The victorious the Gallic War of Julius Caesar in 58-53 BCE allowed him to subordinate virtually all of Gaul to Roman rule. Having experienced, battle-hardened and faithful legions, he began to think about taking power in Rome.
However, unexpectedly for Caesar, the newly subjugated peoples of Gaul began to think about joint action against the Romans. The attempt to spark one united uprising required good leadership and great ambitions of the inhabitants. Although the Gallic peoples shared a common language and culture, individual tribes were very independent and often hostile to each other. No tribe has ever been reluctant to seek outside help. Strong anti-Roman sentiments led to a secret meeting of the aristocracy of various tribes in order to plan an uprising. The idea of gaining independence for the people of Gaul was actually illusory. The main goal of high-ranking family members was to gain power in their own tribes.
The leader of the uprising was Vercingetorix, a member of the Arverni people, who was proclaimed the king of the tribe by his followers. He amassed a powerful army, much more disciplined than that fought during the Gallic War. He created a very good supply base, which allowed him to fight in the field for a long time. The organization of Vercingetorix’s army was thus perfectly prepared.
This is how Caesar describes the leader of the Gauls:
To the utmost vigilance he adds the utmost rigor of authority; and by the severity of his punishments brings over the wavering: for on the commission of a greater crime he puts the perpetrators to death by fire and every sort of tortures; for a slighter cause, he sends home the offenders with their ears cut off, or one of their eyes put out, that they may be an example to the rest, and frighten others by the severity of their punishment.
– Gaius Julius Caesar, Gallic War, VII.4
What do we know, however, about Vercingetorix himself? Little is known about the life of a Gaul chief. Historians do not even agree on the date of his birth. He was probably born around 82 BCE. He was Arverni by descent, born in the home of the chief of this Celtyllus tribe. In the absence of written Gallic sources from that era, nothing can be said for certain about his childhood. Probably, like other well-born Gauls, until the age of seven, he grew up surrounded by women – his mother and his father’s official concubines (Gallic men could have as many lovers as they managed to provide for living and shelter, but all of them had to be approved by the official spouse.).
Most wives did not protest, having many official lovers was a determinant of social status and wealth. The more that the Gauls had almost no slaves, then each hand was useful for working in the house and the farmyard. Gallic men rarely stayed at home, devoting time to war expeditions, boar hunting, feasts and political consultations in the tribe. He saw his father very rarely then, only after he turned 21, he could appear in public with his father, then he became a man. Until then, he did not even have his own name and was simply called the son of Celtyllus – Celtyllognatus. After the age of seven, he left his family home and came under the care of his foster father, with whom, like most Gallic youths, he stayed for 5 years, learning to use a light weapon – a bow.
After the age of 12, he went to a druid school, where he learned religious and patriotic songs praising the old Gallic heroes, as well as reading and writing, but only the Greek Gauls needed to write trade contracts. After 4 years of studying at a druid school, at the age of 16, he began learning how to use a weapon – a sword and an axe. This art was taught by young gala women, peculiar amazons, who also had the task of teaching boys the art of love. After turning 21, Vercingetorix returned to his family home. His father was accused of pursuing royal power and executed around 70 BCE. His mother probably died shortly after his return. According to some accounts, Vercingetorix had a grudge against his uncle – his mother’s brother, whom he suspected of being involved in a plot to kill his father. He idealized the father, trying to achieve what he had failed to achieve.
In 57 BCE Vercingetorix joined Caesar’s Gallic army. As a representative of the “Gallic” nobility, he even joined Caesar’s military council, thanks to which he learned the plans and tactics of Roman troops. He left the army after a few months due to opposition to the brutal murder of the Gallic population by Roman legionaries. He then returned to his family home and for several years. He withdrew from the political life of Gaul. From then on he became a real, but still hidden enemy of the Romans. The impulse to engage in the war with Caesar was for Vercingetorix, as for many Gauls, the victory of the Belgians at Aduatuk, and the direct cause of the anti-Roman uprising in the country of Carnutes.
In February 52 BCE, the Carnutes, who lived on the central Loire, attacked and murdered Roman merchants and captured the Roman army’s grain depots in their capital, Cenabum. The news of this event spread like wildfire throughout Gaul, and also reached Gergovia, the capital of the Arverni country. Vercingetorix decided it was time to act. At the rallies in Gergovia, he tried to convince the Arverni to join the uprising and fight the Romans. The ruling elders in Gergovia at that time were reluctant to act against Caesar, thanks to which she could still exercise power.
