Roman leader Caesar overcame his failure in Gaul through his own talent as a commander, the skill of his army, and a good deal of luck.
At the start of 52 BC, a rebellion that spread rapidly throughout much of Gaul surprised and wrong-footed Gaius Julius Caesar. Even though it was his seventh year in the region, he had completely misread the situation. His army was dispersed and vulnerable, and he himself was far away—south of the Alps—keeping an eye on the disturbed politics of Rome.
When Caesar had first intervened in Gaul in 58 BC, many of the tribes had welcomed him as a friend and liberator. Now all but a handful turned against him. Leading the revolt were chieftains he had promoted and rewarded, showing them both favor and friendship.
Gaul had never been a unified country. Many fiercely independent and mutually hostile tribes inhabited it, often riddled with bitter and sometimes violent rivalries between individual noblemen.
Yet during the winter of 52, almost all of those leaders and tribes joined to expel the Romans from their lands. It was a serious political failure that resulted in the greatest military problem Caesar had ever faced. The result was a savage war on a massive scale, war that would test the limits both of the Roman general and his army.
It is often said that Caesar was as much—or even more—a politician as he was a general. Sometimes the comment seems almost dismissive, as if his military skill deserves less recognition because his ultimate ambitions lay elsewhere. The Romans would not have understood the distinction, for the same men led the republic in peace and in war. In Rome political success brought opportunities for military command. Success in war gave a man glory and wealth, which allowed him to rise farther up the political ladder and, in turn, provided the chance for more senior army commands.
Caesar was no different in his basic ambitions from his contemporaries, save that he had both the talent and the determination to rise to the very top. The intimate connection between war and politics at Rome had another very important consequence. Roman governors had supreme civil and military power within their provinces. They also had virtually complete freedom of action, since the slow pace of communications ensured that the Senate could not hope to control events from Rome.
Some received specific instructions before they set out from Rome, and there were some legal restrictions on behavior, but there was no one to enforce those rules. A governor might have to answer for his actions after his post expired, but during his term of office he controlled military and civilian decision-making within his province.
Caesar was granted an especially large command when the three normally separate provinces of Illyria, Cisalpine Gaul, and Transalpine Gaul were combined. He also enjoyed the security of an unusually long term in the post—initially five years, later extended to ten. The scale of this appointment reflected the strength of his political alliances, which also ensured that he had even greater freedom of action than was normal. He raised new legions on his own initiative, doubling and later trebling the forces at his disposal, and only subsequently did he secure senatorial approval and funding for them.
Massively in debt after spending lavishly to climb the political ladder, Caesar arrived in his province in need of a successful and profitable war. It seems probable that his original plan was for a Balkan campaign, striking against the strong and wealthy Dacian King Burebista. In 58 BC, however, the Helvetii, a tribe from what is now Switzerland, tried to migrate across part of Transalpine Gaul. When Caesar repulsed them, the migrants took another route, crossing the territory of peoples allied to Rome, including the Aedui. Those Gauls complained of depredations, and Caesar as the proconsul of Rome felt it his duty to intervene and defend the republic’s friends.
Shifting his forces, he ruthlessly hunted down the Helvetii, defeated them and forced the survivors to return to their original territory. After that, he received pleas from the same allies along with other tribes for protection from the Germanic warlord Ariovistus. Another tribe had originally invited Ariovistus into Gaul to assist it in its struggle with the Aedui. He had not made any hostile act toward the Romans. Indeed, little more than a year earlier, Caesar himself had been instrumental in the Senate’s awarding Ariovistus the status of “king and friend of the Roman People.” That did nothing to protect Ariovistus now, for Caesar routed his army and drove him back east of the Rhine.
Caesar continued in the same vein in the following year, marching far away from his province to smash the Belgic tribes of northeastern Gaul. This followed another request for protection, in this case from a group allied to one of Rome’s existing allies. In time Caesar would take his legions throughout Gaul and beyond—in forays across the Rhine and over to Britain—defending Rome’s interests and those of her allies.
