Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

The Final Subjugation of Gaul

In 52, the most terrible year of the war, the Gallic patriot Vercingetorix emerged and almost recovered the independence of his country. In the winter of 53-52 chieftains were gathering together in woods and remote places, bewailing the slavery into which their land had fallen and talking of ways in which the Roman tyranny could be overthrown, and they hit on the excellent plan of preventing Caesar's return from Cisalpine Gaul to his army while they reduced the legions in winter quarters.

The Carnutes, who dwelt on the middle Loire, where Orleans now stands, began hostilities by slaying the Roman traders who had settled in their capital, and some hours later signals of a sort still a mystery informed the Arverni of the deed. Most of the chief men of the Arverni were too timorous to consent to join in the rising, but they were expelled from the State by the young chief Vercingetorix, who inspired with his enthusiasm his own and all their client tribes. Almost all the tribes from Auvergne to the Atlantic and from the Garonne to the Seine accepted his leadership and all the sacrifices which he imposed on them for the sake of the cause, and he established the sternest discipline in his army.

News of this movement came to Caesar at a time when it was doubtful whether he could safely leave Italy, as Rome was in such disorder, but he departed, and it is curious that in this year of her weakness, when her own citizens were under martial law, Rome should have completed the conquest of a great province and sown the seeds of another country's civilization.

Caesar reached the Province before forces sent by Vercingetorix had entered it, and put it in a state of defense, and then marched over the Cevennes, his soldiers shoveling away snow six feet deep and opening the roads. The Arverni had guarded all other routes from Italy to Gaul, but they regarded the Cevennes as a wall, and no man had ever crossed them before at that time of the year. Then this 'monster of speed,' as the Romans called him, sent to all his winter quarters and assembled his army before the Arverni knew anything of his movements. All were dismayed but Vercingetorix, who began to attack the Gallic allies of the Romans. Caesar, however, drew him off by starting the siege of the rebel strongholds, and as they were taken he allowed his soldiers to sack them. The heroic Gauls, therefore, animated by Vercingetorix, determined to burn all the towns which they did not consider strong enough to hold against the Romans. The Bituriges set the example, burning more than twenty of their cities in one day, and the other tribes were not behind; but a fatal mistake was made in sparing Avaricum (Bourges), almost the fairest city of Gaul, at the earnest prayer of the Bituriges, to whom it belonged. The siege of Avaricum proved the 'hinge of the war.' The Gauls performed prodigies of valour, and the Roman soldiers suffered every hardship from fatigue and famine, being prevented by Vercingetorix from foraging and having to subsist, without corn, on the cattle they could drive into the camp by departing at unexpected times to look for them. They must have been in a pitiable condition, for Caesar even told the officers that if the privations were too severe he would give up the siege. This the whole army indignantly refused and cried out that they were dishonoured by the idea. All were thirsting to avenge the Roman citizens who had been slain at Orleans, and when at last they got into the town, no one thought of booty until all the defenders and the old men, women, and children, to the number of nearly 40,000, had been put to the sword.

Vercingetorix had disapproved of defending Arvaricum, and the sad result increased his reputation. He was now able to persuade his soldiers, men unused to arduous toil, to fortify the camp in the Roman manner, and to submit in every way to his superior wisdom. Caesar then turned against the Arvernian capital Gergovia, situated on a high hill, difficult to approach on every side and impossible to storm. He was for a while distracted by the defection of his old allies, the Aedui, who had long been ashamed of their position with regard to their countrymen. He pacified them for a time, and then concentrated all his forces against Gergovia, but suffered heavy losses and finally retired, having for once signally failed in his attack. He then proceeded against the Aedui, at last in full revolt.

In the Aeduan town of Noviodunum (Nevers), on the right bank of the Loire, Caesar had placed all his Gallic hostages and stored the public money, corn, a great part of the baggage, and a large number of horses. All these were seized by the enemy. The Roman garrison and the merchants there were slain, and the town was burned, as the Aeduans did not think it strong enough to hold against Caesar. Their supplies were carried into their capital, Bibracte, and they placed garrisons all along the Loire (difficult to cross in any case, on account of the melting of the winter snows) and organized themselves to cut off Caesar's supplies. Caesar was in a desperate position, and from his journal it appears as if he might have retired in despair from the country had not the roughest roads and the Cevennes lain between him and the Province, and had not Labienus and a Roman force, which could not be abandoned, lain on the northern side of the Loire.

