|Battle of Alesia|
|Part of the Gallic Wars|
|Roman Republic||Gallic tribes|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Gaius Julius Caesar||Vercingetorix
|60,000(12 legions with cavalry and auxiliaries)||180,000-330,000:
120,000-250,000 relief forces
300,000 according to Plutarch,
modern estimates: 100,000
|Casualties and losses|
|12,800 killed or wounded||between 56,000 to 90,000 of relief force
40,000 besieged captured
The Battle of Alesia or Siege of Alesia took place in September, 52 BC, around the Gallic oppidum of Alesia, a major town centre and hill fort of the Mandubii tribe. It was fought by an army of the Roman Republic commanded by Julius Caesar, aided by cavalry commanders Mark Antony, Titus Labienus and Gaius Trebonius, against a confederation of Gallic tribes united under the leadership of Vercingetorix of the Arverni. It was the last major engagement between Gaulsand Romans, marking the turning point of the Gallic Wars in favour of Rome. The Siege of Alesia is considered one of Caesar’s greatest military achievements and a classic example of siege warfare and investment. The battle of Alesia can safely be described as marking the end of Celtic dominance in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Northern Italy.
The battle site was probably atop Mont Auxois, above modern Alise-Sainte-Reine in France, but this location, some have argued, does not fit Caesar’s description of the battle. A number of alternatives have been proposed over time, among which only Chaux-des-Crotenay (in Jura in modern France) remains a challenger today.
At one point in the battle the Romans were outnumbered by the Gauls by four to one. The event is described by several contemporary authors, including Caesar himself in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico. After the Roman victory, Gaul (very roughly modern France) was subdued and became a Roman province. The Roman senate refused to allow Caesar the honour of a triumph for his victory in the Gallic War, although it did grant a general thanksgiving of 20 days. 
Julius Caesar had been in Gaul since 58 BC. At the end of their consular year it was customary for consuls, Rome’s highest elected officials, to be appointed proconsul by the Roman Senate and assume governorship of one of Rome’s provinces. Following his first consulship in 59 BC, Caesar engineered his own appointment to Cisalpine Gaul (the region between the Alps, the Apennines and the Adriatic – modern-day Northern Italy), and Transalpine Gaul (“Gaul beyond the Alps” – modern-day Switzerland and Alpine France). Although the proconsular term of office is normally one year, Caesar was able to secure his post in Gaul for an unprecedented ten years. With a proconsular Imperium, he had absolute authority within these provinces and had defeated, through an initially unsuccessful campaign, the Celtic tribes of Northern Italy (Insubres, Boii, Taurini, Venetii).
One by one Caesar defeated Gallic (Continental Celts) tribes such as the Helvetii, the Belgae, and the Nervii, and secured a pledge of alliance from many others. The ongoing success of the Gallic Wars brought an enormous amount of wealth to the Republic in spoils of war and in new lands to tax. Caesar himself became very rich since, as general, he benefited from the sale of war prisoners. But success and fame also brought enemies. The First Triumvirate, a political (although informal) alliance with Pompey and Crassus, came to an end in 54 BC, with the deaths of Julia (Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife) in childbirth and Crassus in the battle of Carrhae. Without this political connection with Pompey, men dedicated to the Republic like Cato the Younger started a political campaign against Caesar, arousing suspicion and accusing him of wanting to overthrow the Republic and become King of Rome.
In the winter of 54–53 BC, the previously pacified Eburones, commanded by Ambiorix, rebelled against the Roman occupation and destroyed the Fourteenth legion under the command of Quintus Titurius Sabinus in a carefully planned ambush. This was a major blow to Caesar’s strategy for Gaul, since he had now lost about a quarter of his troops, and the political situation in Rome deprived him from receiving reinforcements. The Eburone rebellion was the first clear Roman defeat in Gaul and inspired widespread national sentiments and revolution. It took almost a year, but Caesar managed to regain control of Gaul and pacify the tribes. However, the unrest in Gaul was not over. The Gallic tribes had realised that only united could they achieve independence from Rome. A general council was summoned at Bibracte through initiative of the Aedui, once Caesar’s loyal supporters. Only the Remi and the Lingones preferred to keep their alliance with Rome. The council declared Vercingetorix, of the Arverni, commander of the united Gallic armies.
