The story

Vercingetorix (52 to 50 B.C.E.)

Vercingetorix (52 to 50 B.C.E.)

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An animated video about Vercingetorix and the conclusion of the Gallic Wars.

Timeline: 1st Century BCE (100 to 1)

91 Emperor Wu of China is seventy-five and violence erupts over who will succeed him.

86 Emperor Wu is succeeded by a compromise choice: an eight-year-old who is put under the regency of a former general, Huo Guang.

83 For the Romans, compromise and toleration have not been working politically. General Marcus Sulla returns from wars in the East, and in a civil war and bloodbath he takes power in Rome. Sulla creates a new constitution that gives rule to the Senate and that he believes will restore the republic, order and dignity to Rome.

79 Sulla retires. He believes that peace had been established at home and abroad and that Rome's government is functioning as it had in its glorious past. He grows cabbages and studies Epicureanism.

77 Around this year, the last book of the Old Testament, the Book of Esther, is translated into Greek.

74 Emperor Zhao dies at the age of twenty and is succeeded by another child, Emperor Xuan.

73 A Roman slave, Spartacus, escapes with seventy-seven other prisoners and seizes control of nearby Mount Vesuvius. News of the revolt encourages other slaves, and they join Spartacus on Mount Vesuvius &ndash an army of from fifty to a hundred thousand.

71 Spartacus and other slaves are crucified on the major road in and out of Rome: the Appian way. The latest slave uprising has lowered the demand for slaves. Landowners start replacing gangs of slaves with a less frightening alternative: free people farming as tenants.

68 Regent Huo Guang dies peaceably, but palace rivalry leads to charges of treason against Huo Guang's wife, son and many of Huo Guang's relatives and family associates, and they are executed. With Huo Guang gone, Emperor Xuan is able to exercise more control.

67 The Maccabees family has been renamed the Hasmonaeans. Two Hasmonaean brothers, John Hyrcanus II and Judas Aristobulus, are competing for power, and a civil war erupts.

63 The Roman general, Gneaus Pompey, is in Syria with a Roman army in response to disorder there. Syria is annexed to the Roman Empire. The Hasmonaeans still have an alliance with Rome, and the two warring Hasmonaean brothers seek arbitration from Rome. Pompey and his army march into Judah. Fighting erupts between Jews and the Roman army. The Romans take possession of Judah &ndash territory they call Judea.

58 Julius Caesar goes to Gaul as military-governor.

53 The Parthians annihilate an army of 40,000 Romans.

52 (Oct 3) Leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, surrenders to Julius Caesar, ending the battle of Alesia.

50 Around this year the Parthians extend their empire to the Indus Valley. A people called Kushans have been pushing into Bactria against the Scythians there, and the Scythians are pushing into India (to be known in India as Sakas).

49 Rome's senate has worried over Caesar's popularity and has ordered him home from Gaul. On January 10 Caesar crosses the Rubicon River with his army, a forbidden move which means civil war.

48 China has a new emperor, Emperor Yuan, age twenty-seven. He is a timid intellectual who is to spend much time with his concubines. Rather than govern, he will leave power in the hands of his eunuch secretaries and members of his mother's family.

48 (Aug 9) Caesar's civil war: Battle of Pharsalus - Julius Caesar decisively defeats Pompey at Pharsalus and Pompey flees to Egypt.

48 (Sep 28) Pompey the Great is assassinated on orders of King Ptolemy of Egypt after landing in Egypt.

47 Caesar returns to Rome as victor. Many Romans think their troubles are over, that at last a champion of the people has secured power and that the gods have granted Caesar good fortune. Caesar is conciliatory with former enemies.

45 (Jan 1) Julius Caesar's reform calendar, the Julian calendar, goes into effect: twelve months (January to December in English), 365 days per year and one day added in February every four years.

44 Caesar is murdered by Stoic idealists in order to preserve the Roman republic. Reconciliation has not worked.

32 Emperor Cheng has succeeded his father. He also has little enthusiasm for governing and is most concerned with personal pleasures.

30 Civil war has followed Caesar's assassination, and it reduces to Caesar's nephew, Octavian, against Antony and Cleopatra. Antony dies on August 1, at the age of 53. Cleopatra dies eight days later at 39.

29 Octavian returns to Rome a hero. He is to be worshipped as the bringer of peace.

27 Octavian renounces his consulship and declares that he is surrendering all powers, including control of the army. The Senate returns his powers and gives him a title that has the ring of his being divinely chosen, Augustus Caesar, and the Senate makes it law that he be included in the prayers of Rome's priests. In appearance, the Roman Republic had been restored, but ultimate power is still held by Octavian.

23 South of Egypt, the Romans drive back, as far as Napata, the rival imperialist army of Meroe.

19 Augustus Caesar is associating morality with the well-being of the state and the pleasing of the gods. To stay on the good side of the gods he has begun a crusade to revive temperance and morality. He tries setting an example by dressing without extravagance and by living in a modest house. He asks Virgil to write the Aeneid, a story about the gods and the founding of the Roman race.

15 Livy, the Roman historian, is in his forties. He has been writing his history of Rome since the year 29. He investigates the story of the founding of Rome, which is popular among the Romans. It is the story of Romulus and Remus, ending with Romulus vanishing into a thunderstorm, becoming a god and then reappearing, descending from the sky and declaring that it is the will of heaven that Rome be the capital of the world.

6 Emperor Cheng is succeeded by Emperor Ngai, who lives in the company of homosexual boys, one of whom he appoints commander-in-chief of his armies. With the decline in quality of monarchs following the reign of Emperor Wu, some Confucian scholars declare that the Han dynasty has lost its Mandate from Heaven, and this is widely believed.

