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Vercingetorix (c. 82 BC – 46 BC) was a chieftain of the Arverni tribe; he united the Gauls in a revolt against Roman forces during the last phase of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
Vercingetorix came to power after his formal designation as chieftain of the Arverni at the oppidum Bibracte in 52 BC. He immediately established an alliance with other Gallic tribes, took command and combined all forces, and led them in Gaul’s most significant revolt against Roman power. He won the Battle of Gergovia, in which 46 centurions and 700 legionaries died and more than 6,000 people were injured, whereupon Caesar’s Roman legions withdrew.
However, Caesar had been able to exploit Gaulish internal division to easily subjugate the country, and Vercingetorix’s attempt to unite the Gauls against Roman invasion came too late. At the Battle of Alesia, the Romans besieged and defeated his forces and captured him. He was held prisoner for five years. In 46 BC, as part of Caesar’s triumph, Vercingetorix was paraded through the streets of Rome and then executed by strangulation on Caesar’s orders. Vercingetorix is primarily known through Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.
The generally accepted view is that Vercingetorix derives from the Gaulish ver- (“over, superior” – an etymological cognate of German über, Latin super, or Greek hyper), cingeto- (“warrior”, related to roots meaning “tread, step, walk”, so possibly “infantry”), and rix (“king”) (cf. Latin rex), thus literally either “great warrior king” or “king of great warriors”. In his Life of Caesar, Plutarch renders the name as Vergentorix.
Having been appointed governor of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis (modern Provence) in 58 BC, Julius Caesar proceeded to conquer the Gallic tribes beyond over the next few years, maintaining control through a careful divide and rule strategy. He made use of the factionalism among the Gallic elites, favoring certain noblemen over others with political support and Roman luxuries such as wine. Attempts at revolt, such as that of Ambiorix in 54 BC, had secured only local support, but Vercingetorix, whose father, Celtillus, had been put to death by his own countrymen for seeking to rule all of Gaul, managed to unify the Gallic tribes against the Romans and adopted more current styles of warfare.
The revolt that Vercingetorix came to lead began in early 52 BC while Caesar was raising troops in Cisalpine Gaul. Believing that Caesar would be distracted by the turmoil in Rome following the death of Publius Clodius Pulcher, the Carnutes, under Cotuatus and Conetodunus, made the first move, slaughtering the Romans who had settled in their territory.
Vercingetorix, a young nobleman of the Arvernian city of Gergovia, roused his dependents to join the revolt, but he and his followers were expelled by the nobles of the city, including Vercingetorix’s uncle Gobanitio, because they thought opposing Caesar was too great a risk. Undeterred, Vercingetorix raised an army of the poor, took Gergovia and was hailed as king. He made alliances with other tribes, and having been unanimously given supreme command of their armies, imposed his authority through harsh discipline and the taking of hostages. He adopted the policy of retreating to natural fortifications, and undertook an early example of a scorched earth strategy by burning towns to prevent the Roman legions from living off the land.
Vercingetorix scorched much of the land marching north with his army from Gergovia in an attempt to deprive Caesar of the resources and safe haven of the towns and villages along Caesar’s march south. However, the capital of the Bituriges, Avaricum (Bourges), a Gallic settlement straight in Caesar’s path, was spared. Due to the town’s strong protests, naturally defendable terrain, and apparently strong man-made reinforcing defenses, Vercingetorix decided against razing and burning it. Leaving the town to its fate, Vercingetorix camped well outside of Avaricum and focused on conducting harassing engagements of the advancing Roman units led by Caesar and his chief lieutenant Titus Labienus. Upon reaching Avaricum however, the Romans laid siege and eventually captured the capital. Afterwards, in a contemptuous reprisal for 25 days of hunger and of laboring over the siegeworks required to breach Avaricum’s defenses, the Romans slaughtered nearly the entire population of ~40,000 leaving only ~800 alive. The next major battle was at Gergovia, where Vercingetorix tactically defeated Caesar, inflicting heavy losses. However, the victory cost Vercingetorix many men, including many noblemen. Because of these losses he retreated and moved to another stronghold, Alesia.
In the Battle of Alesia (September, 52 BC), Caesar built a fortification around the city to besiege it. However, Caesar’s army was surrounded by the rest of Gaul, and Vercingetorix had summoned his Gallic allies to attack the besieging Romans, so Caesar built another outer fortification against the expected relief armies (resulting in a doughnut-shaped fortification). The relief came in insufficient numbers: estimates range from 80,000 to 250,000 soldiers. Vercingetorix, the tactical leader, was cut off from them on the inside, and without his guidance the attacks were initially unsuccessful. However, the attacks did reveal a weak point in the fortifications and the combined forces on the inside and the outside almost made a breakthrough. Only when Caesar personally led the last reserves into battle did he finally manage to prevail. This was a decisive battle in the creation of the Roman Empire.
According to Plutarch, Vercingetorix surrendered in dramatic fashion, riding his beautifully adorned horse out of Alesia and around Caesar’s camp before dismounting in front of Caesar, stripping himself of his armor and sitting down at his opponent’s feet, where he remained motionless until he was taken away. Caesar provides a first-hand contradiction of this account, describing Vercingetorix’s surrender much more modestly. He was imprisoned in the Tullianum in Rome for five years, before being publicly displayed in Caesar’s triumph in 46 BC. He was executed after the triumph, probably by strangulation in his prison, as ancient custom would have it.
Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico Book 7
Dio Cassius, Roman History 40:33-41, 43:19
Plutarch, Life of Caesar 25-27