Caesar was then camped for the winter in Cisalpine Gaul, unaware of the alliance made against him. The first sign of trouble came from the Carnutes who killed all Roman settlers in the city of Cenabum (modern Orléans). This outbreak of violence was followed by the slaughtering of all Roman citizens, merchants and settlers in the major Gallic cities. On hearing this news, Caesar rallied his army in haste and crossed the Alps, still buried in snow, into central Gaul. This was accomplished in record time and Caesar was able to surprise the Gallic tribes. He split his forces, sending four legions with Titus Labienus to fight the Senones and the Parisii in the North while Caesar himself set out in pursuit of Vercingetorix with six legions and his allied Germanic cavalry. The two armies met at the hill fort of Gergovia, where Vercingetorix held a strong defensive position. Caesar was forced to retreat to avoid utter defeat, after suffering heavy losses. In the summer of 52 BC, several engagements were fought between cavalries, with Caesar succeeding in scattering the Gallic army. Vercingetorix decided that the timing was not right to engage in a major pitched battle and regrouped in the Mandubii fort of Alesia.
Siege and battle
Alesia was a hill-top fort surrounded by river valleys, with strong defensive features. As a frontal assault would have been hopeless, Caesar decided upon a siege, hoping to force surrender by starvation. Considering that about 80,000 men were garrisoned in Alesia, together with the local civilian population, this would not have taken long. To guarantee a perfect blockade, Caesar ordered the construction of an encircling set of fortifications, called a circumvallation, around Alesia. The details of this engineering work are known from Caesar’s Commentaries. About 18 kilometres of 4 metre high fortifications were constructed in about three weeks. This line was followed inwards by two four-and-a-half metre wide ditches, also four-and-a-half metres deep. The one nearest to the fortification was filled with water from the surrounding rivers. These fortifications were supplemented with mantraps and deep holes in front of the ditches, and regularly spaced watch towers equipped with Roman artillery.
Vercingetorix’s cavalry often raided the construction works attempting to prevent full enclosure. The Roman auxiliary cavalry proved its value and kept the raiders at bay. After about two weeks of work, a detachment of Gallic cavalry managed to escape through an unfinished section. Anticipating that a relief force would now be sent, Caesar ordered the construction of a second line of fortifications, the contravallation, facing outward and encircling his army between it and the first set of walls. The second line was identical to the first in design and extended for 21 kilometres, including four cavalry camps. This set of fortifications would protect the Roman army when the relief Gallic forces arrived: they were still besiegers and now also preparing to be besieged.
At this time, the living conditions in Alesia were worsening. With 80,000 soldiers and the local population, too many people were crowded inside the plateau competing for too little food. The Mandubii decided to expel the women and children from the citadel, hoping to save food for the fighters and hoping that Caesar would open a breach to let them go. This would also be an opportunity for breaching the Roman lines. But Caesar issued orders that nothing should be done for these civilians and the women and children were left to starve in the no man’s land between the city walls and the circumvallation. The cruel fate of their kin added to the general loss of morale inside the walls. Vercingetorix was fighting to keep spirits high, but faced the threat of surrender by some of his men. However, the relief force arrived in this desperate hour, strengthening the resolve of the besieged to resist and fight another day.
At the end of September the Gauls, commanded by Commius, attempted to break in by attacking Caesar’s contravallation wall. Vercingetorix ordered a simultaneous attack from the inside. None of the attempts were successful and by sunset the fighting had ended. On the next day, the Gallic attack was under the cover of night. This time they met with greater success and Caesar was forced to abandon some sections of his fortification lines. Only the swift response of the cavalry commanded by Antony and Gaius Trebonius saved the situation. The inner wall was also attacked, but the presence of trenches, which Vercingetorix’s men had to fill, delayed them enough to prevent surprise. By this time, the condition of the Roman army was also weak. Themselves besieged, food had started to be rationed and the men were near physical exhaustion.
