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Vercingetorix: The Leader of the Gallic Resistance

Background:

It was the period of Pax Romana, when most of Gaul had come under Roman Occupation and many of the Gallic (Celtic) Tribes had either grudgingly or willingly become reconciled to the Roman presence. In 55 B.C., Julius Caesar, possibly the most famous Roman leader of all times, took charge of entire Gaul, excepting the parts known as ‘Free Gaul’ that were not as yet under Roman control. The ambitious Caesar, of course, was determined on bringing these into the fold as well, and began the usual and successful Roman formula of supporting the more tractable Gauls against the intractable ones, offering Roman military aid in their disputes, and, after having thus insinuated Roman legions in the area, coolly taking it over as a Roman possession. Caesar was especially adept at implementing these tactics and has recorded them in his very interesting and highly readable ‘Commentaries on the Gallic Wars’.

Vercingetorix :

There appears to have been only one leader in all of Gaul who clearly saw what the Romans were up to and understood that the divide and rule policy that they were fostering would eventually prove detrimental to the Celtic character of Gaul. This was Vercingetorix, the Gallic Chieftain of the Arverni Tribe, about whom Julius Caesar was later to write – “Himself a man of boundless energy, he terrorized waverers with the rigors of an iron discipline.” He staunchly opposed the Romans, and tried to unite all the other Gallic Tribes against this common enemy. But unfortunately they were unable to put aside their tribal differences even in the face of the overwhelming danger to their very existence. And even though temporary alliances were somehow formed later on, the Gauls were next hampered by their undisciplined fighting methods. Each tribe naturally had their own separate ideas about how to win a battle and together they won very few. The guerilla tactics that they preferred to open warfare might have been successful except for the Gallic unwillingness to organize newer strategies that would suit them all and the ability of the well-organized Romans to do exactly that.

Battle with the Romans :

Some initial gains gave the Gauls the misguided notion of a surefire and easy victory. When they learned that the Romans were heading towards the Northern Italian passes to fight the Allobroges tribe, they assumed it would be a perfectly simple matter to waylay and rout them. They ignored Vercingetorix’s warnings against an open engagement and in the battle fever forgot also the plan to attack only previously decided upon Roman positions. Instead, they charged headlong at the Romans, who not only weathered the charge, but began encircling the Gauls and cutting off their retreat. The tide slowly but surely turned in Roman favor and the entire Gallic attack collapsed into unruly disorder. The Gallic warriors panicked and fled in all directions and their leaders had no hopes at all of reorganizing them. Vercingetorix and his forces, soundly defeated, retreated to the fortified town of Alesia, and decided to make their stand from there. Vercingetorix sent out his cavalry and his messengers to ask for help and reinforcements from the other Gallic tribes. He himself remained in Alesia to defy the Romans legions that were amassing outside the wooden palisades. It was to be a huge mistake.

The Siege of Alesia :

After the Roman army had completely surrounded Alesia, they did not immediately began an assault on the town as the Gauls expected, but instead, much to their amazement, began building several concentric stake palisades around both the town’s wooden palisade and their own encampment. Outside the stake walls and between them, there were deep ditches and open areas laid-out with man-traps to impale the unwary. And in the very center of all this was the watching and uncomprehending town of Alesia. The townspeople certainly thought the Romans had lost it, and during the long time that it took to construct the walls, the matter had become something of a joke with them. The hard-working Roman soldiers were taunted and derided and attacked with missiles. But Julius Caesar, the great war tactician, knew exactly what he was doing.

He was shutting in the Gauls and protecting his forces at the same time from anticipated attacks from any arriving Gallic reinforcements. He oversaw the construction work personally, riding about from one end to the other, a highly visible figure in his scarlet cloak. Matters soon became clear to the Celts when they found themselves unable to leave the town and food supplies began running out. There was soon enough food for just one month and Vercingetorix decided, with cold practicality, that this had to be rationed out only amongst the warriors. So all the people unable to fight – women and children, the old and the incapacitated – were all turned out of the town. These people appealed to the Romans to let them through, even offering themselves as slaves, but the Romans turned a deaf ear. Caesar was not interested in saving Gallic lives, which he held in the utmost low esteem anyway. Vercingetorix, on his part, would not let them back in, and so these people, abandoned without shelter, food or protection from the elements, died a slow, languishing death between the two armies. It was a cruel tragedy, but the times were cruel and there was a war going on. Neither group, even if they had it in them, could afford to be humane.

The long-awaited reinforcements arrived shortly afterwards and attempted to relieve the town, but were defeated by the Roman traps and were not able to breach the strong Roman walls. All attempts by Vercingetorix and his men to cross over too failed. The Roman legions remained impervious to the screaming hordes and repealed all attackers. Finally, after five days of incessant fighting that took a heavy toll of the Gauls, Vercingtorix realized that all resistance was now futile and made the difficult and previously unthinkable decision of surrendering to the enemy. Arraying in his finery he rode out to the Romans and personally surrendered to Caesar. With his surrender, the Gallic revolt ignominiously ended and the Gauls who managed to escape fled either to the Germanic lands from where they had once sprung or across the Channel to the British Isles, where the Romans were to soon enough follow them. There were very few major revolts again in Gaul, each one brutally put down by Caesar to discourage any future ones. Gaul became firmly entrenched as a Roman Province.

The End of Vercingetorix :

The Romans were often unpredictably generous to a fallen but brave foe, allowing him both life and liberty, not to mention Roman citizenship. But this time, despite Caesar’s reluctantly admiring statements about him in his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic Wars’, they didn’t show any such leniency towards Vercingetorix. Perhaps they knew he wasn’t the sort to either accept or adhere to their terms in the first place. He was taken to Rome and imprisoned in a dark dungeon, under extremely bad conditions, for six years. He survived these only to be brought out to be displayed in chains and be jeered at during Caesar’s triumphal procession in 46 B.C. Then, as a crowning event of these festivities, he was ritually strangled in front of the watching populace. His nemesis, Julius Caesar, outlived him by merely two years, being famously assassinated in 44 B.C.

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