Put yourself in this situation. You're the commander of an army. You're up against somebody
with superior technology, but you have them slightly outnumbered. You are better supplied,
but they are better disciplined. You've defeated them in a minor engagement in the past, but
that was in an unusual situation, where you had cut their supply lines and they had acted
foolishly. You have allies, but they're very far away fighting battles of their own. Seriously
consider this question: what would you do?
This was Vercingetorix's situation in 52 B.C.E. His opponent was Julius Caesar. This was the
Battle of Alesia.
This is how Vercingetorix responded to his situation. He pulled his men back to a highly
defensible hilltop fort. He sent out messengers to all of his allies, asking for reinforcements.
His logic was this: If Caesar was foolish enough to attack the fort, Vercingetorix still
held the high ground with superior numbers, and would cut him to pieces. If Caesar was
foolish enough to wait around, Vercingetorix's reinforcements would arrive, and Caesar would
be up against two armies instead of one. You can see that Vercingetorix was trying his
best to play into his army's strengths. Greater numbers: let's amplify that by calling for
reinforcements. Better supplied: let's dig in and see if the enemy impulsively tries
to attack uphill like last time.
So what went wrong?
Over the course of a seven-year pro-Consulship, Caesar had been slowly tightening his grip
on Gaul. He hadn't annexed any territory officially - only the Roman Senate could do that - but
the Gauls contributed troops to Caesar's armies, supplied him with grain, and even handed over
annual tribute. The Roman Senate may not have called it annexation, but it would have felt
an awful lot like it to the Gallic people. As Caesar's grip on Gaul tightened, a conspiracy
hatched between the regional Gallic leaders. They decided on a coordinated uprising across
all of Gaul. This conspiracy coalesced around one man who was elected to lead the uprising,
Now, we return to the scene of the battle. Vercingetorix outnumbered Caesar by a third,
and is sitting in a great defensive position. He has reinforcements on the way, but he doesn't
know how many are coming or when they will get there. His men are well fed for the moment,
but seem intimidated by Rome's infantry. So he waits.
Caesar closes in, and quickly gets to work besieging Alesia.
This is already a little unorthodox. Caesar has the numerically inferior force, and is
deep in enemy territory with shaky supply lines. Plus, being enemy territory, a Gallic
army could be just over any horizon. Caesar was putting himself in a terribly vulnerable
situation, and he knew it.
So what does he do? He begins to construct a set of inward-facing walls that ran an amazing
18 kilometers, circumventing the entire fort and hillside, cutting off any potential escape.
They would have had to clear entire sections of forest just to construct it. These were
not just some thrown together fortifications, either. These were two stories tall, with
ladders and raised platforms for patrols.
3:15 **Then, Caesar turned around and amazingly did the exact same thing again, this time
facing the other direction. Leaving a wide enough gap to contain his entire army, he
constructed another set of walls, facing outwards. He managed to get all of this done in the
matter of a few weeks. Naturally, as you would expect, Vercingetorix attempted to slow down
his process by sending out raiding parties to attack the workers, but they were easily
repulsed by the Roman infantry.
Do you see what Caesar did, and why he did it? This is where his genius begins to show.
Vercingetorix put him in an impossible situation, where he either assaulted a well defended
position against superior numbers, or waited to be caught between two armies with even
more superior numbers, or retreated. Caesar created a fourth option. He made his own fort.
He stole Vercingetorix's tactical advantage out from under him. Now, if Vercingetorix
wanted out, he was going to have to be the one assaulting Caesar well defended position.
Vercingetorix's reinforcements finally arrived, and the numbers were huge. If you count the
combined Gallic armies, they outnumbered the Romans at something approaching 3:1.
On the very first day, the Gallic reinforcements advanced. They placed their massive numbers
of cavalry in front, shielding and concealing lines of archers behind them. The Gauls always
had excellent cavalry, superior to Roman cavalry in every way, so this was a pretty aggressive
stance. Luckily for Caesar, he had been collecting cavalry from Gaul for many years now, and
had just received some elite mounted auxiliaries from Germania. He sent them out to meet the
enemy advance. Intense cavalry on cavalry fighting took place all day. Whenever the
Romans thought they were gaining the upper hand, the Gallic cavalry would pull back into
the range of their archers, and the Romans would get surprised by a nasty volly of arrows.
