The most exciting thing in Caesar’s Commentaries?
Commentarii de Bello Gallico, an account written by Julius Caesar about his nine years of war in Gaul (public domain photo)
The battle of Alesia.
What is so exciting about it?
Caesar was so daring; so much was in the balance.
He had eighty thousand Gauls trapped inside a town with a deep river-gorge around it. Since he couldn’t storm it, he built a wall to fence the Gauls in.
He knew they had food for only about thirty days.
Yet just before he closed the ring around the town, the Gallic cavalry escaped and ran to get help.
Caesar had fifty thousand soldiers, which was strained but acceptable for this siege, but now there was a chance that a new Gallic army would come to help their trapped countrymen before he could make them surrender. What should he do? Give up the siege?
Soon spies informed him that there was indeed a huge army a-building: 200,000 or 250,000 Gauls marching to relieve Alesia. Any general but old Gaius would have abandoned his siege and gotten out while the getting was good. Imagine: eighty thousand enemies in front of you and 250,000 coming from your back.
But Caesar hated to run away. In the town with those eighty thousand Gauls was their great king Vercingetorix. This was just too good. And anyway he reasoned that, in a way, he still had an advantageous position—or he could make himself one. Of course it took a Caesar to reason like that. And a Caesar to pull off one of the most daring plans in military history. If it hadn´t worked and he had gotten away alive he would surely have been court-martialled. After all, he did have enough time to break camp and look for a less apparently compromising position.
He had been studying siege techniques and defense-works. He was satisfied that his great 18-kilometer wall around Alesia would hold in the enemy. Why shouldn’t a similar wall and ditch be able to hold off another one, however big?
He ordered his men to start building a second wall BEHIND them. And to put towers every fifty yards and to lay clever traps everywhere in front of the wall and pointed sticks and all kinds of defense works and machines a few soldiers could handle when the enemy came. The work was hard—the soldiers had just finished the first wall and were exhausted. Maybe there wouldn’t be enough time to complete the second wall before the relieving enemy army showed up. But Caesar guessed there was. He kept his men cheerful with his famous pep-talks; and they had fun making the new booby traps and giving them names.
A reconstruction of Caesar’s outer wall and trenches (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo).
And his hunch was right. When the huge army of Gauls showed up the new wall was finished except for one small place where because of a stream there was no way to close it.
Caesar’s twin wall around Alesia, thought to be the modern Alise Sainte-Reine, France (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license photo).
Read what happened when the Gauls attacked and stumbled onto those booby-traps. Caesar’s Greatest Battle (Part 2)