Celtic chieftain Vercingetorix (c. 75 BC-c. 46 BC) battled valiantly to keep the Roman army from overrunning the territory of Gaul, as France was then called. His troops were defeated at Alesia and Vercingetorix was forced to surrender.
Revered in France as its first national hero, Vercingetorix managed to unite several sovereign Celtic tribes to do battle against the aggressive Romans. Vercingetorix was an Arverni, one of the many Celtic tribes who ruled over what is France today, northern Germany, the Benelux countries, and the British Isles. Originally a migratory race, scholars theorize that the Celts hailed from what is now southern Germany. During the Iron Age, they settled across much of the western European continent, and were known to be skilled on horseback and fierce in battle; they were also excellent goldsmiths. By the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Celtic iron tool culture was firmly established across much of the European continent from Spain to parts of Asia minor.
The Celts conducted a system of trade with one another, and launched the viticulture industry in the Bordeaux area of France, still famous two millennia later for its wines. Culturally, Celtic Europe spoke similar dialects and shared a common faith in Druidism. This religion held that spirits lived in the natural world, in its forests and streams. A powerful caste of priests conducted Druidic rites and rituals, which in some cases involved human sacrifice. Despite their numbers, the Celts were not politically united, and this was to prove their fatal flaw. Instead, tribes such as the Arverni were ruled by chiefs with absolute sovereignty over their peoples.
The Celtic world into which Vercingetorix was born in about 75 BC had evolved into a complex society which made military success and economic stability dependent on peasant agricultural labor, and vice versa. This system was the precursor of feudalism, a noble-peasant economic dependency that would dominate Europe for much of the Middle Ages. Vercingetorix hailed from a noble ruling family likely situated in what is now the town of Auvergny-a name reflecting its Celtic Arverni origins-in south-central Gaul, as France was then called. He inherited the chief-tainship of the Arverni from his father, Celtillus, who had attempted to ascend to a kingship over several other Celtic tribes during a time of political uncertainty in central France. As a result, Celtillus was likely slain by a conspiracy of nobles and chiefs in opposition to him. Ironically, his son would advance to the position of leader of several Celtic tribes, but only when the necessity of an alliance became apparent, when a determined Roman army threatened.
As befitting the son of a Celtic noble and member of the warrior class, Vercingetorix was likely provided with military training from an early age. He was probably schooled in Druid beliefs and rites as well. During his lifetime, the Druids had become a powerful force in Celtic civilization, and were an adamantly conservative element very much opposed to Roman encroachment. Other Celtic tribes, such as the Boii, were more receptive to the economic promise and infrastructure development that Roman conquest offered.
In southern Italy, the Roman republic was evolving, through a series of wars, conquests, and personal betrayals, into an empire. Julius Caesar was a popular democratic leader, one of the men of the first Triumvirate who ruled around 60 BC, but departed from the comforts of the urbanized and highly developed capital to conquer Gaul. This decade-long military campaign is chronicled in his De Bello Gallico ("The Gallic Wars"), from which the story survives as an account of Vercingetorix and his times.
Caesar grouped all the Celts who lived in France as the "Gauls," though he recognized there were separate kingdoms such as Belgae, Alemanni, Boii, and Arverni, among many others. In 59 BC, Caesar named himself governor of Cisalpine Gaul, the section of northwest Italy that lies below the Alps. From here he and Roman soldiers began making incursions into the rest of Gaul on the other side of the mountains. He conquered the Suevi, a Germanic tribe of southwestern Germany, whose name lends itself to the modern term for this region, Swabia. Caesar and the armies then overran the Helvetii-the Celtic tribe who inhabited present-day Switzerland-then battled the Belgae, another powerful group of Celts centered in what is today northern France and Germany. The Romans also gained an important foothold after vanquishing the Veneti of northwest France, whose lands lay along the coast of the Atlantic. This allowed Caesar an opportunity for successful incursions to the British Isles in 55 and 54 BC.
Varying tribes of Celts had been long threatened by the menace of Germanic peoples like the Suevi. The Germans periodically emerged from what was a vast and, to the Romans, mysterious forest that spread across Central Europe. At first Caesar helped the Celts of central Gaul repel German encroachments, and also acted as arbitrator between Celtic tribes and their enemy, but began attacking central Gaul's tribes such as the Arverni. Because of the harsh treatment Romans sometimes unleashed on those they conquered, Celtic uprisings in northern Gaul began in 54 BC and continued through the following year. During the winter of 53-52 BC, Caesar returned to Rome, but left a garrison of soldiers stationed in central Gaul.
An uprising of Celts, led by the Carnutes, slaughtered several Roman officials and traders at Cenabum (now Orleans, France) that winter. According to Caesar's chronicle, the news of the victory was shouted from Celtic settlement to settlement, and reached the borders of Vercingetorix's Arverni lands by the morning light. In his early twenties at that time, Vercingetorix wished to command a legion of Arverni and join with the Celts of central Gaul; his uncle, Gobannito, and several other elders thought this unwise, and so Vercingetorix was cast out of his capital, Gergovia, near what is today Clermont, France.
Caesar wrote respectfully of his Celtic foe in The Gallic Wars, noting that the exiled but determined Vercingetorix then gathered a militia of beggars and outcasts, and began convincing Arverni nobles to listen to his plan. Eventually he staged a coup in Gergovia and cast out those leaders who had rejected an offensive attack on the well-equipped, well-organized Romans.
