Caesar’s Legions at Alesia I

It is not a simple matter to elucidate the number and types of Roman troops involved in the Battle of Alesia. Caesar fails to provide us with even the basic information, let alone give specific mention to the legions involved. We are left, therefore, to supposition and speculation for the most part. Caesar mentions eleven legions specifically in his commentaries on the Gallic campaigns, namely: the First, Sixth, and Seventh to Fifteenth Legions. Suetonius provides another legion, the Fifth, which he says Caesar specifically raised for the battles in Gaul. The Fifth Legion seems to have replaced the First Legion during the Alesia campaign. Armies in Caesar’s legions often had the bull as their emblem, although the adoption of individual emblems was also practised. The following is a brief summary of Caesar’s legions known to have taken part in the Gallic campaigns, and an account of their more important later actions.

Legio V Alaudae – Fifth Legion (‘The Larks’)

This legion was founded in Transalpine Gaul in the 50s BC. Suetonius states that it was raised specifically for the Gallic campaigns. Paid for by Caesar himself, it was only recognized by the Senate afterwards.

‘he added to the legions which he had received from the state others at his own cost, one actually composed of men of Transalpine Gaul and bearing a Gallic name too (for it was called Alauda), which he trained in the Roman tactics and equipped with Roman arms; and later on he gave every man of it citizenship.’

[Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 24]

By including provincials in a Roman legion, Caesar had begun the process of Romanization of the provinces, a practice that continued to the end of the Empire. By allowing provincial citizens to fight he was conferring on them the same rights as those of Roman citizens from mainland Italy. It is interesting to note that the nickname ‘The Larks’ has, at its root, a Gallic term and not a Latin one. This must have emphasized the provincial character of the unit to the rest of the army. The term has been associated with the wearing of feathers, sticking up on the helmet, reminiscent of the feathers on the head of the crested Lark. Then again, it may refer to Gallic-like wings or a crest on the helmet, or even to specifically pointed helmets. It is possible the legion was originally entitled the V Gallica and this might suggest that a distinctive physical characteristic of the legion may have led to a nickname that stuck. Whatever the physical manifestation of the cognomen, the unit certainly seems to have been conspicuous from the first. Following Alesia, the Fifth Legion fought well in the Civil Wars, its role being particularly noted at Thrapsus (Tunisia) in 45BC and Munda (Spain) the following year. The Fifth Legion fought across North Africa and the quality of the men of Caesar’s Fifth Legion is evident from one quote from the battle at Thrapsus:

‘And here we must not omit to notice the bravery of a veteran soldier of the Fifth Legion. For when an elephant which had been wounded and, roused to fury by the pain, ran against an unarmed camp follower, threw him under his feet, and kneeling on him with his whole weight, and brandishing his uplifted trunk, with hideous cries, crushed him to death, the soldier could not refrain from attacking the animal. The elephant, seeing him advance with his javelin in his hand, quitted the dead body of the camp follower, and seizing him with his trunk, wheeled him round in the air. But he, amid all the danger, preserving his presence of mind, ceased not with his sword to strike at the elephant’s trunk, which enwrapped him, and the animal, at last overcome with the pain, quitted the soldier, and fled to the rest with hideous cries.’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 84]

It was this event that won the legion the emblem of the elephant. In the Civil Wars both Caesar’s and Pompey’s armies fought with prolonged lines of fortifications, each attempting to gain a better position to strike out at the other. On one such occasion men of the Fifth Legion are again mentioned. Caesar’s forces were attacked while undertaking construction of the fortifications and so two centurions from the Fifth Legion made an attempt to stabilize the situation:

‘two centurions of the Fifth Legion passed the river, and restored the battle; when, pressing upon the enemy with astonishing bravery, one of them fell overwhelmed by the multitude of darts discharged from above. The other continued the combat for some time, but seeing himself in danger of being surrounded, endeavoured to make good his retreat, but stumbled and fell. His death being known, the enemy crowded together in still greater numbers, upon which our cavalry passed the river, and drove them back to their entrenchments.’

