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This webpage reproduces part of
Gallic War

Julius Caesar

Loeb Classical Library

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VIII.1‑Book II

Gallic War

 p487  Book VII (chapters 75‑90)

75 While this was proceeding about Alesia, the Gauls summoned a council of chiefs and determined not to call up (according to the proposal of Vercingetorix) all who could bear arms, but to require of each chief a certain quota from his state; for they feared that with so large a host herded together they might not be able to preserve discipline, to distinguish their several contingents, or to secure a supply of corn.º Of the Aedui and their dependents, Segusiavi, Ambivareti, Aulerci Brannovices, and Blannovii, they required five-and‑thirty thousand; an equal number from the Arverni, together with the Eleuteti, Cadurci, Gabali, and Vellavii, who are regularly under the sovereignty of the Arverni;  p489 from the Sequani, Senones, Bituriges, Santoni, Ruteni, and Carnutes, twelve thousand each; from the Bellovaci ten thousand, and as many from the Lemovices; eight thousand each from the Pictones, Turoni, Parisii, and Helvetii; five thousand each from the Suessiones, Ambiani, Mediomatrici, Petrocorii, Nervii, Morini, and Nitiobriges; a like number from the Aulerci Cenomani; four thousand from the Atrebates; three each from the Veliocasses, Lexovii, and Aulerci Eburovices; two each from the Rauraci and the Boii; thirty thousand in all from the states touching the Ocean, commonly called by them Armoric, among whom are the Curiosolites, Redones, Ambibarii, Caletes, Osismi, Veneti, Lemovices, and Venelli. Of these the Bellovaci did not make up their quota, because they declared that they would wage war with the Romans on their own account and at their own discretion, and would obey no man's command; however, when Commius made request they sent two thousand men with the rest, out of regard to their private relations with him.

76 This Commius, as we have before mentioned,​1 had rendered faithful and efficient service to Caesar in previous years in the expedition to Britain. For these good offices Caesar had ordered his state to be exempt from taxation, had restored its rights and laws, and had made the Morini tributary to him. Yet so strong was the unanimity of Gaul as a whole for the maintenance of their liberty and the recovery of their ancient renown in war that no benefits, no memory of friendship could influence them, and all devoted themselves with heart and strength to the campaign before them. When eight thousand horsemen and about two hundred and fifty thousand footmen had  p491 been collected, the force was reviewed and a muster was taken in the country of the Aedui. Officers were appointed, and the chief command was entrusted to Commius the Atrebatian, Viridomarus and Eporedorix the Aeduans, and Vercassivellaunus the Arvernian, a cousin of Vercingetorix. To them were attached a staff selected from the states, by whose counsel the campaign was to be conducted. Full of spirit and confidence, all started for Alesia; there was not a man of them all who thought the mere sight of so vast a host could be withstood, especially in a two‑sided engagement, when there would be fighting with those who made a sortie from within the town, and outside the display of so vast an army of horse and foot.

77 However, when the day on which they had expected reinforcements of their own folk was past, and they had exhausted all their corn, and knew not what was going on in the land of the Aedui, the Gauls besieged in Alesia called a council of war to consider what would be the issue of their own fortunes. Various opinions were expressed, one party voting for surrender, another for a sortie while their strength sufficed; but the speech of Critognatus should not, I think, be omitted, because of its remarkable and abominable cruelty. He was of high lineage among the Arverni, and considered to have great influence. "Of their opinion," he said, "who call a most disgraceful slavery by the name of surrender I purpose to say nothing; I hold that they should not be treated as citizens nor invited to the council. Let my business be with those who approve a sortie; and in their design, by your general agreement, there seems to remain a memory of ancient courage. This is faint-heartedness of yours, not courage, to be unable to endure  p493 want for a short space. It is easier to find men to fling themselves recklessly on death than men to endure pain patiently. And yet I might now have approved this view (so much weight with me has the authority of those who hold it) if I saw therein the loss of nothing but our life; but in making our decision we should have regard to the whole of Gaul, which we have aroused to our assistance. What, think ye, will be the spirit of our friends and kindred, when eighty thousand men​2 have been slain in one spot, if they are forced to fight out the issue almost over their very bodies? Refuse to rob of your support the men who for your deliverance have disregarded their own peril; forbear by folly, recklessness, or weak-mindedness of yours to lay prostrate, and subject to everlasting slavery, the whole of Gaul. Or do you doubt their faithfulness, their resolution, because they are not arrived to the day? What then? Do ye think that the Romans are daily engaged in those outer trenches for mere amusement? If it may not be that your resolve should be strengthened by messages from your friends, since every approach is blocked, yet take the Romans here to your witnesses that their coming draws nigh; and it is in fear thereof that they are busy in their works day and night. What, then, is my counsel? To do what our forefathers did in the war, in no wise equal to this, with the Cimbri and the Teutones. They shut themselves into the towns, and under stress of a like scarcity sustained life on the bodies of those whose age showed them useless for war, and delivered not themselves to the enemy. And if we had not a precedent for this, I should still have judged it a most glorious thing for the sake of  p495 liberty to set such a one and to hand it down to posterity. For wherein was that war like this? The Cimbri devastated Gaul, they brought great disaster upon us, yet they departed at length from our borders and sought other countries, leaving us our rights, laws, lands, liberty. But the Romans — what else do they seek or desire than to follow where envy leads, to settle in the lands and states of men whose noble report and martial strength they have learnt, and to bind upon them a perpetual slavery? 'Tis in no other fashion they have waged wars. And if ye know not what is afoot among distant nations, look now on Gaul close at hand, which has been reduced to a province, with utter change of rights and laws, and crushed beneath the axes​3 in everlasting slavery."

