From the citadel of Alesia Vercingetorix watched his kinsmen arrive by the thousands behind the Roman army.
Statue de Vercingétorix at Alise-Sainte-Reine (Côte-d’Or) France – sculpteur Aimé Millet ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Siren-Com)
He must have nearly collapsed with relief. He and his soldiers inside Alesia had been able to survive, but just barely.
The thirty days of food were long past. He had had to do something very ugly. He had sent the women and the children out of the town and closed the gates on them—there was no other way: the available food had to be used to feed his fighting men. He had hoped Caesar would take pity on those people and feed them or at least let them pass through his camp. But Caesar kept his gates closed on them too, and they starved between the two armies, in full view of all the soldiers on both sides.
Sending them out of Alesia was hard but Vercingetorix hoped he would never have to give an even crueller order. In an assembly the Gauls had agreed that when their own food ran out, they would live off the bodies of the oldest of them.
Now he would never have to give that order. His army inside Alesia would be freed soon , after a short battle.
He would charge out of the city and attack the Romans from the front as soon as he saw the huge Gallic force assail them from behind. He ordered his soldiers to make big wicker boxes or hurdles to fill Caesar’s trenches, and to prepare hooks and ropes for scaling his wall.
Statue of Celtic king Vercingetorix at the Place de Jaude (Clermont-Ferrand) Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Kees Recourt
The Great Gallic Host
Thousands and thousands of exuberant Gallic warriors organized themselves and took their position on a big hill about a mile south of Caesar’s outer wall.
They couldn’t wait to get started. No one was afraid of the Romans any more. The Gauls had defeated this same army of Caesar’s only months before when it was camped in front of another fortified town called Gergovia. The Romans had tried to storm the town and had failed and were driven back with heavy losses. Caesar was in charge, though it was said that he was away during the defeat and the storming of Gergovia was done against his orders. But however the Romans wanted to explain it or minimize it, the army of their greatest commander had been beaten; and the legend of Roman invincibility was over.
The Relief of Alesia Begins
The Gallic commander Commius arrived in the Gallic camp and the next morning issued his orders. His cavalry were to ride out of camp and deploy on the great plain, while his infantry kept back a short distance in readiness on high ground. All this was visible both from Alesia and from the Roman fortifications and the soldiers of both armies watched, the Gauls in the town cheering and congratulating each other, the Romans brave but leaning just a little on their commander’s confidence that their wall and all their clever traps would hold off the enemy.
Caesar watched from one of the towers of his fortifications. Each of his soldiers had been assigned a place, manning an artillery machine or defending one of the walls in some other way. It had all been rehearsed and his men were prepared for the attack. He had stockpiled food for more than a month to withstand a siege of his own defenses. But he knew the Gallic army would have to act soon to save their near-starving comrades trapped in the town.
Now when he saw the Gallic cavalry lined up in battle order on the plain, Caesar ordered his German cavalry to go out and fight them.
The plain now became a great amphitheater for the soldiers who watched from the Roman walls and towers, the ramparts of Alesia, and the hilltops where the Gallic infantry sat and cheered. There was no gunsmoke in those days—everyone saw everything; and Caesar said that knowing they were being watched made the cavalrymen push themselves on to great acts of bravery and heroism.
Yet at first his German horse made a bad showing.
They panicked when arrows started flying. The Gauls had interspersed archers among their cavalry and the Germans weren’t expecting arrows. When the first of them were wounded, they turned tail. Cheers went up from the Gallic infantry sitting on the hilltop and also from the Vercingetorix’s soldiers watching from Alesia. It looked like this was going to be easy, all right.
But then the Germans came back and fought hard, in spite of the archers. Once the fighting went on at close quarters, the archers could not shoot so effectively because of the danger of hitting their own riders.
That cavalry battle lasted from noon to almost sundown. The climax came when in one part of the field Caesar’s cavalry massed its squadrons, charged, and put the Gauls to flight, causing a general panic. The defenseless archers were quickly cut down. The German cavalry pursued the enemy all the way up to their camp, killing many before they returned victorious to Caesar’s camp. It was the first great victory for Caesar’s army and quieted the Gallic cheering. For a day nothing new happened.
Replica of the fortification and traps used in the siege of Alesia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license photo by Christophe.Finot)
But that next night Caesar’s wall and all his traps and trenches and artillery were put to the test. Did they work? Did they keep off the Gauls?
Read Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 3)