Thursday, November 25, 2010

Caesar at Alesia: The ultimate victory. (Part II)

   Okay, so the Gallic tribes have realized they are being conquered through their own internecine bullshit. Caesar is riding their differences in captured gold all the way to high office. (He'd get JFK'd years later but he's riding high for now). The Gauls suddenly get their shit together and unite under a single leader. Vercingatorix, a man the French still cry onions over. He has mustered an army of 80,000 men with 15,000 auxiliary cavalry and forced Caesar to hurry back from Rome to Gaul to prevent his men (who are holed up in towns for winter) from being over run by this upstart. Vercingatorix has wisely cut off all means of forage and Caesar is naturally pissed off at this organized and effective resistance.
   Caesar meets up with his army. After a talk with his commanders he comes to the conclusion that it's time to rid the Roman world of the dangerous threat of Vercingatorix and his weapons of mass destruction ideological opposition to Rome owning all your shit. Caesar waits for summer, slowly consolidating an army of 40,000 Roman legionnaires, 5,000 Germanic cavalry, and another 15,000 auxiliary troops of one type or another cobbled from the surrounding countryside with promises of plundered shiny trinkets for all.

   It's time to march.

   Caesar's legions set out for Alesia, the hill fort town where Vercingatorix is known to be holed up.

   Roman armies marched. They did it well. That was their thing. It's one of the reasons they built so many roads. But we're still talking blisters and torn feet. True infantry. 50,000 men walking 20 miles a day carrying 90 pounds of kit. Still think your office job in a cubicle is shit? Yeah, it probably is, but marching 20 miles a day is no fun either. Baggage trains followed in the main army's wake, rolling up the siege equipment, provisions and the shitloads of minutiae it takes to keep a Yankee stadium amount of men alive in hostile territory in a time before Halliburton could overcharge you for it.

   To top this march off, each night the army would set up camp. That might sound like the time when you as a soldier get to crash out blissfully after your 20 mile march but no, there was still more work to be done. The Romans were pretty meticulous when it came to setting up camp in hostile territory. They had a system of fortifications they hauled around with them. Before crashing, the soldiers would first have to dig a 3 ft deep ditch all around the campsite and form a raised bank from the ditch outcast with a row of staves implanted on the top of the bank. This temporary fortification rectangled around the tents that were set up within a grid like pattern so everybody knew where everybody was in case of a night assault by the enemy. You gotta love the Roman military machine. That kind of hardcore war craft from two thousand years ago still brings a tear to the eye.
   Caesar marched on, capturing a few towns along the way, towns that Vercingtorix had taken from him in his popular revolt.

  By July, the hill fort of Alesia came into view of Caesar's legions. Finally it's time to settle this shit once and for all. Alesia is pretty much immune from direct assault. Sitting on top of a steep hill, it has decent wooden fortifications with parapets for archers and slingers. And, considering there are 80,000 angry Gauls inside, Caesar decides after a quick scan, that it's probably best to siege the town and starve Vercingatorix out. He wisely surmises that assaulting Alesia in a misguided dick waving attempt is probably not going to be Caesar's soundest policy at this juncture.

    Sieges have happened many times in military history. Medieval castle warfare and the Crusades have some fun examples of slow starvation and death by disease but nothing like Alesia. This was a war before its time. Before history books were written if you omit Thucydides and other Greeks. This is the stuff history is made of. Centuries later, around 800 AD, there were Saxons and Vikings and Franks digging up the remains of long buried Roman towns constructed after Alesia fell.
  What were they finding?
  Advanced technology like lead pipes, baths, hot running water, sanitation, aqueducts, stuff they didn't have in their own time or even understand the workings of. It'd be like us today digging up anti-grav technology in the Mohave desert and being told the Aztecs built it. That's how advanced the Romans were. The only example in human history where an archaeological dig can turn up artifacts more technologically advanced than those known to the diggers.
   So when Caesar decided to siege Alesia, it wasn't going to be just any siege, it was going to be the siege. No quarter would be given. Nobody would be allowed to cross those lines. And to ensure that nobody escaped his grip, Caesar pulled off one of the most amazing feats in military history and it all came down to a single word.

