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Julius Caesar and the Historiography of the Battle of Alesia

Pencil Whipped Proportions

Many historians have said that out of his entire life time, his best military achievement in Gaul was winning the Battle of Alesia. What makes this feat extraordinary is the scale and determination of the battle’s two opposing sides, but in what way did Caesar describe the battle of Alesia? On the side of the Gallic armies, an Arverni man named Vercingetorix led a rebellion against Rome bringing many of the tribes of Gaul together in a united front. Being that Gaul was a Roman province and Julius Caesar was its governor Caesar had to quell another Gallic uprising. Gallic wars background. Who started the rebellion and why?

During all his campaigns Caesar wrote down all his accounts as battle reports to Rome and they stirred tremendous political support by winning him the favor of the Roman people. Caesar had to give a detailed account of what he is doing in Rome and why. He does a good job of adding detail but we have to remember that everything he was fighting for, his family’s glory, political prestige, and his reputation, were hinging on this battle. If he won, Gaul would be his, but if he lost, he would lose all of Gaul as a province and make the Gauls even more dangerous enemies of Rome. Accounting for his time in Gaul, Caesar may have exaggerated the numbers of combatants on both sides in his historical recollections of the Gallic Wars making the Siege of Alesia a possible point of exaggeration. Why? What stands out? Roman Legion before and after Caesar. Ability to summon Gauls to war. What did Napoleon say about Alesia?

Caesar’s account of the Siege of Alesia was that first Vercingetorix was made the leader of the combined Gallic force. After which Vercingetorix adopts a scorched earth policy “to prevent the Romans from obtaining forage or corn, provided that they should resolutely destroy their corn and [burn] their houses.” He then turns to his allies and convinces them to do the same. Caesar and his army meet Vercingetorix and his army in the territory of Sequani. Understanding that he was losing the engagement, “Vercingetorix led his troops in the same order as he had arranged them before the camp, and immediately began to march to Alesia.”

Caesar describes that the town “was situated on the top of a hill, in a very lofty position, so that it did not appear likely to be taken, except by a regular siege.” The hill was surrounded by two rivers, “before the town lay a plain of about three miles in length; on every other side at a moderate distance, and of an equal degree of height surrounded the town.” To out think his opponent Caesar took Vercingetorix’s advantage of a fort and made it his own by erecting a wall that circumvented the entire hill—fort and “comprised eleven [Roman] miles.” During the building of this rampart, Vercingetorix harasses the Roman infantry and engineers with his cavalry. This was done to no avail, however, the night before the construction of the inside wall was finished Vercingetorix sends for reinforcements.

Vercingetorix adopts the design of sending away all his cavalry by night, before the fortifications should be completed by the Romans. He charges them when departing “that each of them should go to his respective state, and press for the war all who were old enough to bear arms."

After which the Romans, before the reinforcements arrive, were able to construct an outward facing wall to protect themselves from the approaching armies. He writes that there are “eighty thousand men” in the hill-fort and that the horsemen Vercingetorix sent out mustered.

They demand 35,000 men from the Aedui and their dependents, the Segusiani, Ambivareti, and Aulerci Brannovices; an equal number from the Arverni in conjunction with the Eleuteti Cadurci, Gabali, and Velauni, who were accustomed to be under the command of the Arverni; 12,000 each from the Senones, Sequani, Bituriges, Sentones, Ruteni, and Carnutes; 10,000 from the Bellovaci; the same number from the Lemovici; 8,000 each from the Pictones, and Turoni, and Parisii, and Helvii; 5,000 each from the Suessiones, Ambiani, Mediomatrici, Petrocorii, Nervii, Morini, and Nitiobriges; the same number from the Aulerci Cenomani; 4,000 from the Atrebates; 3,000 each from the Bellocassi, Lexovii, and Aulerci Eburovices; 30,000 from the Rauraci, and Boii; 6,000 from all the states together, which border on the Atlantic, and which in their dialect are called Armoricae.

By arithmetic, the estimated number of reinforcing warriors was between 165,000 to 175,000 soldiers. According to Caesar, he only had 10 legions, each legion numbering between 4,500 and 5,000 men, therefore, at the maximum, Caesar had only 50,000 men and won.