1 Augustus Caesar has laws passed that he hopes will reduce inter-breeding between Romans and non-Romans. He is encouraging marriage. Romans believe in the family, and they agree that adultery should be illegal. They believe that the virtue of their women helped win favor for their city from their gods. And they continue to be disgusted by criminality.

Vercingetorix (52 to 50 B.C.E.) - History

The ringleader of what became a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar was Longinus Caius Cassius. He was joined by Marcus Junius Brutus.
A meeting of the Senate was called for the 15th (the Ides) of March to discuss the Parthian War. Caesar had been warned not to attend the session, but went anyway. The moment Caesar took his seat, the conspirators surrounded him. They began to petition him to recall from banishment a certain Cimber. When Caesar arose, they attacked him with knives. It is said that Caesar tried to defend himself, but when he saw Brutus among the attackers he cried out 'Et Tu, Brutus' and succumbed.

Octavian greatly streamlined the administration of the provinces. He directly appointed the governors of all the provinces that still required military control. He also approved all other appointments.

Roman Legions commanded by Tiberius initiated a campaign against the Germanic tribes. The campaign extended the Roman Empire to the area of modern-day Switzerland and much of Germany and Hungary.

Caesar's Gallic War

Caesar's Gallic War: Caesar's reports on his conquests in Gaul. The Roman senator Cicero thought it was a splendid text, and although we can recognize the book's bias, it still is a remarkably efficient piece of writing.


Caesar's Gallic War consists of seven parts ("books"), each devoted to one year of campaigning. The first book covers the year 58 BCE: it opens with the war against the Helvetians, continues with a victorious battle against a Germanic army, and culminates in the modest remark that Caesar had concluded two very important wars in a single campaign. In the next book, which deals with the year 57, we visit the Belgians, who lived way up north. Again, the book culminates in a triumphant note: when the Senate received Caesar's dispatches, the august body decreed a thanksgiving of fifteen days, "an honor which, until then, had been conferred on no one".

The next books cover campaigns along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean (Book Three), the invasions of Germany and Britain (Book Four) and the second invasion of Britain (Book Five). The sixth book offers descriptions of some hard fighting in the valley of the Meuse and a second invasion of Germany. Finally, the book dealing with the events in 52 BCE, is probably the most exciting one: it deals with the war against Vercingetorix. We read how the Roman lines of communication were almost cut off, about the siege of Bourges, about an unsuccessful attack on Gergovia, and finally about the siege of Alesia, which culminates in a remark about a thanksgiving of twenty days. (Book Eight, which describes mopping-up operations in 51 and 50, was later added by one of Caesar's colonels, Aulus Hirtius.)

The structure of the description of the siege of Alesia illustrates Caesar's method. If we are to believe him, the outcome of the war depended on one single siege. This may have been correct, but the fact that fighting continued for two more years suggests that things may have been more complex. The outcome of the siege was - according to Caesar - decided on one single day during that day, one single fight really mattered and that clash fight was decided by one man, Julius Caesar, who appeared on the scene when things were going wrong. In other words, it was Caesar who personally won the fight, the battle, and the war. This is splendid propaganda.

Stylistic Brilliance

For centuries, the Gallic War has been the first real Latin text, written by a real Roman, for children who were trying to master the ancient language. Caesar's language is not very difficult indeed. Cicero says:

The Gallic War is splendid. It is bare, straight and handsome, stripped of rhetorical ornament like an athlete of his clothes. … There is nothing in a history more attractive than clean and lucid brevity. note [Cicero, Brutus 262.]

But the general was not just writing for Cicero and other senators, who recognized Caesar's artful simplicity. In the Roman political arena, Caesar belonged to the populares, who sought legitimacy through the Popular Assembly. (The other tactic was that of the optimates, who focused on the Senate.) Although every Roman citizen had a right to vote in the assemblies, in fact only the urban citizens had an opportunity to do so. For Caesar, it was important to impress the craftsmen and wage workers, and the Gallic War was written for them as well. We must imagine that Caesar's half-literate adherents read his annual dispatches to their fellow-Romans.

Still, the simplicity of his style does not exclude dazzling phrases. The following quote, the longest sentence from the Gallic War, is one single period, which evokes the chaos during the Battle of the Sabis, in which Caesar overcame the Nervians. As usual, he speaks about himself in the third person, a trick to make the text look more objective.

When Caesar, who had addressed the tenth legion, reached the right wing, he found his troops under severe pressure and, because all the standards of the twelfth had had been collected into one cramped space, the soldiers packed so close together that they got in each other's way as they fought, while all the centurions of the fourth cohort had been killed - together with the standard bearer: the standard was lost - and those of the other cohorts as well, including the very brave senior centurion, Publius Sextius Baculus, who had so many terrible wounds that he could no longer stand, and when Caesar saw that the rest of the men were slowing down, and some in the rear ranks had given up fighting and were intent on getting out of range of the enemy, while the enemy in front kept pouring up the hill and were pressing us on both flanks, he recognized that this was a crisis because there were no reserves available, so he snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear ranks - Caesar had no shield with him - and went forward to the front line, where he called out to all the centurions by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the men, whom he ordered to advance and to open out their ranks so that they could use their swords more effectively. note [Caesar, Gallic War 2.25.1.]

It is easy to understand why this sentence is, in most modern translations, divided into three units. However, the chaos of the battle is evoked better if an experienced reader reads these words to his audience in one breath. When the reader runs out of breath, he has reached the climax: Caesar personally intervening and saving the day.

