Travel back to the world of Caeser
Although the event in history this column discusses happened more than 2,000 years ago, it concerns a figure who looms large throughout history even to this day: Julius Caesar. On this day in 52 BC, Caesar won the battle of Alesia.
Caesar’s campaign in Gaul (the region that is now France) had begun in 58 BC and in the space of about two years had conquered territory all the way up to the English Channel. Gaul was home to dozens of Celtic tribes that fought each other frequently, which Caesar used to his favor.
However, Caesar’s army was small and Caesar himself faced political troubles in Rome. Seizing on this, and in response to droughts and famine, the Gauls began to revolt against the Romans in 54. By 52, several dozen tribes had banded together to fight the Romans.
The leader of this alliance was Vercingetorix. According to Dr. John Hyland, a history professor at CNU who teaches courses dealing with the Gallic Wars, Vercingetorix and the revolt he led represented the best chance for the Gauls to send the Romans back to the Mediterranean.
Caesar’s defeat of Vercingetorix established Roman control in Gaul and kept further revolts from breaking out.
“After that, there aren’t any serious challenges to Roman domination even though civil war breaks out in the Roman world about two years after the siege,” said Hyland.
Like so much ancient history, Vercingetorix and the Gallic Wars remained important into the modern world as symbols.
“For various empire builders in the 19th century and the early 20th century—Napoleon Bonaparte, Hitler—this event symbolized the beginning of a powerful, autocratic military empire,” Hyland said. “It justified, in their minds, the use of extreme force to create new, advanced imperial states.”
However, symbols are not universal, and to many in 19th century France Vercingetorix represented their romantic notions of their Celtic heritage. The emperor Napoleon III, who ruled the Second French Empire from 1852 to 1870, used the symbol in both ways.
“He wanted Paris to be the new Rome, but he also was an advocate of a romantic French national spirit that he traced back to the courage of Vercingetorix and the resistance of the Gauls against foreign foes,” Hyland said. It was Napoleon III. who commissioned archaeologists to find and excavate the site of Alesia where Vercingetorix surrendered.
During the Second World War, Vercingetorix and Alesia took on new meanings. “To the Vichy regime it became a symbol of surrender in order to preserve the national character,” said Hyland. “For the Resistance, it symbolized resistance, and fighting until it was not possible to fight any more.”
The ancient past persists to this day: Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was an essential moment in the expansion of Roman territory, and Gaul was one of Rome’s most important provinces throughout the imperial period. Even to this day, the French language descends from Latin and the French system of laws has its roots in Roman law.
The undeniable influence of Rome on everything that followed it aside, Vercingetorix’s surrender also reminds us how important it is to consider how people in more recent times make symbols of ancient history. Symbols can be potent tools to convey meaning. However, one must be wary of removing symbols from their historical context. Did Vercingetorix really represent the indomitable spirit of the French, a spirit that existed before the Romans and persisted into the 19th century? Would Caesar and Vercingetorix have recognized the empires of the 19th century?
The British author L.P. Hartley said “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Although we today still feel the effects of ancient Rome and Gaul, it is important to remember that the ancient world was not a prototype of modernity but its own world, similar to ours in certain ways and vastly different in others. The symbolic value of ancient history should not cause us to forget this.