Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 3)

They came at the dead of night, says Caesar.

Julius Caesar (public domain photo)

He couldn’t have liked that much. Darkness always greatly increased the danger of battle. His lookout towers had a fine view of the enemy during the day and he could watch a battle as on a map. But at night he was as blind as any of his soldiers and could do little to help them once the attack came. The good part was that night would increase the effectiveness of his “minefields” and trenches in front of the wall.

A reconstructed section of the Alesia investment fortifications (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)

There were three trenches. The first was twenty feet wide and 400 paces from his wall. He had dug it while raising the wall, precisely to give protection to the soldiers while they worked. At that distance the enemy would not be able to hurl lances and stones with much effectiveness. Later he dug two more ditches and filled one of them with water by making a channel from the creek that flowed around Alesia.

The trench under the wall was slightly slanted away from the wall to make it difficult to stand scaling ladders; and at the joints where the logs of the wall were driven into the mound of earth, Caesar drove in large pointed stakes. “These would slow down an ascent,” he wrote in his plain, undramatic style. The wall was equipped with battlements and there were towers every eighty feet.

These defences had at first seemed sufficient but later Caesar decided to add to them. He had to give his soldiers greater protection.
They had to range wide outside the camp to find not only food and timber but also stones to be used as ammunition for the artillery. While they were out the walls were very weakly manned and Caesar feared an attack. So he decided to strengthen his defences with traps and “minefields”. Some of these were his own invention, some the improvisation of his soldiers as they worked. Because Caesar wrote about them, they have become famous.

The soldiers gave them names. “Gravestones” were sharpened branches fixed solidly at the bottom of a long trench five feet deep. There were five rows of them to a trench. “Anyone who made his way onto them would be impaled,” says Caesar.
“Lilies” were funnel-shaped pits spread out in patterns of five (quincunx). At the bottom of each was a log as thick as a man’s thigh, sharpened to a fine point and tempered in the fire. Earth was packed in around the base of the stake, then the rest of the pit was filled with twigs and brushwood to camouflage it. Eight rows of these lily-pits were dug at three-foot intervals. “Don’t they look a little like flowers?” said the soldiers, admiring their work; and from then on called them “lilies”.
In front of the field of “lilies”, scattered all over here and there and half-buried, were the “spurs”. Those were foot-long logs bristling with iron hooks.

Now at midnight the Gauls, thousands of them, silently moved out of their camp and marched towards Caesar’s wall. Along with their weapons—their slings and bows and swords—they carried wicker hurdles to fill in the ditches. Of the booby traps they knew nothing.
With a loud cry they opened fire and sent a great storm of stones and arrows at Caesar’s soldiers atop the wall.
The cry was also a signal to Vercingetorix, who had been waiting in Alesia, to begin his own sortie and attack on Caesar’s inner wall.

While they were still a few hundred yards from the wall they had a clear advantage in firepower. They showered the walls with missiles.
But when they came closer they fell into the gravestones and lilies and were transfixed; and they stumbled onto the spurs and were impaled. The terrain outside Caesar’s wall became a field of horrors for them and kept back all but the bravest.

A reconstructed Roman ballista (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Scigeek)

The Roman soldiers were ready for the attack, thanks to Caesar’s foresight. Each knew what to do and set to work at his catapult or ballista, ignoring the shower of missiles as best he could. They sent out their own steady hail of heavy stones and iron arrows into the darkness.

Sketch of the Battle of Alesia, drawn by Muriel Gottrop  (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license photo)


The fighting lasted all night. Caesar had to rely on his men and the walls and traps they had made—he had no way of knowing if the defences were being pierced along the kilometers of wall.
When dawn finally came the Gallic general Commius, who had suffered as much uncertainty as Caesar, called a halt to his attack because he was afraid the Romans might make a sudden sortie and encircle his exposed flank. Then he ordered a retreat.
Vercingetorix’s men had been able to fill in the first trench in front of Caesar’s wall on their side, but it took them so long that the fighting was over before they could scale the wall. Disheartened, King Vercingetorix ordered his troops back to Alesia.

The Romans had won this second engagement, round two. Caesar could feel pleased: “Casualties were heavy on both sides,” he wrote, “but there was no breach in the defences.” It was a wonderful achievement.
Yet he knew he was still in grave danger—perhaps graver danger than ever. Much of his ammunition was used up, he had many casualties, and all his soldiers were exhausted. Another attack would be harder to repel. He was still greatly outnumbered. Time, which had run in his favor during the siege, might well start to work against him.

Read Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 4) to see how Caesar won but almost lost the Battle of Alesia

Return to Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 1)


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12 Responses to Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 3)

  1. Hello! I simply would like to give an enormous thumbs up for the great info you’ve right here on this post. I shall be coming back to your weblog for extra soon.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Belief in what you’re doing isn’t enough, it does not create an interest and a market. That requires skills many artists don’t have. Had it not been for his brother, Van Gogh’s work might have gone under. They say that for all his antics even Dalí would not have been successful without Gala’s business talent. I know that thousands and thousands of people devote themselves to art, literature, and music. Oh how I know it.

    Photos of works of art of any period belong to the photographer. The works of art themselves belong to somebody (museums, private owners) too. Only pictures which have been declared of public domain are free. It’s true, Wikipedia has better and better ones all the time.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    You’re right and you’re not, Swallows. And who needs another musician, singer, painter or sculptor? Yet thousands and thousands are born every day. I know this (your) mentality very well and fight it every day.
    I think if one believes in what he does, there is interest and market for him. It’s not an easy ride and you gotta be creative these days, that’s true. Sorry, I kinda talk to myself too.

    I thought images of art become public domain 80 years after an artist’s death, and can be reproduced free of charge, no?

  4. 100swallows says:

    Erika: I had a look at Blurb. Do you know Lulu? I think they are older and bigger—I was already familiar with them—their founder was here in Madrid a couple of years ago and talked about his idea. It’s true, the books look nice and the future is probably in print-on-demand stuff. But don’t you think a writer reaches more of his specific readers online nowadays? Who wants to pay for information? There are problems with art books too: rights to the photos. Permission to use a single photo might cost you $150. Figure how much that is for a whole book of them. It looks like, one, there are too many books in the world; and, two, nobody reads them. If you were a publisher would you put another art-book on the market? I wouldn’t. Or a plain history book?

  5. erikatakacs says:

    So I’m a spammer. :) I think you’ll like it. Tell me what you think.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Hi Erika–your comments were in my spam box. Thanks a lot for the tip. I will look into that place later today when I have a moment. I’m very interested.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    Why aren’t my comments showing up?

  8. erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, I think some of these stories would make an easy to read, fun history book. Ditto for your Best Artist blog. Check out this website:
    You can download their software for free, add text and pictures, then order as many books as you wish, starting at $12.95. There are lots of good ideas there, book publishing made easy.

  9. khyalking says:

    just read,

  10. 100swallows says:

    Eileen: As you see, I wasn’t able to finish the story–only part three. Sorry. I don’t know why it got so long. Of course Caesar’s own account is three or four pages–long for him. The last battle was the hardest. I will crowd the whole thing into one last post.

  11. elementaryteacher says:

    Oh, thank you for finishing this story before my kids get out of school! Sorry for the short comment, but I’m just off to bed (very late).

    Best regards,
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas

  12. Pingback: Caesar Bet Big (Part 2) « Great Names in History

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