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Vercingetorix and the failure of gallic resistance: John Haywood explains why the tactics adopted by the Gallic leader Vercingetorix to resist Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul played into Roman hands.

In the early 1860s Napoleon III, Emperor of France, sponsored a spectacular series of archaeological excavations to identify the locations of the battles described by Julius Caesar in his account of the Roman conquest of Gaul. The most ambitious of these took place at the Gallic stronghold of Alesia (Alise Ste Reine in Burgundy), the scene in 52 BC of the decisive battle of Caesar's campaign. To commemorate the battle, Napoleon commissioned a romantic 35 ft tall statue of the Gallic war-leader Vercingetonx, which was erected on the site in 1865. Napoleon was an accomplished scholar with a sincere interest in classical but his motives were as much political and nationalistic as academic.


The emperor, fearful of the rising power of Prussia, saw Vercingetorix as a unifying figure whose example would inspire a spirit of national resistance in the French people. The base of the statue carries a verse inscription: La Gaule unie/ Formant une seule nation/ Animee d'un mdme esprit,/ Peut defier l'Univers (United Gaul forming a single nation, animated by a common spirit, can defy the Universe). Many observers at the time remarked that the statue bore a certain resemblance to Napoleon Ill himself. The only contemporary images of Vercingetorix, on his coins, show him to have been clean shaven: the statue was given an extravagant moustache to flatter the moustachioed emperor.

Just seven years later, in 1873, Napoleon died in exile in Britain. Mistakenly believing his own propaganda about the invincibility of the united 'Gauls', in 1870 he had allowed Bismarck to goad him into an ill-advised war with Prussia in which France suffered a humiliating defeat. Vercingetorix was therefore an unintentionally appropriate role model for Napoleon. Far from being the hero of Gallic resistance against the Romans, he, like Napoleon, was an unwitting architect of defeat. By uniting the Gauls under his leadership and gathering the bulk of their forces together at Alesia, Vercingetorix simply allowed Caesar to slaughter them on a carefully prepared battlefield of his own choosing. The Gauls would have been better off without him.

Caesar's intervention in Gaul began shortly after he was appointed as governor of the province of Gallia Transalpina in 59 BC. Roughly corresponding to modern Provence and Languedoc, Gallia Transalpina had by this time been under Roman rule for over a century and was regarded as part of the civilised world. The rest of Gaul, stretching north to the Channel and the Rhine, was known to the Romans as Gallia Comata, meaning 'long-haired Gaul'. In other words, this was hairy barbarian territory as far as the Romans were concerned.

The reality was somewhat different, however: many parts of Gaul were becoming highly civilised by the middle of the first century Be. Many tribes were experiencing the early stages of state formation. Some were ruled by institutions such as aristocratic 'senates' and elected magistrates, which may have been inspired by the Roman republic. Coinage and writing, using the Greek and Roman alphabets, were coming into use. The Gallic countryside was prosperous, densely populated and intensively cultivated. Scores of Roman merchants lived in Gaul, conducting a lively trade in wine and other Mediterranean luxuries, which they exchanged for slaves, grain, hides and salted meat. Because of these close trading links, much of the Gallic ruling elite had strong pro-Roman sympathies. All over Gaul heavily fortified tribal centres called oppida were developing into busy towns. All this made Gaul look very attractive to the ambitious but deeply indebted Caesar. In late republican Rome success in war was the surest way to win power as it brought prestige, the loyalty of the army and wealth from plunder and slaves. The relentless expansion of the empire was driven by internal Roman politics rather than by any imperial master plan.

The Romans were always convinced of their own righteousness and no war could be fought without provocation, however spurious. Caesar was provided with his justification for invading Gaul in 58 BC when the Helvetii, a powerful tribe living between the Alps and the Jura mountains, decided to abandon their overcrowded homeland and migrate to Aquitaine. This threatened to destabilise Gaul and disrupt Roman trade. Caesar moved quickly, stopping the Helvetii in their tracks and driving them back to their homeland with heavy losses. At about the same time, the Aedui, a tribe based between the Saone and Loire rivers and friendly to Rome, appealed to Caesar for his support in a war with their neighbours, the Arverni and the Sequani. The situation was complicated by the Suebi, a Germanic tribe, who had invaded Gaul and begun to seize the territory of the Sequani. Caesar first forced the Arverni and Sequani to submit, then drove the Suebi back across the Rhine.



