Vercingetorix, Julius Caesar, and Asterix?!?

Asterix and French History: Who Is Vercingetorix?

Art begets art. For example, it’s the famous Vercingetorix painting that we have to blame for the entire Asterix series.  Let me explain:

Who Is Vercingetorix?

The drunk can't say Vercingetorix's name

In “Asterix and the Golden Sickle,” the town drunk who spends most of his time in prison thanks to his Roman hosts, is constantly mispronouncing some long Gaulish name.

What is that name?  Why is it relevant?  And how did it lead me into researching French history to help explain the origins of the Asterix series, as a whole?

And how cool is the history of the Roman empire, anyway?

Where is “Gaul”?

A map of Caesar's campaigns during the Gallic Wars just before 50BC

This is a map of Caesar’s campaigns during the Gallic Wars of (roughly) 58 BC – 50 BC.  Here’s the legal mumbo jumbo:

By Caesar_campaigns_gaul-fr.svg: historicair 14:51, 8 July 2007 (UTC) derivative work: Sémhur [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gaul is not just France.  Gaul is an area of Europe that includes France, but also Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as parts of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. It was a rather large chunk of Europe.

Julius Caesar wanted it all under his control.  It helped him back home, politically, with the Senate to show his strength with the army and conquer new lands.  It also, perhaps more importantly, helped him with the issues he had with owing lots of people LOTS of money.  Attaining his position of power and renown took an awful lot of money, both in parties and bribes.  All that bread and all those circuses ain’t cheap.

He marched his army across the continent, defeating village after village and conquering all of it.  He pitted tribes against each other, even paying some of them to strike against other tribes who thought they were on the same side.  Some villages surrendered before an arrow was launched.

And he profited from all of it.  Slaves, in particular, brought in a good amount of sestertii.

Caesar played a magnificent and nasty game of war.

He had some opposition in the north, though, with a group of tribes who united together to become known as the Belgae.  Yup, this is the origin of Belgium’s name.

Caesar, though slowed, eventually defeated them, too.  His supply lines held up long enough to outlast the Belgae and take them over.  The Belgae missed an opportunity to stop Caesar.

It was time for one last stand against the Romans by the Gauls.

The Final Stand

With the Belgae out of the picture, a tribal chieftain by the name of Vercingetorix united a group of the remaining tribes to rise up against Caesar.

For various reasons, it didn’t work out.  Caesar’s forces surrounded Vercingetorix’s folks and built big walls to strike from above. Vercingetorix called for backups to come in, so the Romans built another set of walls facing outwards.  The Romans created a doughnut to fight out of, which is a funny enough picture.

But that doughnut split the Gauls in half.  They could not coordinate their attacks.

Long story short: by 52 BC, the Gauls failed.  Their leader, Vercingetorix, rode his horse into Caesar’s camp and, with a great dramatic flourish, removed his armor and weapons, laid down his sword at Caesar’s feet, and surrendered to the Romans.

Caesar had conquered Gaul, at last.

The books of “Asterix” begin two years later.

What is the Drunk Trying to Say?

As you may have guessed: “Vercingetorix” (Here’s how to pronounce “Vercingetorix.” I go with the hard “G” sound, for what it’s worth.)

“Vercingetorix” is a heck of a tongue twister to say, by the way. Being drunk doesn’t help.

This is him on his horse in the painting, a manly mustache protruding from either side of his face.  The guy in the red robe is Caesar.

Vercingetorix lays down his sword at Caesar's foot

Nice painting trick with color here: The two biggest areas of contrast in the painting are the white of the horse framing Vercingetorix, and the almost shocking red of Caesar’s outfit, setting him apart from everyone else.   Everything else in the painting is a muted earth tone, except the sky which is bright enough to let you see what’s going on in front of it.

Rene Goscinny, in describing the origins of Asterix, said that his series with Albert Uderzo is what happens if Vercingetorix had thrown his sword ON Caesar’s foot, instead.

“Oops.”

Much funnier, yes.  And, in fact, that’s how “Asterix the Gaul” (volume 1) opens:

In Asterix the Gaul, Vercingetorix lays down his arms on Caesar's feet.

It’s also how “Asterix and the Chieftan’s Shield” (volume 11) opens:

In "Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield," Vercingetorix lays down his arms on Caesar's feet.

In volume 17, “The Mansions of the Gods,” the tale looks a bit more somber, though it’s told from Caesar’s point of view, so that makes sense:

Vercingetorix lays down his arms to Caesar in "Mansions of the Gods"

Either way, historically speaking, Caesar wins.

The exception in Goscinny and Uderzo’s world is the one village of Gauls with a magic potion that helps them out again an army of Romans.  It’s a small fact that Caesar leaves out of his self-written history book (which is a real thing, by the way), which forms the basis of book #37, “Asterix and the Missing Scroll.”

This also gives you the history behind that map that appears at the front of all the albums.

The map of Gaul that every Asterix book begins with

Uderzo got to choose where the village would be on the map.  Goscinny only asked for it to be near the water for future boat escapades/easy access to other places.

Whatever Happened to Vercingetorix?

Long Live Vercingetorix drunk

The area where this laying-down-of-swords happened now plays host to a living history museum/park of sorts.  One travel blog visited it and wrote its history in greater detail than I have time for here.

I’ll let them finish Vercingetorix’s story:

After his surrender Vercingetorix was brought back to Rome in chains, imprisoned, and either publicly beheaded at Caesar’s triumphal parade of 46 BC, or strangled in prison shortly after. Accounts differ.

Yes, Rome had a ritual of strangling prisoners.  After all, it cost money to put them up in a prison and feed them.

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that the ritual strangling process is what undid that magnificent mustached man.

Ick.

Long Live Vercingetorix drunk

The drunkard didn’t shut up, nor did Vercingetorix live long.

