Gergovia: Vercingetorix’s Victory

As the survivors from Avaricum neared Vercingetorix’s camp he took special precautions to conceal their flight and the fall of the town. He posted his own supporters as well as tribal leaders at some way from the camp to intercept the fugitives and secretly take them to their own tribes’ quarters.

The next day Vercingetorix gathered his men and delivered a speech that was designed to minimize the impact of the fall of the towns on the Gauls’ morale. He claimed that it had fallen due to superior Roman siege technology and trickery, not because of the bravery of the Romans. He disassociated himself from its fall by rightly claiming he had never been in favour of defending it but had yielded to the pleas of the Bituriges. He glossed over the prior defeats the Gauls had sustained at Cenabum and elsewhere, claiming that such reverses were a normal part of warfare. He promised to extend the alliance to those Gauls who had not yet joined. He then suggested that the best course at present was to fortify their camp.

The speech was well-received. The fall of Avaricum enhanced Vercingetorix’s standing and weakened his opponents. The Gauls were well aware that he had advised against the attempt to hold the town and he had now been vindicated. There was also strong support for extending the war to as much of Gaul as possible. Doing so would not only add to the rebels’ manpower but it would also create problems for the Romans who would find themselves overextended. The capture of Avaricum as well as the earlier victories at Vellaunodunum and Cenabum had brought Caesar no political benefit. They had only served to strengthen Vercingetorix’s position and further unify the rebels.

Vercingetorix took immediate steps to implement his proposals. He sent out representatives to the tribes that had so far kept aloof from the rebellion, enticing them with gifts and promises. He then set about making up the losses suffered at Avaricum by instituting quotas from the tribes and requiring them to come to his camp on a set day. These actions soon made up for his losses. His diplomatic offensive also produced results. Teotomatus, a son of Ollovico, the king of the Nitiobriges who had been given the title of friend by the Senate, joined him with a large cavalry force and with mercenaries hired in Aquitania.

For a few days Caesar remained at Avaricum. The captured town provided him with an abundant supply of grain and the army needed to rest and refit after the strains of the siege. The winter was now almost over, which would make campaigning easier, and he set out in pursuit of the enemy in the hope of bringing them to battle or starving them out by a blockade. Before he could set out the leaders of the Aedui arrived to ask for Caesar’s help. Once again, tribal politics created problems. The election to office of the vergobret, their supreme annual magistrate, was at issue. Two men were claiming that they had been legally elected while only one could hold office. One of them was Convictolitavis, a distinguished young man, while the other, Cotus, was an aristocrat with considerable connections and influence. Both men had strong support and the dispute threatened to tear the fabric of the state apart. The Aedui asked for Caesar’s help to resolve the matter. The delay the request imposed was unwelcome. If he agreed to it, it would postpone the campaign against Vercingetorix and give Vercingetorix further time to prepare. But Caesar could hardly ignore such a request from the Aedui, Rome’s oldest allies in the area. On occasion they had provided useful military support to him, but more importantly they had been a major source of supply. In addition, one side or the other might call in Vercingetorix as an ally. He had already seen some evidence of the tribe’s less-than enthusiastic collaboration. Their negligence in delivering grain during the siege of Avaricum hinted at disaffection among the tribal elite.

To avoid breaking tribal laws which specified that vergobret could not leave Aeduan territory, Caesar summoned the two men involved as well as the entire council to Decetia, modern Decize, at the confluence of the Loire and the Aron, within their territory. After hearing the facts of the case Caesar awarded the office to Convictolitavis. It was a decision that stored up trouble for the future.

After a conciliatory speech calling on the Aedui to set aside their disputes he ordered them to send all of their cavalry and 10,000 infantry to serve as guards for his grain supply. Clearly Vercingetorix’s strategy had had some effect. Caesar divided his army into two columns; four legions were assigned to Labienus to conduct operations against the Senones and the Parisii, while Caesar would take the remaining six legions along the valley of the Allier towards Gergovia, the capital of the Arverni.

Vercingetorix, learning of Caesar’s arrangements, moved up the western bank of the river while Caesar made his way along the eastern side. He kept pace with the Romans, breaking down the bridges over which they might cross, and he posted scouts to deny the Romans the opportunity of constructing their own. This manoeuvre put Caesar in a difficult position. The Allier would not be fordable until the autumn. To wait until then would mean the loss of an entire campaigning season. The only course open to him was to trick Vercingetorix. He encamped in a wood opposite one of the bridges that had been torn down. The next day he hid two of the legions in the woods while he sent on the remainder, who were formed up so as to conceal the absence of the legions he had kept behind. When he estimated that those legions were now in camp he ordered his two legions to rapidly construct a bridge. The task was made easier because the piles of the original bridge had been left standing. He took his two legions across, encamped and summoned the other legions to him. Vercingetorix, realizing what had happened, moved on by forced marches to avoid a fight.

