Friday, 13 July 2012

The other guy




Okay, we've seen a bit about Julius Caesar these last few days...how about his protaganists? Well, today I'm going to introduce one of the world's greatest what-ifs. This is one of those guys who could have turned history completely upside down if things had gone his way...a Robert E Lee or an Erwin Rommel. We know him as Vercingetorix (Ver-sin-get-trix), although this probably wasn't his real name. "Vercingetorix" actually means Great Warrior King, and considering he was born just an ordinary noble in a state that had its own Senate rather than kings suggests the name we know him as was an honorary title rather than an amazing prediction by his family. But what a title, even now it has a sense of presence - so much so it still shows up in the mass media - including Starship Troopers and the Simpsons.

Vercingetorix was born during 76BC in the Arvernian city of Gergovia (near modern day Clermont-Ferrand), and was still a teenager when Caesar first invaded Gaul in 58BC. Not that this worried him. The Arverni controlled much of central France and had a long standing treaty with Rome. Caesar couldn't touch them - and he didn't want to - with a treaty in place the Arverni were permitted a standing army, unlike those surrounding neighbours who made do with citizen militias.  

Now while our modern mental picture of Gauls is a bearded, blonde Asterix in pigtails, Vercingetorix and his peers no longer appeared as this in the first century BC. He certainly spoke Latin and was literate. He was clean-shaven, with high cheek bones and a long straight nose. His hair was most likely brown or fair, and he kept it cut in the style of Alexander the Great. I suspect he rather wanted to be like the Macedonian Boy King - and this may have been his motivation in December 53BC when the Great Revolt began. The actual revolt started in another part of Gaul on the Winter Solstice - when hundreds of Roman citizens living in modern day Orleans were massacred - it had nothing to do with the Arverni, and if not for Vercingetorix the revolt would have been put down within a month or two. But the twenty-four year old want-to-be-king saw an opportunity. At the time he was most likely a senior officer in the Arvernian Army, and within weeks of the massacre he had launched a military coup, overthrowing his elected government (including his uncle) and declaring war on Julius Caesar - who at the time was a long way away in Northern Italy. As they say, while the cat's away, the mice will play. What happened next? Well, we'll look at that tomorrow.

Find out if Calvus met Vercingetorix