"Since Gaul was quiet, [Caesar] set out for Northern Italy as usual to hold his assizes." So wrote Julius Caesar himself of the end of the year 53 BC. It had been a year of hard campaigning in Gaul, only recently subdued by Rome; but it had ended successfully and Caesar had every reason to hope that many years of peace would ensue there. But he had reckoned without the greatest of all the Gallic leaders, a young man called Vercingetorix.
Vercingetorix belonged to the tribe of the Arverni who lived in the wild mountainous country which still bears their name – the Auvergne – and it is still among the wildest parts of modern France. The chief settlement of the Arverni was the mountain stronghold of Gergovia, not far from the modern city of Clermont-Ferrand. But it was not there that the revolt of 52 BC began. It began further north with the massacre of a colony of Roman merchants on the site of modern Orléans. The news of the massacre spread quickly through Gaul and reached the Arverni the same evening. It was the chance for which Vercongetorix had been waiting – the chance to throw off the Roman yoke. He did not hesitate for a moment. Rumors had come through from Italy that Caesar would be kept there by quarrels with his fellow Romans. Few legions were left in Gaul, and success seemed certain.
But it was not easy for the young Vercingetorix to gather together an alliance of tribes, several of which were unfriendly, and turn them into an army which would obey him; to conscript the forces he wanted he had to use ruthless methods. Moreover, the prestige of the Roman legions was so great that some tribes thought it much safer to lie low and see which way the fighting went.
The campaign against Vercingetorix
Caesar, of course, returned Gaul as quickly as he could; but his first task was to reach his own legions. On crossing the Alps into Gaul he had with him only a small force of recruits. Most of his army was far to the north – about 75 miles southeast of Paris. And between him and them lay the Auvergne, the center of the revolt itself. Here, however, he showed his brilliance as a general. It was mid-winter; but he crossed the snow-covered passes of the Cevennes, swept through the Auvergne, forced Vercingetorix to rush to defend his own homeland, and then neatly slipped past him.
Vercingetorix had no ordinary opponent. But he realized that although it would be difficult to meet the Romans in a pitched battle, it was still possible to attack their food supplies, and with the coming of the spring a critical time set in for Caesar's forces. Few cattle were left after the winter and the new grass was not yet grown. "The troops were brought to such straits," wrote Caesar, "that for several days they had no grain, and saved themselves from starvation only by bringing in cattle from distant villages. Yet not a word were they heard to utter that was unworthy or Roman soldiers with successful campaigns to their credit." The worst hunger the Romans endured was during the siege of Avaricum, which was on the site of the modern city of Bourges. When the Romans finally broke into Avaricum they spared no one and slew all in their fury.
The Romans next besieged Vercingetorix's own capital at Gergivia. Here the Gauls were too much for them and they had to withdraw. In this unsuccessful siege, Caesar tells the story of the bravery of a centurion called Marcus Petronius. "Realizing he was a doomed man – he was already covered in wounds – he shouted to the men of his company who had followed him: "I can't save myself and you. So as it's my fault you're in this tight corner . . . at least I'll help you to get away with your lives. Now's your chance. Look after yourselves." Saying this, he charged into the enemy, forced them away from his comrades, and lost his own life in the attempt."
In spite of his success at Gergovia, Vercingetorix was soon trapped by Caesar, near Dijon. Seeing the position was hopeless, he gave himself up. With his capture the revolt collapsed and Gaul was safe. But the chief of the Averni had shown himself to be among the bravest and ablest of all those who grappled with the genius of Julius Caesar.
Vercingetorix was not treated by his captors in the way his bravery deserved. He was taken to Rome and flung into prison for six years. In 46 BC, when Julius Caesar was holding a great triumphal procession in Rome, Vercingetorix was brought out of prison, heavily fettered, and forced to walk through the streets. And after that he was beheaded.
Two years later, Caesar himself met a violent death. There were plenty of Romans who could not forgive him his success and ambition.