[Caesar, The Spanish Wars, 23]

After the Civil Wars the Fifth Legion may have been disbanded, but it was reformed later under the control of Marcus Antonius in the 30s BC, possibly fighting at Actium. In the empire Augustus created in the wake of the Republic, the Fifth Legion fought in the Western Empire until their defeat and disbandment in the Batavian revolt of AD69.

Legio VI Ferrata – Sixth Legion (‘Ironclad’)

Another legion created for the Gallic War in 52BC, it was possibly raised in Cisalpine Gaul, although little is known about its origins. The title Ferrata refers to either the legion’s iron will or some form of iron equipment. The term might be equated with the more modern term Cuirassier. Metallic armour of the period was usually mail links, so using the distinguishing term ‘Ferrata’ may have been a deliberate attempt to mark the unit out for its individualistic style of armour. Caesar mentions that the Sixth Legion was stationed at Saône, along with the Fourteenth, through the winter of 51BC, so its presence there means it was likely to have previously taken part in the Battle of Alesia. After the Gallic campaigns a ‘Sixth Legion’ is mentioned fighting in the Civil War on Pompey’s side. In Africa this legion deserted to Caesar, along with the Fourth Legion, so may have been Caesar’s old legion reverting to their old commander. Later, the Sixth Legion is identified as fighting in both Egypt and Syria. At Zela (now in modern-day Turkey) the Sixth Legion, although under strength from fighting in Egypt, fought well against a surprise attack by Pharnaces:

‘After a sharp and obstinate conflict, victory began to declare for us on the right wing, where the Sixth Legion was posted. The enemy there were totally overthrown, but, in the centre and left, the battle was long and doubtful; however, with the assistance of the gods, we at last prevailed there also, and drove them with the utmost precipitation down the hill which they had so easily ascended before.’

[Caesar, The Alexandrian War, 76]

Caesar later ordered the Sixth Legion to return to Italy to receive the honours and rewards it had won. In the Spanish War the Sixth Legion was again caught in a surprise attack, this time from Pompey’s forces:

‘About nine at night, the besieged, according to custom, spent a considerable time in casting fire and darts upon our soldiers, and wounded a great number of men. At daybreak they sallied upon the Sixth Legion, while we were busy at the works, and began a sharp contest, in which, however, our men got the better, though the besieged had the advantage of the higher ground. Those who had begun the attack, being vigorously opposed on our side, notwithstanding all the inconveniences we fought under, were at length obliged to retire into the town, with many wounds.’

[Caesar, The Spanish War, 12]

After the Civil Wars the Sixth Legion remained in the east and was commanded by Marcus Antonius in the 30s BC. During the Empire the legion returned to the east, where it ended its days in the third century AD. The legion’s emblem was the she-wolf and twins – symbolic of the Romulus and Remus myth.

Legio VII – Seventh Legion

Caesar often mentions the Seventh Legion, confirming its presence in the invasion of Gaul in 58BC, fighting against the Nervii in 57BC, again in the Veneti campaign of 56BC and also its involvement in both the British campaigns in 55BC and 54BC. During Vercingetorix’s revolt the Seventh Legion fought under Labienus at Paris:

‘But when the issue of the victory was still uncertain, and the circumstances which were taking place on the left wing were announced to the tribunes of the Seventh Legion, they faced about their legion to the enemy’s rear and attacked it: not even then did any one retreat, but all were surrounded and slain.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 62]

After the defeat of the Parisii, the remnants of the Seventh followed Labienus and united with Caesar before the march to Alesia. It is likely that they were in the heavy fighting with Labienus on the foot of Mont Réa. Following Alesia, the legion took part in the Bellovaci Campaign of 51BC, where Caesar marks it out along with the Eighth and Ninth Legions as having outstanding fighting ability. The legion went on to fight in the Civil War, being disbanded in 46BC. Reconstituted in 44BC by Augustus, the unit seems to have fought against Marcus Antonius. The Seventh Legion first won the title Claudia Pia Fidelis for being loyal to Claudius during Scribonianus’ rebellion in AD42, finally winning it for a sixth time in the third century AD Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’). The unit was still in existence in the fourth century AD on the middle Danube frontier. Its emblem was the Bull.

