Sunday, June 25, 2006

Caesar vs Vercingetorix

I've been meaning to blog about this for awhile. A piece of machinima was recently released that utilized the Rome Total War strategy game by the Creative Assembly to tell the story of the siege of Alesia (homepage). Although impressive in that it uses a fairly restrive game engine to tell a story (although one uniquely suited to the material at hand), there are some problems with the film which have been commented on extensively here.

I don't wish to add to the debate of the technical limitations of the film, or the voice acting, or whatnot, as machinima is an emerging discipline and amateur productions are bound to have these problems. What I will hit on is the historical inaccuracy of the film, simply to bring to the light the amazing strategic genius that Caesar exemplified in this battle (and through no fault of the director's either, as the dirty nit and gritty aspect of war is always a little boring and instead we are given fantastic pieces of battle as exemplified by recent movies like The Lord of the Rings, or Troy). I don't fault the director for making a more hollywood style film (having the two generals talking brings the battle into the very personal realm) as it is far more interesting to watch. However, it really pisses me off when people don't realize how extraordinary these feats were (another example is Alexander's siege ofTyre).

The historical context is that Caesar was the attempting to suppress a Gallic revolt in 52 BC. The leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix had retired to a hillside fort, Alesia, with approximately 80 000 men while Caesar had approximately 60 000. Now, during sieges, and completely unlike what is shown in LotR in the Battle at Helm's Deep or the large battle in Gondor, the army laying siege does not just show up at the castle walls and begin flinging large rocks at the enemy. Sieges are typically designed to starve out the enemy, not just to batter down the walls, and since this takes some time (the Gauls apparently had about 30 days supply), Caesar decided to build a large line of circumvallation (encircling line of entrenchments) around the town, a process that took about 3 weeks and was many miles in length. Caesar also knew that he had to protect himself against attack from other Gallic warriors, and so to protect his troops, he built another series of lines facing outwards (contravallation).

These lines are intended to protect the army while laying siege as you don't want either the forces inside the fort to come out and attack your lines, or to have an army of reinforcements show up and assault you from outside the fort. Basically you need to set up a series of trenches and ramparts, imagine WWI style battlefields, to prevent these sorts of things from happening (and so unlike the movies where the army laying siege walks up to the walls and hurls insults at the defenders).

Caesar was well prepared then, when an army of relief did show up outside his lines. A series of engagements took place where both the relief army, and the forces from within the fort of Alesia, attempted to attack and breach the lines of entrenchment, but to no avail. The intense fortifications helped repel the attack and was the seed for the victory that comes.

The critical moment of the siege came when the general of the relief army, Vercasivelaunus, and Vercingetorix, the leader of the forces in Alesia, both attacked a weak point in the lines, at a point northwest of the fort, where the lines had been placed downslope of a hill, thus allowing attackers outside the lines to be above the entrenchments, giving them a better vantage point. This attack threatened to breach the line, and with a series of small attacks coming all across his lines, thus spreading this defenders around, Caesar was in real danger of losing not only the battle, but of the war, for if the Gauls succeeded in throwing off the Roman yoke, they would establish their independence. Caesar knew that he could not lose, and sent reinforcements to Labienus, who was in charge of this portion of the lines. Critically, he also sent a force of cavalry outside the lines to attack the encircling Gaul army from the rear. Arriving on the scene, Caeasar's imperator robes clearly visible, greatly encouraged his men, who redoubled their efforts. This moment (like it was written for a movie) coincided exactly with the moment when the German cavalry (the ones he had sent outside) attacked the Gallic army in the rear. The combination of the greatly inspired Roman legion's attacks and the cavalary charge utterly broke the army of Vercasivelaunus, which completely demoralized the army of Vercingetorix. After large numbers of Gauls were decimated, Vercingetorix surrendered.

It would be nice if someone, somewhere, would capture this great act on film. The Roman legions, at war for several years, and caught off guard by the Gallic revolt are ordered once again into battle, where they face two enormous forces. Normally, an army pinned like that between the proverbial rock and a hard place, would be destroyed, but under excellent leadership skills, the romans both strategically (their lines were up and ready in time), tactically (correct dispatchment of reinforcements and cavalry at critical times) and emotionally (the sight of their leader on the battlefield inspires the army) outmaneuvered their opponent. This brilliant act led to the end of the Gallic wars and led to the next phase of Caesar's rise and to the civil war which utterly transformed the Roman empire. A key turning point on the battlefield which changed the course of human history forever.

Wikipedia entry on The Battle of Alesia
Caesar - Theordore Ayrault Dodge (Amazon link)
Julius Caesar - J.F.C. Fuller (Amazon link)

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