Someone asked me the other day:
"What's your favorite ancient battle?"
Nine times out of ten I'll say it's Caesar at Alesia. The sheer will Caesar displayed to pull off that victory blows my mind. It's like my war porn. It bypasses reason and goes straight to the reptilian brain and sets up camp there spitting out hormones and shit. Even the way that name rolls off the tongue makes me get all misty and secrete man tears. Kinda like Caesar himself when he wept staring at Alexander's statue in Spain. Caesar was 54 and cried because Alexander had captured all he had by 29. That's bad ass ambition right there. If that was the seminal moment that sparked Caesar's conquest of Gaul, in pursuit of the long dead but younger Alexander's military legacy, well he sure as shit bit off as much as he could possibly chew when he laid siege to the town and hill fort of Alesia in 52 BC.
Alesia is the most awesome battle in military history. Certainly as far as ancient war goes anyway. I mean, usually I'm big on modern battles with tanks, air superiority, cool blitzkrieg moves and all that fun stuff. But since my dream war never actually happened, you know, that Fulda Gap NATO versus Warsaw Pact 80s slug fest on sap green European terrain; the three million tank rush into West Germany that never happened. And, I suppose, thank dog it never did happen because I wouldn't be here today writing about it if it had. I'd be too busy bashing in my neighbor's brain with my improvised club for his non irradiated water in that hypothetical 'sticks and stones WW IV' that Einstein warned about.
Still, ancient war has a lot of cool things going for it. Especially Roman warfare. The 1st century BC Romans were a lot like 1941 era Germans; scary bastards with the best army on earth, novel tactics and loads of cool equipment. In the Roman case we're talking siege equipment that nobody else had, ballistas, scorpios and onagers. Caesar had a whole baggage train of this advanced tech with him by the time he rolled up on Alesia.
The Romans themselves were shorter men than their Gallic enemies, squat and tan and decidedly Mediterranean on the cold damp foreign terrain of northern Europe. Kinda like Sylvester Stallone versus Brian Dennehy's men in First Blood. The Gauls were tribal Iron Age mad fucks with large Cro Magnon skulls, long hairs who wore bear skins and wielded battle axes and broadswords with their testicles hanging out. They were pretty fearsome but Roman discipline was key and their tight formations meant the Romans could defeat superior numbers of these lunatic alcohol frenzied Gauls who tended to charge in waving their dicks instead of using their brains. You know, the type of French dudes that might have been more useful in the Ardennes in 1940.
Caesar was an interesting character himself. Thousands of history books will confirm that. But anyone who's read his memoir and his own account in his Conquest of Gaul will know that he refers to himself constantly in the third person in his own book. Ballsy style. "So what if I come off like a self righteous asshole," he seems to say to history. It's like he knew there'd be centuries of people jizzing on his badassery for years to come:
"he raised a rampart and wall twelve feet high; to this he added a parapet and battlements, with large stakes cut like stags' horns, projecting from the junction of the parapet and battlements, to prevent the enemy from scaling it, and surrounded the entire work with turrets, which were eighty feet distant from one another."
That's Caesar talking about himself ordering his men to build the greatest logistical work of all time at Alesia. When you read about Alesia, it makes you realize that every Roman soldier was automatically a carpenter by default. Their ability to build was unparalleled. Antlike hive mind determination. It also makes you wonder why 10 years after 9/11 ground zero is still a construction site. If Caesar were running the US today those twin towers would have been rebuilt a year after they'd collapsed, ten stories higher than the tallest building on earth and with a 1000 square foot "fuck you" banner fluttering in high winds above New York City. That's just how Caesar rolled and an example of how badly modern leaders suck.
But let's set the scene for this historical battle.
Caesar invaded Gaul when the Romans only owned the Italian peninsula, Greece and a chunk of Spain. Caesar was a hungry general. He was the kind of guy you could get behind if you were a young man in 55 BC. Joining his army if you were a plebeian who could handle himself in a scrap was a seriously cool career choice for a young man. It seriously beats working in some grey cubicle in some call center or fast food job today. Caesar was successful because all of his soldiers stood to make some serious bank if they could deliver victory. Incentive. Unity of purpose. Comradery. Shit you just don't get in the modern office environment.