On the next day, October 2, Vercassivellaunus, a cousin of Vercingetorix, launched a massive attack with 60,000 men, focusing on a weakness in the Roman fortifications (the circle in the figure) which Caesar had tried to hide, but had been discovered by the Gauls. The area in question was a zone with natural obstructions where a continuous wall could not be constructed. The attack was made in combination with Vercingetorix’s forces who pressed from every angle of the inner fortification. Caesar trusted the discipline and courage of his men and sent out orders to simply hold the lines. He personally rode throughout the perimeter cheering his legionaries. Labienus’ cavalry was sent to support the defense of the area where the fortification breach was located. With pressure increasing, Caesar was forced to counter-attack the inner offensive and managed to push back Vercingetorix’s men. By this time the section held by Labienus was on the verge of collapse. Caesar decided on a desperate measure and took 13 cavalry cohorts[dubious ] (about 6,000 men) to attack the relief army of 60,000 from the rear. This action surprised both attackers and defenders. Seeing their leader undergoing such risk, Labienus’ men redoubled their efforts and the Gauls soon panicked and tried to retreat. As in other examples of ancient warfare, the disarrayed retreating army was easy prey for the disciplined Roman pursuit. The retreating Gauls were slaughtered, and Caesar in his Commentaries remarks that only the pure exhaustion of his men saved the Gauls from complete annihilation.
In Alesia, Vercingetorix witnessed the defeat of his relief force. Facing both starvation and low morale, he was forced to surrender without a final fight. On the next day, the Gallic leader presented his arms to Julius Caesar, putting an end to the siege of Alesia.
Alesia proved to be the end of generalized and organized resistance to the Roman invasion of Gaul, marking the definitive conquest of the Continental Celtic people by the Roman Republic. After Alesia, Continental Gaul was subdued, becoming a Roman province, and was eventually subdivided into several smaller administrative divisions. Not until the third century would another independence movement occur (see Gallic Empire). The garrison of Alesia was taken prisoner as well as the survivors of the relief army. They were either sold into slavery or given as booty to Caesar’s legionaries, except for the members of the Aedui and Arverni tribes, which were released and pardoned to secure the alliance of these important tribes to Rome.
For Caesar, Alesia was an enormous personal success, both militarily and politically. The senate declared 20 days of thanksgiving for this victory, but refused Caesar the honour of celebrating a triumphal parade, the peak of any general’s career. Political tension increased, and two years later, in 50 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, which precipitated the Roman Civil War of 49–45 BC, which he won. After having been elected consul, for each of the years of the war, and appointed to several temporary dictatorships, he was finally made dictator perpetuus (dictator for life), by the Roman Senate in 44 BC. His ever increasing personal power and honours undermined the tradition-bound republican foundations of Rome, and led to the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
Caesar’s cavalry commanders followed different paths. Labienus sided with the Optimates, the conservative aristocratic faction in the civil war, and was killed at the Battle of Munda in 45 BC. Trebonius, one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants, was appointed consul by Caesar in 45 BC, and was one of the senators involved in Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March (March 15), 44 BC. He was himself murdered a year later. Antony continued to be a faithful supporter of Caesar. He was made Caesar’s second in command, as Master of the Horse, and was left in charge in Italy during much of the civil war. In 44 BC he was elected as Caesar’s consular colleague. After Caesar’s murder, Antony pursued Caesar’s assassins and vied for supreme power with Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus), first forming an alliance with Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate, then being defeated by him at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Along with his ally and lover, queen Cleopatra, he fled to Egypt, where they committed suicide the following year.
