One of Gaul’s most colorful historical figures is Vercingetorix, who acted as war chief for all the Gallic tribes who were trying to throw off the Roman yoke during the Gallic Wars. Vercingetorix and Caesar are the main figures in Book VII of De Bello Gallico, Caesar’s narrative about his wars in Gaul, although the Roman allies, the Aedui, also play a large role. This period of revolt follows the earlier Gallic battles at Bibracte, Vosges, and Sabis.
By the end of Book VII Caesar has put down the Gallic revolt.
The following is a summary of Book VII of De Bello Gallico, with some explanatory notes.
Vercingetorix, son of Celtillus, a member of the Gallic tribe of Arverni, sent ambassadors out to Gallic tribes not yet allied with him asking them to join him in his endeavor to get rid of the Romans. By peaceful means or by attacking, he added troops from the Gallic tribes of the Senones (the tribe connected with the band of Gauls responsible for the sack of Rome in 390 B.C.), Parisii, Pictones, Cadurci, Turones, Aulerci, Lemovice, the Ruteni, and others to his own armed forces. Vercingetorix had used the Roman system of demanding hostages to ensure loyalty and ordered a levy of troops from each of these groups. He then took supreme command. He tried to ally the Biturgies, but they resisted and sent ambassadors to the Aedui for help against Vercingetorix.
The Biturgies were dependents of the Aedui and the Aedui were allies of Rome (“Brothers and Kinsmen of the Roman People” 1.33). The Aedui started to help but then turned back perhaps because, as they said, they suspected the Biturgies of complicity with the Arverni. Perhaps because they lacked the support of the Aedui, the Biturgies gave in to Vercingetorix.
It is possible the Aedui already planned to revolt against Rome.
When Caesar heard about the alliance, he realized it was a threat, so he left Italy and set out for Transalpine Gaul, a Roman province since 121 B.C., but he didn’t have his regular army, although he did have some German cavalry and troops he had in Cisalpine Gaul. He had to figure out how to reach the main forces without putting them in danger. Meanwhile, Vercingetorix’ ambassador, Lucterius, continued to gain allies. He added the Nitiobriges and Gabali and then headed to Narbo, which was in the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul, so Caesar headed to Narbo, which made Lucterius retreat. Caesar changed his direction and advanced into the territory of the Helvii, then on to the borders of the Arverni. Vercingetorix marched his troops there in order to defend his people. Caesar, no longer able to do without the rest of his forces, left Brutus in command while he went to Vienna where his cavalry was stationed. Next stop was the Aedui, one of Rome’s main allies in Gaul, and where two of Caesar’s legions were wintering. From there, Caesar sent word to the other legions of the danger presented by Vercingetorix, ordering them to come to his assistance ASAP.
When Vercingetorix learned what Caesar was doing, he headed back to the Biturgies and then to the non-allied Boiian town of Gergovia in order to attack it. Caesar sent ahead messages to the Boii to encourage them to resist. Heading towards the Boii, Caesar left two legions at Agendicum. En route, at the Senones’ town of Vellaunodunum, Caesar decided to attack so there wouldn’t be an enemy on his heels. He also figured he would take the opportunity to gain provisions for his troops.
Especially during the winter when there was little to forage, having food could decide the outcome of a battle. Because of this, allied towns that weren’t potential enemies at one’s back might still be destroyed to make sure the enemy army starved or retreated. This is what Vercingetorix would soon develop as one of his main policies.
After Caesar’s troops surrounded Vellaunodunum, the town sent out their ambassadors. Caesar ordered them to surrender their weapons and to bring out their cattle and 600 hostages. With arrangements made and Trebonius left in charge, Caesar set out for Genabum, a Carnute town that had been preparing to send troops to help Vellaunodum fight, Caesar. The Romans pitched camp and when the townspeople tried to escape at night via a bridge across the Loire River, Caesar’s troops took possession of the town, pillaged and burned it, and then headed across the Loire bridge into the Biturgies’ territory.
