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Julius Caesar: Leading From The Front

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”

Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E. – 44 B.C.E.) was a Roman politician and general, considered by many historians to be one of history’s greatest military commanders. His name may forever be associated with Cleopatra, but his skills as a military leader played a key role in the rise of the Roman Empire and his success is testament to his belief that experience is the teacher of all things.

By 52 B.C.E., Julius Caesar had all but conquered Gaul, but the Gallic tribes were bitter and rebellious. They united under a new leader, Vercingetorix, and an uprising against Roman rule led to around 60,000 Gauls gathering to defend the fortified hilltop town of Alesia in what would become known as the Battle of Alesia.

The Battle of Alesia

With Vercingetorix and his tribesmen barricaded behind the walls of Alecia, Caesar chose to starve him into surrender, a tactic he had successfully used before. Under his orders, Roman soldiers began building a 12-foot (3.6 m) high timber and earthen wall that would become 11 miles (18 km) long, circling the town and thereby preventing anyone from getting out or any supplies from getting in. Progress was hampered by repeated raids from the enclosed Gauls who raged against the building works, and several riders did eventually manage to break through before the wall was completed. Caesar assumed, correctly, that the escaped riders had been sent to summon help so, once again using his years of battle experience, he ordered his men to begin building a second wall behind them. The outer wall became 14 miles (22.5 km) long and the Roman camps were enclosed between it and the inner wall. Deep trenches, one filled with river water, and sharpened stakes protruding from the ground provided further defences.

Gaul Reinforcements

Food was running out in Alesia, forcing Vercingetorix to send women and children out of the fortress gates so that more food would be available for the fighting men. He mistakenly believed that the Romans would let them through, but Caesar refused and they remained trapped between the walls of Alesia and the inner Roman wall where they slowly starved.

As predicted, Gaul reinforcements arrived. They attacked the outer Roman wall while Vercingetorix and his men attacked the inner wall. The Romans held off these attacks, but more attacks followed the next day. A weak spot was found in the outer wall and the Gauls took advantage of it, again attacking the outer and inner walls simultaneously. Caesar realized the attack on the outer wall’s weak spot would be difficult to hold off so he ordered reinforcements into the area, sending infantry out through the inner wall to fight Vercingetorix’s men at the same time. However, this had little effect and the Roman lines were close to collapsing.

Leading from the Front

With the Roman lines on the verge of breaking, Caesar led 6,000 of his cavalry out through the outer wall and rode around to attack the Gauls from the rear. The sight of their leader among them galvanized the troops and they fought on, forcing the Gauls to flee.

Caesar’s years of experience and success as a military leader had earned him the admiration and loyalty of his troops. He led from the front and he often fought alongside his men on the ground. He learned how to be a great leader by first learning how to be a great soldier. He experienced the hard-working life of being a soldier by eating, living, marching and bleeding shoulder to shoulder with the legions, and his desire to learn saw him on the ground in the front line of battles. In short, Caesar’s experience of being in the trenches taught him the art of war and everything he needed to know to be a successful leader – experience is the teacher of all things.

Personal Connections

It’s documented that Caesar knew each of his men by name. This personal connection is something that can all too easily become lost in today’s busy workplaces. If you are a business leader, take a moment to consider whether your experiences have taught you the art of your “trade” and if you have the personal connections you need to inspire the confidence and loyalty of those around you.

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