Let’s set the scene. It’s September in 52 BC, and the Gallic wars are underway. The Gallic wars were a series of campaigns led by Julius Caesar against the people in Gaul, which is a region now roughly around France and Belgium. Though historians mainly have Caesar’s own account of the wars to go on (his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico), we do have other sources to help us confirm the casualty numbers and the series of events as they unfolded.
One of the most noteworthy battles was in the small settlement of Alesia, the capital of the Mandubii. The location of this town would be significant – it was perched high on a hill. Intending to seize the regions in Gaul for farmland, Caesar had been in the area since 58 BC, attempting to “pacify” the region and bring it under complete Roman control. Tribe after tribe was subjugated, often brutally, and the lands were ravaged. When he left the region, he ensured that no grain supplies would reach the survivors, so they would starve.
The Gauls united and rose up against Caesar, and the brave warrior Vercingetorix, King of the Averni, was an important leading figure, who drew the scattered tribes together to defend themselves. In response to this, the Romans redoubled their efforts, and a wave of bloodshed and violence spread over the region for many years. Caesar had his work cut out for him in pursuing Vercingetorix, and the battles raged on, with minor victories going to each side. Finally, however, Vercingetorix retreated the entire army to a small walled town on a hill – Alesia.
Now, according to Caesar, the metrics of the battle that would ensue were as follows:
On the Gaul’s side:
80,000 men in Alesia and 100,000 to 250,000 men in relief army, all led by Vercingetorix and two other commanders who would join later, Commius and Vercassivellaunus.
On Rome’s side:
60,000 men, led by Julius Caesar.
It would appear that Caesar would be entering into a game that he had slim hope of winning. What was worse is that Alesia had a perfectly strategic location. Perched on hill surrounded by river valleys, it was ideally situated to defend itself against attackers, but Caesar made a decision that would transform this seeming disadvantage into an advantage. He could not defeat the enemy’s army because they were so numerous and neatly encircled all in one place. On the other hand, how convenient would it be if the army was neatly encircled, all in one place…?
All of Vercingetorix’s army was within those walls – that could be seen as a problem, or it could be seen as an extremely lucky break. The goal, then, was not to attack from the front, where Vercingetorix’s army would just pick off the Romans one by one. Rather, Caesar instructed his army to build a wall (like Alexander the Great’s men at Tyre Island, they must have marveled at how often soldiers are asked to also be builders and engineers!). The Romans built a fortification that is known as a circumvallation, which comes from the Latin circumvallare, which means to circle around (“circum”) and rampart (“vallum”). This rampart would encircle the entire settlement of Alesia with a series of walls, ditches, trips, and watchtowers all designed to make sure that Alesia could not receive any aid from the outside. The wall, essentially, made the settlement’s defensive position into a liability.
Of course, a wall takes time to build, and Vercingetorix guessed Caesar’s intentions and launched several attacks to try to prevent the Romans from completing their work. Not only were Caesar’s men able to fend them off, but they managed to finish the rampart in just three weeks. Considering that the entire construction was ten miles long and included 24 separate watchtowers, this was certainly no mean feat. Behind the wall, the men dug three six-meter-deep trenches, even filling the last one with river water. Stakes were sharpened and stuck into the ground as further deterrents. There were even eight rows of hidden pits in which thick, sharps stakes had been set up below, ready to impale the man who tried to escape. The Gauls were going nowhere.
And now, since Caesar knew that the people inside would continue to attempt escape, he set to work on building another fortress, encircling the first. After all, a few escapees had already breached the walls and disappeared. This rampart, however, was armed facing the other direction, not inwards to keep the Gaul tribes in, but also outwards to keep out any aid that the escapees might bring with them. This wall was called a contravallation – a counter rampart.