This move prompted Vercingetorix to stop his siege of Gergovia. He marched towards Caesar who was beginning a siege of Noviodunum. Noviodunum ambassadors begged Caesar to pardon them and spare them. Caesar ordered their weapons, horses, and hostages. While Caesar’s men went into town to gather up the arms and horses, Vercingetorix’ army appeared on the horizon. This inspired the people of Noviodunum to take up arms and shut the gates, backing down from their surrender. Since the people of Noviodunum were going back on their word, Caesar attacked. The town lost a number of men before the town surrendered again.
Caesar then marched to Avaricum, a well-fortified town in the Biturgies’ territory. Before responding to this new threat, Vercingetorix called a war council, telling the other leaders that the Romans must be kept from getting provisions. Since it was winter, foraged provisions were hard to come by and the Romans would have to leave.
Vercingetorix suggested a scorched-earth policy. If a property lacked a good defense it would be burned. In this way, they destroyed 20 of their own Biturgies towns. The Biturgies begged that Vercingetorix not burn their noblest city, Avaricum. He relented, reluctantly. Vercingetorix then set up camp 15 miles from Avaricum and whenever Caesar’s men went foraging at a distance, some of Vercingetorix’ men attacked them. Caesar meanwhile built towers but could not build a wall around the city, as he would have wished, because it was enclosed by rivers and marshes.
Caesar besieged the town for 27 days building towers and walls while the Gauls built countering devices. The Romans finally had success with a sudden attack, which frightened many of the Gauls into flight. And so, the Romans entered the town and massacred the inhabitants. About 800 in Caesar’s reckoning escaped to reach Vercingetorix. Caesar’s troops found ample provisions, and by this time winter was almost over.
Vercingetorix was able to calm the other leaders despite all the recent disasters. Especially in the case of Avaricum, He could say the Romans didn’t defeat them by valor but by a new technique the Gauls hadn’t seen before, and besides, he might have said, he had wanted to torch Avaricum but had only left it standing because of the pleas of the Biturgies. The allies were appeased and supplied Vercingetorix with replacement troops for those he had lost. He even added allies to his roster, including Teutomarus, the son of Ollovicon, the king of the Nitiobriges, who was a friend of Rome on the basis of a formal treaty (amicitia).
The Aedui, Rome’s allies, came to Caesar with their political problem: their tribe was led by a king who held power for a year, but this year there were two contenders, Cotus and Convitolitanis. Caesar was afraid that if he didn’t arbitrate, one side would turn to Vercingetorix for support of its cause, so he stepped in. Caesar decided against Cotus and in favor of Convitolitanis. He then asked the Aedui to send him all their cavalry plus 10,000 infantry. Caesar split his army and gave Labienus 4 legions to lead north, towards the Senones and Parisii while he led 6 legions into Arverni country towards Gergovia, which was on the banks of the Allier. Vercingetorix broke down all bridges over the river, but this proved only a temporary set-back for the Romans. The two armies pitched their camps on opposite banks and Caesar rebuilds a bridge. Caesar’s men headed to Gergovia.
Meanwhile, Convictolitanis, the man Caesar had chosen to be king of the Aedui, treacherously conferred with the Arverni, who told him that the Aeduans holding out was preventing the allied Gauls from being victorious against the Romans. By this time the Gauls realized their freedom was at stake and having the Romans around to arbitrate and help them against other invaders meant the loss of freedom and heavy demands in terms of soldiers and supplies. Between such arguments and bribes made to the Aedui by the allies of Vercingetorix, the Aedui were convinced. One of those in on the discussion was Litavicus, who was put in charge of the infantry being sent to Caesar. He headed towards Gergovia, providing protection for some Roman citizens on the way. When they were near Gergovia, Litavicus riled up his troops against the Romans. He falsely claimed the Romans had killed some of their favorite leaders. His men then tortured and killed the Romans under their protection. Some rode off to the other Aeduan towns to convince them to resist and avenge themselves on the Romans, as well.
Not all Aeduans agreed. One in the company of Caesar learned of Litavicus’ actions and told Caesar. Caesar then took some of his men with him and rode to the army of the Aedui and presented to them those very men they thought the Romans had killed. The army lay down its arms and submitted themselves. Caesar spared them and marched back towards Gergovia.