Now, by forced marches day and night, he performed what all thought impossible. He arrived at the Loire before the Aedui had completed their preparations, and found a ford where his soldiers might cross. They carried their armour above their heads to hold it out of the swollen stream, while the cavalry were stationed above them in the water to break the force of the torrent.

Labienus had been carrying on aggressive warfare across the Seine, but when he heard of Caesar's repulse at Gergovia, the defection of the Aedui and his general's reported flight from Gaul, retreat became his one care, and he carried it out in the capable way in which he did everything while he was associated with Caesar. He tricked and defeated the large army set to hold the Seine and prevent his return, arrived unopposed at Agedincum (Sens), where he had left his baggage and a garrison, and three days later joined Caesar with his whole army.

Vercingetorix was now appointed commander-in-chief of all the Aeduan forces as well as his own, and at a great Gallic council at Bibracte it was decided to fight no battle, but to burn their crops and villages and attack the Romans unawares as they sought supplies. As, however, Caesar started to march southward, in order to get into touch with the Province, they deceived themselves that he was leaving for Italy, and determined to harass him on his way and seize his baggage, so that he should clearly depart in need and shame. The Gallic cavalry even swore never again to have a roof over their heads or approach their families unless they rode twice through the Roman column. This valorous attempt proved fatal; they were all put to flight, and Caesar sat down to his most famous Gallic siege, that of Alesia (Alise Ste. Reine, on Mont Auxois), where Vercingetorix, who had not taken part in the attack personally, had sought refuge. It was a very strong town, but the defenders lacked supplies, and, before Caesar completed his lines of circumvallation round the hill on which it stood, Vercingetorix sent all his cavalry away to make his case known to his allies and urge on them that the lives of 80,000 men depended on their immediate appearance. Even chiefs whom Caesar thought specially bound to himself were swept away by the general movement to vindicate the ancient liberty and glory of Gaul, and the 250,000 foot and 8000 cavalry that started for Alesia were but a small part of the force available to fight the Romans.

More than seven weeks had gone by since the cavalry left, and the besieged had come to the end of their food and were ignorant of the vast army hastening to their aid, and it was decided that soon they must slay and eat all those in the town who could not fight. Before this desperate deed, they decreased their numbers by ordering the citizens themselves with their wives and children to depart. They were compelled to go, and approached the Roman lines, weeping and praying that they might be received as slaves and given food, but Caesar also refused to harbour them, and they died of starvation in the sight of both camps.

When the relieving force approached, a desperate struggle took place, the besieged descending to attack the Romans in the rear; but the battle ended in a decisive victory for the Romans. The vast army dissolved and vanished, says Plutarch, like a ghost or dream. When the final flight had taken place and the besieged had watched the slaughter from the town above, Vercingetorix called a council of war and said that he would willingly submit to be slain if that would satisfy the Romans, or even would suffer himself to be delivered to them alive, since he had failed in the attempt he had made to deliver Gaul out of their hands. Envoys were sent to Caesar to offer surrender, and he himself walked out to the ramparts to receive Vercingetorix and the other leaders. Six years later, it is said, the great Gallic leader was led in Caesar's triumph at Rome, and then put to death, a sad end to a great patriot and a brave man. With the fall of Alesia the war of liberation was practically over, and the Roman Senate ordered a twenty days' thanksgiving for the victory. Caesar determined to winter in Gaul, and took up his quarters at Bibracte.

At this point Caesar's Commentaries' on the Gallic War  come to an end, and the story was continued by another hand, that of a less elegant Latinist than Caesar, but of a soldier who had a real love for his subject. The soldier tells us that Caesar's Commentaries  were admired by all, but, he writes, "Our admiration is greater than that of others, for they can only admire the skill and care of the style, while we know how easily and quickly he wrote them."

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


The new plan of those of the Gauls who did not give in on the news of Alesia, was no more to assemble large armies, but to rise in various places at the same time and so separate the Roman forces. Thus Caesar was compelled to spend the winter marching over rough country stamping out the various small sparks of revolt. If his troops suffered from exposure, the Gauls suffered far more, as at his approach they left their towns and tried in vain to live shelterless. "Winter and rough weather" is a more serious enemy in practice than in theory.

