October 3rd – The Surrender of Vercingetorix
Posted by Nick Milne on October 3, 2009
Today’s event is fascinating for a number of reasons, quite apart from being in that epic tradition of blood and thunder that has thrilled readers of history for thousands of years. Although we don’t know definitively where it took place, or even upon precisely what day the events leading up to it began, it stands as yet another example (of which there will be many in the coming weeks) of how so much of the world in which we now live can be traced back to something as small as a battle, a clash of personalities, or even a fluke of natural topography.
Julius Caesar’s exploits in Gaul (more or less modern France) are well-known to historians and even to the general public, some of their substance having been popularised in the Asterix comics of Goscinny and Uderzo. A series of smaller conflicts came to a head when several Gaulish tribes, previously content to operate with basic autonomy, were united under Vercingetorix of the Averni, a charismatic leader who assumed the disputed mantle of King of the Gauls. There were many who refused to accept his claim, in any event, and he came under attack by his own people, but as the situation with the invading Romans worsened it became necessary for a certain amount of co-operation to be indulged. Vercingetorix’s victory over Caesar’s forces at the Battle of Gergovia in early 52BC seemed to cement his claim, but Caesar’s swift rally forced Vercingetorix and his followers into a costly withdrawal to the hill-fort of Alesia, the location of which is today still a matter of speculation.
The Siege of Alesia itself, begun sometime in the late summer of 52BC and coming to a head in September of that year, was a horrifying ordeal for all involved. Caesar’s forces – some 60,000 in all – quickly surrounded the hill fort and began the construction of siege battlements. “Quickly” hardly seems sufficient to describe the technical accomplishment, really; while a constant rotation of patrols and skirmishers repulsed attempted Gaulish sallies from the fort, the rest of Caesar’s forces foraged supplies, constructed the camp, and built a four-meter high pallisade around Alesia that was eighteen kilometers long. This took them a mere three weeks.
The siege might have proceeded along fairly conventional lines if that had been the whole story, with the fort’s unrelieved military and civilian population being harried from all sides by an indivisible Roman line, but as it happened, during the second week of construction work, a small contingent of Gaulish cavalry did manage to punch through and escape into open country. We might imagine the maelstrom of hopes and fears that engulfed both Caesar and Vercingetorix as they watched those horsemen fade into the distance, but the results were indisputable: within weeks, a steady stream of Gaulish reinforcements began to appear, establishing their main camp about two kilometers southwest of the second set of Roman lines.
For indeed, Caesar had not been idle once those Gaulish cavalry had ridden out of sight. Operating on the prudent assumption that relief of some kind would be coming, he had immediately ordered that work begin on a second palisade to surround the first and provide a fortifed front against any newcomers that happened to arrive. This wall was some 21 kilometers long and, like the original one surrounding Alesia, studded with watchtowers and camps. The whole works were themselves surrounded by two five-foot-deep ditches (one filled with water), mantraps, and any sort of defenseive works that could be jury-rigged from the materials available. Construction on this second line proceeded far more swiftly than it had on the first, owing to the lack of constant attacks from the now-contained Alesian Gauls, and by the time the relief arrived, Caesar and his men were ready.
It’s a good thing that they were, too, for the Gauls arrived in numbers beyond reckoning – probably some 250,000 men. As ambivalent as Gaul at large had been about Vercingetorix as their king, it remained the case that Caesar, their hated enemy, had locked himself into a little circle around one easily-reached location. If there were ever a time to finish him forever, this was it.
What came next was a long and awful time for everyone. The impossibility of getting orders to the Gauls beyond the Roman fortifications meant that Vercingetorix could only wait for a sign that his reinforcements were attacking and then order a charge himself. Lacking any fruitful coordinated effort, the attacks were often desultory at best, and soon repulsed. Several had some success, however, and certain parts of the Roman fortifications did (temporarily) fall, although never on both sides at once or long enough for any linking-up to occur.
