Text #9703

"Vercingetorix", in Wikipedia.

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

Text #9743

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

There is something of a controversy over where the Battle of Alesia was fought. The website,, states:

Alise-Ste-Reine is situated on the steep slopes of Mont Auxois. It lays claim to being the site of this decisive battle. Napoléon III instigated excavations here between 1861 and 1865, revealing a large military presence, bones and objects, and he had a magnificent bronze statue of Vercingétorix erected immediately above the village. On its pedestal, the sculpture by Aimé Millet stands 13.6 m high. However, two other places in France lay claim to being the site of the battle and from 1991-1998 further excavations were carried out to prove whether this site was authentic or not. The mystery continues to this day.

That leads us to where we read:

But in 1864, Napoleon issued an imperial decree stating that Alesia had now been officially identified as Alise-Sainte-Reine. The emperor, the nephew of the original Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, saw Vercingetorix as an embodiment of France’s national identity. Though he was the loser at Alesia, Vercingetorix had by then forged the first ever pan-Gaulish alliance of tribes. Nearly two millennia later, Napoleon III, whose legitimacy was, to say the least, precarious, wanted to harness this unifying spirit.

So when archaeological evidence began to emerge that possibly linked Alise-Sainte-Reine to some kind of Roman-Celtic confrontation, Alise-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy became the officially designated site, and a monumental statue of Vercingetorix was erected on the hilltop where the citadel of Alesia was presumed to have stood.

Tellingly, behind his drooping moustaches, the chieftain bears the features of a young Napoleon III.

However from the start, there were doubts about the decision, which some said had been made in haste and with clear political motives.

It was not that there was no evidence for Napoleon’s claim. The very place-name - Alise - suggested a link.

And excavations carried out in the 1860s brought to light a wealth of remains - coins, weapons, trench-lines, armour - that seemed to lend further proof.

But there were suspicions that it was all too, well - convenient.

And then exactly 50 years ago, the story took the dramatic twist whose repercussions are still with us today.

An archaeologist called Andre Berthier was profoundly uneasy about the identification Alise-Sainte-Reine as Alesia.

His method was to go back to the only sure evidence - contemporary histories - and construct an “identikit” for a location. Then he would pore over detailed military maps to find places that might correspond.

Applying this technique to the Alesia conundrum, he absorbed himself in Caesar’s own De Bello Gallico, the general’s personal account - known to generations of Latin students - of the conquest of Gaul.

It provides a clear description of Alesia. It is on a “very high” hill, impregnable except by siege. The feet of the hill are washed by two rivers, and there is a plain in front extending for three Roman miles.

These and other details convinced Berthier that Alesia could not be at Alise-Sainte-Reine. The portrait simply did not fit.

The hill, he thought, was not sufficiently high to oblige Caesar to lay siege. The plain was too wide, and as for the two rivers - “flumina” in Latin - they were pathetic little streams.

In 1962, after eliminating 200 alternative sites one by one, he came to a place called Chaux-des-Crotenay in the Jura, about 35 miles (56km) from Geneva.


It was exactly as Caesar had described.

Fifty years later, Berthier’s work is being continued by his disciple, Sorbonne classics professor Danielle Porte, who is fired by an overpowering sense of injustice.

“The archaeological establishment has never paid the slightest heed to our doubts. They are too wrapped up in their own reputations, and now there are the economic interests at stake as well, with the museum.

“No-one dares question the orthodox thesis. Lethargy, careerism and money are all taking precedence over historical truth, and that is something I cannot put up with,” she says.

Having identified the place from Caesar’s texts, Berthier’s next task was to explore the area for physical evidence.

Another ancient writer - the Greek Diodorus of Sicily - wrote that Alesia was an extremely important religious centre for all the Celtic peoples of Europe.

So the true Alesia should contain signs of that past. Excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine had mainly revealed traces from the later Gallo-Roman period, in itself suspicious because the town is supposed to have been wiped out.

Berthier’s researches at Chaux excited him beyond his wildest expectations.

Buried in woods, he found the remains of an ancient rampart wall. Ms Porte says it is a classic “Cyclopean” bronze-age fortification, originally 10m (33ft) high.

They also found a rare anthropomorphic menhir - a stone “goddess” that would have guarded an entrance - as well as other Celtic and pre-Celtic artefacts.

In addition, a short distance away, the association claims to have found signs of a Roman siege camp, seemingly further confirmation.

In short, they not only believe the famous battle took place at Chaux, they also think Alesia itself was a substantial Gaulish centre.

This means that, lying beneath the woods, there is a wealth of ancient remains waiting to be excavated.

“We believe this is the most important unexcavated archaeological site in Europe,” says historian and broadcaster Franck Ferrand.

“And yet the French state refuses to authorise excavations here. Why? Because it might jeopardise the official theory.

“It is the only case in history of an excavation being banned for cultural reasons.”

The arguments will no doubt run and run. Until Chaux is excavated, the dissidents will always be able to say the truth is buried in the earth.

For those tempted to ask “Why should we care?”, Ms Porte has several answers.

First, on the location of Alesia hinges a great deal of the reputation of chief Vercingetorix.

If Alesia is indeed at the Burgundy site, then one is entitled to question the chieftain’s leadership skills: The place is not particularly defensible.

However, if Alesia is in the Jura, Vercingetorix was blocking Caesar’s path from a position of almost impregnable strength, and loses only because of the last-minute defection of one of the tribes.

Second, much dating of Celtic and Roman weaponry and coins hinges on the identification of Alesia with Alise-Sainte-Reine.

If a certain type of sword has been found there, it means that sword existed in 52BC, so similar swords found elsewhere must be from the same period.

All that archaeological science would have to be re-written, if it turns out that the remains come from a different period.

Ms Porte’s third reason is that the site at Chaux-des-Crotenay needs to be preserved.

“I remember when I first came here with Andre Berthier, he said to me: ‘This is the biggest Celtic site in Europe, and we are the only two to know it.’

“But one day the truth will out.”

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