One of the main themes of Caesar’s famous War Commentaries was to show how each campaign was in the best interests of the republic. By Roman standards they probably were, even if Caesar interpreted his duty as governor far more robustly than governors normally did. The only known criticism of his actions involved an alleged—and probably real—breach of a truce in 55 BC. One of his bitterest opponents raised that issue in the Senate, even suggesting that Caesar should be handed over to the Germans for punishment, but the motion was never in danger of winning majority support. The Commentaries were most likely published a book at a time, each one written and released in the winter months after each campaign, all depicting the author as a distinguished and loyal servant of the republic. Caesar portrayed his actions in the most favorable light, but had little scope for outright deception. We know that his officers were in regular correspondence with friends and relatives in Italy, so any major distortion of the facts would soon have been exposed.
Readers most often remember the Commentaries for their detailed descriptions of the operations of Caesar and his legions, accounts that must have been even more inspiring to contemporary Romans, reading of the heroism of nostri, or “our men.” Yet from the beginning they also make it clear that all of the Gallic campaigns were firmly embedded within a concerted diplomatic and political program directed at the tribal leaders.
Each year, Caesar summoned all the chieftains to a general council, often more than once. There were also many personal meetings where he employed Roman citizens from the aristocracy of the Transalpine province as interpreters. Another source tells us that while traveling Caesar stayed in the houses of Gallic noblemen—gossip claimed that while there he also frequently seduced their wives and daughters.
Appeals from the leaders of the tribes provided Caesar with the pretext for most of his campaigns in Gaul. Allied tribes also helped to make his military operations possible, supplying troops (especially cavalry), intelligence, and most of all a great part of the food and fodder needed by Roman legions in the field.
After each victory Caesar took pains to create a viable political settlement, rewarding allied tribes. The Aedui in particular grew in power and influence. Caesar could be utterly ruthless in the pursuit of victory, but he clearly believed that it was more practical to be generous to defeated enemies after a campaign. For example, when he sent the surviving Helvetii back to their homeland, he arranged to provide them with food until they had reestablished their own farms and harvested their first crops. He even permitted the Boii, one of several groups that had joined the Helvetii migration, to settle in Gaul as a favor to the Aedui.
It was always the Roman way to turn defeated enemies into allies, and Caesar gives us one of the most detailed descriptions of how the process worked. After surrendering, the vanquished handed over hostages to him as a pledge of good faith. (No mention is ever made of their fate in cases where the tribe subsequently rebelled.) Caesar also expected the new allies to support future Roman operations with grain supplies and troops.
Caesar gave a few terrible examples of the price of resistance. He executed the council of elders of one tribe. In the main, however, he left the peoples defeated by his army to govern their own affairs in their traditional way, with little or no Roman interference.
Tribes like the Aedui prospered following Caesar’s arrival in Gaul. So did many individual leaders. The Roman governor was often called upon to arbitrate disputes between and within the tribes. His backing greatly augmented the power of the druid Diviciacus, making him effective leader of the Aedui for a number of years. In other tribes, Caesar appointed men as kings or senior magistrates, giving them honors and wealth, and backing them with military force when necessary. Inevitably, those aristocrats who failed to win his favor were forced to watch rivals being promoted over them, knowing well that this situation was unlikely to change as long as Caesar and his army remained in Gaul.
Diviciacus had a brother, Dumnorix, who had long vied with him for power within the tribe and had actively encouraged the Helvetii to migrate, since these allies would have greatly increased his own power. Caesar treated him with suspicion. Eventually Dumnorix was killed while “resisting arrest,” after fleeing from the Roman camp rather than accompany the expedition to Britain.
Men excluded from Caesar’s patronage were likely to resort to desperate measures to secure power within their own tribe. During the winter of 54-53 BC, several chieftains of this sort inspired a large-scale rebellion among the Belgic tribes, even seeking support from German war bands from beyond the Rhine.
The rebels enjoyed a stunning success when one of the lesser tribes lured a Roman garrison into an ambush and completely wiped out Legion XIV, plus five other cohorts. It was the first serious defeat Caesar’s army suffered, and he took an oath not to shave or cut his hair until the massacre had been avenged. This was an especially powerful gesture from the fastidious Caesar.
Roman vengeance proved both swift and brutal, and he spent much of the next year laying waste to the lands of the tribes involved in the rising. Caesar’s description did not attempt to hide the horror of these campaigns:
Every village, every house that anyone could see was put to the torch; captured cattle were everywhere rounded up; the wheat was not only consumed by soldiers and animals, but squashed flat by the heavy rain common at that time of year, so that if anybody managed to hide themselves in the meantime, it seemed that they were bound to starve once the army left.