In his 1892 study of the Roman Empire, Theodore Doge gives an account of the Battle of Alesia and wrote in, reference to his map on 284, that Caesar had eleven legions at the battle. Doge states, “camp D had two legions … one legion in A, two in B, three in C, in all eight. The other three were in castella”—castella being the guard towers on the fortified walls. This would have given Caesar 11 legions bringing the total of his army to 4,900 to 5,500 soldiers. The count of the Gallic army was a “specified levy, lest too large an army should be hard to ration,— 240,000 foot, and 8,000 horse in all … [which equaled] 283,000.” This left Caesar outnumbered five to one. The fact that there is as much fluctuation between the accounts of Caesar and the scholarship of Theodore Dodge shows that there may have been alterations, however, the alterations are slight and the work yields little archeological work other than sketches of the hill of Alesia and the few artifacts there.

The scholarship of the Siege of Alesia by Manuel Komroff depicts a larger Gallic troop detachment at Alesia. Komroff states that,

"By sundown of this day, one of the most daring exploits of all military history was over. A Roman army of approximately 50,000 men had defeated an enemy of about 300 and 30,000, an enemy which had completely surrounded it on all sides."

This estimation swells the ranks of the Gallic army to 75,000 more and means the Roman army was outnumbered six to one; thus Caesar’s accomplishment seems to become more amazing than the last time it was studied.

In a more modern study done by Adrian Goldsworthy, he claims that Vercingetorix “mustered 8,000 cavalries and 250,000 infantry. His information may have been incorrect, and he may deliberately have inflated the figure.” Previously he states that “Caesar claims that he now had 80,000 infantry in addition to his cavalry, but as usual it is hard to know how reliable this figure is. Napoleon was [skeptical] and doubted that the Gauls … outnumbered the Romans.” Now his scholarship points out that Caesar did not fudge the numbers on the Roman side; “The Roman field army was now once again concentrated, and its ten legions probably mustered somewhere in the region of 35,000–40,000 men, supported by some auxiliaries.” Goldsworthy also states that “Caesar’s eight legions were most likely under strength so that he had perhaps 25,000–30,000 men, along with a few thousand auxiliaries.” These numbers do not correspond with the army of ten legions that Caesar was rumored to have unless they were small legions.

Caesar did, in fact, stretch the truth about how many men he and Vercingetorix had. This was done because if Caesar returned to Rome having lost Gaul or taken the extreme chance that he did without it being absolutely glorious, he would have been stripped of all his authority and sent to prison. The books by Komroff and Dodge bought into the romanticized account of the Siege of Alesia that Caesar had left behind and inserted their own biases into the accounts. Goldsworthy stuck with the first bits of information that Caesar gave us and followed a trail of logic, which concluded that Caesar misled the Roman Senate, the Roman People, and all who would read his accounts.

Bibliography

Dodge, Theodore Ayrault. Cæsar: A History of the Art of War Among the Romans Down to the End of the Roman Empire .. Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892.

Goldsworthy, Adrian K. Caesar: Life of a Colossus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. PDF. Last Accessed January 26, 2016. 30.

Komroff, Manuel. Julius Caesar. New York: Messner, 1956.

Lindering, Jona. “Caesar’s Legions.” Caesar’s legions – Livius. April 24, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2016.

Lindering, Jona. “Alesia (52 BCE).” Alesia (52 BCE) – Livius. 2003. Accessed April 18, 2017.

National Geographic. "Julius Caesar Documentary Render to Caesar The Things That Are Caesar's." Last updated November 19, 2015. Accessed January 28, 2016.(start 11:03, end 12:13).

Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives: With an English Translation. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Purdue. “Caesar in Gaul in the 50’s BC.” Caesar goes to Gaul in 58 BC with 4 legions; returns with 11 legions. 2005. Accessed April 18, 2017.

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Aaron Loftin
Aaron Loftin

Hi,

My name is Aaron Loftin and I just married the love of my life. Over the honeymoon we learned that we are pregnant. I am graduating from Augusta University on August 8, 2017 with a BA in history and a minor in professional writing.

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