And lets face it, marching into enemy territory as part of a large unified group of your peers with a high possibility of significant reward and a secured retirement of land in Italy when you retire after 20 years of service is a pretty good deal. Sure, you might die, but hell it's better than the paltry college education the US military doles out to kids today. Degrees these days are about as valuable as 'yes I can do the jerb" written on a piece of toilet paper. I'll take that spoil money from Gaul and a farm when I'm forty any day over a scribble that says I can push pencils.
As he invaded Gaul, Caesar would grab territory by force if necessary but by diplomacy preferably. You see we're dealing here with a world before nation states. Kinda like the native American tribes in the 18th century. Gaul was ripe for the taking by the Roman legions just the way the New World was by the Europeans and the money to be made in the process was legendary.
The usual practice was to war in the spring and summer and then as winter closed in fortify your army in a stronghold (having made sure you'd secured adequate grain supply for winter). Caesar would then head back to Rome and start greasing palms with all that newly acquired bank, buying public support via exposure, subsidies and sponsored games. Kinda like a one man Fox News of the ancient world.
Alesia proved different.
The Roman encroachment of Gaul had been going on for years by now and the Gauls were beginning to realize that Caesar's divide and conquer tactics and their own failure to unify as a single entity of Gauls against the Romans was their collective downfall. What they needed was to coalesce behind a charismatic and unifying leader. The Gauls needed someone to step up to the plate who the various Gallic tribes could agree to get behind.
And then Vercingetorix appeared on deck.
The modern French still get as misty eyed over this guy as if you'd airdropped a million onions into the room. He's the French hero of antiquity, he who stood up to the tyranny of the Roman invasion. It'd be analogous to how the native Americans would have worshipped Geronimo if they'd ever had the hypothetical independent states they might have owned if they hadn't been overwhelmed by greedy invaders and reduced today to harvesting the stupidity of people who think they can walk away from a casino with a net profit.
The French love Vercingetorix. He was the charismatic leader of the Averni tribe and once the Gaulish tribes were united behind his leadership, they could field some serious infantry. We are talking hundreds of thousands of seriously pissed off angry drunk guys united under a single banner. The Roman legions under Caesar were at most a forty thousand strong force.
Vercingetorix noticed how Caesar would leave every winter for Rome with his army holed up in a stronghold. He decided on a new tactic in 52 BC. It was going to be a scorched earth campaign. Vercingetorix might me the first recorded commander in history to realize that time proven valid military tactic that has lasted all the way to modernity. Burn those fields behind you as you retreat! The Russians knew this very well in 1812 and 1942. Destroy that grain supply behind you as you run like a bitch.
Suddenly, Caesar had to interrupt his political intrigues in Rome. Shit had suddenly got real in Gaul. A challenger had arrived. Caesar raced back to his legions, using multiple horses like Maximus in Gladiator. When a challenger appears, you need to get on that shit fast lest the idea spread too far and all that gold and land your army has acquired begins to crumble.
That's the beauty and terror of warfare and human conflict.
A single action can be so decisive. A single victory on a single day due to multiple random circumstances and incorporating shitloads of luck, can echo down across history for thousands of years. Wow, it's the thought that makes me fall into a philosophical reverie and makes me go out and look at the stars. The temporary nature of this existence. What men have done in the past and how cheaply they sacrificed their lives in search of an acre of land. Here's me, alone in the dark at my computer, wondering what it would have been like to be part of Caesar's army at Alesia as opposed to being a lazy armchair general munching pretzels and downing beer.
Caesar is concerned but not intimidated. ( According to his own account obviously). Caesar knows that the hill town fort of Alesia is critical. He knows that the capture of this town is a simple route to breaking the Gauls. It's kind of like one of those battles in history where you always wonder what if? If Bastogne had fallen to the Germans in '44, would the Tigers and Panthers have made it to the Belgian coast and captured those oil reserves and ports like Hitler planned? If Vercingetorix had managed to wipe out Caesar's legions, would the Roman Empire have risen as it did to encompass most of Europe and North Africa?
"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there".
Alesia was the last stand the Gauls had to make.
The greatest siege in history must now happen!
(Part II here)