The march to Gergovia consumed five days and on the last day a minor cavalry skirmish occurred. Caesar then examined the site, which posed formidable problems. It was situated on a mountain rising 1,200 feet (367m) above the plain about 3.5 miles (6km) south of Clermont Ferrand. The northern side of the mountain was broken by precipitous cliffs, which made an attack impossible. An attack on the eastern side was equally out of the question. It was rugged, steep and dotted with ravines. Looked at from the south the town was situated on an oblong plateau that formed the mountain’s summit, and the higher terraces were linked to an outlying height by a ridge on which the Gauls were encamped. Their tents were protected by a stone wall that ran for the entire length of the southern side of the mountain. There was no hope of taking Gergovia by storm. Even on the south side where the ascent was easiest the ground was steep and dangerous. The Gallic encampment on that side meant that such an attack could not succeed. The only possibility was to cut off the town’s food supply with a siege. But Caesar could not start the operation until his own grain supply was secure.

Vercingetorix had seized control of a height close to the town and had placed various tribal contingents at intervals along the ridge. He was in constant contact with the tribal chiefs and did as much as possible to involve them in the planning as a way to cement their loyalty and maintain his army’s cohesion. He constantly sent out his cavalry accompanied by archers to keep up his men’s morale.

Opposite the town there was a hill with precipitous sides, the modern Roche Blanche, which was strongly fortified. The Gauls had also installed a garrison on it but only of moderate strength. If Caesar could gain control of it he would greatly ease the difficulties of besieging Gergovia, as he could cut the enemy off from their main water supply, the River Auzon, and prevent their forces from foraging. Caesar launched a night attack by which he was able to dislodge the garrison and seize control of the hill. He built a second smaller camp there with two legions, and linked it by a double ditch 12 feet (3.6m) wide to his main camp.

Despite this success Caesar was threatened by developments among the Aedui that remain difficult to explain. Convictolitavis, whom Caesar had recently installed in the tribe’s chief magistracy, had begun a plot to end the Aedui’s allegiance to Rome. Caesar claims he was bribed, but it is difficult to accept that this was the only reason for his change of heart. The money may have been an incentive, but even for the Aedui who had benefitted from Caesar’s victories the Roman presence was a heavy burden. They had been under constant pressure to provide Caesar with supplies and troops, which must have created extensive unrest. The tribal elite had as much to fear from its Roman ally as the other Gallic states if the Romans established permanent control. The Roman alliance had been attractive when it could be used by the Aedui in their conflicts with their neighbours, but Caesar’s campaigns had ended that possibility. The success of the Gallic revolt would once again open up the options that Caesar’s campaigns had closed.

Convictolitavis seems to have been convinced of the success of that revolt and saw it as an opportunity to enhance his position. He began talks with younger members of the elite who had less to lose and more to expect from a radical change in the political and military situation. The most important faction among these young men was that of Litaviccus and his brothers. The conspirators came to an agreement and began to plan their strategy. They managed to have Litaviccus placed in charge of the 10,000 infantry that Caesar has requested to guard his supply lines to the Aedui. The Aeduan cavalry had already arrived at Caesar’s camp before the infantry had set out. When the infantry had advanced within 27 miles (43km) of Gergovia Litaviccus called an assembly of the troops. With tears streaming from his eyes he addressed them as follows:

Where are we going soldiers? Our entire cavalry force, all our nobility are dead. Eporedorix and Viridomarus without being allowed to offer a defence have been executed. Know this from these men here who escaped the slaughter. I am overwhelmed by grief at the butchery of brothers and all my relations and am unable to speak.

The men who came forward had been coached by Litaviccus and confirmed his version of events. The troops were convinced by the story and begged Litaviccus to tell them what to do. He pressed on them the urgent need to head for Gergovia and to join the Arverni in their struggle with the Romans to avenge the wrongs they had suffered. He then pointed to the Romans who had accompanied his force under his protection and urged the troops to take their revenge on them. Their goods were stolen and they were murdered. An act that he must have known would, as the massacre at Cenabum had done, irretrievably commit the Aedui to the rebel side. He then sent men back to Bibracte to rouse the Aedui to revolt with the same fabrications that had already proved so successful.

Meanwhile further trouble was brewing among the Aedui in Caesar’s camp. Two young men, Eporedorix and Viridomarus, were disputing the leadership of their cavalry contingent. This quarrel was only a continuation of an earlier disagreement they had had over the appointment of the vergobret. After hearing of Litaviccus’s plan Eporedorix had gone to Caesar during the night to inform him of it and to beg him to prevent the Aedui from defecting.

