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This webpage reproduces part of
Gallic War

Julius Caesar

Loeb Classical Library

The text is in the public domain.

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Gallic War

 p401  Book VII (chapters 15‑33)

15 This view was approved by general consent, and in a single day more than twenty cities of the Bituriges were set on fire. The same was done in the other states, and in every direction fires were to be seen. And although it was a bitter pain to all to endure this, yet they set before themselves thus much of comfort, that they were confident of recovering their losses by a well-nigh assured victory. They deliberated in a general convention whether Avaricum should be burnt or defended. The Bituriges flung themselves at the feet of all the Gauls, entreating that they might not be compelled with their own hands to set light to almost the fairest city in all Gaul, the safeguard and the ornament of their state. They declared that they would easily defend themselves by its natural strength, for it was surrounded by river and marsh on almost every side, and had a single and a very narrow approach. Leave was granted to their  p403 petition: Vercingetorix at first argued against it, but afterwards yielded to the prayers of the tribesmen and to compassion for the multitude. Suitable defenders for the town were chosen.

16 Vercingetorix followed after Caesar by shorter stages, and chose for his camp a place fenced by marshes and woods, about sixteen miles from Avaricum. There, by means of scouting parties appointed for each section of the day, he could keep himself informed of the operations about Avaricum, and give such orders as he desired. He kept all our foraging and cornº-collecting parties under observation, and when they were scattered, since they had of necessity to advance farther afield, he would attack them and inflict serious loss; at the same time our men took every precaution they could think of to counteract this, by moving at uncertain times and by different routes.

17 Caesar pitched his camp on that side of the town which was unenclosed by the river and the marshes, and had, as above mentioned, a narrow approach. He began to prepare a ramp, to move up mantlets, to build two towers; for the nature of the locality precluded an investment. He did not cease to importune the Boii and the Aedui in the matter of the corn-supply; but the latter, with no zeal for the task, did not help much, and the former, having no great resources, because their state was small and feeble, speedily consumed what they had. So the army suffered from the utmost difficulty in its corn-supply, because of the indigence of the Boii, the apathy of the Aedui, and the burning of the homesteads — so much so that for several days the troops were without corn, and staved off the extremity of famine by driving in cattle from the more distant  p405 hamlets. Yet never a word was heard from their lips unworthy of the dignity of Rome and of their previous victories. Nay more, when Caesar addressed single legions at work, and declared that if the burden of scarcity were too bitter for them to bear he would raise the siege, one and all would beseech him not to do so. They had served, they said, for many years under his command without once incurring disgrace, without anywhere leaving a task unaccomplished; they would regard it in the nature of a disgrace if they relinquished the siege they had begun; it were better to endure any and every bitterness than to fail of avenging the Roman citizens who had perished at Cenabum by the treachery of the Gauls. They entrusted messages in the same spirit to the centurions and tribunes, to be tendered to Caesar through them.

18 By the time that the towers had come near to the wall, Caesar learnt from prisoners that Vercingetorix had exhausted his forage and moved his camp nearer to Avaricum, and was gone forward in person, with horsemen and the light troops that were accustomed to do battle among the horse, to set an ambush in the place whither he believed our troops would come next day to get forage. Having learnt this, Caesar marched in silence at midnight, and reached the enemy's camp in the morning. They had speedily learnt through their scouts of Caesar's coming, and having hidden away their wagons and baggage in the denser part of the woods, they drew up all their force on high, open ground. On report of this Caesar ordered packs to be speedily piled and arms got ready.

19 There was a hill sloping generally from the base, and surrounded on almost every side by a difficult and  p407 troublesome marsh, not more than fifty feet across. On this hill, having broken up the causeways, the Gauls were established, with all confidence in the position; distributed according to their several nationalities, they held every ford and thicket by the marsh. They were resolved, if the Romans tried to burst through the marsh, to overwhelm them from the higher ground as they stuck fast. So anyone who remarked how near they were thought them prepared to fight to a finish in almost equal battle; but anyone who observed the inequality of the conditions recognised that they were displaying themselves in empty bravado. The troops were furious that the enemy were able to endure the sight of themselves at so brief an interval, and demanded the signal for action. But Caesar pointed out what great loss, in the death of so many gallant men, a victory must necessarily cost, and said that, when he saw them resolved to refuse no risk that might win him renown, he deserved to be condemned for the uttermost injustice if he did not count their life dearer than his own welfare. Having thus pacified the troops, he led them back to camp the same day, and began to set in order everything else required for the siege of the town.

