IN 58 b.c. , news came to Rome that the Helvetians—a people living in the country now called Switzerland—were about to leave their homes in a body, and cross Gaul to settle near the Atlantic Ocean. As these people were far from civilized, the Gauls dreaded their passage, and therefore implored the Romans to prevent their leaving home.
In answer to this appeal, Julius Cæsar went northward with a Roman army. He won a battle and forced the Helbetians to return to their old homes, to which they had set fire on leaving. He then asked for an interview with a German chief, Ariovis'tus, who had invaded Gaul and had camped with his warriors near the river Saône (son). The Barbarian haughtily answered: "If I need Cæsar, I would go to him; if Cæsar needs me, let him come to me."
This proud answer greatly displeased the messengers, who informed Ariovistus that he had better take care lest he rouse their anger; but he fearlessly replied: "No one has ever attacked me yet without repenting of it. We will measure our strength whenever Cæsar pleases, and he will then learn what it is to face warriors who have not slept under a roof for the past fourteen years."
This defiant message so frightened the Roman soldiers that the refused to go a step farther until Cæsar cried: "If all others forsake me, I will go on alone with the tenth legion; that one will not desert me!" Ashamed of their cowardice, the other soldier now obeyed, but they were so sure they were going to die that they all made their wills before they went into battle.
Cæsar pressed on with his army and beat Ariovistus. His first campaign in Gaul thus made the Romans masters of all the valley on the Rhone and Saôn rivers.
In his second and third campaigns, Cæsar fought in what is now Belgium, and the western part of France, and nearly completed the conquest of Gaul. But the people were not yet ready to obey Rome tamely, so in later campaigns Cæsar had to put down several revolts of different tribes, and was even obliged to cross the Rhine to awe the Germans, who encouraged the Gauls in their efforts to drive the hated Romans out of their country.
Cæsar was not only a brave general but a well-educated man, and he wrote an account of his Gallic wars, which is the best history of what he did. In that book, part of which all the Latin pupils read in school, he cleverly described the people he met, who were the ancestors of three of the leading nations in Europe—the French, the Germans, and the British.
The most serious of all the revolts in Gauls was planned by the chief of a central tribe, named Vercinget'orix. He was tall, strong, and very brave, and had so great an influence over his people that hey swore never to see their wives and children again until they had passed twice through the ranks of their enemies.
But the Gauls were still barbarians, and unfortunately they did not obey this chief perfectly. When he commanded those near Cæsar's army to destroy all their stores, they coolly decided to save their principal fortified city (now Bourges), where they had large supplies. Cæsar took this town and thus secured plentiful supplies for his legions, which might otherwise have starved there in the winter season.
Cæsar then attacked and defeated several tribes separately before besieging Alesia, a place where Vercingetorix and the main part of his warriors had taken refuge. Alesia was perched on a high hill, and was well fortified. Not being able to reach it, Cæsar built earthworks all around it, so that none of the Gauls could pass in or out, and mounted guard so vigilantly that he baffled all the warriors who tried to break through his blockage to reach their besieged countrymen.
The Gauls held out until no food of any kind was left, and then the starved garrison, having suffered untold agonies, had to surrender (52 b.c. ). Vercingetorix, hoping to secure better terms for his people, rode down alone into Cæsar's camp, in full battle array, galloped up to the spot where the general was seated, proudly flung his arms down at his feet, dismounting, sat down in the dust before him silently holding out his hands for the chains which he knew were awaiting him. Vercingetorix was bound and taken to Rome, where a few years later he appeared a captive in Cæsar's triumph. When that last humiliation was over, he was taken back to prison and beheaded by a slave, while his conqueror was making his thanksgiving offering in the Roman Capitol.
The attempt of Vercingetorix to free his country from the yoke of the Romans was so brave and so noble that he is considered a great hero and the first French champion of liberty. His statue has therefore been placed on the very spot where he once made his hopeless stand against the Roman legions under Cæsar, and his name is well known and dearly loved by all French children.