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Battle of Gergovia

(52 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Gergovia

The Battle of Gergovia was one of the episodes of the Julius Caesar conquest of Gaul in 58-52 BCE. In 52 BCE an uprising broke out against the Romans led by Vercingetorix son of Celtyllus, one of the Arvernian lords. This tribe was located in the very centre of Gaul in the Central Massif – today Auvergne. They were a powerful people, trading in their hands with the surrounding tribes. They also controlled two major rivers: Allier and Loire. They tried to create a confederation so that they could influence all the people of Gaul. The name of this tribe – Arveni means farmers.

During the campaign of 52 BCE, after capturing the Avaricum, Julius Caesar travelled to the land of the Aedui. After resolving the issue of leadership over this tribe, Caesar began to pursue the insurgent army of Gauls. Knowing about the enemy’s forces, he divided his troops: Titus Labienus at the head of four Legions (IV, VI, VII, XII) and half of the cavalry, he set off against the Senones and their Parisians. The proconsul himself at the head of the remaining cavalry and six legions (VIII, IX, X, XIII, XV and a legion borrowed from Pompey, a total of about 25,000 men) followed Vercingetorix’s army straight to Gergovia – the capital of the Arverni. The Roman army was advancing on the right bank of the Elaver River (today’s Allier), towards its sources. In order to prevent the Romans from crossing the river, Vercingetorix ordered to destroy all bridges on the river, while marching parallel to the Romans on the other side of the river. Thanks to a cunning manoeuvre, Caesar managed to cross the river, prompting the Gauls to retreat towards the main oppidum Arverni – Gergovia. This situation suited Caesar very much, because, having learned from the experience gained from previous campaigns, he counted on the fact that the Gauls locked in their oppidum would have limited room for manoeuvre, and knowing the Roman advantage in the ability to conquer Gallic strongholds, he had already seen himself the conqueror of the city and victor over the Gallic army.

Five days after crossing the Elaver Caesar stopped at Gergovia. The city was located 774 meters above sea level and had steep slopes, especially on the north and east sides. The difference in levels of nearly 300 meters made the Arverni oppidum seem impregnable. After a careful survey of the terrain in accordance with the rules of the Roman army, a camp was built on the south-eastern side, and then, at Caesar’s orders, fortifications were dug with the aim of girdling Gergovia with a line of dikes and ditches that would cut off the Gauls from the hinterland. To this end, he placed the legion camp closest to the fortifications of Gergovia, possibly on Chanturgue Hill. By surprise, the Romans also occupied a small Gallic camp after a few days on the neighbouring hill La Roche Blanche, located on the southern slope of the mountain on which Gergovia stood. In this way, they partially deprived the defenders of access to fresh water and food. With this in mind, Vercingetorix was afraid that the Romans might master the western, gentle approach to the city, where it was connected with the surrounding hills by a saddle, so he decided to fortify the hill by building another wall intended to stop the Roman advance and prevent them from further progress in siege works.

Roman forces

Gallic forces

Command: Julius Caesar

The strength was around 25,000 people. The army was made up of six legions and cavalry. Caesar also had Edenian reinforcements under his command.

Command: Vercingetorix

The force was around 30,000 under his personal command.

Battle

The battle began on the day when Caesar, after inspecting the fortifications, found that the existing Gauls positions on the southern slope of the mountain were deserted.

For, when he had come into the smaller camp for the purpose of securing the works, he noticed that the hill in the possession of the enemy was stripped of men, although, on the former days, it could scarcely be seen on account of the numbers on it.

Julius Caesar, Gallic war, VII.44

Caesar, therefore, decided to immediately take advantage of the opportune moment to launch an attack on the fortifications of the city itself. To distract the defenders, Caesar ordered his ride, and then also disguised mule drivers to pretend to be riders and by making numerous manoeuvres to simulate the movements of Roman troops preparing to attack the hill from the west. These manoeuvres were visible both from the place where the Gallic warriors were building the new wall and from the city whose confused inhabitants did not know how to interpret these actions. After this demonstration, one legion in full formation with banners and music marched towards the hill occupied by the Gauls who were building fortifications from the Clemensat creek. This legion then stopped at the edge of a wooded valley to ensure the rest of the army that was about to storm the oppidum. All these manoeuvres really confused the Gauls’ command. Vercingetorix, as a result of panic reports and his own observations, concluded that Caesar actually wanted to attack the hill where the Gallic warriors were presently located. Therefore, he moved his troops towards the expected Roman attack. Seeing the movements of the Gauls, Caesar ordered the remaining legions to secretly move to the small camp. When the legions were ready to attack, Caesar gave the order to attack the hill, at the same time ordering the auxiliary Eduean warriors to move on a longer, roundabout road and attack the city from the southeast from the main Roman camp (According to the Roman army regulations, no stranger could stay in the fortified camp The Edenic warriors had their own separate camp.)

Caesar in his comments on the “Gallic War” does not disclose his plans. Thus, it can only be assumed that he might have wanted to take the oppidum and deprive Vercingetorix of his support in a strongly fortified fortress, or, by simulating an attack on the city, induce the Gauls to open battle in an area unfavourable for the development of large cavalry masses. The Gauls, having a numerical advantage over the Romans (especially in driving), could not use it in relatively narrow valleys between the hills covered with dense forest surrounding Gergovia. It seems, however, that the course of the entire battle may suggest an attempt to conquer the Arvernian oppidum in a situation where most of the Gauls left their camps around the city and built a wall on the other side of the hill, to the west. It should be noted that Caesar began large-scale earthworks from the moment he approached Gergovia with the legions, and soon took the neighbouring hill, on which he built the so-called small camp, consistently striving to surround and capture the city.