By late 58 BC, if not earlier, Caesar had decided upon the complete conquest of Gaul. Leaving his troops to winter in the territory of the Sequani, Caesar returned to Italy to tend to his political interests. He easily persuaded the Romans of the necessity of conquering Gaul by conjuring images of Gallic hordes descending on Rome, as they had in 390 BC. In spring 57 Be, Caesar learned that the warlike Belgic tribes of north-east Gaul were forming a coalition against him. Caesar moved north to the territory of the pro-Roman Remi, using this as a base for campaigns against the Belgae. After losing three pitched battles in a row to the Romans, the Belgae submitted in September.

In 56 BC Caesar campaigned in Armorica (roughly Brittany), defeating a local tribe, the Veneti, in a sea battle near Quiberon Bay. A subsidiary force campaigned in Aquitaine. Before the year was out, Caesar rushed back to Belgica to suppress a rebellion: his troops spent all winter fighting a guerrilla war in the fens and salt marshes along the North Sea coast. Caesar felt that his control of Gaul was secure enough to risk an invasion of Britain in 55 BC. This campaign beyond the edge of the known world impressed the Roman people but very nearly ended in disaster after a storm wrecked Caesar's fleet and he had to suppress another Belgic rising on his return. A second invasion of Britain the following year was more successful but brought no lasting results and, once again, on his return Caesar faced another Belgic uprising. The leader of this rebellion was Ambiorix, chief of the Eburones. A skilful guerrilla fighter, Ambiorix destroyed one and half legions in a well planned ambush near Tongeren in modern-day Belgium. Caesar retaliated by ravaging Belgica with fire and the sword. Ambiorix ordered his forces to disperse in the summer of 53 BC and resistance continued until the end of the war.


So far the powerful and prosperous tribes of central Gaul had remained friendly to Rome, providing Caesar with supplies, recruits for his auxiliary regiments and secure bases. Trade with the Roman empire continued as normal. Then, in the autumn of 53 BC Caesar seized and executed Acco, the chieftain of the Senones, who inhabited what is now the department of Seine-et-Marne, on suspicion of plotting a rising against him. It was a serious error of judgement. The execution of one of their own class shocked the Gallic aristocracy and made them fear for their safety under Roman rule. Anti-Roman sentiment began to spread quickly. Apprehending nothing of this, Caesar dispersed his legions into winter quarters across the Gallic countryside and returned to Italy for administrative reasons. The Carnutes acted first. They fell upon Cenabum (Orleans) and massacred the Roman merchants there. It was at this point in the war that Vercingetorix took up the cry of Gallic freedom.

Born around 82 BC, Vercingetorix was a member of one of the leading aristocratic families of the Arverni. Most of the tribal aristocracy was strongly against war with Rome but Vercingetorix had motives of his own--motives that were very similar to Caesar's. The Arverni were ruled by elected magistrates and they had recently executed Vercingetorix's father, Celtillus, for attempting a coup to make himself king. Vercingetorix was no less ambitious. He raised an armed following, seized the tribal oppidum of Gergovia (Gergovie, near Clermont-Ferrand) and was proclaimed king. Success in war would consolidate his hold on power.

An inspiring and charismatic leader, Vercingetorix assembled a coalition of over a dozen tribes. He ordered one tribe, the Cadurci, to invade Gallia Transalpina. He hoped this would tie Caesar down in the south while he destroyed the scattered Roman forces in central Gaul. Caesar quickly drove the Cadurci out of Roman territory. He then did what the Cauls believed to be impossible and marched an army over the snow covered Cevennes in January 52 BC, directly into the heart of Arvernian territory. Vercingetorix now found himself pinned down defending his own territory while Caesar raced north to rejoin his legions.

Caesar now tried to goad Vercingetorix into open battle by laying siege to one oppidum after another, massacring or enslaving their inhabitants when they fell. Vercingetorix countered with a scorched earth policy, intended to try to force Caesar to withdraw for lack of supplies. Caesar's foraging parties faced constant harassment by Gallic cavalry. In late spring, Caesar laid siege to Vercingetorix's capital at Gergovia. Soon after, Caesar received news that the Aedui had joined the rebellion. They had been swayed by false rumours that Caesar had massacred Aeduan cavalrymen in his service. The defection of his most important ally forced Caesar to launch a hasty assault on Gergovia. It was repulsed with heavy losses.

