Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career

Patrick Lynch - January 19, 2017

Julius Caesar is quite simply one of the most famous people who ever lived and is also regarded as an all-time great military leader. He was a statesman, general and eventually, a dictator and his actions left an indelible imprint not just on Rome, but also on the history of the world. Caesar played a significant role in the demise of the Republic which led to the subsequent Roman Empire.

He was also known as a great writer and orator, and we benefit from a first-hand account of his campaigns in Gaul and during the Civil War because he wrote extensively about his experiences. Of course, we have to accept that Caesar exaggerated his achievements but there is no question as to his military genius. In this article, I will look at 5 of his greatest battles.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Caesar meets Divico of the Helvetii. Military Wiki

1 – Battle of Bibracte – (58 BC)

The Battle of Bibracte was the second major battle during Caesar’s Gallic campaign and resulted in a decisive victory for the Roman general. After his stint as consul in 59 BC, Caesar was in a significant amount of debt. His membership in the First Triumvirate provided him with Proconsulship of Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul. When Metellus Celer, the Governor of Transalpine Gaul died suddenly, Caesar received this province as well.

It appears as if Caesar hoped to use his legions to plunder some territories and alleviate his debt. There is a possibility that Gaul wasn’t even his first target. He had probably set his mind on a campaign against Dacia as the Romans respected the Gallic tribes have had problems with them before. The Helvetii were one of the largest groups (they were an amalgamation of five tribes) and had massacred a Roman army at the Battle of Burdigala in 107 BC. Caesar ultimately began his Gallic campaign in 58 BC in response to Helvetii’s plans for mass migration into Roman territory.

Caesar scored a victory over a Helvetian clan called the Tigurine at the Battle of the Arar, but Bibracte was far more significant. The Helvetii learned that the Romans were heading to the town of Bibracte to get more supplies so took the opportunity to try and harass Caesar’s supply lines. Their actions forced the Roman commander to find higher ground to mount a defense. It is hard to provide precise numbers for the battle, and we certainly can’t take Caesar’s word for it given his penchant for self-aggrandizement. He claims his army of 50,000 defeated a Gallic force of 368,000! Modern estimates place the Helvetian strength at closer to 60,000 while Caesar’s assessment of his army’s size is probably accurate.

Caesar positioned his men in three lines at the top of a hill to protect their baggage train. The Helvetian army charged directly at the Romans who waited for the perfect moment before unleashing a flurry of pila javelins at the enemy. Caesar wrote that the Helvetians used a phalanx formation which blocked the initial salvo of javelins but the projectiles got stuck in their shields and were almost impossible to remove. They dropped their shields but were met with a second barrage of pila. Caesar ordered his men to charge, and they started to destroy the enemy front lines.

The battle was almost over, but then another 15,000 Helvetian troops arrived on the scene and attacked the Roman flank. Eventually, the Romans drove the enemy back towards the camp and ultimately, the barbarians scattered thus giving Caesar a significant victory early in his campaign. Even allowing for exaggeration, the Romans were almost certainly outnumbered. The officers of the legions showed tremendous discipline and courage to keep morale up and drive back a fearsome enemy.

Caesar showed his military command ability by calmly assessing the situation and ensuring his army stayed intact during a fierce battle. The Helvetii returned home to Switzerland although they would cause problems later on by aiding Vercingetorix in his fight against the Romans. Regarding casualties, Caesar’s claim that only 5,000 Romans died against 238,000 Helvetians is almost certainly inaccurate.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Vercingetorix. Alésia MuséoParc

2 – Battle of Alesia (52 BC)

In the eyes of most historians, this fight ranks as Caesar’s greatest ever win. Alesia was a siege, and it demonstrated the Roman commander’s military genius. By 52 BC, the Gauls realized that a united front was essential if they were to have any hope of beating the Romans. They named Vercingetorix of the Averni as the leader of the Gallic forces and began a wave of violence after which thousands of Roman soldiers and settlers were killed in Gaul. When Caesar learned of this problem, he emerged from his winter quarters at Cisalpine Gaul to deal with the threat.

The Romans won a few minor victories before suffering defeat at Gergovia. However, they continued to harass the Gauls and Vercingetorix elected to retreat to the walled town of Alesia to plan his next move. This location offered an excellent defensive position for the Gauls as it was located on a hill and surrounded by river valleys. The Roman force of 60,000 attempted to lift the siege, but the 70,000-80,000 Gauls proved stubborn foes. Caesar knew Gallic reinforcements could arrive at any time, so he ordered his men to get to work quickly.