Vercingetorix was taken prisoner and languished in prison for the next five years while waiting to be exhibited at Caesar’s triumph. As was traditional for such captured and paraded enemy leaders, at the end of the triumphal procession, he was taken to the Tullianum (also known as the Mamertine Prison) where he was said to have been strangled, although he was most likely executed in a Roman dungeon.
Paul K. Davis writes that “Caesar’s victory over the combined Gallic forces established Roman dominance in Gaul for the next 500 years. Caesar’s victory also created a rivalry with the Roman government, leading to his invasion of the Italian peninsula.”
Identification of the site
For many years, the actual location of the battle was unknown. Competing theories focused first on two towns, Alaise in the Franche-Comté and Alise-Sainte-Reine in the Côte-d’Or. Emperor Napoleon III of France supported the latter candidate, and, during the 1860s, funded archaeological research that uncovered the evidence to support the existence of Roman camps in the area. He then dedicated a statue to Vercingetorix in the recently discovered ruins.
Uncertainty has nevertheless persisted, with questions being raised about the validity of Alise-Sainte-Reine’s claim. For example, the site is said to be too small to accommodate even revised estimates of 80,000 men with the Gallic infantry, along with cavalry and additional personnel. It is also alleged that the topography of the area does not fit with Caesar’s description. In the 1960s, a French archaeologist, Andre Berthier, argued that the hill top was too low to have required a siege, and that the “rivers” were actually small streams.
Berthier proposed that the location of the battle was at Chaux-des-Crotenay at the gate of the Jura mountains – a place that better suits the descriptions in Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Roman fortifications have been found at this site. Danielle Porte, a Sorbonne professor, continues to challenge the identification of Alise-Sainte-Reine as the battle site, but the director of the Alesia museum, Laurent de Froberville, maintains that scientific evidence supports this identification. Classical historian and archaeologist Colin Wellstook the view that the excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine in the 1990s should have removed all possible doubt about the site and regarded some of the advocacy of alternative locations as “…passionate nonsense”.
Precise figures for the size of the armies involved, and the number of casualties suffered, are difficult to know. Such figures have always been a powerful propaganda weapon, and are thus suspect. Caesar, in his De Bello Gallico, refers to a Gallic relief force of a quarter of a million, probably an exaggeration to enhance his victory. Unfortunately, the only records of the events are Roman and therefore presumably biased. Modern historians usually believe that a number between 80,000–100,000 men is more credible. The only known fact is that each man in Caesar’s legions received a Gaul as a slave, which means at least 40,000 prisoners, mostly from the besieged garrison. The relief force probably suffered heavy losses, like many other armies who lost battle order and retreated under the weapons of the Roman cavalry.
- Allen, Stephen (2007) Lords of battle: the world of the Celtic warrior pg.169.
- Alésia Mandubiorum l’Hypothèse jurassienne” (in French). Retrieved May 9, 2011.
- Julius Caesar. Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Book VII, XC.
- “…duas fossas quindecim pedes latas, eadem altitudine perduxit…” Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Book VII, LXXII.
- Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and How They Shaped History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 56.
- Hugh Schofield, France’s ancient Alesia dispute rumbles on, BBC News, 27 August 2012.
- Alesia and Kalkriese compared and contrasted
- J.F.C. Fuller, Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier, and Tyrant, Da Capo Press, 1991, ISBN 0-306-80422-0
- Julius Caesar (ca. 45 BC), Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-99080-3
- Available online, e.g.: English translation by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn (1869)
- Adrian Goldsworthy, (2002) Roman Warfare, New York: Collins/Smithonian, 2005
- Account of the battle and surrounding events (retrieved late November 2005)
- Livius.org account of the battle (retrieved late February 2009)
- official web site of Alesia
- Siege of Alesia animated battle map by Jonathan Webb
- Video: Exact location of Alesia at Alise-Sainte-Reine (german)
- Photo: Gaulish inscription, which shows the Gaulish spelling of Alésia: “ALISIIA”, found at the “Forum” in Alise-Sainte-Reine, 1st century B.C., 50 X 34 cm
- Julius Caesar: The siege of Alesia