The comic history of Vercingetorix

In September 52 BCE, Vercingetorix the leader of Gallic Resistance surrendered his arms to Julius Caesar. It was a small moment in the history of France, which has reverberated symbolically through the centuries.

The history

Vercingtorix was the leader of the Arverni tribe. He was probably an important figure in internal politics. His father had been assassinated by Gauls because “he was aiming at tyranny”. This of course mirrors what happened to Caesar.

Following Caesar’s invasion, he united the various factions in Gaul and was able to put Caesar on a backfoot. He initiated a guerilla war and targeted Gaulish infrastructure to frustrate the Roman’s ability to feed themselves. 

He was successful for a time, but eventually his forces were pushed back to the oppidum, or fortified settlement, of Alesia. Caesar besieged it with a double line of temporary walls to besiege the city and to protect the Romans from reinforcements.

Vercingetorix tried to levy all the fighting men of Gaul to Alesia to decisively defeat the Romans. This was rejected by a war council who decided that a fixed number should come from all the regions.

After much fighting, the Romans conquered the settlement and Vercingertorix surrendered. According to Caesar, Vercingetorix told his follow Gauls:

“That he had undertaken that war, not on account of his own exigencies, but on account of the general freedom; and since he must yield to fortune, he offered himself to them for either purpose, whether they should wish to atone to the Romans by his death, or surrender him alive.”  

Even in defeat and surrender, he showed a ‘manly bearing’ displaying Roman virtues of fortitude and courage. Plutarch says that

“And the leader of the whole war, [Vercingntorix], after putting on his most beautiful armour and decorating his horse, rode out through the gate. 10 He made a circuit around Caesar, who remained seated, and then leaped down from his horse, stripped off his suit of armour, and seating himself at Caesar’s feet remained motionless, until he was delivered up to be kept in custody for the triumph.

Vercingtorix was paraded in Caesar’s triumph in Rome, alongside Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe (according to Cassius Dio). He was then ritually executed.

Lionel Royer

It is this scene of surrender which becomes the one fixed in French popular consciousness, rather than the rebellion. 

This is possibly due to the success of Lionel Royer’s painting Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar. In the image, Vercingetorix sits on his white horse. He is proud and strong, unfazed by the Roman soldiers who surround him. He wears his celtic finery, trousers and bronze armour. His hair and moustache are long with a reddish tinge. 

He has thrown his  sword and helmet on the ground. He looks down with contempt at Caesar stares impassively. His thoughts elsewhere. 

The sky is murky. Behind Vercinteroix, Alesia burns. The red flames visible behind Roman siege equipment which stretch into the far distance. 

He epitomises the Romantic idea of struggling valiantly against impossible odds.

Asterix

Asterix, the Gaul par excellence, is a member of the one tribe of Gaul’s who hold out against Roman colonialism. The Gaulish Village located in Brittany is protected by the powerful magic of the Druid Getafix. 

Although Asterix is a humorous work, it draws on a lot of sources, both visual and textual. 

In the comics, Vercintorix is a strong leader (with long ginger hair and a thick moustache). He throws his arms at Caesar’s feet with some strength causing the Roman alarm. 

In Mansion of the Gods, Caesar’s own recollection of the surrender is different, imagining Vercingetorix as a weakling.

Although Asterix leads the resistance to Roman power, Vercingetorix is never portrayed in the same way. He is a leader whose surrender led to the current situation. 

Alix

Alix is in many ways the serious Asterix. A young Gaulish warrior who is a member of Caesar’s entourage. The artist Jacques Martin was a colleague of Herge and Edgar P Jacobs. The comic is illustrate in the ligne claire style synonumous with the French and Belgian comics of the period. Steady line and clean blocks of colour. It is a visually rich style which affords detail and emotional expression creating vivid narrative and psychological depth.

In adventure number 18, Alix is drawn into the political intrigues following Caesar’s victories in Gaul. Pompey the Great asks him to escort a Gaulish prisoner back to Gaul. 

Vercingetorix, for it is he, is a patriot anachronistically kissing the ground of France when he steps ashore at Marseille. A slightly convoluted adventure ensues. The book makes clear that Caesar’s intervention in Gaul is an extension of his political aims in Rome.

Although a children’s book (or as they are called today Young Adult’s Fiction), it explores some very difficult themes. Not a bloody book, it doesn’t flinch from the realities of warfare. 

The Alix series deserves an English translation, especially as this book has a more developed understanding of the political realities of Roman Imperium than many other more adult comic books written since, such as Murena

The Last Battle

Rodius, a battle hardened former general returns for one last job. He has been called to the siege of Alesia by Caesar, who fears he will be surrounded by forces outside his campus. This time though, the job is personal.

The story lacks some of the complexity of the Alix story, but this is no bad thing. Depth is stacked behind words and expressions. The story quickly creates a strong sense of time extending beyond the book’s narrative. It feels like you are reading one book in a series in which characters and their relationships have developed over several adventures together.

Different influences can be felt – Heart of Darkness and The Dirty Dozen, the two most obvious examples but also any film or book with a hard boiled protagonist returns for one last job. The title has an ominous, almost apocalyptic ring to it, recalling the Battle of Camlann, Arthur’s final battle.

The real strength of the book is Dan Brereton’s artwork. A lyrical and painterly quality evokes a story that feels mythic, somehow slightly unbelievable. He “poured over books” to create a richly researched world, although any sense of accuracy is somewhat ambiguous. 

Conclusion

It is hard not to link the works of Asterix and Alix to French post-war politics which on one hand saw more affluence and a lost of international prestige. These years were also a time of bloody colonial reversion after the war, the defeat in the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1956 and the murderous intrigues in Africa which culminated in the Paris Massacre of 1961, could both draw parallels with Ancient History. 

Although it is too simplistic to merely draw a comparison between this book and French contemporary history, it is interesting that Vercingetorix is never invoked as a leading character during his victorious moments. It is always in defeat.

This is a standard way for historical fiction to explore an important period dating back to Sir Walter Scott and the origins of the modern novel with the publication of Waverley. All these comic books should be read as both well crafted pieces of literature and complex monuments of historical moment.

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