine with a statue commissioned by Napoléon III. A visitor center overlooks the battlefield (one of three proposed sites, anyway), but those seeking a primer on Alesia need look no further than this excellent book.