    Google it and notice how Alesia shows up.

   Caesar ordered his men to build fortifications around Alesia. But not just any fortifications. We're talking eleven fucking miles of fortifications. We're talking not just 15 ft high tree stump walls but also 15ft deep trenches dug out of the earth in front of these walls. We're talking watch towers built at regular intervals complete with Roman siege equipment. We're talking man traps in the trenches, pot holes with jutting sharpened stakes the ancient equivalent of barbed wire. Some of these trenches were even flooded with water diverted from the dual rivers on either side of Alesia. We're talking a feat of human engineering that people living today can't even comprefuckinghend.
   All this was done in a Roman three week building orgy.


   You jelly modern world? Truth is, we're so fucking soft in the industrialized world today that we've lost all touch with true human effort.

A recent reconstruction of Caesars defense works. A difficult pole vault at best.

   So three weeks pass. Alesia is surrounded now by Caesar's 11 mile long rampart and wall. Sometimes I wonder why Vercingetorix didn't just make a break for it with his entire force while he still had the chance. He did send out cavalry forays to disrupt the Roman wall building but met with only intermittent success. He probably convinced himself that Caesar's wall around his town was part of his own greater plan. He had Caesar where he wanted him Monty Python style. He could be forgiven for thinking Caesar was digging his own grave for what was to come later. Who wouldn't think they could handle a siege for long enough until the Gallic relief army arrived?

   Caesar writes in his Conquest of Gaul of how a few weeks into the siege the women and children were chucked out of Alesia so food could be saved for the warriors. In search of food they approached the Roman fortifications looking for mercy and safe passage to the outside. Caesar ordered his men to reject any claim no matter how tragic. He was seriously pissed off now. Alesia was to be the example to all future enemies that everyone gets to die without mercy when you don't do what Rome says. This was pretty hardcore because soon the ground outside Alesia and within Caesar's circumvallation started filling up with starving people and the child corpses began stacking, smelling like death and getting picked apart by birds. None of this can have been very good for Gallic morale.

   Caesar was feeling pretty good though and liking his chances of victory by this stage.
   During construction however, a few detachments of Vercingatorix's cavalry did manage to break through unfinished sections of the wall and make an escape to the hills. Something in Caesar noted these otherwise minor escapes. And I suppose that's what makes Caesar the military genius of the first century BC.  He knew those guys were off to tell all their friends that major shit was going down. Sure it was obvious. But in the heat of battle and the boredom of a siege sometimes it takes insight of a great commander to act on what you know. You err on the side of caution even if it's a major pain in the ass.
   So Caesar came up with a new idea sure to piss off any of his men who were hoping to chill for a while.

   "Contravallation". Google that too and you'll find Alesia all over again.
   Basically, it means building a whole new fucking wall, this time 15 miles long around the siege wall you just built that was 11 miles long. Caesar shits you not! He's so wary of that escaped cavalry and knowing the size of the potential army the Gauls could muster if they got their shit together, he decides it's the best plan. If that isn't one of the most daring actions in military history then I don't know what is. If shit is to go down, no matter how it pans out, Caesars army is safe in the middle. Right?

   Do the siegers become the sieged?

   Yes they do. Caesars hunch was spot on. A few weeks after that initial Gallic cavalry escape, just as Caesar's legions completed the second wall, a relief army of 250,000 angry Gauls appeared on the horizon. You read that right, two fifty not twenty five. From any rational point of view 60 thousand Romans are trapped between 80,000 Gauls in Alesia on one side and a 250,000 Gallic relief force on the other. Sure the numbers are probably skewed to hell by the time they make their way through the history books but one thing is for sure; Caesar was outnumbered big time!
   The first thing the relief army did was set up camp a mile or so away and assess the situation. Obviously, an attack was called for. Preferably a dual pronged attack, one emanating from Alesia itself and attacking the inner wall while a simultaneous attack on the outer wall was initiated by the relief force thus splitting the Roman Army. In early September this was tried with a cousin of Vercingetorix leading the relief army attack.
   The Gauls must have been a pretty fearsome sight charging the outer wall. They came equipped with ladders and sandbags, the latter to attempt to fill the trenches before the contravallation. However they were unsuccessful and after a day of fighting neither wall was breached by sundown. Still, Roman morale wasn't exactly high either. Food was being rationed by now among the legions and there were definite concerns as to how long this could go on. Personally, I'd be shitting myself and wishing I'd been born 2000 years in the future and reading about the siege on the Internet.

