The Chief Of The Arverni
by Charlotte M. Yonge
We have seen the Gauls in the heart of Rome, we have now to see them showing the last courage of despair, defending their native lands against the greatest of all the conquerors that Rome ever sent forth.
These lands, where they had dwelt for so many years as justly to regard them as their inheritance, were Gaul. There the Celtic race had had their abode ever since history has spoken clearly, and had become, in Gaul especially, slightly more civilized from intercourse with the Greek colony at Massilia, or Marseilles. But they had become borderers upon the Roman dominions, and there was little chance that they would not be absorbed; the tribes of Provence, the first Roman province, were already conquered, others were in alliance with Rome, and some had called in the Romans to help them fight their battles. There is no occasion to describe the seven years’ war by which Julius Caesar added Gaul to the provinces claimed by Rome, and when he visited Britain; such conquests are far from being Golden Deeds, but are far worthier of the iron age. It is the stand made by the losing party, and the true patriotism of one young chieftain, that we would wish here to dwell upon.
In the sixth year of the war the conquest seemed to have been made, and the Roman legions were guarding the north and west, while Caesar himself had crossed the Alps. Subjection pressed heavily on the Gauls, some of their chiefs had been put to death, and the high spirit of the nation was stirred. Meetings took place between the warriors of the various tribes, and an oath was taken by those who inhabited the centre of the country, that if they once revolted, they would stand by one another to the last. These Gauls were probably not tall, bony giants, like the pillagers of Rome; their appearance and character would be more like that of the modern Welsh, or of their own French descendants, small, alert, and dark-eyed, full of fire, but, though fierce at the first onset, soon rebuffed, yet with much perseverance in the long run. Their worship was conducted by Druids, like that of the Britons, and their dress was of checked material, formed into a loose coat and wide trousers. The superior chiefs, who had had any dealings with Rome, would speak a little Latin, and have a few Roman weapons as great improvements upon their own. Their fortifications were wonderfully strong. Trunks of trees were laid on the ground at two feet apart, so that the depth of the wall was their full length. Over these another tier of beams was laid crosswise, and the space between was filled up with earth, and the outside faced with large stones; the building of earth and stone was carried up to some height, then came another tier of timbers, crossed as before, and this was repeated again to a considerable height, the inner ends of the beams being fastened to a planking within the wall, so that the whole was of immense compactness. Fire could not damage the mineral part of the construction, nor the battering ram hurt the wood, and the Romans had been often placed in great difficulties by these rude but admirable constructions, within which the Gauls placed their families and cattle, building huts for present shelter. Of late, some attempts had been made at copying the regular streets and houses built round courts that were in use among the Romans, and Roman colonies had been established in various places, where veteran soldiers had received grants of land on condition of keeping the natives in check. A growing taste for arts and civilization was leading to Romans of inferior classes settling themselves in other Gallic cities.
The first rising of the Gauls began by a quarrel at the city we now call Orleans, ending in a massacre of all the Romans there. The tidings were spread through all the country by loud shouts, repeated from one to the other by men stationed on every hill, and thus, what had been done at Orleans at sunrise was known by nine at night 160 miles off among the mountains, which were then the homes of a tribe called by the Romans the Arverni, who have left their name to the province of Auvergne.
Here dwelt a young chieftain, probably really called Fearcuincedorigh, or Man who is chief of a hundred heads, known to us by Caesar’s version of his name, as Vercingetorix, a high-spirited youth, who keenly felt the servitude of his country, and who, on receiving these tidings, instantly called on his friends to endeavor to shake off the yoke. His uncle, who feared to provoke Roman vengeance, expelled him from the chief city, Gergovia, the remains of which may be traced on the mountain still called Gergoie, about six miles from Clermont; but he collected all the younger and more high-spirited men, forced a way into the city, and was proclaimed chief of his tribe. All the neighboring tribes joined in the league against the common enemy, and tidings were brought to Caesar that the whole country round the Loire was in a state of revolt.
In the heart of winter he hurried back, and took the Gauls by surprise by crossing the snows that lay thick on the wild waste of the Cebenna, which the Arverni had always considered as their impenetrable barrier throughout the winter. The towns quickly fell into his hands, and he was rapidly recovering all he had lost, when Vercingetorix, collecting his chief supporters, represented to them that their best hope would be in burning all the inhabited places themselves and driving off all the cattle, then lying in wait to cut off all the convoys of provisions that should be sent to the enemy, and thus starving them into a retreat. He said that burning houses were indeed a grievous sight, but it would be more grievous to see their wives and children dragged into captivity. To this all the allies agreed, and twenty towns in one district were burnt in a single day; but when they came to the city of Avaricum, now called Bourges, the tribe of Bituriges, to whom it belonged, entreated on their knees not to be obliged to destroy the most beautiful city in the country, representing that, as it had a river on one side, and a morass everywhere else, except at a very narrow entrance, it might be easily held out against the enemy, and to their entreaties Vercingetorix yielded, though much against his own judgment.