Legio VIII – Eighth Legion

This legion was raised around 59BC and fought in the Gallic War, where Caesar mentions it engaged in the fighting against the Nervii in 57BC and at Gergovia in 52BC. At Gergovia Caesar picks out the legion and cites the bravery of its centurions:

‘Lucius Fabius, a centurion of the Eighth Legion, who, it was ascertained, had said that day among his fellow soldiers that he was excited by the plunder won at Bourges, and would not allow any one to mount the wall before him, finding three men of his own company, and being raised up by them, scaled the wall. He himself, in turn, taking hold of them one by one, drew them up to the wall.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 47]

‘Marcus Petreius, a centurion of the same legion, after attempting to hew down the gates, was overpowered by numbers, and, despairing of his safety, having already received many wounds, said to the soldiers of his own company who followed him: “Since I cannot save you as well as myself, I shall at least provide for your safety, since I allured by the love of glory, led you into this danger, do you save yourselves when an opportunity is given.” At the same time he rushed into the midst of the enemy, and slaying two of them, drove back the rest a little from the gate. When his men attempted to aid him, in vain, he says, “you endeavour to procure my safety since blood and strength are now failing me, therefore leave this, while you have the opportunity, and retreat to the legion.” Thus he fell fighting a few moments after, and saved his men by his own death.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 50]

Given the legion was in Gaul, it is likely to have been one of those that fought at Alesia, particularly as it is mentioned in relation to the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC. In that campaign Caesar again marks it out for comment, along with the Seventh and Ninth Legions, as having outstanding fighting ability. After the Gallic Campaign the legion was given the title Gallica, following which the Eighth Legion crossed into Italy with Caesar and continued to fight with him in the Civil War. The legion fought at Ilerda in Spain, in 49BC, where the fighting techniques of the Spanish were disconcerting for Caesar’s troops:

‘Almost the whole army being daunted at this, because it had occurred contrary to their expectations and custom, Caesar encouraged his men and led the Ninth Legion to their relief, and checked the insolent and eager pursuit of the enemy, and obliged them, in their turn, to show their backs, and retreat to Ilerda, and take post under the walls. But the soldiers of the Ninth Legion, being overzealous to repair the dishonour which had been sustained, having rashly pursued the fleeing enemy, advanced into disadvantageous ground and went up to the foot of the mountain on which the town Ilerda was built …’

[Caesar, The Civil War, I. 45]

Soon after Ilerda, the legion was commanded by Marcus Antonius at the battles of Dyrrachium (Albania) and Pharsalus (Greece) in 48BC. At Pharsalus the Eighth Legion, still under strength from the fighting previously at Dyrrachium, was placed alongside the Ninth on the left wing, in an attempt to bolster them both. This formation proved successful and was repeated again in Africa against Scipio’s forces. Following its disbandment, after the Civil War, the legion was reconstituted in 44BC by Augustus, and fought with him against Marcus Antonius as the ‘Gallic Augustan’ legion. The legion went on to be attested along the Rhine–Danube frontier until the fourth century AD, and can possibly be identified as the ‘Octaviani. Legio Palatina’ (derived from the conjoining of Augustus’ original name Octavian and Palatina, denoting a senior unit) in the late fourth century AD manuscript the Notitia Dignitatum.


1 thought on “Caesar’s Legions at Alesia I

  1. Pingback: Caesar’s Legions at Alesia I — Weapons and Warfare – DISCOVER Poems

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