With no secure base left in Gaul and the countryside denuded of supplies, Caesar gathered his scattered forces of around 50,000 men and began to march south towards Roman territory. Six years of war had achieved nothing and his term as governor expired in less than three years. With so many political rivals at Rome, Caesar cannot have enjoyed the prospect of returning defeated. Vercingetorix now made a catastrophic mistake. He persuaded his followers to launch a full scale attack on Caesar's retreating army, arguing that, if he was allowed to escape, he would only return again in greater strength. If his army was destroyed, the Romans would never dare invade Gaul again, he claimed. At around 100,000 strong, Vercingetorix's army outnumbered Caesar's by two to one but this was still an extremely dangerous decision. The Cauls had always proved inferior to the Romans in open battle. The Cauls may have had the advantage of numbers but the Romans were better trained and armed. All of the Romans wore body armour and iron helmets, few of the Cauls did. Numbers alone rarely bring victory under these circumstances unless the technically superior army is incompetently led or has been lured onto difficult terrain where it cannot exploit its advantages. This was what Ambiorix, leader of the Gallia Belgica, had achieved in his ambush in 54 BC, and what the German war leader Arminius did at the battle of the Teutobergerwald in AD 9, where he destroyed three legions.



Sometime in the summer of 52 BC Vercingetorix positioned his army across Caesar's line of march in open country above the river Vingeanne, a western tributary of Saone. This was probably to allow his cavalry room to manoeuvre but open country also suited Caesar's legions. Leaving his infantry to hold the line of the river, Vercingetorix divided his cavalry into three squadrons and attacked Caesar's column while it was still on the march. Though hard pressed, Caesar formed his infantry into an impregnable square, while his own cavalry drove the Gallic cavalry from the field with heavy losses.


The Gallic infantry took no part in the battle: Vercingetorix had stationed them too far away to support the cavalry attack and, when the cavalry fled, they had no choice but to flee too. Caesar once again held the initiative. Vercingetorix and his demoralised army took refuge in Alesia. This was another big mistake. Caesar arrived the next day and immediately began to surround the oppidum with a double line of ramparts, the inner one to prevent the inhabitants escaping, the outer to prevent reinforcements and supplies getting in. Each rampart was around 14 miles in circumference and was protected by watchtowers, ditches, chevaux-de-frises, and lilia, the Roman equivalent of a minefield--foot-deep pits with a sharpened and fire-hardened wooden stake at the bottom. Alesia had supplies for only one month and the Gauls made desperate efforts to break the siege.

Before Caesar completed his ramparts, Vercingetorix sent cavalrymen out by night, carrying messages calling on the Gauls to come to his rescue. Forty-four different tribes from across Gaul raised a relief army, claimed by Caesar to have numbered nearly a quarter of a million men. However, it took weeks to gather such a large force and by the time it arrived at Alesia in October the position of its inhabitants was desperate. Three times the Gallic relief army hurled itself at Caesar's fortifications and three times it was driven off after desperate fighting. There were heavy losses on both sides. After being repulsed for the third time, the relief army, its morale shattered, broke up and dispersed. Seeing that all hope was gone, Vercingetorix surrendered. He spent the remainder of his life imprisoned in Rome. When Caesar celebrated a belated triumph for his conquest of Gaul in 46 BC, Vercingetorix was paraded through the streets, then taken to the Mamertine prison where he was executed, probably by strangulation.

Fighting continued in 51 BC but the fall of Alesia proved the decisive turning point. The Cauls knew that Caesar had only one more campaigning season before his term as governor expired. They hoped that, if they could sustain resistance until then, his successor (who would certainly have been a less able general) might leave them alone. However, the enormous casualties suffered by the Gauls under Vercingetorix's leadership and the hardships caused to the peasantry by his scorched earth policy had sapped their will to resist. Caesar was sometimes brutal. When the oppidum of Uxellodunum (Puy d'Issou) fell after a long siege, all those who had taken part in its defence had their hands cut off. More often, Caesar was conciliatory, winning over the Gallic aristocracy with gifts and flattery. Caesar knew that many aristocrats had been coerced into supporting Vercingetorix and he made it easy for them to return to their former pro-Roman allegiance: their cooperation was needed if the conquered territory was to be administered effectively. Caesar left Gaul so effectively pacified that even when Rome descended into civil war in 49 BC there were no rebellions. The cost of the war to the Gauls was high, up to one million killed and as many enslaved.