78 When opinions had been expressed they determined that those who by reason of health or age were useless for war should leave the town, and that every expedient should be tried before they had recourse to the counsel of Critognatus, resolving, however, to adopt that plan, if compelled by circumstances — that is to say, the delay of the reinforcements — rather than to submit to terms of surrender or of peace. The Mandubii, whose town had received them, were compelled to leave it with wives and children. When they reached the Roman lines they begged with tears and abject prayers to be received as slaves and helped with food. But Caesar posted sentries on the rampart and prevented their admission.

79 Meanwhile Commius and the other leaders entrusted with the supreme command reached the neighbourhood of Alesia with all their force, and, seizing a hill outside,​4 halted not more than a mile  p497 from our entrenchments. The day after they brought their horsemen out of camp and filled the whole of that plain which we have described as extending for a length of three miles; their force of footmen they posted a little way back from the spot, on the higher ground. There was a bird's‑eye view from the town of Alesia over the plain. At sight of these reinforcements the others hastened together with mutual congratulation, and all minds were stirred to joy. So they brought out their force and halted in front of the town; they covered over the nearest trench​5 with hurdles and filled it in with earth, and prepared for a sally and for every emergency.

80 Caesar disposed the whole army on both faces of the entrenchments in such fashion that, if occasion should arise, each man could know and keep his proper station; then he ordered the cavalry to be brought out of camp and to engage. There was a view down from all the camps, which occupied the top of the surrounding ridge, and all the troops were intently awaiting the issue of the fight. The Gauls had placed archers and light-armed skirmishers here and there among the horsemen to give immediate support to their comrades if driven back and to resist the charge of the cavalry. A number of men, wounded unexpectedly by these troops, began to withdraw from the fight. When the Gauls were confident that their own men were getting the better of the battle, and saw ours hard pressed by numbers, with shouts and yells on every side — those who were confined by the entrenchments as well as the others who had come up to their assistance — they sought to inspirit their countrymen. As the action was proceeding  p499 in sight of all, and no deed, of honour or dishonour, could escape notice, both sides were stirred to courage by desire of praise and fear of disgrace. The fight lasted, and the victory was doubtful, from noon almost to sunset; then the Germans in one part of the field massed their troops of horse, charged the enemy and routed them, and when they had been put to flight the archers were surrounded and slain. Likewise, from the other parts of the field, our troops pursued the retreating enemy right up to their camp, giving them no chance of rallying. But the Gauls who had come forth from Alesia, almost despairing of victory, sadly withdrew again into the town.

81 After one day's interval, in the course of which they made a great number of hurdles, ladders, and grappling-hooks, the Gauls left camp silently at midnight and approached the entrenchments in the plain. Raising a sudden shout, to signify their coming to the besieged inside the town, they began to fling down the hurdles,​6 to dislodge our men from the rampart with slings, arrows and stones, and to carry out everything else proper to an assault. At the same moment, hearing the shout, Vercingetorix gave his troops the signal by trumpet, and led them out of the town. Our troops, as on previous days, moved each to his appointed station in the entrenchments; with slings, one‑pounders,​7 stakes set ready inside the works, and bullets,​8 they beat off the Gauls. As the darkness made it impossible to see far, many wounds were received on both sides.​9 p501 number of missiles were discharged by the artillery. Then Marcus Antonius and Gaius Trebonius, the lieutenant-generals to whom the defence of these sections had been allotted, withdrew troops from forts farther away, and sent them up to bring assistance wherever they remarked that our men were hard pressed.

