Saturday, 13 October 2007

War in Gaul: the cast (1)

You’d think that after having started and abandoned several megalomaniac comics projects, I’d have learned to keep things manageable by downsizing the scope and number of characters of the stories I start, but no. I’m incorrigible. Whether War in Gaul has a greater chance of ever going somewhere than my previous enterprises, I don’t know, but once again I’m starting big. If I want to present my story’s main characters to you, I have to tell you about no less than five people. …Yes, I know. But I may still change my mind ;P.

1. Ambiorix, king of the Eburones

I showed the cute blondie to my best friend last Friday and made her gasp – not because she thought he was pretty, but because I told her he is my version of Ambiorix. She had been expecting someone more along the lines of the Tongeren statue, I suppose. That is the image of the king of the Eburones as Belgians know it, having seen it on labels and boxes of the most expensive Belgian brand of shoes, or on beer bottles, or on signs of pubs, dry cleaning, car washes and goodness knows what else. Most people don’t question the funny hat, the fact that Ambiorix is standing on a very pre-Celtic dolmen, or the man’s dress code – would he be bare-chested in a pre-Inconvenient Truth climate? But this is the way in which he got fixed in the Belgian subconscious.

Caesar does not tell us anything specific about Ambiorix, such as how old he was or what he looked like. We are free to imagine him any way we like. When in 1866, Jules Bertin was commissioned to sculpt a statue of the Belgic chieftain for Tongeren, he chose a local blacksmith as a model; a hero should have some muscle, right? The Frenchmen Rocca and Mitton in their series Vae Victis make Ambiorix a grey-haired kind of patriarch. Neither of those visions is interesting to me.

The information that Caesar does give us about Ambiorix makes him an unconventional kind of king, at least for a Celt. Celtic kings tended to be men who had made a name on the battlefield. Like the Greeks who went for Troy, they were greatly interested in honour and glory. This was one of their weaknesses when they faced Caesar’s legions: they would insist on encountering the Romans in open battles, chasing glory by running headfirst into a shield wall, but they were invariably flattened by the order and tactic of a professional army. Ambiorix for his part does not seem to have cared about honour at all. What he wanted was to destroy the soldiers camping on his land, and he knew that could never be done in a ‘fair’ battle. He decided to cheat instead. With lies he coaxed one and a half legions into a trap and had some eight thousand men massacred. Dio Cassius says that he did not even join the fight himself – he just watched, and (this is something Caesar says too) made one of the Roman generals disarm with a promise of parley, only to have him killed in cold blood. Later, when Caesar exacts vengeance on Ambiorix’s people, the king himself goes on the run. He is hunted down by the Romans but never caught.

To me, Ambiorix doesn’t sound much like a classic hero or someone his fellow kings would have spontaneously looked up to. In order to pull off his deception, he would probably have had charm, a way with words, and the ability to lie well. (My main reason for making him so cute is that looking nice and a touch feminine would have helped him to convince the Romans of his innocence and trustworthiness.) For some time he was of service to Caesar and during that period figured out how to tackle the Romans. He must definitely have been perceptive, clever, and an agitator – while on the run for Caesar’s men, he toured the Belgic kingdoms spreading revolt – but too sneaky and self-preserving to be considered heroic and brave. Of course that is exactly how I like my characters, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ambiorix wrestled his way to the fore of my story…

I find that for some reason, I always try to make my main character as young as possible, so that they face a crisis early in life and have to spend the rest of it dealing with the consequences of their choices. Ambiorix is no different – he got younger at every turn, and is at this moment in his late teens when Caesar invades Gallia Belgica (meaning he is about twenty when he tricks the Romans). That will make the Gallic War the thing that shapes him; I find that more interesting than looking at the effects on a mature adult, though I do have a mature main character as well. Another reason why I need Ambiorix to be young is the better to contrast him with his fellow king, Catuvolcos.

Caesar reports that Catuvolcos was ‘elderly’. What I should take this to mean in an age when the average man did not get older than forty, I am not entirely sure. I have opted for a Catuvolcos who is old but not ancient – a sixty-year-old already qualifies as a senex in Roman terms.