Meanwhile, a more sober analysis of the battle shows that it was not Caesar, but his colonel Titus Labienus who acted decisively. That Caesar in his account of the Battle of the Sabis gives all credit to himself, is unusual: under normal circumstances, he also mentions and praises his colonels and soldiers. Many of them were well-known in Rome and were popular with the masses. Others, like Quintus Cicero and Publius Licinius Crassus, were relatives of well-known senators, who certainly appreciated that their nephews or sons were mentioned.

A Political Geography

It would be exaggerated to say that for the Romans Gaul was terra incognita. Italian merchants and Roman commanders had already visited the valleys of the Rhône and Saône, and Gallic traders had told stories about the territories north and west of Lyon. However, the countries along the Ocean were poorly known. The description of the shores of Gaul by the Greek sailor Pytheas, almost three centuries old, was probably the best there was, and it was probably known only second-hand. Another source was Xenophon of Lampsacus, who believed that up north, one would find people with horses' hooves or ears of an extraordinary size. On the Birds Islands, Xenophon said, people lived on oats and eggs. note [Quoted by Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4.95.]

Inevitably, Caesar makes geographical mistakes. When he states that "the Meuse rises in the Vosges mountains, passes along the island of the Batavians, and flows into the Rhine about 80 miles from the sea", note [Caesar, Gallic War 4.10.1.] he confuses the river with the Moselle, which has its sources in the Vosges. He follows Xenophon when he states that the people along the Rhine have a diet of fish and eggs. note [Caesar, Gallic War 4.10.2.]

Other mistakes are intentional. Caesar knew that people at home had the most fantastic ideas about the edges of the earth, and he carefully exploited these prejudices. The ancients believed that if you left the Mediterranean and moved inland, you would reach increasingly barbarous people, until, when you reached the Ocean at the edge of the world, where ebb and flood occur, the land was inhabited by absolute savages. They lacked civilization, but were extremely brave. Take the famous opening lines of the Gallic War:

Gaul as a whole consists of three separate parts: one is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani and the third by the people we call Gauls, though in their own language they are called Celts. … Of all these peoples, the toughest are the Belgae. They are the farthest away from the civilized ways of the Roman province, and merchants, bringing those things that tend to make men soft, very seldom reach them moreover, they are very close to the Germans across the Rhine and are continually at war with them. note [Caesar, Gallic War 1.1.1, 3.]

The Roman province, the Gauls, the Belgae, the Germans: there is an increase of savagery, and Caesar never ceases to remind his audience of the country he was fighting in. The Ocean shores are often mentioned, even when there is no need to. In an account of an expedition against the Eburones, who lived in the east of modern Belgium, he mentions that some people "fled to the islands that are cut off from the mainland by the high tide". note [Caesar, Gallic War 6.31.3.] This cannot be true. Paleogeologic studies of the Belgian and Dutch coastal area have shown that the Zeeland archipelago did not yet exist the nearest islands were those along the Wadden Sea, more than 300 km away. Still, Caesar seized an opportunity to remind his readers that he was fighting at the edge of the earth, in a barbarous country, against dangerous savages.

The most interesting aspect of his geography is the way he defines his theater of operations: the Rhine is the eastern border of Gaul. He must have known that this is incorrect. The region of the Celtic states continued east of the river, along the Danube, all the way to Bohemia. The language of the Belgae was spoken as far as east as the Ems. Germanic migrants had in Caesar's time settled west of the river. Whatever the Rhine may have been, it was not a border between Celts and Germans.


Caesar's books were intended as an aid for future historians - that's why they are officially called Commentaries, and not History of the Gallic War - but the author often leaves out information that historians would have found interesting. In his continuation of the Gallic War, Hirtius mentions unsuccessful Roman actions and cruel executions of defeated enemies - information that Caesar, in the seven first books, had repressed. There are no accounts of the looting of the Gallic sanctuaries, which are known to have taken place, nor is there any reference to the sale of POWs. The latter can be explained: if a general sold people into slavery, the Senate received a share of the proceeds. By writing that these people had been killed, Caesar could keep the money himself.

/> Model of Caesar's bridge across the Rhine

Sometimes, lack of success was too well known in Rome to be ignored. Caesar explains his setback at Gergovia by blaming his soldiers, who had been over-eager to attack. On other occasions, an ethnographic digression helps to cover up things. In 6.9-10, Caesar's men build a bridge across the Rhine, and the reader is prepared for the invasion of the country on the east bank. Sections 11-28 are devoted to the customs of the Germans, and in 6.29, we learn that Caesar's enemies, the Suebians, had retreated, so that the legions could return. There is not a word about the campaign, which was obviously a disaster.

As it happens, we know what really happened, because the Greek historian Cassius Dio, a really independent mind and a clever historian, states that Caesar accomplished nothing and retired rapidly out of fear for the Suebians. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History 40.32.2.] In other words, the exact opposite of what Caesar claims that had happened. Dio also gives a description of a Roman attack on a refugee camp during an armistice that makes more sense than Caesar's own description of his fight against the Usipetes and Tencteri. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History 39.47.2 cf. Caesar, Gallic War 4.11-15.]

A third occasion on which Dio offers information that Caesar preferred to hold back, is the siege of Alesia. After the decisive fight, the leaders of the besieged Gauls met, and Vercingetorix said that they ought to decide what to do. They sent envoys to Caesar, who demanded them to hand over their weapons, and waited on his throne for the enemy leaders to arrive. The tribal leaders came and handed over Vercingetorix. At least, this is what Caesar writes, stressing that the Gauls themselves abandoned their leader. But it is probably not what really happened: according to Dio, Vercingetorix remained in charge to the very last moment, and surprised Caesar by appearing unexpectedly.