82 While the Gauls were some distance from the entrenchment they had more advantage from the quantity of their missiles; then, when they came up closer, they were soon caught unawares on the "spurs," or they sank into the pits and were impaled, or they were shot by artillery pikes​10 from the rampart and the turrets, and so perished on every side. Many a man was wounded, but the entrenchment was nowhere penetrated; and when daybreak drew nigh, fearing that they might be surrounded on their exposed flank by a sortie from the camps above them,​11 they retired to their comrades. Meanwhile the inner force brought out the appliances which had been prepared by Vercingetorix for a sortie, and filled in the nearer trenches;​12 but they lingered too long in the execution of the business, and, or ever they could get near the entrenchments, they learnt that their countrymen had withdrawn. So without success they returned to the town.

83 Twice beaten back with great loss, the Gauls took counsel what to do. They called in men who knew the locality well, and from them they learnt the positions and the defences of the upper camps. On the north side there was a hill, which by reason of its huge circumference our troops had been unable  p503 to include within the works; they had been obliged to lay out the camp on ground generally sloping, which put them almost at a disadvantage. This camp was held by Gaius Antistius Reginus and Gaius Caninius Rebilus, lieutenant-generals, with two legions. Having reconnoitred the locality by means of scouts, the commanders of the enemy chose out of the whole host sixty thousand men belonging to the states which had the greatest reputation for courage: they determined secretly together what should be done and in what fashion, and decided that the advance should take place at the moment when it was seen to be midday. In charge of this force they put Vercassivellaunus the Arvernian, one of the four commanders, a kinsman of Vercingetorix. He left camp in the first watch, and having almost completed his march just before dawn, he concealed himself behind the height and ordered his soldiers to rest after their night's work. When at last it was seen to be near midday he moved with speed on the camp above mentioned and at the same moment the horsemen began to advance towards the entrenchments in the plain, and the rest of the force to make a demonstration before the camp.

84 When from the citadel of Alesia Vercingetorix observed his countrymen, he moved out of the town, taking with him the hurdles, poles, mantlets, grappling-hooks, and all the other appliances prepared for the sally. The fight went on simultaneously in all places, and all expedients were attempted, with a rapid concentration on that section which was seen to be least strong. With lines so extensive the Roman army was strung out, and at several points defence proved difficult. The shouting which arose in rear of the fighting line did much to scare our  p505 troops, as they saw that the risk to themselves depended on the success of others;​13 for, as a rule, what is out of sight disturbs men's minds more seriously than what they see.

85 Caesar found a suitable spot from which he could see what was proceeding in each quarter. To parties distressed he sent up supports. Both sides felt that this was the hour of all others in which it was proper to make their greatest effort. The Gauls utterly despaired of safety unless they could break through the lines; the Romans anticipated an end of all toils if they could hold their own. The hardest struggle occurred by the entrenchments on the hill, whither, as we have mentioned, Vercassivellaunus had been sent. The unfavourable downward slope of the ground had great effect. Some of the enemy discharged missiles, others moved up in close formation​14 under their shields; fresh men quickly replaced the exhausted. Earth cast by the whole body together over the entrenchments gave the Gauls a means of ascent and at the same time covered over the appliances which the Romans had concealed in the ground; and our troops had now neither arms nor strength enough.

86 When Caesar learnt this, he sent Labienus with six cohorts to support them in their distress. He commanded him, if he could not hold his ground, to draw in the cohorts and fight his way out, but not to do so unless of necessity. He himself went up to the rest of the troops, and urged them not to give in to the strain, telling them that the fruit of all previous engagements depended upon that day and  p507 hour. The enemy on the inner side, despairing of success on the level ground, because of the size of the entrenchments, made an attempt to scale the precipitous parts, conveying thither the appliances they had prepared. They dislodged the defenders of the turrets by a swarm of missiles, filled in the trenches with earth and hurdles, tore down rampart and breastwork with grappling-hooks.