At this time, Vercingetorix's forces pushed up and prepared for an attack on the interior
wall. They never found an opportunity. Caesar's elite German cavalry, in a last ditch effort,
regrouped on the hillside, and charged downhill into the enemy, finally driving them into
a full fledged retreat. This time, the Romans were able to reach the lines of Gallic archers,
who were easily killed. Somehow, outnumbered and outmatched, the Romans were able to hold
the Gallic cavalry off, and all sides retired for the evening.
The second day passed uneventfully, but that night a focused surprise attack was launched
from both directions at one specific point in the Roman defensive line. A young man named
Marc Antony heroically commanded this section of the line, and in Caesar's eyes his leadership
single-handedly saved the day. Additional troops were called over from the far sides
of the wall, and the Romans were barely able to hang on for the night. Caesar knew talent
when he saw it, and for the rest of his life Antony would be his right hand man.
On the third day, the Gauls planned for an all out assault. They began by taking some
nearby high ground outside of the enclosure that was being lightly defended by Roman infantry.
The Gallic relief army then launched an offensive along the entire Roman defensive line. The
thrust of the attack was lead by Vercingetorix's cousin, who took his men up the newly liberated
hill and charged down it, attacking a weak point in the Roman wall. The small Roman army
was stretched thinner and thinner trying to defend the entire length of the wall at once.
Caesar took personal command of his men in reserve, micromanaging groups of 500 men,
having them reinforce sections of the wall just as they were about to fall to the enemy.
Finally, Vercingetorix realized what was happening, and got his act together. He threw every man
he had at one point along the thin Roman line, attempting to break through. At this point,
the Gauls were doing pretty much exactly what they should have been doing doing. Spread
the Romans thin to maximize their numerical weakness, and then breach the walls to nullify
Caesar saw what was happening, and threw every man he had in reserve at that section of the
wall. Caesar was now fully committed, but Vercingetorix's breakout was thwarted. The
besieged Gauls now shifted their tactics, and began to attack the entire length of the
inside wall. Caesar's army was now completely surrounded, fighting in all directions `at
once. The Roman situation now begins to crumble. Vercingetorix's cousin, attacking downhill,
successfully breached the Roman wall, and Gauls begin to pour into the Roman defenses.
Caesar personally rode through his lines, stealing any unit he thought could be spared,
and threw them towards the breach in the wall. In total was able to rally over 6500 men,
who formed a shield wall and held the entire Gallic army in place.
Caesar then took personal command of his remaining cavalry, who were not of much use defending
his walls, and, amazingly, punched through the Gallic attackers at another section of
the wall. The Roman cavalry then turned, and charged up behind the Gauls who had breached
the walls. The Gauls saw the Roman cavalry charge and paniced, not realizing the Romans
were stretched to capacity, and that this was the last card that Caesar had to play.
Many Gauls tried to flee, but it was too late. The Roman cavalry encircled the Gauls, killing
or capturing most of them. Seeing this, the rest of the Gallic relief army retreated.
This finally allowed the Roman infantry to turn and focus on Vercingetorix, who retreated
back into the fort. He surrendered the next day.
Now you see what Caesar was able to accomplish when he was put in an impossible tactical
situation. And you can get a hint at how his brain worked. He wasn't necessarily obsessed
with fancy formations, or complicated maneuvers, or classic set-piece battles. He had great
sub-commanders who could do all of that for him. His thinking was always focused on bigger
issues. Where does the enemy have the advantage? How can I mitigate that? Where am I strong?
How can I maximize that advantage? How can I make the enemy is tired? How can I make
sure the enemy has the sun in their eyes? How can I make the enemy fight in the mud?
How can I make them skip breakfast? His military talent - and, you could say, his political
talent - lied with opportunism. He would take a situation and squeeze every conceivable
advantage out of it until there was nothing left. And then, as we see with the Battle
of Alesia, he would roll the dice.