Caesar was clearly upset. Along with the Remi in Belgica the Aedui were his most important allies. His ability to carry on the siege of Gergovia depended on the Aedui provisioning him with grain and other supplies. If they rebelled his position there would become untenable. He immediately assembled a force of four legions and all of his cavalry and marched out of camp after issuing orders that Litaviccus’s brothers should be arrested, but they had already fled. He left his legate Gaius Fabius in charge of the siege with two legions but had had no time to reduce the size of the camp to make it easier for the smaller number of troops to defend it. The Romans advanced 23 miles (37km) and came in sight of the Aeduan column. Caesar sent his cavalry ahead to slow the column’s march but forbade his horsemen to kill any of the Aedui. He also commanded Eporedorix and Viridomarus to accompany them and show themselves to their fellow tribesmen. They rode up and called to them. When they were recognized the lies that Litaviccus had fed them were revealed. They immediately threw down their arms and begged for mercy. Finding himself exposed Litaviccus along with his clients fled to Gergovia. Caesar sent messengers to the Aedui to reassure them and to remind them that he could have put their infantry to death but had generously refrained doing so.

After resting his army for only three hours Caesar began his march back to Gergovia. As he advanced he was met by cavalry sent by Fabius to inform him that the camp was in danger. The small garrison that he had left behind was now under siege by a much larger force. The enemy had sufficient troops to fight in relays and the legions were on the point of exhaustion, since the size of the camp meant that no one could be spared in manning its defences. All of the camp’s gates but two had been blocked and a screen had been erected on the ramparts as a defence against the Gauls’ missiles. The threat to the camp spurred Caesar and his soldiers on. They reached the camp before sunrise.

Litaviccus’s men reached the Aedui before Caesar’s messengers. His accusations against the Romans were accepted as fact and they began to plunder the goods of the Roman citizens in Bibracte and then massacred or enslaved them. The ease with which his news was accepted points to how far the relationship with the Romans had deteriorated. Convictolitavis did all he could to support the uprising. Romans were expelled from Aeduan towns and then attacked and stripped of their baggage: among them was a military tribune, Marcus Aristeus, who was on his way to join his legion. However, once they had learned that their infantry was in Caesar’s power they immediately halted their attacks and approached Aristeus claiming that what had taken place was not done publically but had been carried out by private individuals without community sanction. To give substance to this claim they set up an inquiry into the stolen goods and confiscated the property of Litaviccus and his brothers. An embassy was dispatched to Caesar to try to clear the tribe of any wrongdoing. Regardless of their pleas for forgiveness, the Aedui seem to have taken these steps to rescue their men from Caesar; in fact, they seem to have already decided to throw in their lot with the rebels.

Caesar claims to have been aware of all this and to have decided on a withdrawal from Gergovia. It is difficult to assess the truth of his statement. The fact that he later did so after suffering one of his few reverses suggests that he may be exaggerating his foresight as a way of at least partially excusing his failure at Gergovia. He claims that a chance opportunity arose that offered the possibility of success and that led to a change of plans.

On an inspection tour of the works at the smaller camp Caesar noticed a hill that had previously been fully occupied by the Gauls now appeared empty of defenders. He questioned Gallic deserters and his own scouts and learned that there was a crest along the ridge of high ground on the rear of the hill that gave access to the plateau on which Gergovia sat. To close off this approach Vercingetorix had withdrawn his men from the hill so that they could fortify the line of the ridge. The ridge was probably part of the heights of Risolles, north-west of la Roche Blanche, where Caesar’s smaller camp was located. Questions have been raised as to whether such an action by the Gauls makes any military sense and if Caesar has altered the details to help excuse his failure at Gergovia. It is however perfectly plausible that after the loss of La Roche-Blanche Vercingetorix had decided to create a fallback position from the hill along the ridge to prevent the Romans from reaching the plateau. Caesar, in claiming the hill was devoid of men, is probably exaggerating. Vercingetorix probably left a smaller than normal garrison while most of his men were engaged in fortifying the ridge.

Caesar now saw the possibility of drawing the Gauls off from their main camp below the town so that it could be attacked. He dispatched a number of cavalry to the hill around midnight, instructing them to create as much disruption as possible. The next morning at dawn he sent drovers mounted on their mules and pack-horses disguised as cavalry and interspersed with a small number of real cavalry to ride around the hill and create a diversion. Caesar then sent a legion towards the same high ground but it halted short of the hill and concealed itself in some woods nearby. All of these movements drew off the Gauls from their main camp to defend the height. In preparation for his real objective, the attack on this camp, Caesar began to move his legions to his smaller camp nearer the enemy camp in small detachments to conceal his intentions. He then instructed his legates, each in command of a legion, that it was especially important to keep their men under control. The ground was unfavourable and the speed of the advance was crucial. He reminded them that his plan was not for a full-scale battle but simply to seize an opportunity that had presented itself. He ordered the Aedui to make an ascent to his right to further draw off the defenders.