Caesar created three new legions, so that 30 cohorts replaced the 15 that had been destroyed, in an effort to convince the Gauls that Roman manpower was endless. At the end of the year, he summoned the leaders of Gaul to the usual council, this time held at Reims. A dispute had broken out between two allied tribes, and Caesar decided that the chieftain Acco was responsible. He had Acco publicly flogged and then beheaded.
Caesar then left Gaul and traveled to the Cisalpine province to be nearer to Rome. This was his usual practice after each campaigning season, but the seriousness of the rebellion had kept him in Gaul the previous winter. These were extremely disturbed times at Rome, with electoral bribery rampant and organized political gangs violently clashing in and around the city.
While Caesar was away, leaders from throughout Gaul met in secret and spoke of rebellion. Most were men who had done well out of Caesar’s favor but now felt that his presence restricted them from further success. Chieftains were judged by the number of warriors in their household, but it was hard to maintain these retinues in peacetime. Caesar had ruled that the tribes could no longer raid each other, and he refused to tolerate any leader who seized power within his own tribe by force.
Loyalty to Caesar and Rome, which had served them well in the past, now looked less attractive. Many also came to realize that the Romans were in Gaul to stay, even after the reasons for their intervention had gone.
Most of the tribes of southern and central Gaul had never opposed Caesar. Tribes such as the Aedui, Sequani, and Arverni were the wealthiest and most politically united of all the Gallic peoples. Situated along the main trade routes from Italy, they had grown rich on the profits, and they had access to Mediterranean luxury goods. Although Caesar had “protected” them against the Helvetii and Ariovistus, these allies now had come to resent his presence. On the other hand, the arbitrary killing of Dumnorix and the brutal execution of Acco showed them the fate of anyone who lost the Roman governor’s favor.
The rebellion in the previous year had failed, but the initial annihilation of Legion XIV had shown that Gauls could beat the legions. The disturbances back in Rome seemed to make the time all the more opportune. At best Caesar might be unable to return, and at the very least he might not receive much support from Italy.
The outbreak began among the Carnutes when two chieftains led their retinues into the town of Cenabum (modern-day Orléans) and massacred the Roman traders living and working there. Vercingetorix, a young Arvernian nobleman who had been favored by Caesar in the past, followed their example. At first other leaders from his own tribe opposed him, but after gathering more warriors he was able to seize the tribe’s main center at Gergovia (near modern-day Clermont).
Vercingetorix proclaimed himself king, and many of the neighboring tribes swiftly answered his call to rise against the Romans. Soon he had formed a substantial army, on which he imposed a level of discipline previously unknown in Gallic warrior bands. It is quite possible that he had fought as an ally alongside Caesar’s legions. Certainly he had studied the recent campaigns and believed that he had discovered the Romans’ fatal weakness. Throughout the campaign, he would seek to avoid facing the legions in open battle, but would instead try to cut off their supplies and starve them into submission.
Vercingetorix began by attacking the Remi, staunch allies of Rome. Reports of this soon reached Caesar’s subordinate officers, or legates, but they took no direct action. They did ask the Aedui to send help, but that tribe had already turned lukewarm in its allegiance. The nearest Roman forces achieved nothing before swiftly returning home. Seeing that Rome had failed to crush the rebellion, more tribes openly joined Vercingetorix. He launched further attacks on Roman allies, as the revolt gained momentum, making the Romans appear weak.
By this time the news had reached Caesar, and he seems to have realized quickly that something major was underway. He rushed back north of the Alps in time to meet a raid into the Transalpine province itself. All his legions were farther north, but he raised local troops, managed to defend the province, and even launched a counterraid against the Arverni.
His men labored to clear a path through the snowdrifts in the Pass of Cevennes, and once they were through, the cavalry dispersed into small patrols that ranged widely, killing and burning where they could. They did minimal damage, but the nervous tribal leaders summoned Vercingetorix to their aid.
While the enemy was distracted, Caesar spread a false rumor that he was returning to Transalpine Gaul to raise troops. Instead he hurried northward to join his army as the ten legions came out of their winter quarters. It was a bold move, for he was traveling through potentially hostile territory with only some four hundred German horsemen for an escort. Even so, he thought it better to run the risk than wait for the army to join him.