   The Gauls had another go the following day but this time at night. That would make the Roman artillery less of a factor since it's that much harder to accurately pick off men you can't see. The Romans were pressed hard. Caesar was forced to abandon some sections of the outer wall and it was only the quick action of the auxiliary cavalry that prevented shitloads of angry Gauls wreaking havoc inside the Roman camp. Meanwhile, Vercingetorix's men were held up trying to fill in the trenches before the inner wall, allowing Caesar to divert men to the more serious areas.

   The following day the relief force tried again, this time attacking a section of the wall that was particularly weak. This proved to be the Gauls last and best chance. Even Caesar's own writings convey the fact that he nearly shat himself. With Gauls poring through and pushing the Romans back, Caesar himself had to get his hands dirty. Seeing his men wavering he donned his bright red cloak and dived into the battle slashing like a lunatic (by his own account). Patton idolized him for this, a general who was willing to hack and slash alongside his own men.

   It must have been inspiring because Caesars men fought harder. Again though it was a rearguard cavalry action that saved the day for the Romans. After this most of the Gallic relief army said fuck this and went off home. Vercingetorix surrendered a few days later and was captured by the Romans. Caesar sent him to Rome in a cage, intending to parade him through the street at his triumph. This happened six years later. Must have been a rough stint in jail for those six years for Vercingetorix.
   Casualty figures are sketchy but the fact that the Gauls gave up means they were high. It is said that every Roman soldier got one Gallic slave as part of his booty. Centurions and commanders got more. So that's an impressive collection of prisoners to help you on that farm you get when you retire from the legion.

   After Vercingetorix's ignominious display as a trophy in Caesars triumphal parade in Rome he was executed in the customary way of captured leaders... tied to a pole and garroted by a twisting rope in front of a cheering crowd. One thing that's still true two thousand years later...

    Losing sucks.

    But it's how Caesar managed the win that blows my mind.



  1. Yo dawg we put a rampart in your rampart so you can siege while you siege!

  2. I like how you got the shit-your-pants-in-fear nature of ancient war down.

  3. Great post! Now do one about Adrianopolis. That´s my LEAST favorite roman engagement. It makes me so angry that they lost! I HATE Goths.

  4. Varus losing three legions in the Teutoburg Forest would be mine. That is my favourite Roman defeat by Germanic peoples. Varus was a total fool, a pencil pusher who never belonged in command. I love that old anecdote from Tacitus about Emperor Augustus tearing his hair out and wailing on getting the bad news.

  5. i like your style stranger. i read the conquest of gual, the civil war, i love dis shit. I'm glad someone with a sense of style does also

  6. Great read...Your style is ILL dude!! Have you ever done an article on Thermopylae?? (The battle, that is..)

  7. Stupid Gauls. They should have sat him out and make him attack or starve. Gauls were too impetuous. Too drunk. Too squabbly. Too dumbarse

  8. Yep, that's the French. Building their military reputation one century at a time.

  9. If you were my history teacher, I'd actually enjoy my classes.

  10. Perfectly casual history without going full-layman. Love your writing. Make sure you cash-in; theres a resource war going on.

  11. I like how you described the slaughter at Avaricum and Caesar's failure at Gergovia as "capturing a few towns along the way". Haha, I'm just joking. This is a great article for people already know the history and those who don't.

  12. Most entertaining account of the battle of Alesia I've ever read.