Vercingetorix then sent out emissaries to secure an allegiance, via the enforced handover of hostages, with several other Celtic tribes who ruled over sections of Gaul. These included the Senones, Parisii, Pictones, Cadurci, Turoni, Aulerci, Lemovice, and Andi, among others. He was named commander-in-chief. That winter, with Caesar still in Rome, Vercingetorix and Celtic armies began battling Roman garrisons in northern France. Caesar returned immediately upon learning of the attacks, though crossing over the Alps with an army, horses, and supplies was no easy task during the winter months. Roman legions began attacking Celtic settlements in vulnerable southern Gaul, many of whose men and arms had been sent north with Vercingetorix. Meanwhile, Vercingetorix had launched an assault on Gorgorbina, a town of Celtic Boii already loyal to Rome.
Vercingetorix and his army were defeated at Vallaunodunum (modern Montargis), and then Caesar re-took Cenabum from the Celts, and burnt it to the ground. Caesar was in the process of taking the town of Noviodunum, whose Celtic Bituriges were handing over tribute and men, when the army of Vercingetorix was spotted in the distance. The Bituriges quickly shut their gates on the Romans, and a battle with Roman cavalry followed. Noviodunum then fell to the Romans, who planned to take the city of Avaricum (Bourges) next.
As a result of these setbacks, Vercingetorix called a summit at Bibracte, the stronghold of the Aedui, another great Celtic tribe who ruled over the lands to the north and east of the Arverni. The Aedui, according to the classical historian Plutarch in Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, "had styled themselves brethren to the Romans, and had been much honoured by them." This last great alliance in effect made Vercingetorix the first-and last-leader of a unified Celtic nation.
Vercingetorix and his followers decided to burn their own settlements along the way, making it impossible for the Romans to obtain food in hostile territory. Twenty cities across the land of the Bituriges were set afire, and some in other areas as well. They decided not to burn Avaricum and defend it instead. But the Romans laid siege to Avaricum for several months, and eventually defeated the Celts in a bloody battle.
Next on the Roman agenda was Gergovia. Vercingetorix recovered sufficiently from the setback of Avaricum to defend his hometown with renewed troops and determination. When the situation degenerated into a stalemate, Caesar's armies began marching toward Lutetia (Paris), burning everything Celtic they encountered along the way. Vercingetorix was forced to move against this, suffered an attack by the Roman cavalry, and had to retreat to Alesia. The walled center of the Celtic Mandubi tribe, Alesia was set on a hill and was theoretically easy to defend. The Romans built a massive fortification around it, however, with their usual marvels of defensive engineering constructed-towers, battering rams, screens on wheels-on the side facing the hill. They also constructed walls at the rear to protect it from Celts arriving as reinforcements, for Vercingetorix had sent out emissaries in the middle of the night back to their own home states for additional men, arms, and horses. Caesar wrote that a quarter-million Celts arrived to do battle at Alesia. Plutarch places this number at 300,000, and notes that inside Alesia's walls was already a Celtic force of about 170,000.
But the Romans, who also had dug deep trenches, simply waited for Vercingetorix and the Celtic army to run out of provisions. Vercingetorix sent out sorties to battle the Roman soldiers, but poor communication and coordination of efforts plagued the poorly-organized Celts, and they suffered numerous reverses. Vercingetorix's cousin, Vercassivellaunus, battled from the rear in one coordinated attack, but failed to break the Roman line. The Celtic troops facing the Romans from outside saw the futility of the effort, and abandoned Alesia.
When Alesia surrendered, Caesar demanded not just all arms of the Celts but their leader as well. Vercingetorix told his colleagues that they could either deliver him dead or alive to the Romans, according to their wishes. Alive, it was decreed. According to Plutarch, Vercingetorix prepared by "putting his best armour on, and adorning his horse, [then] rode out of the gates, and made a turn about Caesar as he was sitting, then quitting his horse, threw off his armour, and remained quietly sitting at Caesar's feet until he was led away to be reserved for the triumph." It was his last act as a free man as he was then taken into custody and returned with Caesar to Rome, where a 20-day public thanksgiving was called for the not-insignificant conquest of Gaul. Vercingetorix was allegedly dragged behind Caesar's chariot in the official victory parade. He died in Rome about 46 BC.
Caesar's conquest of Gaul resulted in the geographical boundaries of modern France. Moreover, the establishment of Roman government in the vast lands of the Celts would have other significant repercussions. Cities grew in size, connected by sturdy Roman roads initially built for military purposes, and the new Roman Gauls began to prosper from access to pan-European trade. Latin was imposed as a language, but a slang version (Vulgar Latin) was spoken by the soldiers and people. Its mixture with existing Celtic words developed into the French language.
Alesia is today the town of Alesia-St. Reine, and a large statue of Vercingetorix sits at Mont Auxois there. It was dedicated in the nineteenth century at a time when France rediscovered this long-forgotten Celt and declared him a figure of French resistance to the aggression of other European powers.
Caesar, Julius, The Gallic War, English translation by H. J. Edwards, Harvard University Press, 1917.
Cole, Robert, A Traveller's History of France, Interlink Books, 1997.
Dictionary of World Biography, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press/Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.
Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, The Dryden Translation, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1990.