Even reunited with his main force, Caesar’s situation was still extremely grim. It was before the normal campaigning season, and he had very little food available. Vercingetorix had recovered quickly, and now attacked the Boii. Caesar left two legions to guard his baggage and led the remainder against the main Gallic army, for he did not want the Gauls to believe he would not protect his allies.
The Romans captured one town, which contained some food stores and, just as important, sufficient pack animals to transport it. Moving on, the army reached Cenabum, which it sacked in punishment for the massacre of the Roman traders. Caesar moved on, satisfied that he had drawn Vercingetorix away from the Boii to defend his own allies. Yet although the Gallic army stayed a short distance away, its commander refused to be drawn into a battle, sticking to his strategy of starving the Romans into submission. The Gallic warriors were told that “private possessions must be disregarded, villages and houses put to the torch in all areas as far afield as the enemy foragers were likely to range from their main route of march.” Rather than offer shelter or food to the legions, inhabitants of twenty towns burned their own dwellings.
Avaricum was spared after its population begged to be allowed to defend it, confident in its strategic position and the strength of its walls. Caesar’s eight understrength legions—probably some twenty-five to thirty thousand men plus a few thousand auxiliaries—settled down to besiege the town, beginning work on a massive assault ramp they would use to bring a battering ram up against the wall.
Avaricum owed much of its prosperity to nearby iron mines, and the miners among the population began tunneling in an effort to collapse the Roman ramp. Other defenders launched sallies to burn it. Caesar tells of how one Gaul stood on the wall, hurling lumps of tallow and other combustible material down onto the ramp. A bolt fired from one of the immensely powerful, highly accurate Roman torsion catapults killed him. Another Gaul took his place, and then another and another, as fresh bolts shot down each in turn. This brave, almost suicidal effort continued until the sortie was repulsed.
The fighting was bitter, but Caesar’s bigger problem was the desperate shortage of supplies. He had sent repeated requests to the Aedui, asking them to provide him with grain, but virtually nothing had arrived. The Boii had shown more willingness to comply but lacked the resources to satisfy the army’s demands on their own. Vercingetorix remained nearby, harrying the Roman foraging parties but refusing to fight except from positions too strong for Caesar to attack.
There were still some cattle available, and for a while the legionaries had to subsist on a minimal ration of meat alone rather than their normal balanced diet. Caesar constantly toured the siege works, encouraging his men and even offering to withdraw if they felt that the shortages had become too severe. Their pride stung, the legionaries supposedly told their officers to tell the general that they could cope with any privations.
In twenty-five days, the ramp was nearing completion. The Gallic mine failed to bring the structure down, and the Romans blocked a subsequent attempt by the defenders to break out and escape. The ramp was finished on the twenty-seventh day, and Caesar ordered an immediate attack, believing that the heavy rain then falling would only add to the element of surprise. Storming a fortified position was always a dangerous enterprise, but in this case, the legionaries were in an especially grim mood. Reportedly: “Remembering the massacre at Cenabum and the labors of the siege, they did not spare the elderly, the women, and the infants. In the end from the whole number—about 40,000 people—little more than 800 who had fled the town at the first shout escaped to join Vercingetorix.”
The Romans would not have condemned Caesar if he had ordered this savagery to frighten other towns into immediate surrender, so it seems reasonable to believe that it was a spontaneous outburst from the troops. Normally the Romans took prisoners, since all would share in the profits from their sale as slaves.
As there was enough grain stored in Avaricum to meet the army’s immediate needs, the soldiers were given a few days’ rest to recover, and to allow the two legions and the baggage train to rejoin the main force. Spring had arrived, offering more opportunity to forage, and Caesar’s instinct was to press his advantage and continue the counterattack against Vercingetorix. An internal dispute among the Aedui threatened to split the tribe, however, and he was forced to ride to their lands to resolve it.
The lull gave the Gallic leader time to recover, while the failure of Avaricum to hold out helped convince his followers of the wisdom of avoiding direct fighting with the Romans. When Caesar returned he divided his army, sending four legions under his ablest subordinate, Titus Labienus, north to harass the tribes in the area of what is now Paris.