20 When Vercingetorix returned to his followers, he was accused of treachery because he had moved the camp nearer to the Romans, because he had gone off with all the horse and had left so large a force without a commander, and because on his departure the Romans had come with such speed upon their opportunity. All these circumstances, they said, could not have happened by chance or without design; he preferred to possess the kingship of Gaul by the leave of  p409 Caesar rather than by favour of themselves. Accused in such sort, he replied to the charges. As for having moved the camp, it had been done, he said, actually at their own instance, through lack of forage; as for having gone nearer the Romans, he had been influenced by the advantage of a person which could protect itself by its own defences; further, the service of the horse should not have been needed on marshy ground, and it had been useful in the place to which they had marched. It was of purpose that he had committed the chief command to no one at his departure, for fear that his deputy might be driven by the zeal of the host to an engagement — an object for which he saw that all were zealous through weakness of spirit, because they could not longer endure hardship. If the appearance of the Romans on the scene had been due to chance, the Gauls had fortune to thank; if they had been summoned thither by some informer, the Gauls had that man to thank for the satisfaction of having been able to learn from their higher station the scantiness of their numbers, and to despise a courage which had not ventured to fight but had retired disgracefully to camp. He had no need to obtain from Caesar by treachery a title of command which he could enjoy by a victory already assured to himself and all the Gauls. Nay more, he gave the title back to them if they thought that they were bestowing honour on him rather than deriving security from him. "That you may perceive," he continued, "the sincerity of this statement on my part, listen to Roman soldiers." He brought forward slaves whom he had caught foraging a few days before and had tortured with hunger and chains. These had been previously instructed what to state when questioned, and said that they were soldiers of  p411 the line; they had been induced by hunger and want to go secretly out of the camp, to see if they could find any corn or cattle in the fields; the whole army was suffering from similar want, no man had any strength left, none could endure the strain of work, and therefore the commander-in‑chief had decided, if they made no progress in the siege of the town, in three days to withdraw the army. "These," said Vercingetorix, "are the benefits you have from me, whom you accuse of treachery, by whose effort, without shedding of your own blood, you behold this great victorious army wasted with hunger; while it is I who have seen to it that, when it takes shelter in disgraceful flight, no state shall admit within its borders."

21 The whole host shouted with one accord, and clashed their arms together in their peculiar fashion, as they always do for a man whose speech they approve. They declared that Vercingetorix was a consummate leader, that there could be no doubt of his loyalty, and that the campaign could not be conducted with greater intelligence. They decided that ten thousand men picked from the whole force should be sent into the town, and resolved that the common safety of all must not be entrusted to the Bituriges alone, for they perceived that in keeping possession of the town rested almost the whole issue of victory.

22 The matchless courage of our troops was met by all manner of contrivances on the part of the Gauls; for they are a nation possessed of remarkable ingenuity, and extremely apt to copy and carry out anything suggested to them. So now they sought to drag aside the grappling-hooks with nooses, and, when they had caught them, to pull them back inwards with windlasses; and they tried to under‑cut  p413 the ramp by mines, the more scientifically because they have large iron-workings in their country, and every kind of mine is known and employed. Further, they had furnished the whole wall on every side with a superstructure of wooden turrets, and covered these over with hides. Then in frequent sallies by day and night they tried to set fire to the ramp or to attack the troops engaged in the works; and whatever increase was made in the height of our turrets by daily additions to the ramp,1 they equalised by joining fresh scaffolding2 to their own turrets, and tried to check the progress of our own mines where they opened up,3 and to prevent their approach to the walls by means of timbers4 hardened in the fire and sharpened, boiling pitch, and stones of a very great weight.

23 All Gallic walls are, as a rule, of the following pattern. Balks are laid on the ground at equal intervals of two feet throughout the length of the wall and at right angles thereto. These are made fast on the inside and banked up with a quantity of earth, while the intervals above mentioned are stopped up on the front side with big stones. When these balks have been laid and clamped together a second course5 is added above, in such fashion that the same interval as before is kept, and the balks6 do not touch each other, but each is tightly held at a like space apart by the interposition of single stones. So the whole structure is knit together stage by stage until the proper height of wall is completed. This work is not unsightly in  p415 appearance and variety, with alternate balks and stones which keep their proper courses in straight lines; and it is eminently suitable for the practical defence of cities, since the stone protects from fire and the timber from battery,7 for with continuous balks, generally forty feet long, made fast on the inside it can neither be breached nor pulled to pieces.