Cicero may have appreciated Caesar's stylistic qualities, but when he compares the Gallic War to a work of history, he only proves that he is a victim of Caesar's superior literary skills. The books were an instrument to influence public opinion at home. Had it been a history of the conquest of Gaul, the book would at least have contained an explanation about the causes of the conflict, but Caesar never explains why he went to war at all.

However, although Caesar's bias is evident, this does not mean that the work has no value at all. The author concentrates on the military aspects of the war, and for the study of ancient warfare, the Gallic War remains one of the most important sources. On the other hand, one can never use his descriptions at face value.

An earlier version of this article was published in Ancient Warfare , 2.4 (2008)

6 The Battle Of Zama202 BC

The Battle of Zama marked the end of the Second Punic War and resulted in the defeat of Hannibal. Under the command of Scipio, the Romans devised a plan to defeat Hannibal&rsquos war elephants.

Roman skirmishers blew their horns and beat their drums, frightening several of the elephants, which turned and rampaged against the Carthaginian troops. The remaining elephants ran harmlessly through the columns and were easily dispatched. The battle intensified as each line clashed until the Roman cavalry was able to encircle the Carthaginian infantry and win the battle.

Hannibal escaped, though his losses were severe: 20,000 dead and 20,000 more captured. The loss was so devastating to Carthage that they were never able to challenge Rome again.

Commius of the Atrebates, fl.57-50 BC

Commius of the Atrebates (fl.57-50 BC) was a Gallic leader who supported Caesar for most of the Gallic War before switching sides and taking part in the final revolt under Vercingetorix. Commius first comes to our attention after Caesar's victory over the Belgic tribes on the Sambre in 57 BC. In the aftermath of the battle Caesar made Commius king of the Atrebates, having been impressed with his courage and conduct and in the belief that he would be loyal to the Romans.

Commius next appears in 55 BC when Caesar was planning his first expedition to Britain. Commius was sent across the channel with orders to visit as many states as possible and convince then to accept Roman protection. This mission ended before it began. Commius was captured almost immediately after he landed in Britain and was thrown into chains. He was only released after Caesar had successfully fought his way ashore. Commius then commanded a small force of 30 horsemen who had been part of his original entourage, using them to pursue the Britons after the failure of their attack on the Roman camp. Commius returned to Britian with Caesar in the following year. Towards the end of this second expedition he was used to negotiate the peace settlement with Cassivellaunus.

At the end of the second expedition to Britain Commius returned to Gaul. After Caesar subdued the Menapii tribe, in the Rhine delta, Commius was left in command in the area, at the head of a cavalry force. He was rewarded for his loyalty by being granted the lands of the Morini and his kingdom was made exempt from taxes.

During the winter of 53-52 BC Commius had a change of heart and joined the rebels. That winter Labienus commanded in Gaul while Caesar wintered in northern Italy, in the other half of his province. According to Caesar Labienus discovered that Commius was conspiring against Caesar and decided to attempt to trap him. Caius Volusenus Quadratus and a group of centurions were sent to meet Commius. The plan was for Volusenus to take Commius by the hand, an unusual gesture for the time. One of his centurions was to use this as an excuse to kill Commius, presumably in the hope that the death might have looked like a tragic accident and not a deliberate killing. This plan failed. Commius suffered a severe head wound, but was saved by his friends. After a tense standoff, the Gauls escaped. Commius vowed never to come within sight of a Roman.

Commius is next mentioned after the start of the siege of Alesia. When Vercingetorix called for a relief army Commius used his contacts amongst the Bellovaci to convince them to contribute 2,000 men to the army, although the rest of their army remained in the north. He was one of four men who shared the supreme command of the relief arm, a division of command that may have contributed to the Gaul's failure around Alesia.

After the fall of Alesia Commius returned to the north and joined Correus of the Bellovaci. The two men commanded the last major Gallic army to directly oppose Caesar, and for some time they managed to hold off the Romans, retreating into swamps and woods and avoiding battle. Commius travelled into Germany in an attempt to find allies, eventually returning with 500 cavalry. He survived the ambush in which Correus was killed, and when the surviving Bellovaci nobles decided to submit to Caesar he fled across the Rhine and took refuge with the same German tribe.

Commius soon returned to Gaul, at the head of a band of his surviving followers, and conducted a guerrilla campaign against the Romans, surviving on supplies captured from their convoys. The nearest Roman commander, Marcus Antonius (Mark Anthony), sent a cavalry force to catch him. After a series of minor clashes Commius suffered a serious defeat after a battle in which the Romans killed a large number of his followers after their own leader, Caius Volusenus Quadratus, was badly wounded. This convinced Commius that further resistance was useless, and he sent a message to Antonius offering to go wherever he was sent as long as he didn't have to come into the presence of any Romans. Antonius accepted these terms, and the last serious resistance to Roman rule came to an end.

At some point after this (possibly in 50 BC) Commius probably moved to Britain, where coin evidence suggests that he became king of an area south of the River Thames that included modern Hampshire and Sussex. Coin evidence also suggests that three of his sons also ruled areas of southern Britain.

The Gallic War , Julius Caesar. One of the great works of western civilisation. Caesar was an almost unique example of a great general who was also a great writer. The Gallic War is a first hand account of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, written at the time to explain and justify his actions.