He began by spreading his legions into eight camps around the hill. Vercingetorix launched a surprise attack which was beaten off; the Roman suffered minimal losses in this exchange. Caesar ordered his men to dig a trench between the two rivers surrounding the town to protect themselves from future assaults. He also told the soldiers to create a variety of deadly traps while two more ditches were dug; one of which was flooded. The mud from these ditches was used to build a 15-foot wall with a ten-foot fence and watchtowers!

Vercingetorix made the mistake of allowing the Romans to complete their project because he knew an immense relief force was on its way. It arrived by the time the Romans finished their outer defenses and was comprised of up to 250,000 warriors. Caesar was surrounded, outnumbered by at least 5:1 and in desperate trouble. A lesser commander would have panicked, but Caesar showed faith in the abilities of his men.

The Gallic reinforcements launched a massive cavalry attack, and Vercingetorix ordered an infantry charge when he saw what was happening. The Gallic horses were cut down by the Roman booby traps and trenches. Vercingetorix’s men suffered the same fate on their doomed infantry assault. Eventually, the Gauls reached the Roman wall only to be attacked by waves of pila. Caesar had placed archers on top of the towers, and their arrows destroyed most of the Gallic stragglers.

The Gauls suffered heavy losses and elected to retreat. The Gauls thought it would be a good idea to launch a night attack. Unfortunately, thousands of their men once again succumbed to the booby traps but eventually, they were close to breaking through the Roman fortifications. Some Gauls broke through but Caesar, seeing how exhausted his men were, began riding up and down the walls to fight alongside the soldiers. This invigorated the army who somehow found enough energy to beat back the Gallic forces. The Gauls fell back after fighting all night and were now critically low on supplies.

They launched one last assault with 40,000 men and focused on the Roman forces on the northern side of the town. In the midst of the fighting, Caesar ordered his cavalry to leave their positions and attack the rear of the enemy. It was a decisive move as the horsemen slaughtered the Gauls and forced a retreat. The fleeing Gauls were massacred by their enemy, and the great Battle of Alesia was finally over after three intense days of fighting. Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar, was taken to Rome as a prisoner and executed several years later. Alesia practically marked the end of the Gallic wars and established Rome’s dominance in the region for centuries.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
A bust of Pompey. Classicconnection Prezi

3 – Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC)

If Alesia was the best victory of Caesar’s career, Pharsalus was arguably his most important. A civil war broke out between Caesar and the Senate when the latter wouldn’t allow the conqueror of Gaul to run for consul. Caesar was furious, and on January 10, 49 BC, he led his army across the Rubicon River on the border of Gaul and Italy. Traditionally, crossing this river was considered an act of war. He is said to have briefly lingered before saying “Alea iacta est.” (the die is cast) and completing the crossing.

Caesar’s great rival Pompey chose to fight for the Senate. The Patrician faction led by Pompey was known as the Optimates while the populist faction led by Caesar was referred to as the Populares. After crossing the Rubicon, Caesar, with the aid of Mark Antony, captured several Italian towns. On January 17, Pompey ordered all senators in Rome to flee the city to Greece or else they would be classified as enemies. Caesar entered Rome unopposed and plundered its treasury. Instead of biding his time, however, he chose to chase after Pompey and took six legions to Spain.

After initial success, Caesar suffered a defeat at Dyrrhachium in modern-day Albania in July 48 BC. The Optimates commander failed to build upon the victory and ordered a halt. Caesar later criticized his enemy for that decision by saying it would have been a triumph had there been anyone there to take it. He avoided Pompey’s pursuing forces using various stratagems and captured a few towns before finding new supplies and moving towards Pharsalus.

This crucial battle took place in Greece on 9 August, and Caesar was in a weak position. His army probably featured no more than 22,000 soldiers while Pompey commanded a force of approximately 45,000. Pompey’s initial plan to wait until the enemy starved was a sound one, but he allowed senators to talk him into launching an attack. Even so, with superior numbers and higher quality cavalry, he should have earned a victory.

Pompey told his men that the right flank would be at the Enipeus River and the left side would be comprised of almost his entire cavalry force which was tasked with destroying the enemy cavalry. Caesar initially wanted to retreat to find more supplies, but when he saw Pompey’s forces lining up for battle, he believed his enemy was being forced into battle, so he changed his mind and stayed. He ordered 2,000 of his oldest soldiers to stay and guard the baggage, placed auxiliaries on the left under the command of Mark Antony, his best men on the right, cavalry on the extreme right and a couple of legions in the middle. He knew his line was stretched thin and ordered his experienced men not to engage unless requested.