24 All these circumstances impeded the siege; but though the troops were delayed throughout by cold and constant showers, still by continuous effort they overcame all these obstacles, and in twenty-five days they built a ramp three hundred and thirty feet broad and eighty feet high. This was almost touching the enemy's wall, and Caesar, according to his custom, bivouacked by the work, urging the troops not to leave off working even for a moment: when shortly before the third watch8 the ramp was observed to be smoking, for the enemy had set fire to it from a counter-mine. At the same moment a shout was raised all along the wall, and a sortie was made from two gates on either side of the Roman turrets. Others began at long range to hurl torches and dry wood from the wall on to the ramp, and to pour down pitch and everything else that can kindle a fire, so that it was scarcely possible to form an idea in which direction the troops should hasten first or to what point bring assistance. However, as by Caesar's standing order two legions were always in bivouac before the camp, and more, by a succession of reliefs, were engaged on the earthwork, it was speedily arranged that some troops should resist the sorties, while others dragged back the turrets and cut a gap in the ramp, and the whole host from the camp rushed up to extinguish the fire.

 p417  25 Even when the rest of the night was spent, there was fighting at every point, and ever the enemy's hope of victory was renewed — the more so because they saw that the breastworks of the turrets9 were burnt up, and observed that without cover it was not easy for the troops to advance in support; and ever, on their side, fresh men replaced the weary, and they believed that the deliverance of Gaul depended on that moment of time. Then there occurred before our eyes a thing which, as it seemed worthy of record, we have not thought it right to omit. A certain Gaul before the gate of the town was hurling into the fire over against a turret lumps of grease and pitch that were handed to him. He was pierced by a dart from a "scorpion"10 in the right side and fell dead. One of the party next him stepped over his prostrate body and went on with the same work; and when this second man had been killed in the same fashion by a scorpion-shot, a third succeeded, and to the third a fourth; and that spot was not left bare of defenders until the ramp had been extinguished, the enemy cleared away on every side, and a stop put to the fighting.

26 The Gauls had tried every expedient, and as nothing had succeeded they resolved next day to escape from the town, as Vercingetorix urged and ordered. They hoped that by attempting it in the silence of night they would accomplish it with no great loss of their men, because the camp of Vercingetorix was not far from the town, and the marsh, which filled without break all the space between, must hinder the Romans in pursuit. And  p419 it was now night and they were already preparing to do this, when the matrons suddenly rushed out of doors, and, flinging themselves with tears at the feet of their men, with prayers and supplications besought them not to surrender, to the tender mercies of the enemy, themselves and their common children, whom natural weakness hampered from taking flight. When they saw that the men were firm in their purpose, for as a rule in extreme peril fear admits no sense of pity, they began to cry out in a body and to make signs to the Romans as touching the flight. So the Gauls were terror-struck by the fear that the Roman cavalry might seize the roads before them, and they abandoned their design.

27 On the morrow, when a turret had been advanced and the works which Caesar had begun to construct were finished,11 a heavy shower of rain came on. He thought the moment suitable for the execution of his plan, as he observed that the guards on the wall were less carefully posted than usual; so he ordered his men to move more leisurely about the work, and showed them what he wanted to be done. The legions made ready for action secretly under cover of the mantlets; and having urged them to reap at length the fruit of victory in return for their great labours, he offered prizes to those who should first mount the wall, and gave the signal to the troops. They dashed out suddenly from all sides and speedily lined the wall.

28 The enemy were panic-stricken by the surprise, and when they were hurled down from the wall and the turrets they stood fast in wedge-formations in  p421 the market-place and the more open places, with intent, if a movement were made from any side upon them, to deploy into line and fight to a finish. When they saw no one coming down on to the level ground, but that the troops were pouring round everywhere all along the wall, they feared that the hope of escape might be cut off altogether, and, casting away their arms, they made in a continuous rush for the farthest parts of the town; and part, as they crowded one another at the narrow passage of the gates, were slain there by the troops, part after they had got out of the gates by the cavalry, and no one had any thought for plunder. In such fashion the troops, maddened by the massacre at Cenabum and the toil of the siege-work, spared not aged men, nor women, nor children. Eventually of all the number, which was about forty thousand, scarcely eight hundred, who had flung themselves out of the town when they heard the first shout, reached Vercingetorix in safety. He intercepted the refugees late at night in silence, fearing that a mutiny might arise if they were met and pitied by the common sort: therefore, by stationing his own friends and the chiefs of states at some distance along the roads, he took steps to separate them and conduct them to their friends in the part of the camp allotted to each state from the beginning.

29 On the next day, summoning a conference, he comforted them, and exhorted them not greatly to lose heart, nor to be disturbed by the disaster. The Romans had not conquered by courage nor in pitched battle, but by stratagem and by knowledge of siege operations, in which the Gauls had had no experience. It was a mistake to expect in war that all events would have a favourable issue. He himself had never agreed with the defence of Avaricum, and  p423 of that he had themselves as witnesses; but this experience of disaster had been brought about by the unwisdom of the Bituriges and the undue complaisance of the rest. However, he would speedily remedy it by greater advantages. He would by his own efforts bring to their side the states which disagreed with the rest of Gaul, and establish one policy for the whole of Gaul, whose unanimity not even the world could resist; and already he had almost brought that to pass. Meanwhile it was reasonable that for the sake of the common weal they should do as he asked and set to work to fortify the camp, in order more easily to resist sudden attacks of the enemy.

