Vercingetorix, d.45 B.C.

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Vercingetorix was the best known, and perhaps the most able, leader of the Gallic opposition to Caesar during the Gallic War of 58-51 B.C. He came to prominence at the start of the Great Gallic Revolt in 52 B.C., when he was given the supreme command of the Gallic army, and for most of the year he managed to hold together a powerful alliance of Gallic tribes.

Vercingetorix was the son of Celtillus, an Arvernian nobleman who according to Caesar had once 'held the supremacy of entire Gaul', but had been killed by his fellow Gauls when they discovered that he wanted to become king of a united Gaul. At the start of the revolt Vercingetorix attempted to raise the Arverni, but he was expelled from Gergorvia, their capital, by a group of noblemen led by his uncle Gobanitio. This was only a temporary setback, for Vercingetorix was able to gather together a large force of his own followers. The nobles were overthrown and Vercingetorix was acclaimed as king of the Arverni.

His first move was to sent ambassadors out to neighbouring tribe, and he soon had the Senones, Parisii, Pictones, Cadurci, Turones, Anlerei, Lemovice and the tribes of the northern and north-western coasts attached to his cause, in addition to the Carnutes, who had started the revolt. Vercingetorix was appointed the supreme commander of the newly united Gallic army.

At the start of the revolt Vercingetorix was in a strong position. Caesar was in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), while his army was in northern Gaul. The previous two revolts had taken place in the north west and north east of Gaul, while the south and centre had remained quiet. As a result the Roman Province of Transalpine Gaul was poorly defended.  Vercingetorix sent part of his army south to attack the Ruteni, on the border of the Roman Province, in the hope that this would prevent Caesar from moving north. At the same time he led the rest of his army north to attack the Bituriges. They called on the Aedui for assistance, but when the Audean army turned back at the Loire the Bituriges joined the revolt.

Caesar soon disrupted Vercingetorix's plans. After organising the defences of the Province he led a small force across the Cevennes Mountains, into Vercingetorix's homeland. Vercingetorix was forced to move south to counter Caesar, who then slipped away to the east, collected more troops and then crossed Aeduan territory to reach his legions in the north.

Vercingetorix's next move was an attack on the Boii town of Gorgobina, apparently in the hope that this would force Caesar to pull their legions out of their winter quarters. Gorgobina had been settled by the Boii in 58 B.C. and was effectively under Caesar's protection, so the plan worked, but perhaps not with the eventual results that Vercingetorix had hoped for. The Romans advanced south towards Gorgobina, capturing Vellaunodunum and Cenabum (Orleans) on the way, before attacking Noviodunum. Vercingetorix abandoned the siege of Gorgobina and moved towards the Romans in an attempt to prevent the fall of the town, but by the time his advance guard came within sight of the place it had already surrendered to the Romans. The sight of the Gallic cavalry convinced some of the townspeople to renew their resistance, but the Romans won a cavalry engagement outside the town, and the surrender was completed.

Caesar now took the initiative, moving to attack the important Bituriges town of Avaricum. Vercingetorix wanted to adopt a scorched earth policy and attempt to prevent the Romans from gaining supplies or winning victories. The Bituriges agreed to destroy most of their towns but eventually persuaded Vercingetorix to let then defend Avaricum. Vercingetorix camped fifteen miles from the town, and attempted to destroy any Roman foraging parties that strayed too far from the town. When the Romans had nearly completed their siege works he moved his camp closer to the town, but an attempt to ambush a Roman foraging party failed after the Romans learnt of the plan. While Vercingetorix was away from the army Caesar led his legions out of the siege works and offered battle, but the Gauls were leaderless and the two armies were separated by a swamp that discouraged attack. Eventually Caesar returned to his camp to continue the siege. On his return to the Gallic camp Vercingetorix was accused of treason, on the grounds that he had deliberately moved the Gauls into a vulnerable position and then left them without a leader. Vercingetorix demonstrated his unusual ability to maintain a coalition of different Gallic tribes, making a speech that completely restored his authority.  

