The title says Caesar’s greatest victory but Alesia was, arguably, the Roman Army’s greatest victory, the exemplar of Rome’s uncanny ability to consistently defeat much larger forces with a combination of superior organisation and training, and a formidable engineering capability.
- John Sadler & Rosie Serdiville
For those whose schooldays were untouched by Caesar’s Gallic War, the story in a nutshell is that Julius Caesar parlayed a mass migration by the Helvetii tribe into a general war of conquest against the region of Gaul which, as readers of Asterix will know, was split into three parts.
The Gauls took exception to this and united (ish) under Vercingetorix to throw the Romans out. After a campaign of mixed fortunes for both sides, Vercingetorix made the fundamental error of allowing his forces to be trapped inside the town of Alesia, where Caesar promptly walled him in and began a siege.
Doubting his ability to breakout, Vercingetorix appealed to the rest of Gaul to send a relief force to raise the siege, which it did and on a giant scale. Faced with this new force, which massively outnumbered his own, Caesar built a new circle of fortifications facing outwards, until the combined length of his defences extended in excess of thirty kilometres. He then proceeded to hold this position against all-comers until the relief force finally retreated and Vercingetorix was forced to surrender.
For historians trying to tell this story, there are two severe challenges, the first being that no-one is entirely certain where Alesia was and the second being that Caesar is pretty much the only source for what happened, and he was writing political propaganda.
This book deals with those challenges by expanding the scope beyond the siege to discuss Roman and Gaulish society and their respective military organisations, which is fair enough and the result is a respectable general account of these issues. That said, unsurprisingly, they’ve been covered better and in more detail elsewhere and this approach engenders feelings of ‘padding’, given the book's title.
When the narrative finally gets to the Alesia campaign, the content is as thorough as could be expected and the account itself is very lucid but the book as a whole never really manages to mitigate the effect of a paucity of primary sources and it labours to reach 180 pages. There are a few pictures, mostly of re-enactors and reconstructions of Roman fortifications, but none of any prospective battlefield locations, which is a bit odd, while Map 2, the Campaign Map, simply adds to the fog of war.
I’m not going to score this book because, within its limited scope, it is a good effort, it’s simply that the question should have been asked about whether there was really enough material to justify such a tight focus.
Those with a working knowledge and an interest in the period will find something in this book to engage them (though they might baulk at the £20 cover price) and will end up knowing probably all there is to be known about Alesia under the circumstances, but it’s probably not one for the generalist coming to the subject for the first time.