This year marks the 2069th anniversary of the Battle of Alesia, a critical final battle in the Gallic Wars between Gaul and Rome with both sides spearheaded by Vercingetorix and Julius Caesar. Over two millennia later, we cast the War Spotlight on a clash between two commanders featured in Total War: ARENA, climaxing with Caesar’s incursion to an ‘impregnable’ city to crush a rebellion and expand his empire.
The Gallic Wars raged for six years from 58BC to 52BC, with the military power of Rome and Gaul a fairly even match. Divisions between Gallic tribes held Gaul back from ever truly rivalling the might of the Roman Empire, and Vercingetorix knew this. As the Carnutes rebelled in Gaul, Vercingetorix rallied the other chiefs in an effort to convince them to join him, travelling around Gaul to gather up the tribes and forge an army. He was incredibly passionate and sought only the most zealous of followers to join him, with those of a wavering devotion or disposition punished with maiming and dismemberment.
When Roman Emperor Julius Caesar heard about the growing rebellion, he set out for Gaul to crush it. Arriving and joining up with his legions, they ploughed through overwhelming amounts of snow in the Cevennes mountains to launch a surprise attack on the Arverni, who previously considered the snow a near-impenetrable defence. Vercingetorix caught wind of Caesar’s arrival, and the two commanders engaged in their first skirmish outside Noviodunum, with Vercingetorix setting his cavalry upon Caesar to great effect. Though Vercingetorix held the upper hand throughout this first engagement, Caesar reinforced his own cavalry with the addition of 400 German horsemen, overpowering the Gallic warriors and securing the first victory.
Vercingetorix would go on to change his entire campaign. Setting his sights on starving out Caesar and his men, he was willing to kill any Romans spotted gathering hay and foraging food and provisions. Not only this, but towns that were seen as expendable were burned to the ground to deprive Romans of provisions through looting, with neighbouring tribes following Vercingetorix’s suit. When his axe was prepared to fall on Avaricum, the people of the town pleaded with him to spare it, and so he began working on the defences and established a camp 16 miles away.
Caesar’s next move was to march on Avaricum, capture it, and thus secure the submission of the Biturigan tribute. The Romans arrived at Avaricum, and with Vercingetorix’s starving tactics in play, found themselves without grain for several days and being forced to kill cattle and eat more unsavoury foods. Caesar addressed his legions and vowed to call off the siege if the conditions became unbearable. His soldiers, however, pleaded with him not to do so, so that they may have the opportunity to avenge the Romans who fell victim to the Gallic rebellion.
The Romans built a terrace 330 feet high so that their siege towers could reach the wall, with the defenders making several attempts to burn this down. Following some heavy rain, Caesar seized an opportunity to minimise his losses and exploit the failings of Avaricum’s guards, who took shelter from the elements and left the wall undefended. Taking the walls without a fight, the Romans took no prisoners and slaughtered the inhabitants, with only 800 of 40,000 townsfolk escaping Avaricum with their lives. Vercingetorix retreated, and reinforced his army with fresh recruits.
The commanders of Rome and Gaul would clash once again at Gergovia, where Caesar made attempts to lure Vercingetorix from his high ground advantage to take the town. Vercingetorix repelled Caesar with a powerful cavalry charge into his lines, causing Caesar to retreat and recruit more German cavalry, giving them the gift of horses that originally belonged to Roman knights. Vercingetorix attacked yet again with his 15,000-strong cavalry, though Caesar managed to repel the Gallic onslaught, and forced Vercingetorix to Alesia, a stronghold of the Manudbii.
Caesar and his 70,000 men faced what was a ‘clearly impregnable city’, set upon a hill and surrounded with streams and a hilly landscape. Caesar surrounded the hill with eight camps. Vercingetorix attacked the Roman forward base while the Romans were still taking their positions, attempting to end the siege before it began.
Caesar heard that Vercingetorix was rationing food from deserters and prisoners, and immediately began the construction of elaborate siege works. His men dug a trench twenty feet wide and two more fifteen feet wide trenches behind that, filling the inner trench with water. He built a palisaded rampart that went around the entire city, strengthened by a battlemented breastwork, with towers erected at regular intervals.
Vercingetorix continued to attack Caesar, only succeeding in causing Caesar to strengthen his fortifications even further. He ordered the creation of further deep trenches, installing stakes in the bottom that could not be seen from the ground. Caesar set a further series of traps to fool the Gauls, including blocks of wood with iron hooks in them pushed deeply into the ground around Alesia. Caesar duplicated his defences, creating a ‘donut’ of fortifications, allowing the Romans to be protected from both sides while still encircling the city.The Gauls meanwhile assembled a relief army of 8,000 horses and 250,000 men, ready to march on Alesia. The starving soldiers of Alesia rejoiced when they saw the huge army approach, and prepared to meet the Romans in battle. Their morale boosted by their huge numbers and their own bravery, they truly believed that they would crush the Roman forces.
When the Roman cavalry made their approach, they found that the Gauls had installed archers and infantrymen among the Gallic cavalry, surprising the Romans but inspiring onlookers in Alesia. The two cavalry forces fought valiantly for half a day, until Rome’s German horsemen charged the Gauls as one unit, forcing them back and securing victory for the day.
The Gauls led the next engagement, waiting until midnight to move silently out of their camp to advance upon the Romans. Surprising the Romans with a barrage of arrows and stones, Vercingetorix sounded the trumpet from within Alesia and led his men out of the town, forcing Caesar to fight on two fronts. Roman troops fought with more rudimentary means such as slingshots, stones, and stakes to fend off the Gallic attack, while their artillery attempted to repel the Gauls with missiles. The Gauls were effective at a distance, but when trying to move upon the Roman camp, they fell victim to the pits and siege spears. Vercingetorix was forced to retreat before achieving anything.
The Gauls reconvened and studied their opponents’ defences. Identifying what they thought to be a weak link in their siege circuit, a camp on a slope, the Gauls sent 60,000 of their bravest men to the hill while the rest of the Romans made a demonstration in front of their camp. Vercingetorix marched his own men out to match this, stretching the Romans incredibly thin, and coming close to breaking their lines. Caesar met the Gaul attack at his ‘weak point’, joining the battle and urging his men to hold out before leading a fresh detachment in person to help defend the camp on the slope.
Caesar’s presence, and the energy his fresh troops brought to the battle, managed to repel the Gauls. The Gaul army broke and the men retreated, with the survivors fleeing back home and leaving Vercingetorix to the mercy of the Roman Empire.On October 3rd, Vercingetorix declared that he must either be killed or given to the Romans in order to save his people. Caesar ordered for Vercingetorix to be brought to him alive, alongside his other rebellious chiefs. Rome had secured their coveted victory, ending the Gallic Wars, and giving the Roman Empire the opportunity to expand into Gaul. Vercingetorix was held captive for five years, paraded in triumph in Rome, before being strangled to death at the end of his imprisonment.