The proconsul himself took the remaining six legions and led them into the lands of the Arverni. Vercingetorix hovered nearby, sticking to his plan to harass the enemy but avoid battle. A deception plan sent the Gauls marching in the wrong direction and allowed Caesar to cross the Allier River and close the distance with the enemy. Vercingetorix immediately drew away, retiring to camp outside the hilltop town of Gergovia. He held a strong position and Caesar did not have the forces or supplies to mount a concerted siege. Withdrawing with the enemy so close would inevitably be dangerous, however, and even worse would involve a huge loss of prestige that would encourage more tribes to join the rebels.
There were signs that the Aedui were on the brink of breaking their alliance with Rome. Their leaders told a force of ten thousand warriors escorting a supply convoy that Caesar had executed the Aeduian noblemen already serving with the Romans. The soldiers immediately rebelled, torturing to death those Romans who were accompanying them.
Hearing of this, the proconsul rushed to the spot, bringing the Aeduian nobles he had supposedly killed. The warriors had another change of heart as their leaders fled. These fugitives prompted a similar rebellion by the entire tribe—and then an equally swift retraction when the tribesmen learned the truth. For the moment, the Aedui remained loyal to Caesar, but it was clear that the alliance with Rome was hanging on the weakest of threads.
Back at Gergovia, Caesar decided that he needed a token victory to allow him to disengage and rejoin the legions with Labienus. Feinting to draw off the main enemy strength, he then attacked the Gauls’ thinly defended camp outside the town. Several columns made their way up the ridge, with Caesar himself accompanying Legion X. The legionaries achieved complete surprise and easily overran the position—one Gallic king escaping half naked after being surprised in his tent. Caesar ordered the recall sounded, but only Legion X heard and obeyed the signal. The others pressed on through the camp and attacked the walls of Gergovia itself.
For a while it looked as if the Romans were about to win a spectacular victory. There were few defenders. Groups of women began to surrender, terrified of a repeat of the massacre at Avaricum. As the Gauls realized that they had been duped and began to return to the town and camp, however, the balance tipped against the Romans. Resistance grew, and the Gauls killed the few legionaries who had mounted the wall. The attack had never been properly coordinated, and no one was able to organize a proper fighting line to meet the new threat.
To add to the confusion, the Romans’ Aeduian allies suddenly appeared on their flank but were mistaken for hostile warriors. Caesar had ordered that those men keep their shoulders bare to show that they were friends, but in the heat of the moment and at a distance, the legionaries failed to notice that field sign.
The result was a rout. Catastrophic losses were only prevented because Legion X and other units brought up in reserve covered the retreat. Even so, Roman casualties totaled seven hundred men and no fewer than forty-six centurions. Those officers led from the front and usually suffered disproportionately heavy losses.
Caesar’s attempt at a token victory had turned into an embarrassing defeat. The consequences were soon apparent when the chieftains commanding the Aeduian auxiliaries with Caesar’s army asked permission to leave. The proconsul granted their request, reluctant to have men he did not trust in his camp. Almost as soon as they left, the Aedui as a whole erupted in rebellion, slaughtering the tiny Roman garrison and resident traders at the town of Noviodunum (modern Soissons). They also destroyed the vital grain supplies the Romans had been gathering there.
Caesar’s most important ally and his chief source of food had defected. After a bid to take command of all the rebel tribes, the Aedui grudgingly agreed to serve under Vercingetorix.
Caesar had lost the initiative and was now in a desperate position. He withdrew from Gergovia, shadowed at a safe distance by the Gallic army. Forcing the pace, he headed north and managed to unite with Labienus before the enemy could intervene.
The proconsul now had all ten legions—probably about 35 to 40 thousand men—and a few thousand auxiliaries, including some cavalry. However, allied tribes had always supplied the bulk of his horsemen; now he was left weak in this arm. To compensate, he hired German mercenaries from beyond the Rhine, giving them horses taken from his own officers because their own mounts were of poor quality.
Caesar now had a powerful and concentrated force at his disposal, but supply was still a major problem. In addition, news reached him of fresh raids on the Transalpine province, so he headed southward to be nearer to his bases there.
This further apparent retreat encouraged the Gauls, and Vercingetorix drew closer in his pursuit. He had far more cavalry than the Romans, and traditionally this was the arm of the Gallic aristocracy, famed for its bravery and horsemanship.
Divided into three groups, the Gallic cavalry struck at the head and flanks of the marching Romans. Caesar divided his badly outnumbered horsemen into three units, to match the enemy. Fighting with infantry in close support, the Roman cavalry was able to hold the Gauls at bay until Caesar’s German horsemen finally beat the enemy facing them, resulting in a rout that spread throughout the rest of the Gauls’ forces.