In a straight line the distance from the town wall to where the ascent began was just over a mile. Although there were paths that led up that were less precipitous, their turnings increased the distance to the walls. The Gallic camp, which was composed of a number of separate tribal encampments, lay halfway up the hill and was protected by a 6 foot stone wall that followed the contours of the mountain. Their tents filled the space between this fortification wall and the town walls. The area in front of the 6 foot wall was unoccupied.

At the signal for attack the Romans quickly reached the fortification wall, crossed it and captured three of the enemy encampments, including that of the Nitiobriges. Caesar claims that this was all he intended and now he ordered that the retreat signal should be sounded. Caesar was with his favourite Tenth Legion, which immediately halted. He says that the others, because of a wide gully, did not hear the call for retreat but were held in check by their officers, but apparently not very effectively. They continued their pursuit of the fleeing rebels. The town wall was reached, creating panic inside the town. Some of the soldiers of the Eighth Legion, led by their centurion Lucius Fabius, managed to scale the town wall. However, the Gauls employed in fortifying another part of the town heard the uproar. They sent their cavalry on ahead and followed with all of their infantry at full speed. The Romans were exhausted by their climb, fighting on disadvantageous ground and faced by a much larger enemy force. Caesar became anxious about the situation and sent to his legate Titus Sextius who was in charge of the smaller camp to bring up cohorts quickly and to station them at the bottom of the hill on the enemy’s right flank. If the Romans were forced back Sextius’s troops would deter the Gauls’ pursuit. Caesar then advanced closer to the fighting with the Tenth and awaited its outcome. Although Caesar does not say so he presumably kept the Tenth as a reserve.

The Roman position deteriorated further when the Aedui, who had been ordered to ascend the hill, appeared and were mistaken for enemy reinforcements. Meanwhile Lucius Fabius and his men were killed and thrown headlong from the walls, while another centurion of the same legion Marcus Petronius, who was attempting to force the town’s gates, saved his men at the expense of his own life by fighting back the enemy and giving his men time to escape. The Romans were overwhelmed and forced back down the hill. The Tenth, stationed on lower ground, served as a rally point while the cohorts of the Thirteenth that had been brought up from the smaller camp and stationed on higher ground moved down to the Tenth’s former position. Once they had reached level ground the legions reformed and faced the Gauls, who now turned and made their way back to their own fortifications. The toll had been heavy, with the loss of 700 soldiers and forty-six centurions.

The next day Caesar assembled his troops and reprimanded them for their The next day Caesar assembled his troops and reprimanded them for their lack of discipline, although he made admiring remarks about their courage after so many tribulations. He then urged them not to despair. The defeat was due not to the Gauls’ bravery but rather to their fighting at a disadvantage because of the uneven ground. Right after the assembly he led the legions out and deployed them for battle on level ground. Vercingetorix brought his own troops down but after a cavalry skirmish in which the Romans prevailed he led his men back to their fortifications. Caesar formed up once again the following day and again the Gauls refused battle. It is clear that Caesar did not expect the Gauls to fight. The manoeuvre was designed to restore his men’s confidence rather than to threaten the enemy.

The fact that this was the gravest defeat that Caesar personally suffered in Gaul is indisputable but there has been much controversy over what Caesar intended at Gergovia. It is clear that his string of successful sieges at Avaricum and elsewhere led him to underestimate the strength of the Gallic resistance. Gergovia was a tempting prize. If he had captured it along with Vercingetorix he would have been able to extinguish a tribal alliance that was by far the most dangerous threat to Roman control of Gaul. However given the natural strength of the site and the large number of Gallic troops he faced, his forces were inadequate. Once he realized that capturing it by storm was a near impossibility his only option was to starve it out but he simply did not have the manpower to do so. The attack on the Gauls’ camp is mystifying. Did he simply intend a demonstration? If he did it is difficult to discern the purpose of it. Was it simply a demonstration to the Aedui and other tribes whose loyalty was ebbing away? It is hard to see what that would accomplish as long as he failed to take the town. It seems likely that Caesar intended to take Gergovia by drawing off the Gauls but that they responded too quickly and the Romans were defeated. Caesar has attempted to disguise his failure by obscuring the purpose of the attack and blaming his losses on his men’s lack of discipline rather than on the failure of his gamble. In spite of Caesar’s attempt to restore Roman prestige by offering battle to the Gauls, the failure to take Gergovia dealt a severe blow to his prestige. His legates had suffered reverses but Caesar had remained undefeated. Gergovia shattered any illusions the Gauls might have held about his invincibility and opened the way for a mass defection of the Gallic tribes now that they thought the Romans could be defeated.

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