The almost inevitable fall of Avaricum and the massacre that followed further enhanced his reputation as the only leader who had predicted this outcome to the siege. It was soon be even further enhanced when he became the only Gallic leader to actually defeat Caesar, or at least prevent him from achieving one of his objectives. The end of the siege of Avaricum came at the start of the spring of 52 B.C. Caesar decided to split his army in two. Four legions were sent north while he led six to attack Gergovia. Once again Vercingetorix agreed to take part in the defence of a town, and placed his camps on the hills that surrounded the place. The successful defence of Gergovia wasn't actually due to any particular action on Vercingetorix's part. The Aedui, Rome's most loyal allies in Gaul, were finally on the brink of joining the revolt. Caesar managed to foil a plot to subvert an Aeduan army that was heading towards Gergovia, but realised that he would have to abandon the siege and move north to reunite his army before he was overwhelmed. After an attempt to save face by attacking the Gallic camp ended in an embarrassing defeat on the town walls Caesar moved away to the north, foiled for the first time.

Soon after this the Aedui came out in open revolt. Despite being complete newcomers they immediately claimed the leadership of the revolt, but at a council held at Bibracte everyone voted in favour of retaining Vercingetorix as commander.

Having been confirmed in his authority Vercingetorix decided to renew the attack on the Roman Province. Caesar was forced to react to this, leading his newly reunited army east through the territory of the Lingones towards that of the Sequani, from where he could easily have moved into the province. Vercingetorix decided to attack the Romans while they were on the march, in an attempt to inflict a defeat on them that would prevent Caesar from simply returning north with more troops once he had restored the situation in the south. The resulting battle of the Vingeanne ended as a clear Roman victory. The Gauls were forced to retreat west with the Romans following close behind, until they reached the fortified town of Alesia, where Vercingetorix took shelter. This was a dramatic change from his policy at every earlier stage of the war, when he had made sure that he was never trapped inside a besieged town. Vercingetorix's last move before the Roman siege lines were completed was to send his cavalry away from Alesia with orders to gather a relief army.

The siege of Alesia turned into the decisive battle of the war. A massive Gallic relief army was eventually gathered, forcing Caesar to build a double line of defences – one looking in towards the town and one looking out towards the relief force. With Vercingetorix trapped inside the city the relief effort was poorly organised. Caesar was able to defeat the first two attempts to break the siege with some ease. The final attack was more serious. The Gauls outside the town attacked a camp on the northern side of the town, where the Romans lines were disrupted by a steep hill. Vercingetorix was able to see that this attack was underway and ordered a sally from within the walls. The Romans found themselves attacked from both sides at once, but Caesar was able to cope with the situation and eventually both attacks failed.

The relief army suffered heavy casualties in this third attack, and on the day after the battle it scattered. When this became known inside the town Vercingetorix realised that the last chance of victory had gone, and he decided to surrender to Caesar instead of prolonging the siege. According to Plutarch Vercingetorix put on his best armour, rode around Caesar, then got off his horse, took off his armour and sat at Caesar's feet until he was led away. Caesar's own account of the surrender is less dramatic, and has Vercingetorix turned over by the other Gallic chiefs in Alesia.

After his surrender Vercingetorix was taken to Rome where he was kept prisoner until Caesar was able to celebrate his triumph for the Gallic War. The civil war delayed this until 45 B.C., and so Vercingetorix survived for seven years after his surrender at Alesia, before being executed after the triumph. While other Gallic leaders, most notably Ambiorix, who was never captured, or Commius of the Atrebates, who eventually established a kingdom in southern Britain, played an equally major part in the Gallic resistance, it was Vercingetorix who was remembered, as the leader of the most powerful alliance of Gallic tribes that Caesar ever faced.

The Gallic War , Julius Caesar. One of the great works of western civilisation. Caesar was an almost unique example of a great general who was also a great writer. The Gallic War is a first hand account of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, written at the time to explain and justify his actions. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 March 2009), Vercingetorix, d.45 B.C. , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_vercingetorix.html

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