The Patriot Vercingetorix
As I have told you, different tribes in Gaul fought one with the other. But sometimes the clans forgot their own quarrels, that they might join together against a common foe. Feeling that even then they were not strong enough, they would appeal to Rome to help them against the fierce German warriors, who poured across the river Rhine and invaded Gaul.
These Germans, when they were victorious, treated their prisoners even more cruelly than the Gauls treated each other.
It was natural that the Gallic chiefs should ask the Romans to help them, for the Romans were a strong people, with well-disciplined legions of soldiers. Already, too, they had a special interest in Gaul, as their provinces were scattered up and down the country.
Long before this, in 283 b.c. , a few Roman families, led by three Roman officers, journeyed to a part of Gaul called Cisalpine Gaul. Here they took possession of some ground on the borders of the Adriatic Sea. On the ground they planted the standard of Rome, a golden eagle, which they had carried before them on their journey.
The officers ordered a round hole to be dug, and in this hole they laid a handful of earth and a cluster of fruit, which, along with the standard, they had brought from Rome.
Taking a plough, and yoking to it a white bull and a white heifer, the settlers then drew a furrow round a large piece of ground, after which the bull and the heifer were sacrificed to the gods of Rome, and the ceremony was complete.
Thus the first Roman colony was planted in Gaul. Fifteen years passed and another Roman colony was founded, with the same rites, and then another and another. And wherever the Romans went, they drained the land and built houses, bridges, towns.
Many of the Gauls among whom they dwelt learned to copy these Roman buildings, which were so much better than their own rude huts and irregular villages.
The first time a Roman army came to Gaul, it was led by a great general, called Scipio, and landed about 218 b.c. at Massilia, which in those long-ago days was the name for Marseilles.
Massilia opened its gates to the Romans, and welcomed them to its city, which was already an ancient one, having been founded by a Greek, 600 b.c.
More than a hundred years after the Romans had settled at Massilia, a terrible earthquake startled the inhabitants of northern Europe. A fierce German tribe, feeling no longer safe in the north, began to travel southward, and never stopped until it reached Gaul.
Crossing the Rhone, the barbarians came to the camp of Marius, a Roman general.
They at once offered to fight, but Marius paid no heed to the taunts by which they tried to rouse him, and allowed them to pass on their way.
Some time later he broke up his camp and followed the invaders. He found them, among the mountains, not far from the town of Aix. Here, in 102 b.c. , Marius fought with the rude Germans and defeated them with terrible slaughter.
The victory of Aix was an important one; for had the barbarians conquered, they would probably have gone on to Italy to try to vanquish Rome. Thus they might have become the masters of the world.
Two years after this victory, the man who was to succeed Marius was born. This was Julius Cæsar, one of the greatest and most ambitious generals of Rome.
For years Gaul suffered from the invasion of the Germans. But when, in the year 62 b.c. , great hordes of these warriors poured across the Rhine, more than ever determined to wrest the land from its owners, the Gauls turned again to Rome, begging for help.
The Romans, eager to keep their own colonies, perhaps also eager for new conquests, sent Julius Cæsar, who was now a man thirty-eight years of age, to the aid of the Gauls.
Even by the well-disciplined troops of Rome the Germans were not easily beaten, but at length Cæsar utterly routed them, and they fled in confusion toward the Rhine, anxious only to go back to their own land.
Now that they were delivered from their foes, the Gauls would gladly have seen the brave Roman warriors march back to Rome. But the Romans did not mean to go away, as the Gauls very soon found out. They meant to stay until they were themselves masters of Gaul.
This was no light task, for the Gauls dearly loved their independence. At the end of six years, though some tribes had been forced to submit, the struggle against Cæsar was in reality fiercer than it had ever been.
Their country was in danger, and the Gauls, forgetting their own quarrels, determined to unite against their foe in one last great attempt to win freedom for themselves and their country.
A young Gaul was the chief leader of the revolt. His real name is not known, but in history he is always called Vercingetorix, which means "chief of a hundred kings."
Vercingetorix belonged to a powerful tribe, and Cæsar, with his usual wisdom, had tried to win the young chief over to his side. But he had failed. And now, about 53 b.c. . Vercingetorix had come down from the mountains with his followers and seized Gergovia, the capital of his tribe and his own birthplace.
The Gauls flocked to his standard. But whether love drew them or fear, it is difficult to tell, for Vercingetorix had decreed that whoever stayed away should be punished with torture or with death.
Cæsar was in Italy when the rebellion led by the young Gaul broke out, but he no sooner heard of it than he hastened back to Gaul, and put himself at the head of his well-trained legions.
Vercingetorix knew he could not hope to destroy the Roman legions in the open field, but he could attack small bands of the enemy and harass their movements.