30 This speech was not unpleasing to the Gauls, chiefly because the commander himself had not failed them after the great disaster they had suffered, nor hidden out of their sight and avoided the gaze of the host; and they considered his foresight and forethought the greater because, while the matter was still open, he had first advocated the burning, and afterwards the abandonment, of Avaricum. And thus, whereas the authority of commanders in general is diminished by reverses, so his position, on the contrary, was daily enhanced by the disaster they had suffered. At the same time they were inclined to be hopeful, by reason of his assurance, about bringing in the remaining states; and on this occasion for the first time the Gauls set to work to fortify the camp, and they were so strengthened in spirit that, although unaccustomed to toil, they thought that they must submit to any commands.

31 As good as his promise, Vercingetorix worked with a will to bring in the remaining states, and tried to attract them by presents and promises. He selected for  p425 the purpose suitable persons, each of whom, by guileful speech or by friendly demeanour, should be able most easily to captivate. The men who had escaped at the storming of Avaricum he caused to be armed and clothed; at the same time, to recruit his diminished force, he made requisition of a certain number of soldiers from the states, saying what number he wished for and by what day they should be brought into camp; and he ordered all archers, of whom there was a very great number in Gaul, to be sought out and sent to him. By this means the loss at Avaricum was speedily made up. Meanwhile Teutomatus, the son of Ollovico and king of the Nitiobriges, whose father had been saluted as Friend by the Roman Senate, came to him with a large number of horsemen: some were his own, and others he had hired from Aquitania.

32 Caesar halted at Avaricum for several days, and by the immense quantity of corn and all other supplies which he found there recuperated the army after toil and want. The winter was now almost spent; the very season was inviting him to continue the war, and he had decided to march against the enemy to see whether he could entice them out of the marshes and woods or reduce them by blockade, when at this juncture chiefs of the Aedui came on a mission to him to beseech his succour for the state in a crisis of absolute urgency. The administration, they said, was in the utmost peril, because, in spite of their ancient custom of electing single magistrates to hold kingly power for a year, two persons were exercising office, and each of them declared himself legally elected. One of the two was Convictolitavis, a successful and distinguished young man; the other Cotus, the scion of a most ancient house, and himself a man of dominant power and noble connection, whose brother  p427 Valetiacus had exercised the same office in the previous year. The whole state was in arms, the senate was divided, and each claimant had his own following. If the quarrel were any longer fomented, one part of the state must inevitably come to blows with the other. The prevention of that depended upon Caesar's energy and authority.

33 Caesar thought it disastrous to move away from the war and the enemy, but at the same time he knew full well what great troubles generally arose from such dissensions; and therefore, to prevent this large state, so closely connected with Rome — a state which he himself had always cherished and by every means distinguished — from resorting to armed violence, wherein the party which had less confidence in itself would seek succours from Vercingetorix, he thought the matter should receive his first attention. And, inasmuch as the laws of the Aedui did not suffer those who exercised the highest office to leave the country, he determined, in order that he might not appear in any way to disparage their rights or laws, to proceed in person into the territory of the Aedui, and summoned all their senate, together with the parties to the quarrel, to join him at Decetia. Almost the whole state assembled there, and he was informed that in a small and secret assembly, held in a place and at a time which were irregular, one brother had declared the other elected, although the law not only forbade two of one house, in the lifetime of both, to be elected as officers of state, but even precluded them from membership of the senate. He therefore compelled Cotus to lay down the supreme authority, and ordered Convictolitavis, who had been elected by the priests, according to the tradition of the state when the  p429 succession of civil officers had been interrupted, to hold the power.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 As the Roman ramp rose day by day, the turrets on it were, not actually, but relatively higher.

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2 Or, "by joining poles together on their own turrets," and so building up a fresh story.

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3 Or, "opened up our mines, and tried to check their progress."

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4 Presumably these were long stout poles thrust into the end of the mine, when it had been pushed close up to the wall, from a counter-mine.

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5 Of balks and stones.

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6 The balks of the second course are laid on the stones of the first.

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7 i.e. the battering-ram.

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8 The Roman night, from sunset to sunrise, was divided into four equal "watches."

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9 Or "the screens round the turrets," which gave cover to the forward working-parties.

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10 A kind of small catapult, the Roman machine-gun.

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11 Or, reading derectis, "the works which Caesar had decided to construct were set in order" (after the disarrangement of the recent engagement).

Page updated: 28 Oct 13