When Caesar finally reached Gergovia, he surprised the inhabitants. At first, all was going well for the Romans in the conflict, but then fresh Gallic troops arrived. Many of Caesar’s troops did not hear when he called for a retreat. Instead, they continued to fight and try to plunder the city. Many were killed but they still did not stop. Finally, ending the day’s engagement, Vercingetorix, as the victor, called off the fight for the day when new Roman legions arrived. Adrian Goldsworthy says an estimated 700 Roman soldiers and 46 centurions were killed.
Caesar dismissed two important Aeduans, Viridomarus and Eporedorix, who went to the Aeduan town of Noviodunum on the Loire, where they learned that further negotiations were being made between the Aeduans and the Arvernians. They burned the town so the Romans couldn’t feed themselves from it and began to build up armed garrisons around the river.
When Caesar heard of these developments he thought he should put down the revolt quickly before the armed force grew too large. This he did, and after his troops had surprised the Aeduans, they took the food and cattle they found in the fields and then marched off to the territory of the Senones.
Meanwhile, other Gallic tribes heard of the revolt of the Aedui. Caesar’s very competent legate, Labienus, found himself surrounded by two newly rebelling groups and so needed to move out his troops by stealth. The Gauls under Camulogenus were tricked by his maneuvers and then defeated in a battle where Camulogenus was slain. Labienus then led his men to join Caesar.
Meanwhile, Vercingetorix had thousands of cavalry from the Aedui and Segusiani. He sent other troops against the Helvii whom he defeated while he led his mena and allies against the Allobroges. To deal with Vercingetorix’ attack against the Allobroges, Caesar sent for cavalry and light-armed infantry help from the Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine.
Vercingetorix decided the time was right to attack the Roman forces whom he judged to be inadequate in number, as well as encumbered with their baggage. The Arverni and allies divided into three groups to attack. Caesar divided his troops in three, too, and fought back, with the Germans obtaining a hilltop formerly in Arverni possession. The Germans pursued the Gallic enemy to the river where Vercingetorix was stationed with his infantry. When the Germans started to kill the Averni, they fled. Many of Caesar’s enemy were slaughtered, Vercingetorix’ cavalry was routed, and some of the tribal leaders were captured.
Vercingetorix then led his army to Alesia. Caesar followed, killing those he could. When they reached Alesia, the Romans surrounded the hilltop city. Vercingetorix sent out mounted troops to go to their tribes to round up all those old enough to bear arms. They were able to ride through the places where the Romans hadn’t yet completed their fortification. The fortifications were not just a means to contain those within. The Romans put torturous devices on the outside that could injure an army pressing against it.
The Romans needed some to gather timber and food. Others worked on building the fortifications, which meant Caesar’s troop strength was diminished. Because of this, there were skirmishes, although Vercingetorix was waiting for Gallic allies to join him before a full-fledged fight against Caesar’s army.
The Arvernian allies sent fewer than asked, but still, a great number of troops, to Alesia where they believed the Romans would easily be defeated by the Gallic troops on two fronts, from within Alesia and from those newly arriving. The Romans and Germans stationed themselves both inside their fortifications to fight those in the city and outside to fight the newly arriving army. The Gauls from outside attacked at night by throwing things from a distance and alerting Vercingetorix to their presence. The next day the allies came closer and many were injured on the Roman fortifications, so they withdrew. The next day, the Gauls attacked from both sides. A few Roman cohorts left the fortifications and circled round to the rear of the outer enemy whom they surprised and slaughtered when they tried to flee. Vercingetorix saw what had happened and gave up, surrendering himself and his weapons.
Later Vercingetorix would be displayed as a prize in Caesar’s triumph of 46 B.C. Caesar, generous to the Aedui and Arverni, distributed Gallic captives so that every soldier throughout the army received one as plunder.
“The ‘Gallic Menace’ in Caesar’s Propaganda,” by Jane F. Gardner Greece & Rome © 1983.
- Overview of Caesar’s Gallic Wars
- Winners and Losers and Sequence of the Battles in the Gallic Wars
- De bello Gallico
- Caesar’s Gallic Wars Commentaries in English
- Caesar – Life of a Colossus
- Battle of Bibracte
- Battle of Vosges
- Battle of Sabis (Sambre)
- Gallic Revolts in 54 B.C.
- Revolts Led by Vercingetorix in 52 B.C.