Death and legacy

In Rome dissatisfaction was growing in the Senate over the increasingly permanent nature of Caesar's rule. A conspiracy (secret plan) was formed to remove Caesar and restore the government to the Senate. The conspirators hoped that, with Caesar's death, government would be restored to its old republican form and all of the factors that had produced Caesar would disappear. The conspiracy progressed with Caesar either ignorant of it or not recognizing the warning signs. On the Ides of March (March 15), 44 B.C.E. , he was stabbed to death in the Senate house of Pompey by a group of men that included old friends and allies.

With Caesar's murder, Rome plunged into thirteen years of civil war. Caesar remained for some a symbol of an over-dominant leader, and for others the founder of the Roman Empire whose ghost has haunted Europe ever since. For all, he is a figure of genius and courage equaled by few in history.

4. Spartacus

The Spartacus rebellion was a source of considerable embarrassment for the Romans. It was humiliating that their legions could be repeatedly bested by an army of slaves. As a result, the Romans were not inclined to record the history of the uprising in any great detail. What little we do know about Spartacus comes from just a handful of accounts, most of them written decades after the events they describe. However, there is enough to suggest that he must have been an inspirational leader and a gifted military tactician.

In 73 BC, along with fewer than 100 fellow slaves, he led a breakout from a gladiator school in Capua. These hardened fighters would form the nucleus of a rebel army that would swell to more than 70,000 strong over the course of little more than a year.

The Romans had initially underestimated Spartacus, who crushed the first two forces sent against him. With a huge slave army rampaging at will throughout Italy, the Roman Senate finally realized the true nature of the threat they were facing. Pompey the Great was recalled from Hispania, and Marcellus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in all of Rome, was given command of eight entire legions with which to crush the rebellion.

Faced with such an enormous force Spartacus’s only hope now was to flee, but he was betrayed by the pirates he’d bribed to transport his army across the Mediterranean. He was eventually defeated in battle, but his body was never found.

Julius Caesar at War

For several days, Julius Caesar had watched the army of his fellow Roman but bitter enemy Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) forming near Pharsalus in the central region of Roman-ruled Greece. Pompey’s 50,000-man army greatly outnumbered Caesar’s 20,000 soldiers yet Caesar’s troops were seasoned veterans of the years-long, hard-fought campaigns that had conquered Gaul (modern-day France) and greatly expanded Roman-ruled territory.

Under Caesar’s charismatic leadership, these war-hardened legionaries had often won battles while fighting greatly outnumbered by fierce Gallic warriors. At Pharsalus, however, Caesar’s soldiers confronted other disciplined Roman legionaries in a battle certain to decide the outcome of a brutal civil war.

The roots of this conflict reached back to 50 B.C., when the Roman Senate, feeling threatened by Caesar’s popularity with the Roman people in the wake of his Gallic conquests, ordered Caesar to disband his army in Gaul and return to Rome to face prosecution for several claimed offenses. Instead, Caesar marched from Gaul with the XIII Legion. In January 49 B.C., he led his legion across the shallow Rubicon River and entered Italy – a virtual declaration of war against the Roman Republic. Led by Pompey and his optimates (conservative supporters), the Senate fled Rome, first to Brundisium in southern Italy and then across the Adriatic Sea to Rome’s Greek provinces.

Unopposed, Caesar marched triumphantly into Rome, where he was declared dictator but he had still to defeat the optimate force. He pursued Pompey and was almost conquered in July 48 B.C. at Dyrrhachium (in modern-day Albania). Surviving that near defeat, Caesar marched inland and at Pharsalus again met Pompey and his army.

The tactical advantages seemed greatly in Pompey’s favor. Caesar’s army was almost out of supplies and had no clear line of retreat, while Pompey’s soldiers held the high ground, were far more numerous and better supplied. Caesar knew that the imminent battle was his last chance, warning his men that if they lost at Pharsalus they would be at Pompey’s mercy and probably slaughtered. It was August 9, 48 B.C.

Caesar’s fate – and that of the Roman Republic – hung in the balance as the Battle of Pharsalus began in earnest.


Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July 100 B.C. into a patrician family that claimed to be descended from Julus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who in turn was the supposed son of the goddess Venus. Caesar’s father, also named Gaius Julius Caesar, had served Rome as the city’s praetor (military or civilian commander) and as proconsul (governor) to Asia, while his mother, Aurelia Cotta, came from an influential Roman family.

From 82 to 80 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla made himself dictator of Rome and purged the city of his political enemies. Sulla’s victims included Caesar’s uncle, the general and seven-time consul Gaius Marius. Because of Caesar’s relationship with Marius, Sulla stripped Caesar of his inheritance and his wife’s dowry, forcing him to flee Rome and join the Roman army in Asia Minor. Intervention by the family of Caesar’s mother and Rome’s Vestal Virgins lifted the threat against Caesar but it was not until he heard of Sulla’s death in 78 B.C. that he returned to Rome, where he practiced as a lawyer and polished the oratorical skills that served him well for the rest of his life.

Years later, Cicero, himself a famous orator, asked: “Do you know any man who, even if he has concentrated on the art of oratory to the exclusion of all else, can speak better than Caesar?”

Caesar later served as questor (a treasury and legal official) in the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain), where he led military expeditions against the native tribes and in 59 B.C. became a Roman consul, the city’s highest elected official. Following his year as consul, Caesar engineered his appointment as proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul (the region between the Alps, the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea) and Transalpine Gaul (present-day Switzerland and Alpine France). Although the proconsular term of office normally was one year, Caesar was able to secure his post in Gaul for an unprecedented five years, a term later increased to 10 years.

Caesar had absolute authority within these two Gallic provinces, and the Senate entrusted him with four legions to enforce his authority. He also was authorized to levy additional legions and auxiliary forces as needed.