The Vercingetorix Movie

They made a movie of Vercingetorix’s life in 2001. It starred Christopher Lambert as the Gaul leader.  It’s called “Druids.”

Here’s a screen shot from the end of the movie when Vercingetorix takes the knee and offers Caesar his sword. (See the painting at the top for the inspiration.)

Christopher Lambert as Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar

But what you really want to see is his mustache, so here:

Christopher Highlander Lambert as Vercingetorix

You may have missed the movie, because it never made it out of France, though they filmed it in both French and English.

Best known for its objectivity and factual statements, Wikipedia says of “Druids”:

The film was a critical and commercial failure. The production cost was $15 million, and the film was never widely released anywhere outside France. It is largely considered one of the worst French movies ever made.

So it must be true.

Asterix, the fictional character who survives through a magic potion, has starred in a series of movies that have been much more successful than Vercingetorix’s.

Poor Vercingetorix.  He gets a famous painting, but can’t seem to cross over to multimedia popularity.

For More Information…

For a much deeper telling of this story with all the details that I don’t need for the sake of this article, I can’t recommend highly enough Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast.  Download “The Celtic Holocaust.” It’s magnificent.  It is a five and a half hour telling of the story of The Gallic War, including Vercingetorix’s last stand.

I listened to the whole thing in less than a day and a half and it’s led me to a deeper understanding of “Asterix.”

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

12 Comments

  1. Vercingétorix is French History 101, where we start identifying as a people, for better or worse.
    For insights on how Caesar handled his conquest strategy, his memoir: Gallic War is a must read for anyone in the military. Only Napoleon, our second biggest national hero, would do better.
    Of course the way Goscinny handles it here takes some liberties with real history; No one really knows where Alesia is because the site’s precise location was wiped from historical accounts, out of shame.
    But in volume 11 you see from the heart how we feel about being powerless and conquered. There are obvious parallels with WWII which was still fresh in their minds. and you find out where Vercingétorix’s shield ends up. It really is heartwarming.

    1. Was this French History 101 BEFORE Asterix? I know there’s some revived interest in the story from people who learned of it growing up as children in Asterix, but was it something often taught before that? (I don’t know how you teach thousands of years of history to kids. We only have 400 – 600 years or so here if you start with Columbus and we still never get to it all growing up…)

      Caesar’s Commentaries are an amazing source of information, though since it was written for the glory of Caesar, we do have to take some of it with a grain of salt. (Do they say “grain of schtroumpf” in Belgian, I wonder? 😉

      And, yes, in v11, people get very upset at the mere mention of Alesia, and I’ll be covering that in the most epic Asterix review I’ve ever written. (Seriously, it’s at 3000 words. What’s wrong with me?)

      1. I learned about Mr V. in elementary school, following year is the middle ages (Joan of Arc!), then Renaissance (the Sun King!), then the Revolution and the Empire (Napo!), then the restoration, then the second Empire (Napo II), then the industrial revolution. Final year of college catches up with the 20th century wars. All with proper dates and everything. Easy peasy. I used to be able to name all the kings in order back from Charlemagne but I can’t do it anymore lol. These days the school programs are a bit more “woke”, teachers have to talk about the rest of the world a bit so it’s not so linear. I never was much of a History buff but Asterix helped cement that era into the minds of at least two generations of pupils. Not sure teachers were so happy about it though.
        I look forward to your next review Augie. This whole trip you’re taking us through is thoroughly delightful.

  2. Oh and don’t look that movie up. It’s really, really bad. This is the worst thing Lambert’s ever done, worse than Beowulf.

    1. It’s available on YouTube. I didn’t sit through more than a minute or two of it, then fast forwarded to find the screen grabs that I included in the article. =)

      1. Curiously, it’s not that long after Highlander and Greystoke. Christophe Lambert went down pretty fast and never truly recovered after that (at least his hollywood career, he’s an elder statesman for us now, so we’re willing to forget he’s an NCIS villain). I may be misremembering but I think he had bouts of alcoholism or depression or both. Too bad.

    1. Napoleon. No, seriously. Napoleon wants to find Alesia, and some people claim that that’s where it was, but some of their evidence is suspect, like they were just trying to please the boss. Further evidence was discovered 20 or 30 years ago that it’s the right spot, so they built a museum and went with it. Yet, there are others who’ve studied this who think it’s somewhere else, but they can’t get permission to do an archaelogical dig at the other site to prove it.

      1. Oh, just to clarify: It’s Napoleon III, who was President of France and then Emperor in the 1860s. Not the smaller guy with his hand in his pocket who didn’t like Waterloo…. He is the nephew of that more famous one.

        1. Neapolitan wasn’t actually short. That came from a newspaper cartoon where he was depicted as tiny. Then again you’re about 7 foot 3 so everyone is short to you.

      2. it’s what we call in French the “Roman National” (National storytelling). Each new era’s leader maximo slightly rewrites history to forge its own legacy as part of a multi-millenial narrative. They all do it to some extent. Like when Stalin had group photos retouched whenever he got subversive politburo members “disappear”.

  3. I’ve done a lot of reading of Roman history, specifically from the start of the Empire up to the end of the 1st century AD and its makes for fantastic reading. For all my interest and fascination, probably due to my childhood love of Asterix (well that and my Dad’s obsession he even made a Gladius and Pilum, he never went full cosplay!) there’s always been one major disappointment I’ve never quite got over.

    See the lorica segmentata armour worn by the Roman’s throughout Asterix didn’t come into being until about 50 years after the series is set and even then it would have been pretty sporiadically worn. During the time Asterix is set legionairies probably would have worn chain mail.

    By Toutatis I’m glad Uderzo made this historical error, the scale armour looks soooo good when being bashed by a Gaul!