Parthian Tactics: Historical Guerilla Tactics

ermadog at ermadog at
Wed Feb 27 03:21:39 MST 2002

Anyone who wishes to romanticize tribal warriors would do well to
study Vercingetorix, one of the few great military strategists to
lead the Continental Celts.

Resistance Leaders Adopt Parthian Tactics
   Almost all of the Celtic leaders at the time adopted what were called
   in old military books, Parthian Tactics. These tactics were a
   combination of self-destructive sabotage and guerilla attacks. It was
   a method, more out of necessity than choice, of terrorising a stronger
   opponent. It was the only real choice left to the Gauls, who had been
   largely unsuccessful in their previous conflicts with Rome.

Vercingetorix Emerges as Resistance Leader
To the modern French, Vercingetorix is a hero and cultural icon.
He is revered as an ancestor, Celtic leader, and he exemplifies
the spirit of rebellion to all forms of foreign control. In
reality, ercingetorix's motives weren't completely ennobled, but
were practical and decisive. His status as national hero is
likely an exaggeration. But his ability and his determination
were beyond conjecture. Certainly, he was one of the strongest
opponents Caesar would ever encounter.

...He was no doubt a hero and loyal Gaul, but on ocassion his
tactics, as well as those of the Romans, were ruthless and
terrifying. According to descripitons, the tall blonde with long
flowing hair, was very willing to turn whole towns into ruin and
ashes to achieve his objective: to rid Gaul of Roman domination
and influence. He was rather something of a fanatic by the
standards of today; but a lesser man with lesser ideals would not
have had any chance against Caesar at all.

Plutarch estimates that Caesar alone was responsible for destroying
800 towns and villages; killing or enslaving over 2 million men.
Obviously, Vercingetorix could not hope to equal his opponent in
numbers, but he did his best. His suggestion of destroying all
settlements "not protected by fortifications or their natural
position" coldly included Celtic ones.

The Romans were "full of rage ..(at) the troubles had had during the
seige, the legionaries spared neither women nor children nor old men.
Of forty-thousand inhabitants (figure exaggerated and disputed) only
800 escaped".

Vercingetorix didn't intervene in the last battle. He had always felt
it was senseless to defend Avaricum, and he been proved correct.

Victory and Defeat

All of Vercingetorix's cautions were thrown to the wind, however,
as the Celts forgot all of his instruction, charged at whatever
was in front of them. All that they had gained by slow methods in
the long guerilla war and from cautious ambush was in jeopardy.
Caesar did not miss this opportunity.

It didn't take too long for the construction to have an effect: the
Celts were running out of food. A war council was held to discuss
options. Three ideas were obvious. One was surrender, but no-one
actually felt Vercingetorix should, or even would be allowed by his
Celtic comrades, accept this option at this point. Another option was
to make an attack - a sortie -- on Roman positions, but this seemed
like suicide. Third, to wait till the end, was finally agreed. But
this decision was not made until a fanatic anti-Roman Celt,
Critognatus, suggested an alternative option: to eat the old people
and "lengthen their lives with the bodies of those too old to fight"
-- not surrender. Vercingetorix didn't consider that option.

But he did make one that blackens his name. He (or a concensus)
coldly recommended that the women and children be placed outside
the inner walls -- the first set of walls that surrounded Alesia
-- and left to their own devices. One likes to believe that he
and the Celtic leaders felt the Romans would then take them, as
prisoners or slaves, thus  relieving the Celts of feeding them
and burdening the Romans. But the end result is horrifying. The
women and children, old and sick, were ordered out of Alesia.
Where they were supposed to go no-one seems to have considered.
In the midst of two opposing armies; in a no-man's land; in the
out-of-doors conditions; they languished for days, making it as
far as the outer walls before they might have known their fate.
Asking the Romans to take them prisoner, so that they might get
food, the women and children, old and young of Alesia, were
rejected again. The Romans were ordered not to take in any extra
mouths, for they were suffering from shortages of food almost as
much as the Celts. The helpless and unwanted members of Alesia
were left to die of exposure and starvation - one by one -- as
both armies looked on from their respective positions.

Whatever standards we may judge this cruel and savage act by must
be tempered by the reality that this was a differnt time and a
different mind-set than any standards we might apply today.
Technically, it does seems to have some merit, albeit heartless
and cruel. Classical history if full of examples of unbelievable
and inhuman cruelty of man against man, especially during times
of war. It was also ineffective. The Romans, under Caesar's
guidance, weren't about to be burdened with their enemies own
people; they simply ignored the problem.

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