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Julius Caesar & the Battle of Alesia

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Long before France was a country, the Ancient Romans had claimed that territory as their own. In this lesson, you will learn how Julius Caesar solidified Roman rule in Gaul thanks to a victory at the Battle of Alesia.

Rome and Gaul

If you're familiar with world geography, you probably know that Rome is located in the country of Italy on a modern map. During the time of Julius Caesar, the city of Rome was in the same place it is today, but the area the Roman Republic controlled was much greater. In fact, Roman rule reached along the Mediterranean all the way into Europe. Julius Caesar was the man largely responsible for conquering these territories. In 58 B.C., the country you know as France was referred to as Gaul. The Gallic people were organized into warring tribes, and by Roman standards were considered barbaric. For seven years, Julius Caesar worked tirelessly to bring the Gauls under Roman control, and he eventually succeeded, thanks to an important victory at the Battle of Alesia.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

Prelude to War

Caesar became the governor of Gaul in 58 B.C., but he wasn't the kind of governor you're familiar with today. Of course, he was responsible for leading the people and enforcing laws, but those parts of his job weren't easy to actually to do. The Gauls weren't fans of Roman rule. Think about it: would you be happy if some bossy guy with an army came into your town and started telling you what to do? The Gauls did their best to resist Caesar and started all sorts of small rebellions. Caesar had no problem using military might to get his way and actively worked to conquer the Gauls.

In 52 B.C., a group of Gallic tribes met to discuss their situation. Caesar and his Roman thugs had to go, but how would they make that happen? Their plan was simple:

  • put aside their tribal differences
  • present a united front against Caesar's army
  • follow the leadership of a man named Vercingetorix
  • attack and kill as many Romans as possible across Gaul

Under Vercingetorix, the Gauls set their plan into motion and began to wreak havoc against Roman bases across the territory. When the rebellion started, Caesar was enjoying some time in the Alps, so he and his forces were forced to trek through the snow to deal with the Gaul problem. Caesar quickly devised a strategy. He split his forces into nine legions. Four legions would follow a man named Titus Labienus, and five legions would go with Caesar to pursue Vercingetorix.

Early on, Caesar suffered a few small losses and had to regroup. In the meantime, Vercingetorix and his troops had made a cozy home for themselves in the town of Alesia. It was the perfect spot: it had a giant wall for protection, and it sat on a hill that was perfect for defense. Caesar had two options to deal with Vercingetorix. He could either attack the town directly OR he could create a siege by surrounding the town and cutting them off from the outside world. Without supplies moving in and out of Alesia, Vercingetorix and the people inside the walls would starve.

You're probably wondering, how exactly does one cut an entire town off from the outside world? Caesar used two strategies to do this. The first was creating a circumvallation; his Roman troops dug ditches and built walls and watch towers in huge circles around the town. The troops would then watch Alesia to make sure Vercingetorix and his troops didn't try to fight their way out. The second strategy was to build a contravallation. The contravallation was just like the circumvallation, but instead of facing the town, Caesar's troops faced the opposite direction to watch for armies that came to relieve Vercingetorix and his army. In total, the circumvallation spanned 11 miles and the contravallation 13 miles.

Map of circumvallation and contravallation surrounding town of Alesia
Alesia Map

Battle of Alesia

Caesar's siege worked perfectly. Vercingetorix and the people trapped inside Alesia quickly ran out of supplies and began to starve. At one point, Vercingetorix tried to appeal to Caesar's good side and released Alesia's women and children into the circumvallation, hoping that Caesar would let them leave so they could survive. Caesar would not allow the women and children past the Roman lines and allowed them to starve.

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