Legendary warriors: Vercingetorix (or rather Vercingétorix in French)

source of the picture above :

In 1850, the French people did not know Vercingetorix! The great figures of the history of France were Clovis, Charlemagne, Saint-Louis, Louis X1V… and some others before and after. But till then there had been no mention of Vercingetorix. That was true as there was little mention of Vercingetorix from -50 to 1850, that is for two centuries, there was no clue about who was Vercingetorix in history. But then Napoleon 111 appears in a time when Germany was becoming a looming threatening power. Napoleon 111 needed a symbol to assemble the French nation. This symbol could not be Clovis as he was a Frank (thus a German), or Charlemagne (also a Franc so also German). Napoleon 111 was a great admirer of Julius Cesar (he even wrote a book about him). Julius Cesar certainly knew Vercingetorix. So Napoleon 111 decides to make Vercingetorix his banner and his standard of sort. He even undertook excavations in Gergovie before raising there a stele of Vercingetorix (on 26 of July 1862) commemorating Vercingetorix. He also commissionned Aimé Millet to sculpt a statue of seven meters (22 feet ) high of Vercingetorix. Aimé Millet added the mustache to Vercingetorix at the request of Napoleon 111 and that is even though it was known that the Arveni tribe of Gaul shaved their mustache and beards.

So we know of Vercingétorix from only one person, that is his enemy Julius Caesar who wrote about him in his seventh book on the « Conquest of Gaul ». He is also briefly mentionned by Plutarch, Strabon and Dion Cassius. Vercingetorix was born in Arvene around -72 B.C.. He was the son of Celtill who was then chief of the Arveni. Eventually, Celtill became too ambitious and was condemned to death by the other chiefs. Left alone, Vercingetorix was spared and inherited his father’s fortune. Gobanitio, uncle of Vercingetorix, then sends the young lad to be schooled by the druids. The name Vercingetorix means basically « King of the warriors ». The ending in « rix » of the name is a suffix, found in the Gallic language, at the end of every great Gallic chiefs or leaders’ name in Gaul.

Christian Goudineau and Serge Lewuillon both say that after his schooling Vercingetorix probably served as Julius Caesar’s « tent companion » (contubernales in Latin) for about six years because he knew the Roman military tactics that he taught his followers in later years or that as a chieftain, he was on friendly terms with Julius Caesar. In -57 BC Julius Caesar had subdued Gaul and the war is over. But in -56, Julius Caesar has to stay in Gaul to fight against mounting resistance which culminate in -54 BC when a Roman legion was destroyed. In -53 BC in the city of Cenabum (Orleans) Roman citizens were massacred including C. Fusius Cita, an official of Caesar. Around -53 BC, Vercingetorix tries to influence his Averni companions at Gergovie to join him against Caesar. He was chased by the town’s nobles who wanted to keep it under Caesar’s rule. He comes back accompanied by troups that he found in the surrounding area where he mobilized the populace and becomes the supreme commander. He is proclaimed king and sends emissaries to the other people of Gaul to join him against Rome.,bga_423705,a.html

All along the year of -53, Vercingetorix shows his real military and political talent. His actions take on two forms: he organises the resistance under the form of a war of harassment (which the geography of Gaul was particularly susceptible to sustain) by resorting to a political strategy of « burning of the land » as he knew that the Roman army was very dependant on her supplies logistics. He also engages in getting more Gallic tribes to join him and go against Julius Caesar. When Caesar returns from Italy to face Gaul’s insurrection, he has to face the menacing Vercingetorix.

Vercingetorix, in -52 BC puts his political strategy of « burning the land » in motion and with it removing any supply to the Roman army and he also integrates his military tactic by avoiding any direct confrontation with the Roman army thus making the army run after him and he hopes she will become too exhausted to really fight him later. Julius Caesar has to face a sleuth of cities and adversaries, but Vercingetorix wanted to put Rome through a war of wear and fatigue so that he would be more able to alienate the Roman legions as they would be more fatigued.

But Caesar does not give up and follows Vercingetorix on the river « de l’Allier ». Vercingetorix, true to his tactic, confines himself in the city of Gergovie and Caesar puts down his camp. But he had to lift his camp to go and put a stop to the Senons revolt. During this time, Vercingetorix manages to bring the Eduens amidst his fold. As such a large part of the Gallic different tribes are assembled together against Rome for the first time in its history.

In the meantime, Caesar has regrouped his troops and forms 12 new legions for a total of 50,000 men but he lost all his Gallic auxiliaries. He then tries to return to Italy. But Vercingetorix sends his cavalry against Caesar’s Germanic cavarlry at a few kilometers of Alesia. The battle turns to the advantage of the Germans. Vercingetorix regroups his Gallic forces (some 80,000 strong) in Alesia and sends a message to all the Gallic tribes to send in reinforcements.

During this time, Caesar deploys his ten legions in camps all around Alesia and puts himself in a position of siege by having erected a double fortification around Alesia to stop the Gallic army from escaping and obtain supplies and also to help him protect himself from attacks from other Gallic tribes outside of Alesia. Vercingetorix is defeated at the end of 40 days of siege as his troops are basically starving. The reinforcements finally arrive and attack but they are unable to break the Roman position of siege. On the 27th of September -52, Vergingetorix was handed over where he lays down his arms in front of Caesar but this is where the legend starts as some say that he surrendered voluntarily and laid down his arms while sitting on his horse, while other say that he went down on his knees in front of Caesar or that he was escorted in front of Caesar by Roman centurions etc. etc. We will probably never really know how Vercingeterox surrendered to Caesar but I rather like the painting below from Lionel Royer executed in 1899:

Vercingetorix, after his defeat is probably brought back to Rome along with other Gallic chiefs to be publicly defiled and eventually executed although not publicly.

So this is the story of Vercingetorix which was mentionned in one of the many cartoons of « Asterix le Gaulois » under the title of « The daughter of Vercingetorix ». But Vercingetorix did exist and although what we know of him is limited, he nonetheless left his trace on the history of France and Rome alike.–the-next-asterix-will-be-called-“the-daughter-of-vercingetorix”-.BkbwAQLoKN.html

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Written by HistoryGal

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