Sunday, 14 October 2007

War in Gaul: the cast (2)

2. Vercingetorix, High King of All of Gaul (sort of)

Vercingetorix lives on in French history books as a noble freedom fighter. Was he that? Hm. No doubt he was very eager to have the Romans gone from his land, but one of his main motivations was that he wanted it all for himself. Actually he was a bit reactionary. His people, the Arverni, lived close to Rome and had a political system similar to the Republic’s: they had a senate, and each year they chose a supreme magistrate, the Vergobret, comparable to a Roman consul. Vercingetorix’s father Celtillos had attempted a coup d’état and proposed himself as king, but the Arverni revolted against that and burnt him at the stake as an enemy of the state. Vercingetorix thought he’d have another try, and he was evicted from the capital of Gergovia by his uncle Gobannitio, who was then Vergobret. In response, he rode around the land to gather an army of the people and took Gergovia by storm, overthrowing his uncle. It is not quite clear whether he was actually made king, but the Gallic leaders did appoint and confirm him as general of a huge army of the united Gaulish peoples. As such, Vercingetorix accomplished something extraordinary – he managed to bring almost all of Gaul together under his banner, and he was the only man to do so.

As an idea it was far from stupid: their divided state made the Gaulish peoples their own worst enemy. Caesar easily took advantage of the strife. But Vercingetorix had more brilliant notions: he knew just how to tackle Caesar. Like Ambiorix, he seems to have sucked up to Caesar for a while and gained the title of ‘friend of Rome’; in the meantime he figured out his enemy’s weaknesses. Vercingetorix thought that the only way to beat the legions was to starve them. His strategy was that of scorched earth – he told the Gauls to destroy their own lands so the Romans would find nothing there. He was very ruthless – he ordered the disobedient hung or mutilated – but his tactics did work. Vercingetorix vanquished the legions at Gergovia, and it hurt. However…

It’s hard being the general of an army made up of a heap of different tribes, each with their chieftains who want to seem important, and to have to give such unpopular orders as “Burn your town! I don’t care how pretty it is!” or “NO, for the millionth time, we’re NOT going to engage Caesar in an open battle, because we’re just not capable of holding our own in one!” And so, well, it didn’t last. His cavalry got carried away attacking the retreating Romans at one point, and Vercingetorix got holed up in Alesia and it was his turn to starve; Caesar put up a siege unmatched in the annals of military history for its brilliance, and eventually Vercingetorix had to surrender. Unlike most vanquished Gaulish leaders, Caesar didn’t have him executed on the spot; he sent Vercingetorix to Rome, where he languished in prison for five years, then he was displayed in Caesar’s great triumph and ritually strangled in the Tullianum.

I do wish Caesar had described Vercingetorix in great detail, but of course he didn’t. He merely says he was rich and powerful – and young. When I went surfing around the Net for more information about Vercingetorix, I noticed that some sites mentioned his age as thirty (not quoting any sources, of course), while others said he may have been as young as seventeen (not quoting any sources either). I thought I would check Caesar’s Latin text, to find out what word got translated as ‘young man’ in my edition. It turns out that Caesar calls Vercingetorix an adulescens, which according to my Latin dictionary is a young man “between the ages of 17 and 25, or 30”. Heh. It’s at once clear where the figures come from, and also what their source is :D.

Now, I do think seventeen is a bit young… Though, if people died much younger than they do nowadays, would they have grown up much sooner too? Was it as unheard-of to have a seventeen-year-old general as it seems now? I don’t know… I’m opting for early twenties as a kind of middle road. Again, I prefer him to be young so as to contrast him with his principal opponent – Caesar, who was nearing fifty at the time of the decisive battle for Gaul.

As for what Vercingetorix looked like, historians like to quote coins. One that is brought up is a Roman one minted around 48 BC, showing a gaunt man with a goatee and wild, battle-style peaked hair. The other one was minted by Vercingetorix himself and shows a totally different head:

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Gold stater minted by Vercingetorix.

Do we get the before/after effect here? The Roman coin may be showing the Arvernian prince after his four-year stay in a Roman prison… Vercingetorix’s own coins, like just about all other Gaulish money, are based on gold staters from Macedonia. I do wonder whether the face on the coin is meant to resemble the king who minted it, or whether it is simply an imitation of a Greek head – it has the curls and general hairstyle of Alexander. But it is entirely possible that Vercingetorix should not have looked a lot like your typical Celtic ‘barbarian’ the way Napoleon III’s statue at Alise-Ste.-Reine has it. After all, his wealth most probably derived from trade with Rome; his land was very close to the Provincia, and his people had even adopted the Roman political system. Why would fashion not have dictated short hair and clean-shaven faces for Arvernian nobles, just like Roman fashion did?

I am always weary of having too much text in a comic, and feel that stories should not be burdened with too many explanations or treatises – that is what essays are for. However, a good history tale needs research, and finding a balance between tale and history is an art in itself. One step in this case will be to put as much information as possible in the visuals. So, whereas I originally conceived of Vercingetorix as having very long hair and a fringe of beard, I decided to give him a clean-shaven aspect and half-long hair instead, so that he holds the middle ground between Rome on the one hand and Gallia Comata (“long-haired Gaul”) on the other. Not that this will solve all my information-related quandaries, but it’s a start ;-).


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ampersand said...

Thank you! :D

My creativity is like a diesel engine ;). I guess there are a lot of research and concept posts while the stories take shape in my head...

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Toni Garçía said...

[nakir attah saçap yarás ça]

I hope the history of Vercingetorix isn´t only based on this hebrew epigraphy.

As you can see, in my only opinion that language must be transliterated into semitic international reduced hebrew. Hear you have my arxive, with modern hebrew, it says [nakir attah saçap yarás ça], and that means this coin was made for [aras], to marry with someone.

I´m not expert in hebrew translation but [nakar] means to know, and [saçap] to see, or to bronze, it´s a link to the colour of bronze and gold ligthness.

Best regards.

Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more specific than somewhere else, thanks.

- Thomas