For most of the next decade, Caesar worked to pacify the unruly Gallic tribes and make Gaul a Roman province. He cleverly exploited the tribes’ endemic factionalism, made allies by showing mercy to the tribes he defeated, and bribed others with the fruits of Roman civilization – and when necessary, he waged war against them.

At the time, Roman legions were noted for their tactical flexibility, disciplined fighting, ability to adapt to changing circumstances and superb organization but “what ultimately made the Romans unbeatable,” one historian wrote, was “the Roman genius for fighting as a unit.” To this proven mix, Caesar added his charisma, daring and ability to inspire.

Before Caesar had even left Rome to take up his duties in Gaul, he received word that the Helvetii tribe had begun migrating west toward the Atlantic coast, burning their villages behind them. They were moving to escape harassment by Germanic tribes and to seek plunder of their own, something that was missing in their mountainous homeland. To help their plans, they made alliances with the Sequani, the Aedui (Roman clients) and two other Gallic tribes. The Romans rightly feared that the Helvetii would pillage other tribes as they migrated, and that once settled in southwest Gaul they would pose a threat to Roman territory. Moreover, the Germanic tribes likely would move into the abandoned Helvetii homeland, posing another threat to Roman interests.

Caesar moved quickly into Gaul, creating auxiliary units as he went. When he reached the town of Geneva, near the planned route of the Helvetii, he began destruction of a bridge over the Rhone River in territory belonging to a Roman client tribe, the Allobroges. Caesar, who throughout his military career relied heavily on his engineers, then began fortifying his position behind the river with a 16-foot-high rampart and a parallel trench lined with ballistae (large missile weapons). He warned the Helvetii that any attempt to cross the river would be opposed.

Caesar then hurried to Cisalpine Gaul, where he took command of three legions and enrolled two new ones, the XI and XII. At the head of these five legions, he passed through the Alps, crossing the territories of several hostile tribes and fighting some skirmishes en route.

Meanwhile, the Helvetii had begun pillaging the land of tribes aligned with Rome. Turning to aid the Roman-allied tribes, Caesar met the Helvetii as they were crossing the River Arar (modern-day Saône River, in eastern France). When he reached the river, three-fourths of the Helvetii force had already crossed. He routed those remaining on his side of the Arar, killing many of them and driving the rest into the woods. He then built a bridge over the river and pursued the main Helvetii force for two weeks until a lack of supplies caused him to end the chase.

In a quick reversal, the fleeing Helvetii suddenly turned and began to pursue the Romans, harassing their rear guard. Caesar chose to stop and fight at a hill near a Gallic oppidum (fortified city) at Bibracte. He sent his cavalry to delay the enemy and placed four legions in the traditional Roman three-line formation partway up the hill. He stationed himself at the hill’s summit with two other legions, his auxiliaries and his baggage train. About midday, the Helvetii force, said to be tens of thousands of experienced warriors, appeared and stood facing the smaller and far less combat-experienced Roman force. Bibracte was the first great battle of Caesar’s military career.

Caesar sent away his horse – a signal to his troops that he would stand with them. Then, rather than use the high ground for a defensive stand, he moved forward against the Helvetii. His legionaries first threw their iron-pointed, long-shanked pila (javelins), which stuck firmly in the Helvetii warriors’ wooden shields, weighing them down (the pila could not be easily removed since their thin shanks usually bent upon impact). Soon, many of the warriors found themselves all but helpless to lift their now heavily laden shields. They simply cast them aside and prepared to meet the Roman assault without them.

Caesar’s legionaries drew their gladii (short swords) and attacked the disadvantaged tribesmen, breaking the enemy’s line and forcing the Helvetii back almost to their baggage train. While this happened, the Boii and Tulingi, Helvetii allies who had been held in reserve, joined the battle by hitting Caesar’s right flank. When the Helvetii saw their allies attack, they returned to the battle. This forced the Romans to divide their already outnumbered force to fight the Helvetii to their front and the enemy reserves to their side. The battle turned into a desperate fight for survival that continued into the twilight hours.

Finally, Caesar’s legions were able to collapse the Helvetii defense, with some of the tribesmen escaping to the north and others making a last stand at the Helvetii baggage train, which was soon overwhelmed. Due to his many wounded and the need to bury his dead, Caesar had to wait three days before he could pursue the fleeing Helvetii, but he finally caught them. They surrendered and begged for mercy. In what would become his trademark, Caesar spared the Helvetii survivors and ordered them to return to their original homeland. He gave them grain to eat and seed to begin a crop, but he insisted on hostages to insure their obedience.

In the Gallic camp, Caesar found records indicating that more than 300,000 Helvetii men, women and children had begun the trek west. Less than a third survived to make their return. “The contest [was] long and vigorously carried on,” Caesar wrote in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.

Caesar next pacified the Suebi, a Germanic tribe, killing most of the 120,000-man force sent against him. Then in 57 B.C., he marched with eight legions, archers and cavalry against the Belgae (who occupied an area roughly comprising modern-day Belgium) after they attacked a tribe allied with Rome. “[The Belgae] never gave up even when there was no hope of victory,” Caesar wrote. He met them at the River Sabis (today’s Sambre), where he almost lost the battle that raged along its shore. He only was able to turn the conflict when he commandeered a shield from a soldier and personally rallied his legions, forming a large defensive square to protect his wounded and calling for reinforcements. Caesar’s use of projectile weapons (such as ballistae) along with archers and peltasts enabled him to turn the battle in his favor.

Caesar followed this victory with a series of punitive raids against tribes along the Atlantic seaboard that had assembled an anti-Roman confederacy, and he fought a combined land-sea campaign against the Veneti. In 55 B.C., Caesar repelled an incursion into Gaul by two Germanic tribes, and followed that by building a bridge across the Rhine. He led a show of force into Germanic territory before returning across the Rhine and dismantling the bridge.

