The history behind Caesar's victories in France
I just came across a short piece from National Geographic summarizing the life and accomplishments of Julius Caesar. Before he made himself "dictator for life," the magazine notes, he had to prove his worth as a powerful military commander -- and he started that quest in the deep heart of France, trying to subdue the tribes of Gauls who controlled that part of Europe. Here's how National Geographic summarized his campaign in France (and the phrase that caught my attention):
Caesar’s seven-year Gaul campaign ended triumphantly in 51 B.C. The Gaul leader Vercingetorix was paraded in chains through Rome before being ritually strangled. In all, Caesar’s campaign killed or enslaved more than a million Gauls [...]
There's a lot of French history hidden behind that description. Who was Vercingetorix, and why did Caesar consider him important enough to parade through the streets of Rome as a symbol of his victory? I thought it might be time to go back to the archives to update the story -- and to remember how Julius Caesar suffered a humiliating defeat one day in the heart of the Auvergne at the hands of this great Gallic chieftain...
Gergovie - site of the battle
The plateau at Gergovie isn’t necessarily the first thing you’d notice when you come to this area. The great volcanoes of the Massif Central rise in the background and they’re more rugged, more beautiful than this lump of basalt. Clermont-Ferrand lies at the plateau’s base, its brooding black lava cathedral dominating the city’s skyline.
But go to Google and search for images of “Vercingetorix” and you’ll get an idea why this unassuming mesa holds such mythic power in the history of France.
This is the site of the only defeat Julius Caesar ever suffered as he and the armies of Rome swept through ancient Gaul. (Or "probably the site"? "Possibly" the site? There's a vigorous academic debate on the subject, although we know for sure that there was a strong oppidum on the plateau of Gergovie, and most of the "settled" history favors this as the place were Caesar lost the battle.) Vercingetorix and his Arverni tribesmen delivered the blow – reputedly by taking to the fortifications on Gergovie and using the advantage of higher ground to drive off Caesar and his armies.
Drifting back to 52 B.C.E....
On a recent visit, I try to imagine the scene… It’s 52 years B.C.E. For at least two hundred years, the great plain sprawling out from Gergovie’s base has been cultivated, divided into the Iron Age version of farms by the Arverni. For defense, they’ve constructed at least three oppida – heavily fortified villages – on hilltops in this area, and one of them is on the top of Gergovie.
Vercingetorix and his army had already lost one battle to the Romans. Those who escaped were shadowed by Caesar’s forces until they figured out what the Romans had in mind: they were headed to Gergovie. Vercingetorix got there 5 days earlier and mustered 30,000 Gauls; Julius Caesar made camp at the base of the hill with 25,000 soldiers of the Roman Republic and perhaps another 10,000 local supporters.
Only Caesar’s account survives, but even he admits things didn’t go well for his side. He understood that he wasn’t likely to win an uphill attack, so he settled in for a long siege, hoping the Gauls would surrender when their supplies of food and water ran out. The siege couldn’t be indefinite, though, and at some point Caesar decided to try to lure Vercingetorix off the mountain and into open battle.
He tried to do it by trickery, ordering a fake retreat from his camp, but in the execution his forces made a mess of it. All the noise below alerted the Arverni, and Vercingetorix ordered a cavalry charge down the mountain to push the Romans back. We don’t know for sure how many casualties they suffered, but it appears there were thousands; in any event, Caesar conceded defeat and withdrew from Gergovie.
The wind-swept summit of Gergovie
I’ve been to this summit several times. One of these was with my family, and the wind whipped across the plateau at such speed that we could literally “sit down” and be supported by the gale; my son’s baseball cap shot into the air and over the edge before anyone could react. We made the trip again for an annual “reenactment” of the famous battle. (The best part was being served a kind of stew, cooked using only authentic ingredients in a stoneware pot, served by people I knew from my office wearing rough woolen robes!)
Aside from a few earthworks, most of what remains here is modern: a great monument to the battle stands on the point of the plateau, and there's a museum telling the story (currently closed for renovation). There’s a decent restaurant called La Hutte Gaulois that trades (in a way that is only slightly cheesy) on the myth.
A national legend is born
People come here now for the hiking, to fly kites in the stiff breezes that sweep across the mountain, and to look out at the spectacular views of Clermont-Ferrand, the volcano chain, the mountains of the Cantal, and the plain of Limagne.
The legend of Vercingetorix, though, is firmly ensconced in the national mythology of France – he’s a source of great national pride. Napoleon raised a statue to him at Alesia, and painters have come back to him as an inspirational subject over and over again.
He’s a character in the Asterix & Obelix comics, and Bartholdi (who created the Statue of Liberty) provided a fierce representation of the great warrior to the city of Clermont-Ferrand; you can see him today charging toward the shopping centers of the Place de Jaude, although his sword is often replaced by the flag of the local championship rugby team.
There’s not a happy ending, though. Not much later, Caesar and his armies cornered Vercingetorix and his forces in another oppidum at Alesia – and this time, the siege worked. Vercingetorix was held prisoner for 5 years before being driven through the streets as part of Julius Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome and then strangled in a public execution. (The events are enacted in HBO’s Rome, a miniseries about Caesar’s rise to power.)
Still, it’s not hard to understand why Vercingetorix and his leadership at Gergovie hold such a place in French history. This great country, so often invaded by the Romans, the English, the Vikings, the Germans, and others, takes pride in that first example of a Gaul who stood up to the invading forces and beat them back!
Do you have a favorite memory of a historical site in France? Have you had the chance to visit other places associated with the great "legends of France"? Please share your experience it in the comments space below -- and please take a second to share this post with someone else who's interested in the people, places, culture, and history of central France!