Gergovia – map

It was no secret to Caesar that Vercingetorix tactically avoids direct combat, and his strategy is to cut off supplies and starve the Romans. At the same time, he forbade his men to make any clashes with Roman soldiers, predicting the defeat of the Gauls in advance. At the same time, realizing what the proconsul often dared to do, one can also accept the thesis that his plan assumed an attempt to conquer Gergovia, and if it did not succeed, lead to a battle with the masses of Gallic warriors lured by the threat, rushing to save the city. Therefore, Caesar, seizing the opportunity, most likely made an attempt to conquer the oppidum and cut off Vercingetorix’s army from the supply base, while taking into account the possibility of forcing the Gauls into a general battle. This is also largely confirmed by the manoeuvres of his legions. If he wanted to provoke a battle at once, he would not have ordered one legion to march to the other side of the hill, risking its encirclement by the masses of Gauls. All the thirteenth legion cohorts remained in the small camp. The Tenth Legion was set up as insurance and took no active part in the battle until the soldiers of the Eighth, Ninth and Fifteenth Legions, retreating under the pressure of the Gauls, ran into panic between their ranks.

Walls of the oppidum of Gergovia recently discovered during archaeological research.
Creative Commons Attribution License - Share Alike 3.0.

The main attack took place between 12 noon and 2 pm. Exercising all caution and hiding in the bushes, the Romans came unnoticed to the very walls of the city, because Caesar ordered that the march of the legionaries take place in complete silence, without loud commands. The Outer Walls with virtually no defenders were swiftly breached by seasoned Gallic siege and city-conquering legionaries who captured the camps of three tribes. The attack of the Romans was unexpected by the Gauls who were completely taken by surprise and broke up. After this success, however, Caesar began to lose control of his troops. The legionaries, seeing that the city was not defended, rushed to plunder the camp and storm the city gates, forgetting that the entire Gallic army was nearby. Caesar then ordered the trumpet of the retreat, but only the legionaries of the 10th legion heard it in the noise, for the rest it was inaudible. The 10th Legion withdrew from the walls of the oppidum and kept battle formation. Meanwhile, the remaining legionaries, mainly from the 8th Legion, disregarding the orders of the legates and tribunes, threw themselves on the shafts and began to climb onto their crown. At this point, the troops of Gauls, who had been waiting for an attack from the west, attacked the side of the developed Roman formation. Alerted by warriors fleeing from camps located south of the city, after forming lines, they attacked the triumphant Romans. Legionnaires fighting against the more numerous opponent, attacking from better, higher positions, began to retreat. Their retreat turned into a panicky escape when Eduean warriors arrived at the scene of the battle, as ordered by Caesar, with the task of supporting the legionaries and stopping the pressure of the Gauls. Roman soldiers, ignoring their bare arms (a sign of Gauls allied with the Romans), rushed to flee. The legionaries retreating and fleeing the hill were protected by the X Legion, supported by several cohorts of the 13th Legion, sent from the small camp by legate Titus Sextius. It is symptomatic that the triumphant Gauls were held back by relatively small forces (the X legion and several XIII cohorts, probably also some ad hoc centuries made up of fleeing legionaries). This suggests that the Roman army was prepared for a possible clash with the main mass of Gallic warriors. For nothing is known about the subsequent attacks of the Gauls on the retreating Romans.

Consequences

“Gallic War” (Commentarii de bello Gallico) these are Julius Caesar’s diaries, describing 9 years of the Gallic Wars (58-50 BCE). Caesar wrote seven books of his account, each covering the events of one year. The outbreak of the civil war interrupted Caesar’s work on the piece. Later, Aulus Hirtius wrote the eighth book of the Gallic War, which was to be a link with another work of Caesar, “Civil War”.
In addition to the description of warfare, Caesar provides numerous information about the people in his account people living in Gaul, their customs, culture and beliefs.

Upon hearing of the Aeduian rebellion, Caesar gave up the siege against the Sequans and the Lingons. The withdrawal from the siege was considered a weakness by the Gallic tribes, which encouraged them to join the uprising. Vercingetorix’s army obtained huge reinforcements from new allies, prompting him to use the advantage and attack Caesar. At that time, Labienus joined the Roman commander at the head of the rest of the army, who won in the north. Vercingetorix, having a great host of cavalry, wanted to overcome Caesar’s cavalry at all costs. However, the Roman cavalry, supported by legionaries, managed to repel the attack and force Vercingetric’s army to retreat. Discouraged by the failure, the Gallic commander retired to the city of Alesia, where there was another siege by the Romans.

In letters written to the Senate, Caesar admitted the loss of 46 centurions and about seven hundred soldiers. At the same time, he dropped the responsibility for the defeat on the impunity of the soldiers, who, in his opinion, did not carry out orders, but rushed to rob the property of the Gauls. According to Suetonius: “in Gaul, when one of his legions was routed at Gergovia”1. Regardless of what Suetonius said, Caesar lost at least two cohorts of legionaries under Gergovia. The losses of the Gauls are unknown, but they may have been slightly smaller than those of Caesar’s army. This is especially true of the initial moment of the battle when the Romans by surprise took over the camp in which Gallic warriors camped around the city.

Footnotes
  1. Suetonius, Caesar, 25

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