This was bad news for the people inside, who gradually began to starve. Trapped inside, conditions deteriorated fast. Once rationed food was exhausted, cannibalism was even suggested. In a tragic turn, the Gauls and Alesians decided to release the women, children, sick, and elderly, hoping Caesar would show them mercy, take them, and feed them. He did not. These people were left in between the two walls, and as they braved the elements and starved to death, it drastically lowered the morale of the men still inside the town.
As predicted, help did eventually arrive, even as Vercingetorix was considering surrender. At the end of September, there was a coordinated attack on both walls from the outside and the inside, and when this failed, another attempt under the cover of night.
It was October the 2nd that things reached boiling point, and 60,000 Gauls led by Vercassivellaunus launched an attack against a weak point in the rampart. The ensuing battles was vicious and protracted, but by the next day, Vercingetorix surrendered, saying that his men should either kill him there and then or offer him alive as a kind of tribute to Caesar. His men chose to surrender him, and the Romans kept him captive for 6 years more. He was eventually executed.
In the battle of Alesia, the Romans were said to have suffered around 12,800 wounded or killed, with the Gauls reportedly losing up to 250,000, with 40,000 captured. It was a monumental personal victory for Caesar and the infamous siege that put a stop to resistance in Gaul and handed it over to Roman rule. The Roman senate even declared 20 days of thanksgiving.
Now, at first glance, it can be hard to see what life lessons we could glean from this story (other than, perhaps, not to try to resist subjugation by Caesar…). However, studying important events from history can give us insight into a special, practical kind of problem solving that is sometimes difficult to appreciate in your own life – unless you’re a celebrated Roman consulate, that is.
What makes military history so interesting is that it is, in many ways, a live chess game that unfolds in unpredictable ways. And often, it is not strength or greater numbers that ensures victory for the winning side, but cunning, innovation and shrewd leadership. Even if you don’t plan to lay siege to an ancient Mandubii settlement anytime soon, you almost certainly will have faced a situation in which it felt like the odds were stacked against you. Maybe you’ve been dealt an unfair disadvantage, you’re working with too few resources, or you’re “on the back foot,” metaphorically speaking.
But in this story we see that, in battle, this isn’t the only thing that matters. Like Alexander the Great did with his epic sandbar plan, Caesar took the challenge facing him and turned it on its head. His plan to build two walls trapping his opponents was an entirely new innovation that proved that, when physical prowess might not have been enough, an intelligent, novel solution could be. Guesses vary widely, and it’s now considered likely that Caesar exaggerated his own account, but even modest estimates have each Roman pitted against at least two Gauls.
But what Caesar’s technique shows us is that, even if things are not quite to your favor, it doesn’t mean you are completely without resources or a way out. Whether Caesar’s political and military career is inspiring to you or not, and whether you agree with his methods, it’s pretty clear that he was a man who knew how to play the cards he was dealt. This was someone who knew exactly what strings to pull to find himself rising in Roman society, and his play at the battle of Alesia is just one of many incidents that give us a peek into this ancient man’s mindset.
What characterizes all of Caesar’s key historical moments is one thing: his willingness to change the game, to play his own game. Of course, he wasn’t reckless or a rebel – first he played by the rules, and then he broke them (“If you must break the law, do it to seize power; in all other cases, observe it”). Many great leaders teach us a similar lesson: before you can turn things upside down, see a fresh perspective, or solve a problem in an innovative way, you need to have a keen, intelligent grasp of facts as they are right now.
Caesar was a politician and knew how to work public opinion in his favor. He knew how to talk to his troops and inspire them to fight for him no matter what. He was ambitious, but he knew when and how to express this ambition, so he ultimately got what he wanted. Caesar is the perfect example of someone who understands tact, diplomacy, and tactics. It wasn’t sheer brute force or moral right that won him his many victories – it was cunning. And this cunning rests on the ability of a person to see into the rules of the game being played… and see a way to shift things so they come out on top.
Like Alexander the Great, Caesar had an indefatigable belief in his own entitlement to glory, but he also worked hard to conquer anything that stood in the way of his unfolding vision. In fact, one story goes that Caesar was put in awe of a statue of Alexander the Great when he was around 31 years old. He must have known then that Alexander already had, by that age, achieved immense glory. From that point, he would have redoubled his efforts – as Alexander did, so would he.
