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Vercingetorix (72-46 BCE) was a Gallic aristocrat and chief of the Arvernes tribe. At the head of a coalition of Gallic peoples, he stood up to the Roman armies before having to capitulate during the siege of Alesia. Vercingetorix, defeated by Caesar, almost all by himself embodies a national myth dating back to the "Gauls", a symbol of resistance and character in the face of the occupier. But myth is the word, since Vercingétorix was in part “built” for two centuries by politicians and certain historians to serve as the basis for a national novel. In fact, little is known about him in the end, and making his biography has long been a challenge for specialists.
The first problem for any historian concerns the sources available to talk about his subject. As far as Vercingetorix is concerned, this is a major problem. Indeed, a large part of these sources are of Latin origin (some will say "enemies"), and the large part is represented by "The Gallic Wars".
This work is written by Julius Caesar, the main opponent of the Gallic leader. Fortunately, historians have other subjects at their disposal: archeology and coins, which shed new light on certain aspects of the character and especially of his time, essential for understanding his role and his actions.
The man Vercingetorix
The essential image of Vercingetorix is the famous statue of Alise Sainte-Reine, which is in fact inspired by the one who commissioned it, Napoleon III, one of the great architects of the mythification of the Gallic chief. Sources, like currencies, didn’t help much to know what he looked like; we can finally say that he was surely hairless, which contrasts with the legend of the bearded and hairy Gauls, a little shaggy ...
The name is more important; there have been many debates, but it emerges that the surname can be divided into several parts: "ouer", which would mean "great"; “Kingues”, for “hero” or “warrior”; and especially "riks", for "king". Which would roughly translate to "Supreme King of Warriors", more of a title than a name after all.
The family origins of Vercingétorix are more interesting: he would be the son of Celtill, a great Arverne chief who had royal ambitions which would have led him to be assassinated by his entourage. It is more difficult to know his place of birth and especially his date. He does indeed appear, according to the sources, to have been quite young during the events which made him famous. Caesar himself uses the vague term of ’adulescens, which may suggest that Vercingetorix was undoubtedly less than thirty years old and that he had not held political office, at least in the sense that the Romans understood him to be.
For the rest, it is quite impossible to know what Vercingetorix's life was like before his meeting with Rome, and especially with Julius Caesar.
The Gallic War
One of the great debates that shook the historiography of Gaul is the relationship between Caesar and Vercingetorix. Did the latter know the Roman proconsul before fighting him; indeed, had he fought under his orders? Some Latin sources consider Vercingetorix a traitor and his actions (military and political) suggest that he was inspired by the Roman by being in contact with him. We can therefore advance the fact that Vercingetorix probably served Caesar's legions at the beginning of the Gallic War, in the Arverne contingent, as did other Gallic chiefs later in revolt (among the Aedui for example).
We are not going to come back here to the course of the Gallic War until the year 53, but to concentrate on the entry into the lists of Vercingétorix during the decisive year 52. Julius Caesar did not see it coming, it seems, the general uprising which threatens from the end of the year 53, an uprising organized by several Gallic tribal chiefs, including Vercingétorix l'Arverne. He organized a coup against his uncle, according to Caesar, and was elected king by his supporters in Arverne country, before being joined by other peoples such as the Senons, the Parisii and the peoples of the West. , who soon give him supreme command. In the end, little or nothing is known of the circumstances of Vercingetorix's coming to power, and especially of what happened between his service as an ally of the legions and the uprising of 53-52.
For the continuation of the Gallic War, the main source still being Caesar, it must obviously be taken with hindsight. We can notice the opposition of two very different armies, the very organized legions on one side and scattered contingents on the other, whose elite would be the cavalry of the noble Gauls. But we should also note the skill of Vercingetorix, who continues diplomacy while recruiting new troops, and his ability to surprise his opponent. The latter launched a counter-offensive which led to very hard sieges, like that of Avaricum (Bourges). Despite the loss of this city, Vercingétorix can still hope thanks to the rallying of new peoples, including Rome's most loyal allies until then, the Aedui. Above all, he manages to push back Caesar's legions to Gergovia ...
It was in the Aedui capital, Bibracte, that Vercingetorix was confirmed as the supreme leader of the insurrection. L’Arverne then continued his war of harassment, always avoiding pitched battles against legions much better trained on this terrain. Meanwhile, Caesar does not hesitate to appeal to the Germans, when one of the reasons given for his intervention in Gaul was to defend it against them.
It seems in part thanks to the German horsemen that Caesar won a cavalry battle against the Gauls in August 52 BC. Vercingetorix was led to settle in the oppidum of Alésia ...
The surrender of Vercingetorix and his death
The siege of Alesia by the Roman army is well known, from sources such as Caesar’s Gaul's War, but also from archeology. It would appear that the debate is over, and that the site of the battle is indeed that of Alise Sainte-Reine.
Vercingetorix is often criticized for allowing himself to be locked in this oppidum, but we cannot however question his qualities as a general and explain his defeat by major strategic errors, including this withdrawal to Alésia. It is probable that the Gallic leader sought to renew the tactics successfully applied a few months earlier during the siege of Gergovie (region of Clermont Ferrand). But this time, Caesar learned the lesson and his Roman legions surrounded Alésia with a double system of fortifications. The relief army made up of many Gallic peoples who arrived at the end of September 52 is breaking their teeth there. Not having the means to sustain the siege any longer, Vercingetorix had no other choice but to surrender.
The surrender is narrated by three ancient authors, Plutarch, Florus and Dion Cassius, but they cannot be considered faithful to what really happened, and not only because of the origin of the authors. The scene, repeated many times later, is obviously idealized. The reality is probably much more "banal", even if the details escape us ...
The same goes for the sequel, which demystifies the character of Vercingetorix a little more. We hardly know how this one is treated by Caesar once taken prisoner. We only know that he was taken to Rome with other captives, presented much later, in 46, during the triumph of Caesar, and then executed shortly after. It is probably these mysteries and these gray areas that subsequently made it possible to construct the Vercingetorix myth, still alive today despite the work of historians. After this final resistance, Gaul will become a very prosperous Roman province, the centerpiece of the future Roman Empire.
- Vercingétorix, by Jean-Louis Brunaux. Gallimard, 2018.
- Vercingétorix by Georges Bordonove. Pocket, 2009.
- J. CESAR, La guerre des Gaules. Classic folio, 1981.