Caesar knew his right-wing was likely to be overwhelmed, so he had a surprise in store for Pompey when the Optimates leader’s cavalry broke through. Awaiting them were 2,000 of Caesar’s best warriors who used their pila to stab the enemy cavalry and force a retreat. These men outflanked Pompey on the left and Caesar ordered his reserves to attack. Pompey’s legions disintegrated and fled while their leader escaped to Larissa. It was a remarkable victory and crucial in the context of the civil war although it was not decisive.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Cato the Younger. Wikiwand

4 – Battle of Thapsus – (46 BC)

Much to Caesar’s chagrin, Pompey was assassinated in Egypt by the men of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII. The remaining Optimates refused to give in however and assembled a resistance in the African provinces led by Caecilius Metellus Scipio and Marcus Cato (also known as Cato the Younger). Caesar chased his enemies to Africa and landed at Hadrumetum in modern-day Tunisia in December 47 BC. The Optimates had a powerful army and were apparently able to field 72,000 soldiers at Thapsus, Tunisia. Caesar besieged the city and forced Scipio into battle.

Caesar had at least 50,000 men and 5,000 cavalries and blocked the southern side of Thapsus. Scipio was forced to circle the city to approach it from the north. He expected Caesar to approach and stayed in tight battle order with 60 elephants. Caesar adopted his usual strategy; he commanded the right side with the archers and cavalry flanked. The Roman leader also reinforced the cavalry with several cohorts to deal with the additional threat of the elephants.

The danger of using elephants in battle was brutally exposed when Caesar’s archers attacked them. The elephants panicked and trampled Scipio’s men. Nonetheless, elephants charged at the center of enemy lines but were repelled by Legio V Alaudae. The tide of the battle turned with the loss of the elephants, and Caesar’s cavalry outflanked the enemy and forced a retreat. An estimated 10,000 men wanted to surrender but were massacred instead. This was unusual for Caesar who was known to be somewhat merciful in victory. Plutarch claims the Roman commander suffered an epileptic seizure during the battle and was not present for the slaughter.

Caesar was free to renew his siege on Thapsus, and the city fell quickly. Scipio escaped the battle only to commit suicide several months later. Caesar moved on to Utica where Cato the Younger was located. Cato committed suicide once he learned of the events at Thapsus as he would rather die than surrender. Although it was yet another important win for Caesar, the civil war was not yet over.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Mark Antony.

5 – Battle of Munda – (45 BC)

Munda was the last battle in the civil war between Caesar and the Optimates and took place in modern-day Spain on March 17, 45 BC. After Caesar’s victory at Thapsus the previous year, the only remaining opposition to his rule lay in Hispania (modern-day Spain and Portugal). A couple of legions declared their loyalty to Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius (and his brother Sextus) and soon, they took control of much of Hispania Ulterior. Two of Caesar’s generals in the region, Maximus and Pedius, decided to stay at a place called Oculbo rather than engage the enemy in battle.

They asked Caesar for help, and their leader responded by arriving in Hispania in quick time. He took just one month to travel 1,500 miles from Rome to Oculbo and came in December 46 BC. Caesar retook Ulipia and crucially, he captured the city of Ategua. Gnaeus’ native troops lost heart after Ategua and a few defected. The Optimates had their hand forced and could no longer delay battle, so they met Caesar at Munda. Gnaeus had up to 70,000 men and 6,000 cavalry against Caesar’s 8,000 cavalry and 40,000 troops.

Caesar tried to trick his enemy into moving off the hill, but when this failed, he ordered a frontal assault. A stalemate was reached after several hours of brutal fighting, but Caesar turned the tide by taking command of X Legion on the right-wing and forcing the enemy back. Gnaeus tried to strengthen his faltering left flank by moving a legion from his right but this only made matters worse. Caesar seized the opportunity by getting his cavalry to storm the newly weakened right side of the enemy.

The Optimates line was under severe pressure and King Bogud of Mauritania, an ally of Caesar, attacked the enemy rear with cavalry. Labinus, who was in command of the Optimates cavalry, tried to block this attack by leading the men back to camp. Unfortunately for him, Gnaeus’ soldiers believed Labinus was retreating and followed suit. It was a complete disaster as they were overwhelmed and crushed by Caesar’s men. Up to 30,000 of Gnaeus’ soldiers died, and he was executed. Sextus survived and started another rebellion but was eventually defeated and killed by Marcus Agrippa and Mark Antony in 35 BC. Caesar returned to Rome, but the ensuing triumph he celebrated was viewed as distasteful since he had killed tens of thousands of Romans. He became dictator for life but was assassinated less than a year after winning at Munda.