This was the smallest of successes, but its impact on the campaign proved massive. Caesar immediately abandoned any thought of retreat and instead advanced to attack the Gallic army. Vercingetorix retreated with the Romans in hot pursuit, and after a few days reached the town of Alesia. The stage was set for the final act.
Caesar claims that the Gauls had eighty thousand infantry and a large force of cavalry camped outside the walled town. It is never easy to know how accurate such numbers are, and it may well be that he exaggerated the figure. A solid wall surrounded Alesia, and the high ground on which it lay offered a strong position. Unlike at Gergovia, however, Caesar now had a much stronger force. It was also summer, making foraging easier—especially since the region had not seen heavy campaigning up to that point. Caesar resolved to blockade the enemy and set his legionaries to constructing massive fortified lines. Archaeological excavation has shown that the description of these lines in the Commentaries is sometimes simplified but still remarkably accurate. Caesar’s troops built a rampart some eleven Roman miles long surrounding Alesia—the line of circumvallation—strengthened by twenty-three forts.
The proconsul was aware that Vercingetorix had sent for help, and knew that before long a relieving army would arrive. He therefore built a second line facing outward—the line of contravallation—which was longer than the first line at fourteen Roman miles. In front of both, the soldiers dug ditches, flooded where possible, and placed lines of stakes and other obstacles.
Caesar claimed that the relieving army consisted of a staggering quarter of a million infantry and eight thousand cavalry. Once again he may well be exaggerating—it is hard to see how he could have arrived at a precise figure, when even the Gallic chieftains are likely to have been unsure. Even so this was a massive effort, made by most of the tribes. It was probably the largest Gallic army ever put into the field.
The clumsy movement of the force and the difficulty it had staying in the field for a long time add to the impression that the army was very large indeed. Offsetting its numbers, however, an army of this sort must inevitably have only had a small minority of skilled warriors. Most would have been poorly equipped levies whose enthusiasm might prove fleeting.
Whatever the precise figures, the combined forces of Vercingetorix and the relief army likely greatly outnumbered Caesar’s. In addition, his troops now had to subsist largely on the food they had gathered before the new army arrived.
Vercingetorix, however, was also running low on supplies. As a desperate measure, he expelled all the inhabitants of Alesia who were unable to fight. Perhaps he expected the Romans to let them through their lines. If so he was disappointed, as Caesar matched the Gaul’s ruthlessness and refused to admit them. The already savage campaign reached new levels of horror as the unfortunate townsfolk were left to starve between the lines.
The two Gallic armies, unable to communicate directly, launched a series of heavy, if not quite coordinated, attacks on the Roman fortifications. All were repulsed, although in several cases this was by the narrowest of margins.
The culmination came in a day of massive assaults, the heaviest coming from the relief army against the camp that was the weakest position in the Roman lines. The camp was overshadowed by higher ground, as it would have taken too much effort for the Romans to include the heights within their lines. Two legions held the camp, but when the main attack was launched at noon these came under massive pressure.
Caesar sent Labienus to take charge, giving him six cohorts to bolster the garrison. Moving to a vantage point that gave him a better view of the areas under threat, Caesar sent reserves and senior officers to plug gaps in the line. The Gauls broke into the fort, but Labienus managed to hold them by forming a line inside, adding eight more cohorts to his existing forces.
Labienus’ men were barely holding their own, and Caesar decided to lead the last available reserves in person. He divided them, bringing some between the two Roman lines and sending a body of cavalry outside to hit the enemy in the rear. According to the Commentaries, his
…arrival was known through the color of his cloak, which he always wore in battle as a distinguishing mark; and the troops of cavalry and the cohorts which he had ordered to follow him were also visible, because from the higher parts of the hill these downward slopes and dips could be seen. Then the enemy joined battle: both sides cheered, and the cry was taken up by a shout from the men within the fortifications and rampart. Our troops threw their pila [iron-tipped throwing spears] and got to work with their swords. Suddenly [the Gauls] spotted the cavalry behind them; other cohorts approached. The enemy turned around and were caught as they fled by the cavalry; and a great slaughter ensued….74 captured war standards were carried to Caesar; very few of this vast host escaped unscathed to their camp.