Like other ambitious and power-hungry generals and military leaders before and since, Caesar was a potent mix of grandeur, narcissism, and relentless drive, but he was also very, very intelligent. During the battle of Alesia, Caesar showed how he had been playing the game all along – within the rules, but also outside of them, when necessary.
How many of us can be said to possess this kind of strategic sense? How many of us are merely passively reacting to the conditions of our lives instead of asking, “Hang on, what can I create here? How can I change this story and play things differently?” Resilience, discipline, and consistency are only the outward signs of a deeper mental condition: the ability to be the authors of our own lives, the creators of our fates. Ultimately, the great men we’ve uncovered in these pages were so effective at leadership and domination because they were first able to conquer and master themselves.
There are many intelligent, strong, and capable people in the world, and certainly many ambitious ones. There are also many people who’ve been given great opportunities to exploit. But it is a rare talent to create those opportunities even when they don’t exist. Caesar wasn’t always Caesar. The man we know him as today was an image created deliberately and with purposeful effort. Some solutions will require a bit of out-of-the-box thinking, like Caesar showed at Alesia, but others will take a lot longer to play out. Caesar was known, for example, to plant seeds that would take years to yield results. But he followed through, he schemed, he plotted, he planned, and he undertook those plans with the careful precision of a chess-player.
Making the kind of mental shift required to think on the level of a Caesar or an Alexander is obviously no overnight project. But it’s easy enough to begin. Simply realize that nothing is set in stone. As long as the game is underway and you’re still in it, anything can happen. Even if the chips are down and things are looking bad for you, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it can be changed.
Look at what you are currently considering a disadvantage and see if it can be framed as an advantage. Look at the nature of your attackers and think carefully about the logic of your response to them. There is enormous resilience to be had in the refuge you can take in your own self-mastery. Don’t like what’s happening? Then change it.
Caesar is rumored to have said, “In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes,” and “Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.” In other words, it’s not over till the fat lady sings! Even small acts and shifts in attitude can impact the great unfolding of fate. Though this means we need never lose hope because things can improve when we least expect it, it also means that we should never get too comfortable with things going our way – our fortune could swiftly change for the worse, too. This is why Caesar, even as he was thrashing the Alesians in their settlement, kept an eye open for those that had escaped, anticipated an attack from them, and prepared accordingly. Caesar never counted on luck, superstition, or charity. He was a leader, and that meant he took full and total responsibility for being the sole arbiter of his own fate.
Michael was an author who was having trouble getting agents to consider his work or convincing publishing houses to consider given his books a second glance. One day, an especially rude publisher tells him, “Look, I think this is the single worst book I’ve ever read.” It’s not a fair comment, but it does give Michael a strange new idea...
He gets to work writing something new – something he never considered. He abandons his old manuscripts and changes tack completely. Within a few years, Michael is at the top of bestseller charts after all and raking it in. He’s made a name for himself with a self-published book titled The Worst Book You’ll Ever Read, in which he writes a humorous mock self-help guide teaching his readers how to construct an anti-masterpiece that will have their audience heaving up their lunch. People love it.
Julius Caesar’s lessons:
• No matter how bleak things look, stay calm and take heart: you always have the power to choose your response, and you can often turn a disadvantage into an advantage simply by changing your perspective.
• When faced with a challenge or obstacle, try to think outside of the box and imagine a solution beyond your current way of thinking. Understand the rules, like Caesar, and then be brave and audacious enough to rewrite them completely to your advantage.
• There is never any reason for despair or giving up – things can and often do change at a moment’s notice. Stay alert and take whatever action you can, reminding yourself that, if there are no opportunities on the table that you like, you can create opportunities. The double rampart idea didn’t exist before the battle of Alesia – what novel solution to your own current problems is just one ingenious idea away?