Historic Gigster – Caesar at Alesia – The Very Definition of Expereinced Leadership
By the end of the Summer of 52 BCE, Julius Caesar had been busy putting down a serious rebellion throughout Gaul. It was a coordinated, widespread and masterfully led rebellion against Roman hegemony. For Caesar, failure in Gaul would mean the end of his military career, and for Rome, quite possibly an end to all expansion into Northern Europe. After several inconclusive battles and sieges, he had to make a mark before the Winter season. Historically, this war and the ensuing battle would be so pivotal that it is still studied in military, history and leadership classes today.
For the Gauls, failure would mean a complete end to their independence. However, they were led by Vercingetorix, a charismatic, calculating and energetic leader who had had several successes against the Romans that summer. They employed a scorched earth policy to deprive Rome of any support, also known as a Flavian strategy, something he knew well from his time serving Rome as an ally before the uprising. Caesar needed to outsmart a general who knew all his tactics.
After depleting a large swath of central France of food and livestock, Vercingetorix moved his army to the fortified town of Alesia. It was on a hill-top overlooking the surrounding area and was flanked by two rivers on either side – a strong, defensible position that would be hard for any army to assail. One of the most important lessons of war is to choose your battle ground before your opponent does, and Vercingetorix did just that.
Caesar was fighting in hostile territory with few provisions and little hope of allied or new recruits from Rome. He needed to change the playing field to his advantage; he needed to redefine the battleground on his terms. For that he was counting on traditional Roman strengths: the fact that Roman soldiers were not only fighters but also builders, something that is a tradition in the Roman way of war and had brought success many times before. He ordered his men to build a fortified wall and guard towers all around the city. The dirt from the moat in front of the wall would help raise its height and strengthen its base. All around the wall were anti-personnel devices, spikes, and other traps to further deter a sortie by the Gauls.
From the walls of Alesia, Vercingetorix knew this was a danger to his position, so he began regular attacks on the fortifications as they were being built. His cavalry also harassed the Romans who were out foraging for food, wood and supplies at every opportunity. He could not allow Caesar to alter the battlefield this way. These skirmishes would even lead to major battles, so this forced them to use significant resources and troops for defending the men tasked with constructing the wall and defenses. This strategy was highly successful and time was on the side of the Gauls because the Romans were running low on food.
The continued attacks depleted Roman morale, but Caesar did everything he could to hide any hunger, hardship, or dissatisfaction in his troops. He directed his chain of command to focus their attention on the work of building the fortifications. Whenever possible, they were to decline direct engagements, and only fighting defensively to protect the workers. Caesar wanted the Gauls to believe that the work, albeit slowed, would continue unabated. Instead of allowing his opponent to force a change of morale on his own troops, Caesar would turn this around to demoralize the Gauls. He wanted them to think that no matter how hard they tried, they would eventually be surrounded and imprisoned inside the Roman wall – it was a psychological battle.
While Vercingetorix and his commanders understood the tactic, they were not able to convince the majority of the Gauls. The Roman plan to demoralize them was working. Vercingetorix had to make a change in strategy to assuage his men and to show that he still had control. He decided to send his cavalry out to seek reinforcements. It was a significant gamble because the Gauls relied heavily on cavalry to change the tide of battle. However, he calculated that if they were to fight inside the Roman wall, his cavalry would not be very effective, so the decision seemed like the right one.
This played right into Caesar’s hands. What Vercingetorix had missed was that in a war of attrition, the horses he had just sent off would also provide additional food that would be much needed later in the siege. It wasn’t all a win for Caesar either, since now he had to contend with reinforcements appearing on his rear. It also gave the Gauls a much-needed morale boost. Caesar had won a strategic and psychological victory, but it wasn’t one that was obvious to all, while the morale win that his opponent had scored was. Also, by bringing reinforcements, his opponent would have another opportunity to redefine the battlefield.
The Roman wall around the city was nearing completion and Vercingetorix made another calculated decision that would prove pivotal. He needed to save his food in the city, so he decided to allow the citizens, especially the women, children and the elderly to leave. He expected the Romans to just allow them to pass since they had no military value. However, Caesar used this as another, albeit cruel, opportunity to win a battle of wills and blocked the civilians from leaving – he ordered his men to trap them between the walls and let them starve. His battle-hardened men, Italians and Romans, really had little sympathy for the starving women and children and after a few days of watching the suffering, the Gauls blinked and had no choice but to allow them to return, thus worsening the food situation for them.
It was another calculated decision that had several important psychological advantages for Caesar: it showed that there was a definite divide between Romans and barbarians (the Gauls), it forced his opponent to be viewed as more cruel than the Romans because they were of the same people, it further depleted the morale of the Gauls because of dwindling food supplies, and it boosted the morale of his own men because it showed consistency, resiliency and discipline. The food situation had now become serious for both Romans and Gauls, but Caesar did not allow this to show in the same way that his opponent had done. Of course, he still faced the danger from the reinforcements that would eventually come.
The encircling wall was now complete and fortified, so Caesar ordered his men to build another wall around his own encampment. This wall would serve as a defense against the reinforcements. Construction on this wall was not under threat from the Gauls who were now hemmed in the town of Alesia. Since his men now had the tools and experience of building walls in this environment, the outer wall progressed much faster. The Gauls could only watch as a new wall was erected all around them. Escape would be impossible. The starving Gauls were becoming more desperate, morale was weak, and the will to carry on the fight was waning. While the situation for Caesar was not much better, the construction of the outer wall had one final advantage, but one that Caesar kept to himself. The Romans were also hemmed in and so their only way through was to fight their way out. It was both a symbolic and effective way to corral the will of his men to fight in an extremely difficult situation, but it proved to be effective.
When the Gallic reinforcements arrived, they numbered at least 50,000 men. Not only was Caesar already outnumbered by the men in Alesia, he now had an army of barbarians at his rear that exponentially tilted the odds. Would the lengthy preparations, the psychological maneuvering, the prowess of the engineers, and the resilience of the Roman legions prove enough to win the battle that was now about to start?
Is the suspense killing you?
Just imagine what the common soldier must have been thinking on the eve of battle.
OK, I’ll tell you. The battle was extremely close, with the relieving Gauls even succeeding in breaching the outer wall while Vercingetorix and his forces meet the Romans on the inner wall. A disaster for the Romans was just narrowly avoided by Caesar riding into the fray himself and through this act of bravery rallying his men to repulse the barbarians. After several days of fighting, the reinforcements began to lose heart and started leaving the battle. When the majority of them had left, Vercingetorix realized that this battle was lost. He rode out alone and surrendered himself to Caesar and ended the war in Gaul.
The Romans won by just a hair. This means that every preparation, every psychological factor, every calculated decision, and every effort exerted by a Roman soldier combined to just tilt the battle in their favor. The history of the Western world as we know it today was in the balance and every tiny factor played a part in the final outcome.
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The events that unfolded at Alesia are a critical lesson for every manager, leader, or business owner. When business conditions are at their most dire, even a seemingly meaningless little twist in how something is done can make the difference between success or failure. That small decision, which in any other situation would be relatively meaningless, is then crucial in determining the outcome. It is the convergence of dire conditions that can make these small factors so incredibly important.
A great leader understands this by building on the strengths in the arsenal, redefining the playing field, and turning every adversity into an advantage. A great leader also knows that at a crucial moment it may be necessary to personally jump into the fray to tilt the balance into her/his favor. Being able to do this effectively in the most critical moments comes from learned experience, something that Caesar had just a bit more of than his very capable opponent, Vercingetorix.
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