Sunday, 19 August 2012

Vercingetorix versus Arthurian Legend...the end?

It's no doubt a big stretch to suggest Vercingetorix - or a descendant - was old King Cole, or the eventual genesis for Arthur of Camelot. But as I've previously covered, there are some geographically coincidences between real Romano-Gallic history, Gallic religious beliefs and Arthurian myth. Still, if circumstances allowed a stateless Arvernian 'royal' family to exist in Britain...then what were they?

First of all, lets start with Vercingetorix. He wasn't born a king. He was appointed the King of Gaul by a federation of Gallic states during 52BC. Before that he'd been an Arvernian aristocrat. Now the Arverni had been functioning as a senate-run Republic for several decades prior to that and no longer had a royal family - and Vercingetorix makes no claim to royal blood. In other words, he was a lot like Napoleon...the king you have when you don't really have a king. The King of Gaul was a brand new title, with no hereditary tradition, and functional only as long as the Nation of Gaul existed - which was for less than a year. After that it was an empty title. Sure, someone could claim it, but the state of Gaul didn't exist - open grounds for Juvenal to joke or for 'Old King Cole' to be a merry old soul and little else. What's more, thousands of disaffected Gauls did move to 'free' Britain after the Gallic wars, so there's a good chance some stray Arvernian did pick up the title and throw it around a bit. It might have got some free dinners, but not much else...remember British tribal states already had their kings, and while they might have tolerated an Arvernian exile, they wouldn't have been giving up any of their powers to him. 

But could this have been Vercingetorix himself? It is improbable, but it can't be entirely ruled out. And this is where Julius Caesar himself offers some fuel to the conspiracy. As I've mentioned before, Vercingetorix was a title, not a name. It actually means "King of/over Warriors"...and since the Arverni didn't have any kings in 78BC when he was born, it is very unlikely his father and mother were so prescient of mind to name him this. So why doesn't Julius Caesar mention the Arvernian's real name? It was either a very well kept secret that Caesar never learnt...or more likely (as someone who made a habit of learning everything they could of their enemies) Caesar had reason enough to protect the king's identity. Don't forget Julius Caesar wanted the Arvernians on his side after the war, and we know he gave them very generous terms of surrender. Executing the Arvernian 'King of Gaul' while most of the former Gallic legions were mopping up from the Civil War in Greece, North Africa and Spain might have been more trouble than Caesar really needed in 45BC...let alone giving the Arverni a reason to join the Pompey's side during the war. A huge stretch, yes, but remember, Caesar didn't execute any of his Civil War protagonists either. It may have been worth his while for a stateless King of Gaul to exist on the fringes of the world...just as the British did with Napoleon 1800-years later. Juvenal's quip about 'Arviragus' - the Arvernian - sits well with this, just as a British satirist may have humoured his audience with 'the Emperor of St Helena'.

Vercingetorix, Arviragus or King Arthur?
And imagine how things might have played out for Vercingetorix's or Napoleon's kids if they'd had any. A 'Bonny Prince Charlie' character trading off his ancestor's title could have easily been the basis of 'Old King Cole/Gaul' - written at a time when Rome had controlled Britain for fifty years. By that time even the British kings were disempowered or dead - so, which ever king this story was about was one with nothing else to do but enjoy himself, and perhaps...just perhaps he really was the King of Gaul, some half kept state secret that everyone knew about with a wink and a nudge, but only a single line from Juvenal preserves the story for us today.

Is this the end of the discussion? Probably not.