We know very little about the Gallic language as the Gauls did not have a written culture. Translation of names is therefore tricky, and I have found many different etymologies. “Ambiorix” has been explained as “rich king”, “king of the surroundings” and “king of the enclosure”. Whichever (if any) of these is right, they have one thing in common: Ambiorix doesn’t have a particularly martial name, unlike Vercingetorix (“great king of the warriors”), Cassivellaunos (“commander in battle”) or indeed Catuvolcos (“battle-falcon”, also interpreted as “hero”). Funny enough, the names do tie in nicely with my purpose, and they support the complimentary nature of the two Eburone kings. They give extra weight to my choice of presenting Catuvolcos as an old school warrior-king and Ambiorix as a young man whose prestige derives from his wealth and (family) ties – Caesar mentions him as having allies among the Menapians and peoples on the other side of the Rhine.

I guess ‘wealth’ is relative, and frustratingly, I don’t know just how relative. The Eburones lived too far to the north to enjoy close contacts with the Mediterranean, and in the days of Ambiorix, they did not have any trade centres on their domain. In those days, trade (in metal, salt, pottery…) was the main source of wealth; agriculture only yielded enough to provide for the tribe’s own needs. If Ambiorix was rich, I guess he must have possessed a lot of cattle – cows and horses. My historical atlas shows that horses were an important ‘product’ in that part of the country at the time. Moreover, the Eburones had a problem with raiders from across the Rhine who conducted cattle raids.

(The Celts did not have an economy based on money; instead they determined a person’s wealth by the number of cattle they possessed. To the Romans, however, that did not mean much, as the Celts’ horses, cows and pigs were significantly smaller than their own.)

When I say that I have difficulty figuring out the meaning of wealth, the reason is the following:
Caesar names as one of the reasons for the success of Ambiorix’s ruse the fact that the Romans found it hard to believe that a relatively powerless people like the Eburones would rise against them. He mentions the Eburones being clients of the Atuatukes, then of the Treveri – this means that they were not powerful enough to maintain their independence. Yet, based on archeological findings, they seem to have occupied a pretty large territory – and to have possessed a lot of gold. Several gold treasures have been found on Eburone territory, the most recent discovery being the Treasure of Heers. This depot consisted of a quantity of coins, seventy-four of which were minted by the Eburones around the time of their revolt against the legions. Gold staters were used to hire mercenaries, as they were much too valuable for daily use; they were only ever minted by kings or very high dignitaries out of their personal fortune. Archaeologists estimate that there must have been more than a million in all.

The television news at the time made this out to be Ambiorix’s fortune, but to me it seems a lot for a king from an ‘insignificant’ tribe. At the time of his revolt, Ambiorix was taking orders from the Treveres; it appears to my ignorant self that if he had a million gold coins, he would have been able to buy the Treveres :P. But maybe they had even more gold. If that was the case, it becomes easier to understand why Julius ‘I’m Oh So Deeply in Debt’ Caesar really, really couldn’t resist visiting Gaul, and how it was possible that he brought such a quantity of gold back from his conquest that the prices in Rome fell so spectacularly as to make gold temporarily cheaper than silver… Another possibility is that the journalist misunderstood – that the Eburones made more than a million coins in total between 75 BC and 50 BC, not that they were all minted by dear Ambiorix. It’s not quite clear though. A literal translation from an article in Het Belang van Limburg mentioning the same amount goes: ‘Experts suspect that once, more than a million Eburon staters were minted, of which – as far as we know – 160 have been found’. Still, even then it appears to me that for a ‘poor’ tribe, they had a lot of precious metal…

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An Eburon gold stater.

Another thing that fascinates me is the fact that the Eburones had two kings. I haven’t heard of any other Celtic people with the same; this peculiarity is why some scholars suggest that maybe Ambiorix and Catuvolcos were magistrates rather than kings, just like the Romans had two consuls to avoid any one person becoming too powerful. But this seems rather unlikely to me as the Eburones lived in the north of Belgica and were more conservative than southern peoples; the Belgic tribes all had kings, unlike peoples like the Arvernians and the Haeduans who had a republic with magistrates chosen by a kind of parliament, their political system influenced by their Roman neighbours’. Caesar says that Ambiorix and Catuvolcos ruled one half of the Eburones each, but they seem to have acted and decided as one, and the situation still remains a bit puzzling. I am still working out how to deal with the matter, but I sort of like the idea of Catuvolcos having a say in Ambiorix’s appointment – he could ask for a co-king because he is getting old and ill, or because he feels that society is changing (which it was) and that he needs a different (more mercantile? More diplomatic?) approach to kingship than the old warrior ideal. Also, if Ambiorix is as young as I am casting him, Catuvolcos might feel he can easily influence and teach him. Maybe he does not get along with his own son, and prefers to train another young man for kingship…