Vercingetorix was driven out of the city. Then he went to the provinces. He travelled from village to village, spoke and persuaded the inhabitants to fight Rome. It was not that difficult, the war had already entered almost every Gallic home, and there was no family that would not lose someone during the 6-year-old fighting. The circle of Vercingetorix’s supporters grew rapidly, and his ranks grew day by day. At the beginning of March this year, he entered Gergowia and drove out the pro-Roman governors. Immediately after that, he was proclaimed king and leader of the uprising by the people of the city.
In the next few weeks, other tribes of central and western Gaul began to join the Arverni. Vercingetorix was proclaimed leader of the Gallic People’s Uprising – the first attempt in the history of the country to unite all the Gallic tribes. The chiefs and heads of many tribes swore allegiance to his battle banners. The new king of the Arverni did not aim to wait for a given country to support him, but he invaded himself and forced the people of the tribe to obey him by force. This is how he forced the Bituriges of the Carnute’s neighbours to join him, and his leader Kadurkus persuaded the Rutens to rise.
Things in Gaul grew worse and worse for Caesar. He was cut off from his legions in the north. He no longer trusted any of his former Gallic allies, but he had to reach his troops in northern Gaul. He made a bold plan to cross the snowy, steep and dangerous even in the summer Cevenna Mountains. Despite the hard crossing, the goal was achieved and the Gauls were completely taken by surprise. Caesar entered the land of the Arverni. Vercingetorix now had to turn back from the land of the Bituriges to save his homeland. Caesar was gathering all his forces at that time and designated the area of military concentration in the town of Agedinkum – today’s Sens.
Vercingetorix moved against Gorgobin, the city in which Caesar had settled his followers. Failure to help so now Rome’s few allies would result in the fall of all Gallic forces from Caesar. He had no choice, he had to move Bojom to the rescue, although the road was not easy at all because of the winter. First, however, he moved against Agedincum – the capital of the Senones, which he conquered, then Carnuntum fell, the city of Carnutes, from which the rebellion began, it was burned down and the population was murdered, a few were captured. Now he moved against the Bituriges, but they did not intend to fight Caesar’s forces, they surrendered their city to Noviodunum.
At the time of taking the city by the Romans, Vercingetorix was seen driving in the distance, because the news about Caesar’s actions broke the siege of Gorgobina and set off to cut Caesar’s way. The inhabitants of Nowiodunum panicked, they did not want the Gaul leader to consider them traitors and decided to close the gates of their city to the Romans. Roman soldiers, already inside, only miraculously got outside the walls. The skirmish at the walls of Noviodunum ended with the victory of the Romans, and the Bituriges again opened the gates to Caesar. Caesar now moved to Avarikum, the capital of this tribe. Vercingetorix now decided to change his plan of action, which he presented at a meeting of the chiefs of all the tribes who were faithful to him.
The most important part of this plan was to cut off the Romans from food supplies. To achieve this, the “scorched earth” method had to be used, destroying all cities, settlements and buildings on the way of the legions’ march, so as to force them to retreat. This plan was rejected by many of the chiefs of the tribes along the route of the Roman marches, especially the Bituriges who protested fiercely. Vercingetorix, however, broke their resistance, and the Gallic council adopted the plan. The leader of the Gauls only agreed to leave the city – the Avarikum fortress, for which the townspeople begged him on their knees. He would soon regret this decision.
The fall of the Awaricum
The Gauls proceeded to act, destroying everything in the way of the legions. In the land of Bituriges alone, 20 settlements were destroyed in one day, and the people of these towns had to join Vercingetorix. On the other hand, smaller Roman troops, sent in search of food, were attacked and carried away by the Gauls. Caesar found out about the location of Vercingetorix’s camp and decided to attack it. The attack failed, this time it was the Romans who were beaten and had to withdraw. He now decided to turn against the only city left on Biturigian land – the Avarikum.