The Bellovaci rose again under the valiant chiefs Correus and Commius, and the former, after performing prodigies of valour, was slain, while the latter escaped when the rebels were forced to submit. Caesar offered pardon, but in the preceding year Labienus had tried to kill Commius by guile (on the plea that no faith need be kept with rebels), and he had sworn never to trust himself in the presence of a Roman again. After this army was disbanded there was no longer any tribe in arms, but scattered bands of Gauls had fled into the wilds to live the lives of free men as long as possible, like Hereward the Wake in the Fens after the Norman Conquest of England. Caesar had never yet got hold of Ambiorix, and now he laid waste his territories, slaying man and beast and burning every habitation, so that Ambiorix might never be able to return, and would, moreover, be odious in the eyes of his tribe.

His generals, scattered about the country, had every now and then to face a new outburst, and when Caesar had quelled the Bellovaci and wasted the territories of Ambiorix he went south to help Caninius in the siege of Uxellodunum (Puy d'Issolu), a town difficult to climb up to, still more to storm. It had been seized by some Gallic leaders who had failed in a projected inroad into the Province. He made up his mind as he journeyed south to show great severity, or the war would never be ended. He was determined that Gaul should be quelled before he left, and he knew that the Gauls were as well aware as himself that his time as governor was drawing to a close and thought that if only they could hold out until he was gone there would be nothing more to fear. When he arrived at Uxellodunum and heard that the townspeople had plenty of corn and no intention of surrendering, he decided to cut off the water-supply. The stream which flowed through the valley at the foot of the hill on which the town stood could not be turned aside, but the descent to it from the town was so steep and difficult that the Roman clingers and archers could prevent the defenders coining down to it for water. There was, however, a large spring near the town wall, and Caesar exposed his soldiers to showers of missiles from the wall while he made a terrace sixty feet high with a tower of ten storeys from which he could shoot at those who came to the spring. At the same time his men were busily undermining the spring. It was so difficult and dangerous for the Gauls to get water when the rampart was completed that they as well as their beasts began to perish of thirst, but they still held out. They filled casks with tallow, pitch, and wooden tiles and rolled them down alit on the works, while they themselves made such a sharp attack that no one could be spared to extinguish the flames. At last a great shout from a detachment of besiegers sent to another part of the hill recalled them to the defense of the town. Finally the Romans managed by mines to turn aside the feeders of the spring, and the drying up of this perrenial fountain brought about a surrender. Caesar had always been as merciful as is compatible with war, both from policy and temperament. He had no savage strain in his composition. Uxellodunum, however, was made an example to all the cities of Gaul, the right hand of every man bearing arms being cut off.

He then went to Aquitaine for the first time, and all the tribes sent ambassadors and hostages. Then he visited the Province and rewarded it for the vital aid which it had given him during the war, and so returned to Belgium and wintered there. Commius, who had taken to the roads, mortally wounded a Roman prefect and inflicted great loss on the band of cavalry with him, but at last sought peace and gave hostages, on condition that he himself need never come into the presence of any Roman.

The year 50 was spent by Caesar in trying to win the goodwill of Gaul which he formed into a new Roman province, imposing a yearly tribute of forty million sesterces (about 350,000). He gave rewards to chieftains and honors to various tribes, and took no more booty from a country which was worn out by the struggle of these terrible years. When the winter was over he left for Italy to support Mark Antony's candidature for an augurship, and was received with enthusiasm and reverence in Cisalpine Gaul, where the end of the Gallic Wars was celebrated. His route was decorated, crowds thronged to see him, sacrifices were offered and banquets prepared in all parts. After visits all over "Gallia Togata"—"toga-wearing Gaul"—Caesar hastened back to his new province and, drawing up his army among the Treveri, reviewed it there. He left Labienus in Cisalpine Gaul to support his candidature for the consulship for 48, and though many reports came to him that Labienus was being tampered with by his enemies, he never believed them. At the close of the year he left all but one legion, the Thirteenth, in Transalpine Gaul, and himself said good-bye to Gaul for a considerable period.

The Gallic War was over, but the conqueror was to have no rest after his labours, and many other countries, including his own, were to bow their heads to him before he celebrated this victory after the manner of a Roman general by a Triumph. When the time for his Triumphs came his Gallic Triumph was the most splendid of them all and the one in which there was the least stain of civic bitterness.