When the French need a hero, they dig back into their past and resurrect the memory of Vercingétorix.
School children across France can tell you that Vercingétorix was a young chieftan who battled against Roman domination more than 2000 years ago. I first heard his glorious and tragic tale while listening to my French seven-year old recite her history lesson, then got an idea of how he might have looked when visiting Clermont-Ferrand where a monumental equestrian sculpture of the hero dominates the Place Jaude. Sculpted by August Bartholdi of Statue of Liberty fame, Vercingétorix is portrayed in battle with his horse airborn in a galloping charge.
Bartholdi sculpted the statue in the late 19th century in response to a national need to rally patriotic sentiment after France had gone through a rough political patch: the 1871 Paris Commune revolt-- a revolution that had been provoked by the humiliation of the surrender of Paris to Prussians during the Franco-Prussian war.
If you want to know a Frenchman, learn his country's deep and colorful history first.
Today, Clermont-Ferrand is the capital of Auvergne, but in Vercingétorix's time, this region was called Arvernes, and its principal city was Gergovie, on a high basalt plateau located less than four miles away from the modern city.
Referred to as "Celts" by the ancient Greeks, and "Gauls" by the Romans, the people inhabiting the vast territory of Gaul formed disparate and numerous tribes. Their society, mostly agricultural, had two classes, the nobility, who were also the warriors; and the people, which included the Druides, keepers of Celtic traditions and beliefs.
Born of nobility about 72 B.C., Vercingétorix, in 52 B.C., was proclaimed chief of the Arvernes, one of the more powerful Celtic tribes in central Gaul. His Celtic name means "supreme chief of warriors," a title probably given him after he rallied different tribes into a coalition to resist Julius Caesar, then in the seventh year of the Roman campaign to conquer Gaul.
After several defeats, Vercingétorix adopted the scorched earth tactic, destroying his own tribal villages and fields to impede the enemy's replenishment. At Gergovie, protected by their fortifications and steep terrain, the Gauls inflicted heavy losses upon the Romans. Caesar and his army, isolated and cut off from supplies in a hostile country, retreated.
It was a short-lived victory, however. The tables turned when the Gauls made a fatal tactical error and pursued the retreating Romans far into open lands. The Gauls lost their advantage and were pushed back all the way to the fortress of Alésia, not far from present-day Dijon. Closed in the stronghold and lacking provisions, Vercingétorix was defeated after a desperate battle. He surrendered, laying down his arms at Caesar's feet. The event marked the end of the independence of Gaul, and the beginning of the Gallo-Roman civilization.
Taken to Rome to be displayed as Caesar's personal trophy, Vercingétorix was executed after seven years of treacherous imprisonment.
A plate-throwing incident
After being displayed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Bartholdi's bronze of Vercingétorix was delivered to Clermont-Ferrand. To find just the right spot for it, a plaster model of the statue was mounted on a cart and wheeled from spot to spot with townspeople following along to give their opinions. They finally picked the Place Jaude, with a breathtaking view of the extinct volcano, the Puy-de-Dome.
The statue was officially inaugurated with much pomp and circumstance in October 1903 followed by a gigantic banquet for 4,500 persons. According to local historians, so many people showed up that the food ran out and the meal turned into a plate-throwing, fist-fighting brawl.
Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron
Read more in French about the archeological find: