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I don't fully understand why Vercingetorix accepted a siege at Alesia (a fortified area), where he would be short of food instead of pursuing one or more of the alternatives below. The reason I'm puzzled is because (I believe that) Vercingetorix' force was "small" relative to the ultimate relieving force, Given this fact, his alternatives were:

  1. Rest and refit briefly at Alesia, and continue the flight further toward friendly Gallic territory.

  2. A variation of 1) above. Leave half of the army at Alesia as a holding force, and continue the flight with the other half. The issue at Alesia was that there were more than enough men to hold the fortress, but too many to feed.

  3. A variation of 2) above: Weeks after the siege began, some of the cavalry escaped to rally the relieving force. Why wasn't Vercingetorix among them?

I'm assuming that Vercingetorix made choices that were rational in the context of the political and military constraints of his time and place, but I don't fully understand them. What were these constraints? And was there a reason that Vercingetorix failed to evacuate the civilians before the Romans arrived to save food for his men?

  • 1
    Well constructed question. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 22 at 11:46
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    agreed, very interesting question and i look forward to the answers for #1-3. As to your last question about why the civilians werent evacuated prior to the siege, i had always understood it that occupying alesia was not done as a deliberate strategy, rather the celts hand was forced by caesar and the previous days calvary fight between the two which resulted in a roman victory. And any plans that vercingetorix had before the battle were thrown out the window with that loss and he was then simply reacting to the romans rather than being proactive. – ed.hank Jun 22 at 12:50
  • What exactly is known, what's just rumoured about V's motives and options ? Which factual information from archeological evidence and finding exist ? There's a lot of context missing here. Though late iron age is not my specialty , I think the question is heavily in need of links and citation to support all the implicit and explicit claims and assumptions. Cesar's accounts are not a valid archeological source. – user43870 Jun 22 at 14:03
  • Not even the site of the battle is clear, speculating about motives and options under this given situation of antique propaganda and missing archeological evidence is pure opinion. Just saying, because usually unsourced questions are closed immediately in here. – user43870 Jun 22 at 14:45
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Although I read War of the Gauls a long time ago, my answer is based on a fairly recent listen to Dan Carlin's Celtic Holocaust podcast.

Now, Carlin's not a real historian, but comes a damn sight closer than most of us and in any case is just going to be doing the same thing as everyone else: looking at Caesar's book. Which, for all its lack of corroboration and self-serving propaganda, is a damn sight more documentation than a lot of ancient history gets.

Leading up to Alesia, the basic facts (and claims) are as follows:

  • by the time of V's revolt, Caesar had been campaigning in Gaul for a while and had largely subjugated the individual tribes.

  • Gaul was not a unified country, and Caesar had not been fighting a king or kingdom. Rather, he had been taking out tribes one by one or in small groups.

  • V is chosen/elected as a unified war leader, but still answers to tribal politics. His central authority is unprecedented, for the Gauls.

  • V explicitly recognizes the superiority Romans enjoy in set piece battles and wants to target their logistics. Essentially, he wants to fight a large scale guerrilla war, using scorched earth tactics. But he doesn't have say Stalin's authority to just burn things. He does it, but it's not popular. Neither, probably, is "cowardice" to the Gauls.

Alesia (according to Carlin):

  • Is supposed to be extremely well-fortified and is supposed to have political/cultural significance. A "town worth fighting for". V finds it difficult to convince his confederacy to just burn and leave.

  • Roman superiority in set battles and in sieges was well known, but the Gauls might have not fully appreciated how capable they were. Think Masada or the crossing of the Rhine - double-walling Alesia looks extraordinary to us already, let alone folk without our hindsight or other Roman examples to look at. They may have thought they could hold out.

  • The numbers on the Gaulish side are immense, maybe even too large to be credible. But keeping large armies in the field has always been a weakness tribal systems have when fighting established imperial powers. It could be that the Gauls felt they had sufficiently hurt Caesar and needed to force an outcome.

  • As V. was not a king but rather an elected/chosen war leader, he might have limited leeway to cut and run and fight another day. By running away, either before he got pinned, or later on, he might have lost his claim to leadership. That would really depend on the power and influence of the tribe that owned Alesia.

  • Evacuating the civilians is also easier said than done. I am pretty sure the standard Roman response to insurrection tended to enslaving everyone. So it might have at first seemed safer to keep them in the city and wait for the relief force to fix the whole problem, rather than turning them out (from their own city) sufficiently long before the Romans arrived. V does try to send them out later, and the Romans send them back, precisely to hasten starvation.

In short, given the Gaulish numbers, his political position and the relative success they had had until then, V might just have miscalculated and bitten off more than he could handle. On the other hand, we know what happened and we know that sitting in Alesia was a death sentence, even if we don't know all that much about the bigger picture and possible alternatives. So it's natural for us to assume a clever leader would not have made this mistake.

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    That is not valid source and the whole answer is full of speculation and opinion. "Julius Caesar is our travel guide as he takes us through his murderous subjugation of the native Celtic tribal peoples of ancient Gaul". Seriously ? – user43870 Jun 22 at 21:00
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    @a_donda yup. to be expected given your long diatribe about un-answerability. by that your high standards, very few questions on this site deserve answering. while I clearly acknowledge speculation it is also based on a long interest in military history in general. I didn't downvote you, but found your answer less than impressive too ;-) – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jun 22 at 21:04
  • Yes, my "answer" doesn't deserve an upvote, but the whole question is unsourced and opinionated and right away piffle as posted. Your answer just shows to where that leads. Interstingly, the same people readily downvote and close if someone else posts in that style, history se is full of closed questions that are far more intelligent and less opinionated. Messing around in archeology and pre-history (clearly not your field) with history methods and overly speculating without source damages actual science. – user43870 Jun 22 at 21:32
  • Re evacuating the civilians, even at later times and with a less existential conflict, often a besieging army would not allow civilians to leave the siege so that the defenders would have to feed them, thus ending their supplies quicker. I do remember reading about a medieval siege (IIRC in France) where the defenders expelled the civilians and the besiegers would not allow them to pass the siege lines, leaving them stranded in no man's land for a long time. So yes, evacuating civilians was easier said than done, specially if those civilians meant anything to you. – SJuan76 Jun 30 at 20:58
  • @a_donda You certainly talk a big talk. There's nothing wrong reminding people that our knowledge is incomplete and much will be speculation, but you sound a bit over the top. First, I've listened to Carlin's podcasts about WW2, a subject I know much better, quite a bit. He often brings in some quirky insights but I've never caught him out in something factually wrong. Second, you seem to claim something unique about the Gaul campaigns and our inability to have reasoned opinions about it. News to you, there's nothing unique and historical records are lacking elsewhere too. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jul 2 at 21:03

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