The next day, the Gauls admitted defeat. The great relief army dispersed to its homes, and Vercingetorix rode out to surrender. Caesar had won a remarkable victory, but he knew that the peace would only be lasting if he could put together a viable political settlement. From the first, his treatment of the tribes reflected this.
Vercingetorix could expect no mercy, for tradition dictated that an enemy leader be ritually strangled at the end of a Roman triumph. However, Caesar treated Vercingetorix’s own people—the Arverni—as well as the Aedui generously. He did not sell captives from these tribes into slavery like other prisoners, nor did he direct reprisals against any of their communities.
This was not true elsewhere. On December 31, 52 BC, Caesar led the first of a series of punitive expeditions against other tribes involved in the rebellion. These lasted for much of the next year and culminated in the siege and capture of the town of Uxellodunum. The warriors who surrendered there had their hands cut off. They were then released, as visible reminders of the price of opposing Rome.
Caesar met open resistance with overwhelming force, but he spent much of his time in a concerted diplomatic effort. One of his staff officers, writing later of the years 51-50 BC, stated that “Caesar had one main aim, keeping the tribes friendly, and giving them neither the opportunity nor cause for war….And so, by dealing with the tribes honorably, by granting rich bounties to the chieftains, and by not imposing burdens, he made their state of subjection tolerable, and easily kept the peace in a Gaul weary after so many military defeats.”
The ultimate aim was to create an acceptable peace, more attractive for the Gauls than to resort again to warfare. Caesar was strikingly successful. When the civil war began in January 49 BC, he was able to take almost all of his army away from Gaul. The settlement he had created remained secure even after his murder five years later. We know of only one minor rebellion by an individual tribe during those years.
Caesar Augustus experienced more widespread trouble, although not comparable to the great rebellion in 52 BC, Julius Caesar’s conquests in Gaul would remain part of the Roman Empire for more than five centuries. His success was based as much on careful diplomacy as it was on military skill and strength. Many more recent imperialists, such as Sir Arthur Wellesley in India, found this equally true. Rarely does any imperial power have enough troops to hold down large, well-populated countries by force alone.
The Romans habitually relied on the provincials to govern themselves in all of their day-to-day affairs. Therefore, it was normal practice to win over the rich and powerful, making it in their interest to remain loyal to Rome. Eventually these aristocrats would gain access to the comforts of the civilized world, such as luxurious villas with central heating, tiled roofs, and glass in the windows. More immediately, those men retained their local dominance. In time their descendants might gain citizenship and enjoy a distinguished career in Roman service. A century after Caesar, Rome admitted a large number of Gauls to the Senate.
It is always tempting to see parallels between the modern world, such as in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the ancient past. Yet the circumstances are most certainly not identical. Caesar did not go into Gaul to create a stable democracy but as a conqueror, seeking advantage for himself and the republic. Nor, of course, did he have to deal with the muddled command structures inherent in coalition warfare, have the Senate or any one else at Rome in direct, real-time communication with him, or still less suffer the attentions of twenty-four-hour news stations. Caesar had sole authority and complete control over military and political planning.
The world and its attitudes have changed a great deal since the first century b.c. However, there may be one rather more encouraging lesson to be learned from Caesar’s success. At the beginning of 52 b.c., he completely misread the situation in Gaul, failing to see that even most of his allies were uniting against him. That political failure led to a military crisis. Caesar overcame this through his own talent as a commander and the bravery and skill of his army, combined—as he was always the first to admit—with a good deal of luck. It was a very close thing and could easily have ended with his defeat, and quite possibly his death.
The victory won, Caesar had the political skill to follow it up with a lasting settlement, and turned Gaul into a stable province of Rome. Few commanders throughout history have possessed the remarkable range and degree of talents combined in Julius Caesar, but it is also fair to say that many of his greatest successes came in getting himself out of tight spots of his own creation.
His example shows that it is possible for leaders to recover from apparently bleak situations. It requires effort, resources, and imagination. But the first step is that those leaders—if only to themselves—admit their own errors and then devise a new solution.
British historian Adrian Goldsworthy has written numerous books on Rome. His most recent works include In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire (Orion, 2003), The Complete Roman Army (Thames & Hudson, 2003), and Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale University Press, 2006).
This article by Adrian Goldsworthy was originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of MHQ Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ magazine today!