Vercingetorix has set up a camp near the fortress with the intention of countering Roman attacks. Access to the city surrounded by swamps was only possible from the southeast side, but this approach was very narrow. The inhabitants of the city persistently defended themselves against Roman attacks, undermined Roman ramps and destroyed them, burned scooters, and caught hoops thrown on the walls in loops. When, on the 25th day of the siege, the Romans built a ramp leading up to the walls, the Gauls made a foray and seriously damaged the structure, but failed to destroy it.
The defenders of Avarikum concluded that it would be better to withdraw from the city and connect with Vercingetorix. They failed because the women, terrified of being left alone, raised a great lamentation that alerted the Romans. On the second day, a great storm broke out over the city, the Romans then decided to attack, they pulled up against the walls of the scooters and began the attack. The Romans killed almost 40,000. townspeople, men, women and children. Only 800 Gauls managed to get out of the fortress and reach the Vercingetorix camp.
Battle of Gergovia
Caesar replenished food supplies in the conquered city and allowed the legions to rest for a few days. The fall of Avarikum did not cause the decline of Vercingetorix’s popularity among the Gauls, which Caesar now hoped for. On the contrary, his position increased even more, because the leader of the Gauls never believed in the possibility of defending the Avarikum, and wanted to destroy this fortress as well as others on the Roman road. He only relented because of the pleading pleas of the townspeople. Caesar finally decided to deal with Vercingetorix in one major battle in his country.
He divided the army and moved with 6 legions to the capital of the Arverni – Gergovia.
Caesar, besieging Gergovia for almost 2 months, was beaten and had to withdraw from its walls in early July 52 BCE What happened in Gergovia after the first victory of the Gauls over Caesar’s forces, under his personal command, can be described as one great, eruption joy. Vercingetorix was lifted upon his shield and flew three times around the walls of the capital of the Arverni, with the cries of the Gauls: “Long live Vercingetorix, long live the leader”.
From then on, the position of Vercingetorix in Gaul became so dominant that as soon as he entered the capital of any Gallic tribe at the head of his troops, representatives of the elders rose from their seats, it was a sign of respect and affection for this barely 30-year-old Gala. Vercingetorix suddenly enchanted and “hypnotized” the Gauls, not only of men, but above all also of women, who, among other things, threw flowers at his feet when he passed by, thanks to this one battle. On the other hand, Caesar’s position in Gaul was weakening day by day, almost all of his allies, such as the Aedui, departed from him, except for the Rems and the Lingones. After 6 years of fighting, looting, burning, destroying and subjugating Gaul, Caesar suddenly found himself in the centre of a foreign, completely hostile country, in which he could no longer count on any allies.
Horse Battle on the Saone River
The betrayal of the Edu turned out to be the most tragic because they seized the Nowiodunum on the Loire, where the main warehouses of the Roman army were located, and where the hostages of the conquered tribes and the entire treasury were kept. In this situation, many of Caesar’s officers felt that the best step would be to withdraw south towards Narbonne Gaul. For they decided that the campaign was lost, at least for the time being, they should retreat south, replenish their strength, and rush to Vercingetorix again. Caesar, however, strongly rejected the idea of withdrawal.
Firstly, because the withdrawal of the Romans southwards would have meant giving up all the gains that had been achieved over the years, at the same time it would have strengthened Vercingetorix’s strength disproportionately. Second, the retreat was prevented by the Cevenna Mountains, and third, and perhaps most importantly, it would be left to Labienus, who fought Paris on the Seine, to his own fate. Caesar decided that it was necessary to move north and join forces with the troops led by Labienus. On the other hand, this Labienus tried to conquer the capital of Paris – Lutetia, today’s Paris, but he did not succeed.
On the news of Caesar’s defeat at Gergovia, he withdrew to Agendikum, the capital of the country. Here in mid-July, after crossing the Loire, Caesar joined him. Meanwhile, Vercingetorix called to Bibrakte, the capital of the Eduans, a great gathering of all the peoples of Gaul who were fighting the Romans. He was elected the only and greatest leader of the Gallic People’s Uprising against Rome. Quotas were designated for individual peoples, amounting to a total of 15,000. warriors. It was also decided on the advice of Vercingetorix to continue the guerrilla war and the “scorched earth” tactics in order to weaken Caesar’s Roman troops as much as possible.