Caesar laid siege to the place, but his army suffered severely from cold and hunger; they had no bread at all, and lived only on the cattle driven in from distant villages, while Vercingetorix hovered round, cutting off their supplies. They however labored diligently to raise a mount against a wall of the town; but as fast as they worked, the higher did the Gauls within raise the stages of their rampart, and for twenty- five days there was a most brave defense; but at last the Romans made their entrance, and slaughtered all they found there, except 800, who escaped to the camp of Vercingetorix. He was not disconcerted by this loss, which he had always expected, but sheltered and clothed the fugitives, and raised a great body of archers and of horsemen, with whom he returned to his own territory in Auvergne. There was much fighting around the city of Gergovia; but at length, owing to the revolt of the Aedui, another Gallic tribe, Caesar was forced to retreat over the Loire; and the wild peaks of volcanic Auvergne were free again.
But no gallant resolution could long prevail against the ever-advancing power of Rome, and at length the Gauls were driven into their fortified camp at Alesia, now called Alise [footnote: In Burgundy, between Semur and Dijon.], a city standing on a high hill, with two rivers flowing round its base, and a plain in front about three miles wide. Everywhere else it was circled in by high hills, and here Caesar resolved to shut these brave men in and bring them to bay. He caused his men to begin that mighty system of earthworks by which the Romans carried on their attacks, compassing their victim round on every side with a deadly slowness and sureness, by those broad ditches and terraced ramparts that everywhere mark where their foot of iron was trod. Eleven miles round did this huge rampart extend, strengthened by three-and-twenty redoubts, or places of defense, where a watch was continually kept. Before the lines were complete, Vercingetorix brought out his cavalry, and gave battle, at one time with a hope of success; but the enemy were too strong for him, and his horsemen were driven into the camp. He then resolved to send home all of these, since they could be of no use in the camp, and had better escape before the ditch should have shut them in on every side. He charged them to go to their several tribes and endeavor to assemble all the fighting men to come to his rescue; for, if he were not speedily succored, he and 80,000 of the bravest of the Gauls must fall into the hands of the Romans, since he had only corn for thirty days, even with the utmost saving.
Having thus exhorted them, he took leave of them, and sent them away at nine at night, so that they might escape in the dark where the Roman trench had not yet extended. Then he distributed the cattle among his men, but retained the corn himself, serving it out with the utmost caution. The Romans outside fortified their camp with a double ditch, one of them full of water, behind which was a bank twelve feet high, with stakes forked like the horns of a stag. The space between the ditches was filled with pits, and scattered with iron caltrops or hooked spikes. All this was against the garrison, to prevent them from breaking out; and outside the camp he made another line of ditches and ramparts against the Gauls who might be coming to the rescue.
The other tribes were not deaf to the summons of their friends, but assembled in large numbers, and just as the besieged had exhausted their provisions, an army was seen on the hills beyond the camp. Their commander was Vergosillaunus (most probably Fearsaighan, the Man of the Standard), a near kinsman of Vercingetorix; and all that bravery could do, they did to break through the defenses of the camp from outside, while within, Vercingetorix and his 80,000 tried to fill up the ditches, and force their way out to meet their friends. But Caesar himself commanded the Romans, who were confident in his fortunes, and raised a shout of ecstasy wherever they beheld his thin, marked, eagle face and purple robe, rushing on the enemy with a confidence of victory that did in fact render them invincible. The Gauls gave way, lost seventy-four of their standards, and Vergosillaunus himself was taken a prisoner; and as for the brave garrison within Alesia, they were but like so many flies struggling in vain within the enormous web that had been woven around them. Hope was gone, but the chief of the Arverni could yet do one thing for his countrymen–he could offer up himself in order to obtain better terms for them.
The next day he convened his companions in arms, and told them that he had only fought for the freedom of their country, not to secure his private interest; and that now, since yield they must, he freely offered himself to become a victim for their safety, whether they should judge it best for themselves to appease the anger of the conqueror by putting him to death themselves, or whether they preferred giving him up alive.