Those in Alesia – some 80,000 warriors and civilians – were close to starvation, and Caesar’s own men were in a very bad state as well. They had been surrounded and immobile for weeks, operating on strict rations, and their own supplies were running as low as their morale. Strict Roman discipline won the day in many of the more close-fought battles, and so too did the charismatic influence of Roman leadership. Caesar himself famously rode through the lines cheering his men onward, kindling a mighty flame beneath his flagging forces, and a promising young officer by the name of Marcus Antonius distinguished himself on more than one occasion.
The Gauls fared less well. For all of Vercingetorix’s exhortations to endurance and personal involvement in the efforts to defend the city, he could not make food and water appear out of thin air. The only hope for the city’s civilian population was for them to escape into the countryside, or at least to be taken as slaves by the Romans, and accordingly they were expelled from Alesia. Tragically, they were neither to escape nor to be taken into Roman bondage. Caesar, fearing the disruption they would cause even if allowed to simply pass through the lines, and completely lacking the resources to feed them if they were to be taken prisoner, refused entirely to allow them through. With the gates of Alesia barred behind them, they were left in no-man’s-land to starve.
Neither the siege of Alesia nor of the exterior Roman walls could last forever, and on October 2nd the end of the game arrived. The relief army made one more ferocious push against the Roman walls, and seemed almost at the point of victory until Caesar personally led a contingent of Roman cavalry out of the fortifications to attack the Gauls from behind. Panicking, the Gauls broke into full retreat. An enormous number of them were massacred in the process.
I noted above that we do not know upon what day the Siege of Alesia began, precisely, but we do know when it ended. His relief army routed, his enemies recuperating and exultant, his civilian population dying in agony and his own forces in the depths of despair, Vercingetorix rode out from Alesia on October 3rd, 52BC, to offer his unconditional surrender to Julius Caesar.
Accounts of this surrender differ, but all agree that it was personal and complete. Caesar’s own description of it can be found at the end of the section in his memoirs (Book VII:1-5) that deals with Vercingetorix’s uprising, and the details about the Gaulish king’s conduct during the actual surrender are sparse:
The next day Vercingetorix addressed an assembly. “I did not undertake the war,” he said, “for private ends, but in the cause of national liberty. And since I must now accept my fate, I place myself at your disposal. Make amends to the Romans by killing me or surrender me alive as you think best.” A deputation was sent to refer the matter to Caesar, who ordered the arms to be handed over and the tribal chiefs brought out to him. He seated himself at the fortification in front of his camp, and there the chiefs were brought; Vercingetorix was delivered up, and the arms laid down. Caesar set apart the Aeduan and Arvenian prisoners, in the hope that he could use them to regain the allegiance of their tribes; the rest he distributed as booty to the entire army, allotting one to every man.
The legendary chronicler Plutarch, in his Life of Caesar, describes it somewhat differently:
Vergentorix [for so Plutarch calls him], the supreme leader in the whole war, put on his most beautiful armour, had his horse carefully groomed, and rode out through the gates. Caesar was sitting down and Vergentorix, after riding around him in a circle, leaped down from his horse, stripped off his armour, and sat at Caesar’s feet silent and motionless until he was taken away under arrest, a prisoner reserved for the triumph.
The surrender as depicted in HBO’s astonishing series Rome appears to draw from both of the above accounts:
The consequences of all this were enormous. The defeat of Vercingetorix marked the end of organised Gaulish resistance and the establishment of Caesar as a man who, whatever authority he may have had in prosecuting his campaigns, could be relied upon to bring Rome victory. Nevertheless, the Senate’s refusal to grant Caesar an official Triumph for his Gaulish victory was one of the key factors that precipitated Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 50BC and the eventual Roman civil war that saw him installed as dictator for life, laying the grounds for the rise of the Emperors. Vercingetorix would lie in chains in a Roman prison for five years, seeing the light of day again only to be dragged behind Caesar’s chariot during his long-deferred Triumph. His sole remaining ounce of usefulness exhausted, the Gaulish patriot was returned to prison and executed by strangulation. He has no known burial place.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for something both completely different from and yet oddly resonant with the events described above.