The Siege of Alesia: A Lesson in War’s Cruelty

As the military races toward woke obsolescence, we would be wise to remember the lessons that show us what war really is. We recently went over Homer’s example. Now we should look at a historical account. The Siege of Alesia is one of the most horrifying.

This serves as a preview of my Siege of Alesia chapter in the Critical Battles Series. You can find it and over 20 others on my Patreon page.

Background

Julius Caesar had essentially conquered Gaul by 52 B.C. The spirit of resistance remained, however. Vercengetorix, the son of a powerful Gallic magnate who had once claimed kingship of all the tribes, took up the mantle of rebellion. He united all the tribes, even Rome’s staunchest allies in the region, and attacked the Romans.

Launching a war of attrition, Vercengetorix dealt Caesar a series of reverses throughout the height of the campaigning season in 52 B.C. However, he made a critical mistake. Thinking that Caesar was in retreat to Italy for the winter, Vercengetorix broke off the chase and entered the city of Alesia with his army. Caesar immediately followed and bottled him up there. The final phase of the Gallic Wars was about to begin.

Gallic Wars Map

Vercengetorix was able to get his cavalry out to call for reinforcements, but he himself watched helplessly as Julius Caesar had his men construct fantastic fortifications and siege equipment. He surrounded Alesia with some of the best engineering works of antiquity. At the same time, he constructed a ring of outer defenses to hold off Vercengetorix’s relief army.

With food dwindling fast, Vercengetorix needed to relieve the siege in some way. Here came the cruelest episode of the Alesia affair.

The Siege of Alesia

To prolong the siege and wait for his relief army, Vercengetorix needed to limit food for his soldiers, so he sent the women and children out of Alesia. Julius Caesar gives us the story in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars:

When different opinions were expressed, they determined that those who, owing to age or ill health, were unserviceable for war, should depart from the town, and that themselves should try every expedient before they had recourse to the advice of Critognatus: however, that they would rather adopt that design, if circumstances should compel them and their allies should delay, than accept any terms of a surrender or peace.

The Mandubii, who had admitted them into the town, are compelled to go forth with their wives and children. When these came to the Roman fortifications, weeping, they begged of the soldiers by every entreaty to receive them as slaves and relieve them with food. But Caesar, placing guards on the rampart, forbade them to be admitted. 7.78.

Vercengetorix refused to let the women and children return. As a result, they starved in the no-man’s land between the two fortifications. Why did Julius Caesar do such a thing? A study of his life shows that he was not a cruel man for cruelty’s sake.

Julius Caesar decided on the same grounds that Vercengetorix did. If these people would be a drain on supplies in Alesia, they would be the same with his own army, which might soon find itself under siege from the Gallic relief force. It was a simple, logical calculation.

Takeaways

There have always been attempts to constrain warriors on the battlefield. Those morals always get thrown out the window under actual combat conditions. One may claim that the perpetrators of immoral acts during wartime will sooner or later get what’s coming to them, but that didn’t help the people in Alesia. It didn’t help countless other people through history, either.

Siege of Alesia

Might doesn’t make right, but it certainly makes reality. The Siege of Alesia showed that those without power are at the mercy of those who have it. Julius Caesar had it. The city’s civilians did not. The only solace that can comfort those without power is the hope that those with power will be bound by laws and conventions. They must hope that those with power will understand that their long-term self-interest mandates the proper use of their power.

Nevertheless, we’ve seen countless cases where this was not the case. As we face down the Chinese Communist threat, we would do well to remember this. However, our military does not seem to remember the Siege of Alesia or much of anything these days. It is instead becoming a woke HR project.

Safe to say, this is not the espirit de corps that Julius Caesar meticulously built into his legions.

Sun Tzu famously remarked that true excellence consisted in defeating the enemy without fighting. Napoleon famously dictated to not interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. Western civilization is doing just that, setting itself up for defeat with no fighting or minimal fighting. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party makes its aggressive moves.

At this point, the United States, and Western civilization as a whole, appears decrepit, stupid, and ripe for defeat at the hands of a rising power. The situation resembles Russia and Japan in 1904, or indeed, the Alexandrian successor states and Rome.

Our vacation from history is over. We must act like it. The Chinese regime wants world power and will stop at nothing to get it. We see how the Chinese Communist Party treats its own citizens and unleashed a biological attack on the world. Julius Caesar’s treatment of Alesia’s people was but a small fry in comparison, and his overall career, with all the power he held, was quite merciful. We can expect none from the Chinese regime.

We would do well to learn the lessons of Julius Caesar and force this crap out of our military and society while we still have the chance. By 2030, it will probably be too late.

This post ties into a coming project I’ll announce soon. For now, you can read about the Siege of Alesia and over 20 other pivotal battles at my Patreon.

Read Lives of the Luminaries to get Caesar’s lessons on power and character – and 50 others.

Support me on Patreon and find out the one simple behavior that will make you more productive without feeling exhausted.