That same year, Caesar launched an amphibious campaign that took his forces to Britain. However, the campaign nearly ended in disaster when bad weather wrecked much of his fleet and the sight of massed British chariots caused confusion among his men. He withdrew from Britain but returned in 54 B.C. with a much larger force that successfully defeated the powerful Catuvellauni, whom he forced to pay tribute to Rome.

Most of 53 B.C. was spent in a punitive campaign against the Eburones and their allies, who were said to have been all but exterminated by the Romans. “There was such a passion among the Gauls for liberty,” Caesar wrote, “that [nothing] could hold them back from throwing themselves with all their heart and soul into the fight for freedom.”

However, a larger and more serious uprising erupted in 52 B.C. involving the Arverni and allied tribes led by the Arverni chief Vercingetorix. The fighting began when another Gallic tribe, the Carnutes, slaughtered a group of Romans who had settled in what they considered their territory. Vercingetorix, a young nobleman, raised an army, made alliances with several other tribes and seized control of what was developing as an all-out revolt against Roman authority. He also fomented an outbreak of tribes along the Mediterranean, forcing Caesar to turn his attention to the south.

Caught on the wrong side of the mountains from Vercingetorix when winter hit, Caesar crossed the “impassable” Massif Central with a small force of infantry and cavalry to link up with two of his legions quartered near the southern edge of Arvenni territory. In his Commentaries, he remarked, “No single traveler had ever crossed [these mountains] in winter.”

The Romans pursued Vercingetorix and captured Avaricum (modern Bourges, in central France), the capital city of the allied Bituriges, killing the entire population. But at Gergovia, Vercingetorix defeated Caesar, inflicting heavy losses including 46 veteran centurions (commanders of an 80-100 man unit in a Roman legion). Yet Vercingetorix also suffered serious losses and after losing another minor engagement to Caesar was forced to seek refuge in the hilltop city of Alesia (near modern-day Dijon, France).


The Aedui, a tribe Caesar had saved from Germanic deprecation, had turned against him, joining the revolt and capturing his supplies and Roman base at Soissons. But by moving to Alesia, Vercingetorix had played to his enemy’s strength – Caesar was a master of siege warfare. One historian wrote: “Caesar, next to Alexander, was the outstanding director of siege operations of the ancient world.” Caesar proved that claim at the siege of Alesia.

In September 52 B.C., Caesar arrived at Alesia and laid siege to a combined Gallic force that may have numbered 80,000 warriors, four times greater than Caesar’s force. Knowing the city was immune to direct attack and again relying on his engineers, Caesar began construction of an encircling set of fortifications (circumvallation) around Alesia. Approximately 10 miles of 12-foot-high palisades were built in about three weeks. On the Alesia side of this rampart, two 15-foot-wide ditches were dug, with the one nearest the fortification filled with water from surrounding rivers. Sharpened stakes were jammed into the ground near the wall, and guard towers were erected every 80 feet. Caesar then ordered the construction of a second line of fortifications facing outward (contravallation), enclosing his army between it and the inner set of fortifications. The second wall, designed to protect the Roman besiegers from attacks from outside the city, was the same as the first in design but included four cavalry camps.

Vercingetorix’s cavalry unsuccessfully raided the construction several times, but his men were unable to stop the work. Enough of the Gallic horsemen escaped, however, to ride for help.

On October 2, Vercingetorix’s Gauls launched a massive attack from inside the Roman fortifications while a relief army hit the Romans from outside. Caesar personally rode along the perimeter inspiring his legionaries as the two-sided battle raged. He was finally able to counterattack and managed to push back Vercingetorix’s men. He then took 13 cavalry cohorts (about 6,000 men) to attack the relief army, forcing it to retreat. The day’s fighting was over.

Inside Alesia, Vercingetorix gave his men a day’s rest before again throwing their might against the Roman wall with scaling ladders and grappling hooks. Again the Gauls were beaten back. Caesar’s enemy, however, had one last card to play.

Vercingetorix moved a large part of his force by night to a weak spot in the northwest portion of the Roman fortifications that Caesar had tried to conceal the area featured natural obstructions where a continuous wall could not be built. In the morning, Vercingetorix sent a diversionary attack against the wall to the south and then struck the Roman weak spot with men he had hidden there and remnants of the relief force. Again, Caesar personally rode to the spot to rally his troops and his inspired legionaries were able to beat back the Gallic attack.

Facing starvation and plummeting morale inside Alesia, Vercingetorix was forced to surrender. The next day he presented his arms to Caesar, ending the siege in a Roman victory.

The city’s garrison was taken prisoner, as were the survivors of the relief army. All were either sold into slavery or given as booty to Caesar’s legionaries, except for the members of the Aedui and Arverni tribes. The latter were freed to secure their tribes’ alliance with Rome. Vercingetorix was taken to Rome, where he was held for six years before being put on display during Caesar’s 46 B.C. triumph celebration – and then executed by strangulation.

The siege of Alesia, which Caesar recounted in his Commentaries, is considered one of his greatest military achievements as well as being a classic example of successful siege warfare.

Alesia marked the end of organized resistance to Rome in Gaul, which became a Roman province. Caesar’s next campaign, however, was against his fellow Romans.


On August 9, 48 B.C., nearly four years after Caesar won Gaul with his victory at Alesia, he stood surveying Pompey’s much larger army at Pharsalus in Roman-ruled central Greece. The outcome of the bitter civil war that began with Caesar’s January 49 B.C. crossing of the Rubicon River with his XIII Legion in defiance of the Pompey-led Senate’s order would be decided by this day’s battle.