Moreover, he begged the people of Gaul to destroy their dwellings, their springs, their bridges, their provisions, so that when Cæsar came he might find nothing but ruins.
But in spite of all that Vercingetorix could do, Cæsar reached Gergovia, and at once laid siege to the town, which was really a rough cluster of huts, surrounded by strong barricades made out of trunks of trees.
The Gauls were not used to be shut up in a town, and soon they were clamouring to be led against the enemy.
But Cæsar had seen tribe after tribe joining the young Gallic chief. One of his legions, too, when ordered to assault the walls of Gergovia, had been driven back with the loss of forty-six of its bravest officers, and Cæsar thought it was time to raise the siege.
The Gauls could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw the Roman army withdrawing. It was the first time that Cæsar had been unable to take a Gallic town, and the Gauls, shouting in triumph, declared that their foe was vanquished. Vercingetorix himself believed it would now be well to strike a blow at the enemy, and placing himself at the head of his followers, he led them against the retreating army. Within nine miles of the fugitives he pitched his camp, and gathering together his chiefs he spoke to them these proud words:
"Now is the hour of victory; the Romans are flying to their province and leaving Gaul; that is enough for our liberty to-day, but too little for the peace and repose of the future; for they will return with greater armies, and the war will be without end."
Then the young Gaul ordered his troops to pursue the retreating foe. He did not know that Cæsar had added to his army a large number of horsemen from the fierce German tribes which were still wandering through the country, and had promised them lands and plunder, as well as wages, if they proved faithful.
Now the battle began. One band of Gauls seized a road by which the Romans must pass, hoping to bar their passage. While the fight raged fiercely at this point, the wild German horsemen dashed up a height held by the Gauls, drove them away, and chased them toward a river where Vercingetorix was stationed.
Cæsar ordered his legion to attack the Gauls as they fled toward their leader, and soon the fugitives dashed in among Vercingetorix's company followed by the Romans. The Gallic army was in utter confusion.
With great difficulty Vercingetorix rallied his men and ordered a retreat. The Roman general followed, taking many prisoners, and killing more than three thousand Gauls.
Vercingetorix succeeded in reaching a town called Alesia, and with the remnant of his army he at once began to fortify the place.
As you may imagine, Julius Cæsar had soon followed the Gauls to Alesia. When he saw them within the walls of the town, he determined to keep them there. He ordered his great army at once to surround the town and begin to dig trenches and build forts to keep the Gauls from escaping.
Again and again Vercingetorix tried to destroy the Roman forts and trenches, but each time he was beaten back into Alesia.
But the young Gaul had a brave spirit, and he still hoped to win the day. One night, by his orders, some Gallic horsemen stole quietly and unnoticed through the Roman lines, and hastened each to his own tribe to summon it to arms.
Before long the Gauls throughout the country were roused and galloping to the help of Vercingetorix.
And so it happened that one day the Romans were surprised and attacked in their entrenchments by a new army of Gauls.
A terrible struggle followed. Each time the new Gallic army attacked the enemy, Vercingetorix led his men out of the gates of Alesia and joined in the assault.
The Romans fought desperately. To be beaten by these rough, untrained warriors would humble their pride in the dust.
The Gauls, too, strained every nerve to win. To be beaten by the Roman legions would mean the loss of home, of country, of freedom.
For four days the battle raged, and then at length the well-trained troops of Rome were victorious.
The Gallic army had been cut to pieces, and Vercingetorix and a few men pushed back into Alesia. Escape was now impossible.
Then Vercingetorix, with rare courage, offered to give himself up to the Romans, that his followers might go free, and not one voice was raised to bid him stay.
Too heedless of his life, now that his country was lost, the young Gaul did not wait to send before him a herald of peace.
Mounting his war-horse, he rode away alone into Cæsar's camp, and found the great general seated on his tribunal to give judgment.
Dismounting in silence, Vercingetorix threw his weapons at the feet of his conqueror; then flinging himself down beside them, he pleaded for mercy.
But Julius Cæsar had no pity. Rome's stern motto was "Vae Victis," Woe to the vanquished!
Vercingetorix was loaded with chains and taken to Rome. For six long years he was there in a dungeon.
Then, when Cæsar came to Rome to give thanks to the gods for his victories, Vercingetorix was led, with other prisoners, in the triumphal procession. Afterwards he was taken back to his dungeon and beheaded.
After Vercingetorix had given himself up to Cæsar the war still dragged on, but without their young chief the Gauls fought ever more and more listlessly. By the end of the year 51 b.c. the country was subdued. Cæsar treated the conquered people kindly, and even enrolled among his own troops Gauls whose bravery he had proved.
One legion, too, he formed almost wholly of the conquered people, calling it the "Alauda" or "Lark." For on their helmets the soldiers of this legion had engraved the figure of a lark, the old Gallic symbol of wakefulness.