Caesar may have been a great commander but his victory in Gaul was not inevitable. It is true that Caesar's legions gave him an overwhelming superiority on the battlefield but this proved the decisive factor only because Vercingetorix gave him the opportunity to exploit it. In modern terms, Vercingetorix treated the war with Rome as if it was a symmetric conflict between two militarily comparable powers. Of the Gallic leaders, only Ambiorix seems to have understood that it was in reality an asymmetric conflict and that the Gauls had at all costs to avoid fighting Rome on its own terms. Unlike Vercingetorix, Ambiorix evaded capture, probably escaping to Germany in 51 BC.

Even at the height of its power, Rome could be beaten in asymmetric warfare--the German tribes did it in 9 BC-AD 16. Arminius' great victory over the Romans at the Teutohergerwald in AD 9 has been described by historian Adrian Murdoch as 'a master lesson in how to neutralise the technological advantages of a superior war machine'. The emperor Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14) responded to the loss of three legions in the battle not, as is often said, by giving up plans to conquer Germany, but by committing another eight legions to the war under the command of his stepson Tiberius. For another six years Roman armies continued to campaign in Germany, crossing the country at will but all the time subject to constant harassment by the elusive Germans. On the rare occasions the Germans could be brought to battle, the Romans won, but, as they never concentrated their forces (most of the time, each tribe fought its own war), such victories were never decisive. In AD 16, Tiberius, who was now emperor, recognised the futility of continuing the war, declared victory and called the legions back west of the Rhine. Had the Gauls still been fighting at the end of 50 BC, as well they could have been without Vercingetorix's disastrous generalship, might Caesar's successor not also have called a halt to a seemingly endless war? Rome had shown no interest in conquering Gaul before Caesar and had he fallen from power that might have been the end of it.

The failure of Vercingetorix's leadership reveals much about the nature of Roman imperialism and the limits of empire. Despite their contempt for barbarians, the Romans actually found it much harder to conquer tribal societies than states. For example, it took them 200 years of hard fighting to overcome the tribal Celtiberians of Spain: during the same period they conquered all of the eastern Mediterranean with its ancient, sophisticated kingdoms and city states. Egypt didn't even put up a fight. With a centralised state, once the ruling class has been defeated or eliminated it is possible to use the institutions of the state to control the rest of the population. This cannot be done with decentralised tribal societies.

Both Vercingetorix and Caesar believed that disunity was a weakness for the Gauls but really it was a hidden strength. The Romans could not afford to rule their empire by force. Once they had defeated the native elites, they needed to persuade them to accept the task of local government. The greater the authority that was held by these elites prior to a Roman conquest, the easier this was. It also helped guarantee that conquest would be profitable if the area had an intensive agricultural system and a settled peasantry that was already being efficiently exploited. Gaul in 58 BC was beginning to satisfy these conditions: it was vulnerable. Germany in Augustus' reign did not and this was the major factor in the failure of the Roman conquest there. It follows then that, had Gaul been more united, that is more centralised, than it was in 58 BC, it would have been easier, not harder, for the Romans to conquer it. Unfortunately for the Gauls, it was in this direction that Vercingetorix took them and so made their defeat inevitable.


Further Reading

Adrian Murdoch, Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoberg Forest (The History Press, 2009);Julius Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin Classics, 2003); Barry Cunliffe, The Ancient Celts (Oxford UP, 1997);John Haywood, The Celts: Bronze Age to New Age (Pearson, 2004);Simon James, Exploring the World of the Celts (Thames & Hudson, 1993); Christian Meier, Julius Caesar (Harper Collins, 1995).

For further articles on this subject, visit:

John Haywood is the author of The Historical Atlas of the Celtic World (Thames & Hudson, newly published in paperback August 2009).
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Author:Haywood, John
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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