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Vercingetorix: Biography, Facts & Execution

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson goes over the first national hero of France, Vercingetorix. Find out who this man was and how his fate was intertwined with that of another famous man, Julius Caesar.

Vercingetorix

For every Roman hero, there was a barbarian hero that made the Roman a legend. Scipio had Hannibal. Pompey and Crassus had Spartacus. Julius Caesar had Vercingetorix, a great chieftain from Gaul, now modern-day France.

Let's go over the man's life in this lesson.

Early Life & Personality

We know next to nothing about the early life of Vercingetorix. Historians estimate he was born sometime around 82 BCE to an aristocratic leader called Celtillus. We don't know exactly where he was born but we do know he was from the Celtic Arverni tribe, which inhabited the region of Auvergne in modern-day central France. The Arverni had been one of the most powerful tribes in France in the 2nd century BCE and had clashed with the Romans several times. Vercingetorix was born about 40 years after a major defeat by the Romans.

Because the Gallic people believed that a person's real name should only be known to their close family, the only name we have for him is the title Vercingetorix. While there are many possible translations, it probably means ''Great Warrior King.''

Apparently, Vercingetorix was tall and handsome. He was a good public speaker and charismatic but quite the demanding leader. As well he should've been, for his tribe and the others of France were facing the greatest military power of their day, the Roman Empire.

Service to Caesar

Prior to 53 BCE, Vercingetorix was employed by the great Roman general Julius Caesar, who would later become the ruler of the Roman Empire. Vercingetorix was a mercenary cavalry commander. As a result, he gained quite a bit of insight into the might of Roman military tactics, weapons, and warfare in general.

The Eburone & Avaricum

There was a small problem, however. Caesar had no intention leaving Gaul. In fact, he was trying to take complete control of Gaul and force Roman rule upon its people, including the Arverni. Along the way, Caesar slaughtered the Eburone tribe and sold the rest into slavery as a warning to any other Gallic tribes. Vercingetorix was incensed by this, and against the better judgement of a council of tribal elders, made the decision to engage Rome in war to avenge their treatment of the Eburone.

He attacked the Roman settlement of Cenabum in 52 BCE and killed everyone he could get his hands on. This was a massive propaganda coup for Vercingetorix, as it persuaded the Gallic tribes to unite under his leadership to fight off the Roman Empire.

Caesar was not to be embarrassed by this. Vercingetorix miscalculated the man's military genius and the Roman Empire's power. Caesar gathered his troops, and through mountains in the middle of a horrible winter, marched them to confront Vercingetorix.

As Caesar pressed to catch Vercingetorix, Vercingetorix retreated using a scorched-earth policy, destroying towns and fields to ensure the Roman supply lines would be stretched as thin as possible. By the time the Gauls reached the city of Avaricum, things had changed a bit. The other Gauls didn't want to destroy a great city like that: they wanted to defend it. Vercingetorix thought this was a mistake, but compromised, and the let the Gauls prepare the city for a siege. However, he himself decided to camp about 20 miles away, which would allow him to escape if the city was taken.

The Gauls had erected massive defenses around the city and used some ingenious techniques to try and fight off the Romans. But despite their best efforts, the Romans kept coming at them. There was no way Caesar was going to give up. The Romans decided they'd just construct a hill up against the outer wall of Avaricum. As if it was nothing, right?

One day, a huge storm rolled in and the defenders of the city bunkered inside. The Romans, however, weren't disturbed by the storm and used the opportunity to scale the now-deserted defensive walls. Once inside, there was no resistance. Of 40,000 people inside the city, only 800 survived the slaughter.

Alesia & Death

Despite the defeat, Vercingetorix managed to convince even more men to join the fight against Rome. He quite effectively employed guerrilla warfare tactics to cut off Roman supply lines and even partially defeat Caesar in another siege.

But after one battle, he was forced to quickly flee to the city of Alesia with 60,000-80,000 warriors, where he had no choice but to fortify it and prepare it for battle. The Romans arrived and started to build a wall around the city in order to starve it into submission and to defend themselves against attacks from within the city.

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