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?
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”?
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.
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.
Much funnier, yes. And, in fact, that’s how “Asterix the Gaul” (volume 1) opens:
It’s also how “Asterix and the Chieftan’s Shield” (volume 11) opens:
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.)
But what you really want to see is his mustache, so here:
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.”