It was a piteous necessity to have to sacrifice their noblest and bravest, who had led them so gallantly during the long war; but they had little choice, and could only send messengers to the camp to offer to yield Vercingetorix as the price of their safety. Caesar made it known that he was willing to accept their submission, and drawing up his troops in battle array, with the Eagle standards around him, he watched the whole Gallic army march past him. First, Vercingetorix was placed as a prisoner in his hands, and then each man lay down sword, javelin, or bow and arrows, helmet, buckler and breastplate, in one mournful heap, and proceeded on his way, scarcely thankful that the generosity of their chieftain had purchased for them subjection rather than death.
Vercingetorix himself had become the property of the great man from whom alone we know of his deeds; who could perceive his generous spirit and high qualities as a general, nay, who honored the self-devotion by which he endeavored to save his countrymen. He remained in captivity–six long years sped by–while Caesar passed the Rubicon, fought out his struggle for power at Rome, and subdued Egypt, Pontus, and Northern Africa–and all the time the brave Gaul remained closely watched and guarded, and with no hope of seeing the jagged peaks and wild valleys of his own beautiful Auvergne. For well did he, like every other marked foe of Rome, know for what he was reserved, and no doubt he yielded himself in the full expectation of that fate which many a man, as brave as he, had escaped by self-destruction.
The day came at last. In July, B.C. 45, the victorious Caesar had leisure to celebrate his victories in four grand triumphs, all in one month, and that in honor of the conquest of Gaul came the first. The triumphal gate of Rome was thrown wide open, every house was decked with hangings of silk and tapestry, the household images of every family, dressed with fresh flowers, were placed in their porches, those of the gods stood on the steps of the temples, and in marched the procession, the magistrates first in their robes of office, and then the trumpeters. Next came the tokens of the victory–figures of the supposed gods of the two great rivers, Rhine and Rhone, and even of the captive Ocean, made in gold, were carried along, with pictures framed in citron wood, showing the scenes of victory–the wild waste of the Cevennes, the steep peaks of Auvergne, the mighty camp of Alesia; nay, there too would be the white cliffs of Dover, and the struggle with the Britons on the beach. Models in wood and ivory showed the fortifications of Avaricum, and of many another city; and here too were carried specimens of the olives and vines, and other curious plants of the newly won land; here was the breastplate of British pearls that Caesar dedicated to Venus. A band of flute-players followed, and then came the white oxen that were to be sacrificed, their horns gilded and flowers hung round them, the sacrificing priests with wreathed heads marching with them. Specimens of bears and wolves from the woods and mountains came next in order, and after them waved for the last time the national ensigns of the many tribes of Gaul. Once more Vercingetorix and Vergosillaunus saw their own Arvernian standard, and marched behind it with the noblest of their clan: once more they wore their native dress and well-tried armor. But chains were on their hands and feet, and the men who had fought so long and well for freedom, were the captive gazing-stock of Rome. Long, long was the line of chained Gauls of every tribe, before the four white horses appeared, all abreast, drawing the gilded car, in which stood a slight form in a purple robe, with the bald head and narrow temples encircled with a wreath of bay, the thin cheeks tinted with vermilion, the eager aquiline face and narrow lips gravely composed to Roman dignity, and the quick eye searching out what impression the display was making on the people. Over his head a slave held a golden crown, but whispered, ‘Remember that thou too art a man.’ And in following that old custom, how little did the victor know that, bay-crowned like himself, there followed close behind, in one of the chariots of the officers, the man whose dagger-thrust would, two years later, be answered by his dying word of reproach! The horsemen of the army followed, and then the legions, every spear wreathed, every head crowned with bay, so that an evergreen grove might have seemed marching through the Roman streets, but for the war songs, and the wild jests, and ribald ballads that custom allowed the soldiers to shout out, often in pretended mockery of their own victorious general, the Imperator.
The victor climbed the Capitol steps, and laid his wreath of bay on Jupiter’s knees, the white oxen were sacrificed, and the feast began by torchlight. Where was the vanquished? He was led to the dark prison vault in the side of Capitoline hill, and there one sharp sword-thrust ended the gallant life and long captivity.
It was no special cruelty in Julius Caesar. Every Roman triumph was stained by the slaughter of the most distinguished captives, after the degradation of walking in chains had been undergone. He had spirit to appreciate Vercingetorix, but had not nobleness to spare him from the ordinary fate. Yet we may doubt which, in true moral greatness, was the superior in that hour of triumph, the conqueror who trod down all that he might minister to his own glory, or the conquered, who, when no resistance had availed, had voluntarily confronted shame and death in hopes to win pardon and safety for his comrades.
Charlotte Mary Yonge