At the same time, he ordered all Gallic tribes with their seats on the border with the Roman province of Narbonne to attack it. He himself, with the main forces, intended to finally deal with Caesar. Only 22 cohorts were stationed in Narbonensis under the orders of Lucius Caesar, the cousin of the recent conqueror of Gaul, so the situation was dramatic. Caesar realized the seriousness of the situation, decided to save at least the old Roman possessions in Gaul, so he set off south to help Lucius. Vercingetorix was perfectly aware of the plans of the Romans, he followed Caesar step by step, waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
As the legions passed the Langres highlands in the land of the Lingones, he decided to strike at Caesar. Gallic horsemen flanked the Roman marching column from the east and south and managed to take over the hill on the left flank. Caesar decided to throw his Germanic riders, whom he had recently formed in the north, to fight, but their ponies could not compete with the wonderful mounts of the Gauls. So he ordered Roman officers to give his horses to the Germans. This was decisive for the course of the entire battle, it allowed the Roman legionaries to gain the necessary time to set up the battle line and protect their rolling stock.
Meanwhile, the Germans took the hill from the left flank and began to chase the Gauls fleeing from there. Vercingetorix, seeing the collapse of his line on the eastern side, gave the order to retreat. The retreat turned into an escape, many were killed on the Gallic side, probably about 4,000, the Romans also captured many prisoners, mainly the Edu. Vercingetorix ordered a retreat towards Alesia, the capital of Mandubia, this time it was Caesar who followed him step by step.
The next day Caesar stood outside the walls of Alesia. To the south and north, the rivers Oserain and Ose ran around the hill on which the city stood. The Laumes plain stretched to the west, about 4.5 km long. To the east was the Bussy Plateau and Mount Pennevelle. It was the beginning of September 52 BCE. Caesar ordered to surround the city with 2 lines of ramparts, one internal from the side of Alesia – contravallatio, and the other external, in case of possible relief – circumvallatio. The entire fortification was over 20 km long, in addition, 8 military camps and 24 guard forts were built.
In addition, 2 moats 5 meters wide and 2.5 meters deep, a palisade was also erected, reinforced with wooden towers spaced every 100 meters. Wood from the surrounding forests was used to build these fortifications, clearing the entire Laumes plain and the Flavigny Highlands of them. In addition, 5 parallel ditches were dug into which sharply blasted thick branches were hammered together in such a way that they could not be torn out, and 90 cm deep cavities covered with branches with thick piles driven into them. The Gauls did not enter the city, nor did they enter Gergovia, but camped outside the walls of Alesia.
Finally, after fierce fighting, the next day diplomats came to the camp demanding unconditional surrender. Vercingetorix was captured and many of his soldiers were executed.
The pacification of the uprising brought the Romans enormous loot. A lot of prisoners were taken, according to Pliny’s records 1,000,000 people were sold into captivity. In addition, apparently, each Roman soldier received his own captive, which he could sell as a slave. Caesar, through the spoil gained in Gaul, could easily pay off the huge debts accumulated from the beginning of the military campaign in 58 BCE. The Arverni and Aedui were treated leniently. The warriors of these tribes were able to return to their homes without hindrance. Caesar wanted to show his goodness with this deed, counting on the support of these tribes in possible subsequent rebellions of the Gauls. The Gallic commander himself, Vercingetorix, was captured and imprisoned.
So he came to him without any announcement by herald, but appeared before him suddenly, as Caesar was seated on the tribunal, and threw some who were present into alarm; for he was very tall to begin with, and in his armour he made an extremely imposing figure. When quiet had been restored, he uttered not a word, but fell upon his knees, with hands clasped in an attitude of supplication. This inspired many with pity at remembrance of his former fortune and at the distressing state in which he now appeared. But Caesar reproached him in this very matter on which he most relied for his safety, and by setting over against his claim of former friendship his recent opposition, showed his offence to have been the more grievous. Therefore he did not pity him even at the time, but immediately confined him in bonds, and later, after sending him to his triumph, put him to death.
– Cassius Dio, Roman history, XL.41
Caesar intended to use him during his triumph in 46 BCE, where he was to be solemnly strangled.
The fighting in Gaul, however, did not end in just one battle. Clashes took place many times. In 51 BCE there was another uprising. Caesar immediately dispatched the appropriate forces and destroyed the most important sources of resistance. After the capture of Ukselodunum, he had the hands of all living warriors cut off so that in the future they could no longer carry weapons.