For the past several days, Pompey had brought his more numerous troops to the field, and Caesar had formed his smaller army against them. Although several brief cavalry engagements had been fought, the mass of the two armies had only stood and glared at one another. Finally, however, on August 9 Pompey and his army seemed ready to fight – and with a glance Caesar realized what his enemy was planning. Pompey’s infantry would hold Caesar’s opposing infantry in place while the Pompeian cavalry swept around the end of the Roman line in an outflanking maneuver.

Caesar responded by thinning the traditional Roman three-line infantry formation and creating a fourth line hidden behind the other three. Then he ordered his legionaries to charge.

When the 20,000 seasoned veterans of Caesar’s infantry line charged, Pompey’s 50,000 infantrymen held their positions awaiting the collision. This allowed Caesar’s soldiers to have, as one historian wrote, “the impetus of the charge inspire them with courage.” Caesar’s men threw their pila, pulled their gladii and crashed into the Pompeian shield wall. As Caesar had foreseen, when the lines collided Pompey loosed his 7,000 cavalrymen at the end of the Roman line. The Pompeian cavalry quickly overwhelmed the outnumbered Caesarian horse but then ran into Caesar’s favorite legion, the X, which Caesar had purposely stationed at the end of the line to meet the enemy cavalry.

The X’s men, rather than hurl their pila at the cavalry attack and then chop at the horses’ legs with their gladii (the traditional Roman defense against a cavalry attack), stabbed at the faces and eyes of the horsemen with their pila as Caesar had drilled them to do. The charging cavalry, meeting this unexpected and terrifying menace, pulled up short and then panicked. Caesar’s cavalry and the six cohorts that made up his hidden fourth line then rushed forward to outflank Pompey’s left and worked their way behind his lines to attack from the rear. Caesar sent in his yet uncommitted third line to reinforce the fatigued troops, and Pompey’s remaining soldiers fled the field. Caesar’s men then focused on Pompey’s camp.

Pompey gathered his family, loaded as much gold as he could, threw off his general’s cloak and fled. Seven cohorts of Pompey-allied Thracians and other auxiliaries defended the camp as best they could but were unable to fend off Caesar’s legionaries.

According to figures claimed at the time, when the day was over 15,000 of Pompey’s men were killed and another 20,000 were captured, while Caesar lost only 200 men. Later and more reliable estimates judge that Caesar lost about 1,200 soldiers and 30 centurions, while Pompey’s losses totaled about 6,000. After the battle, 180 stands of colors and nine eagle standards were brought to Caesar as trophies of his victory.

Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated on the order of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Pompey’s two sons, Gnaeus and Sextus, and their supporters tried to continue the civil war, but the effort was futile.

Caesar spent the next few years “mopping up” remnants of the Pompeian faction and then returned to Rome and was reaffirmed as Rome’s dictator. He later went to Egypt, where he became involved in the Egyptian civil war and installed Cleopatra on Egypt’s throne. Caesar then went to the Middle East, where he annihilated the king of Pontus.

Julius Caesar ruled Rome as unquestioned dictator until his assassination March 15, 44 B.C.

Historians have praised Caesar for his innovative military tactics, his use of skilled military engineers and his natural gifts as a military leader. Yet he was aware of the role that luck played in his victories. “In all of life,” Caesar wrote, “but especially in war, the greatest power belongs to fortune.”

Caesar also knew, as all great generals know, “if fortune doesn’t go your way, sometimes you have to bend it to your will.” And bend it he did.

Chuck Lyonsis a retired newspaper editor and a freelance writer who has written extensively on historical subjects. His work has appeared in numerous national and international periodicals. Lyons resides in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife, Brenda, and a beagle named Gus.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.

What Might Have Been

John Buchan, in his book Augustus (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1937, pp. 18-19) ruminates on what thoughts and plans Julius Caesar had for the Roman Empire:

Law and order must be restored. The empire must be governed, and there must be a centre of power. The Roman World required a single adminstrative system. This could not be given by the People, for a mob could not govern. It could not be given by the Senate, which had shown itself in the highest degree incompetent, and in any case had no means of holding the soldiers' loyalty. Only a man could meet the need, a man who had the undivided allegiance of an army, and that the only army. A general without an army was a cypher, as Pompey had found, and, since an army was now a necessity, he who controlled it must be the master of the state. The idea of a personal sovereign, which had come from Greece and the East and had long been hovering a the back of Roman minds, must now become a fact, for it was the only alternative to anarchy.

This was Julius' cardinal principle. It followed from it that the old autocracy of the Optimates and the Senate must disappear. That indeed had happened. Julius had always denied -- it was one of the few charges that annoyed him -- that he had destroyed the Republic he had only struck at the tyranny of a maleficent growth which had nothing repubican about it. He had already quietly shelved the Senate, though he treated it with elaborate respect. He and the new civil service which he was creating would be the mechanism of rule. He himself would appoint the provincial governors and would be responsible for their honesty and competence. He would rebuild the empire on a basis of reason and humanity.

It was to be a new kind of empire. Something had been drawn from the dreams of Alexander, but for the most part it was creation of his own profound and audacious mind. There were to be wide local liberties. He proposed to decentralize, to establish local government in Italy as the beginning of a world-wide system of free municipalities. Rome was to be only the greatest among many great and autonomous cities. There was to be a universal Roman nation, not a city with a host of servile provinces, and citizenship in it should be open to all who were worthy. The decadence of the Roman plebs would be redeemed by the virility of the new people.

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