87 Caesar first sent young Brutus with some cohorts, and then Gaius Fabius, lieutenant-general, with others; last of all, as the fight raged more fiercely, he himself brought up fresh troops to reinforce. The battle restored, and the enemy repulsed, he hastened to the quarter whither he had sent Labienus. He withdrew four cohorts from the nearest fort, and ordered part of the cavalry to follow him, part to go round the outer entrenchments and attack the enemy in rear. Labienus, finding that neither ramps nor trenches could resist the rush of the enemy, collected together forty cohorts, which had been withdrawn from the nearest post and by chance presented themselves, and sent messengers to inform Caesar what he thought it proper to do. Caesar hurried on to take part in the action.

88 His coming was known by the colour of his cloak,​15 which it was his habit to wear in action as a distinguishing mark; and the troops of cavalry and the cohorts which he had ordered to follow him were noticed, because from the upper levels these downward slopes and depressions were visible. Thereupon the enemy joined battle: a shout was raised on both sides, and taken up by an answering shout from the rampart and the whole of the entrenchments.  p509 Our troops discarded their pikes and got to work with their swords. Suddenly the cavalry was noticed in the rear; other cohorts drew near. The enemy turned to flee; the cavalry met them in flight, and a great slaughter ensued. Sedulius, commander and chief of the Lemovices, was killed; Vercassivellaunus the Arvernian was captured alive in the rout; seventy-four war‑standards were brought in to Caesar; of the vast host few returned safe to camp. The others beheld from the town the slaughter and rout of their countrymen, and, in despair of safety, recalled their force from the entrenchments. Directly they heard what had happened the Gauls fled from their camp. And if the troops had not been worn out by frequent reinforcing and the whole day's effort, the entire force of the enemy could have been destroyed. The cavalry were sent off just after midnight and caught up with the rearguard; a great number were taken and slain, the rest fled away into the different states.

89 On the morrow Vercingetorix summoned a council, at which he stated that he had undertaken that campaign, not for his own occasions, but for the general liberty; and as they must yield to fortune he offered himself to them for whichever course they pleased — to give satisfaction to the Romans by his death, or to deliver him alive. Deputies were despatched to Caesar to treat of this matter. He ordered the arms to be delivered up, the chiefs to be brought out. He himself took his seat in the entrenchments in front of the camp: the leaders were brought out to him there. Vercingetorix was surrendered, arms were thrown down. Keeping back the Aedui and the Arverni, to see if through them he could recover their states, he distributed the rest of the prisoners, one  p511 apiece to each man throughout the army, by way of plunder.

90 When these affairs were settled he started for the country of the Aedui and recovered the state. The Arverni sent deputies to him there who promised to carry out his commands: he required of them a great number of hostages. He sent the legions into cantonments. He restored some twenty thousand prisoners to the Aedui and the Arverni. He ordered Titus Labienus with two legions and cavalry to march off into the country of the Sequani, attaching Marcus Sempronius Rutilus to him. Gaius Fabius, the lieutenant-general, and Lucius Minucius Basilus he stationed with two legions in the country of the Remi, in order that they might suffer no damage from the neighbouring Bellovaci. Gaius Antistius Reginus he sent into the territory of the Ambivareti, Titus Sextius to the Bituriges, Gaius Caninius Rebilus to the Ruteni, with a legion apiece. Quintus Tullius Cicero and Publius Sulpicius he stationed at Cabillonum and Matisco, Aeduan towns near the Arar, to secure the corn-supply. He himself decided to winter at Bibracte. When the despatches of the campaign were published at Rome a public thanksgiving of twenty days was granted.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 IV.2135; V.22.

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2 Cf. ch. 71.

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3 i.e. of the Roman lictors.

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4 On the S. W. of Alesia.

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5 The Roman trench on the W. of Alesia mentioned at the beginning of ch. 72.

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6 Into the trenches.

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7 Stones of a pound weight hurled by engines (πετροβόλοι): or it is possible to take fundis librilibus together, "with one-pounder slings."

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8 For use in slings.

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9 The general sequence is rather obscure. The missiles (of which many were discharged by the Roman artillery) flew more or less at venture, in the dark: casualties were numerous, but indecisive. But Antonius and Trebonius anticipated more serious fighting, and had reinforcements ready.

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10 Heavy pikes fired from ballistae in wall (muralis) or trench fighting.

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11 One of the main camps of the Roman legions, here referred to, lay on a height to the southward of Alesia: the other (referred to in ch. 83) on a height to the northward.

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12 See note on ch. 79.

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13 i.e. that, if the line were broken elsewhere, they themselves would be in peril. salus = "safety" secured by success.

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14 In "tortoise" formation. See note on II.6.

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15 He wore the scarlet cloak (paludamentum) of a commander-in‑chief.

Page updated: 9 Nov 13