“Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar” by Lionel Royer, 1899
© AF Archive/Alamy
The first date in English History, according to 1066 and All That, is 55 BC, the year of Julius Caesar’s memorable landing at Thanet. “The Ancient Britons”, Sellar and Yeatman remind us, “were by no means savages before the Conquest, and had already made great strides in civilisation, e.g. they buried each other in long round wheelbarrows (agriculture) and burnt each other alive (religion) under the guidance of even older Britons called Druids or Eisteddfods . . . . The Roman Conquest was, however, a Good Thing, since the Britons were only natives at that time.”
Except for a small minority of mistletoe-wielding henge-huggers, pre-conquest Britain has never really impinged much on the British national imagination. In schools, Our Island Story starts with Roman Britain, which is still basically seen as a Good Thing. There are no public statues of Caratacus, leader of the native British resistance to the Roman invasion under Claudius in AD 43; even Boudicca, who led a later revolt of the Iceni against Rome (AD 60), has never really taken off as a national folk hero on the scale of King Arthur, Elizabeth I, or Winston Churchill. (Just try to think of a famous saying by Boudicca.)
In France, things are different. Ever since the Revolution, the idea of a deep and mystical connection with “our ancestors the Gauls” has been central to French national identity. It is telling that Asterix, the plucky Gallic resistance fighter against the Roman occupier, has no British equivalent. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century British imperialists could cheerfully identify with Rome’s civilizing mission in barbarian lands; the French, faced with the problem of incorporating three traumatic foreign occupations into their national self-perception (1870, 1914, 1940), have tended to identify with the native Gaulish Résistance against Rome.
The first date in French history, accordingly, is 52 BC, the year of the great “national” revolt of the Gauls against Rome. Southern Gaul (modern Provence and Languedoc) had been a Roman province since the late second century BC; through a series of brutal campaigns in the early 50s BC, Julius Caesar had brought most of the rest of Gaul into the Roman orbit. Early in 52 BC, Vercingetorix, the chieftain of a powerful Celtic tribe in the Auvergne (the Arverni), assembled a vast alliance of Gallic peoples to drive the Romans out of central Gaul. Caesar crushed the rebellion with extraordinary savagery: his siege of Avaricum (near Bourges) ended with the slaughter of all but 800 of the town’s 40,000 inhabitants. Vercingetorix himself surrendered to Caesar after the fall of Alesia (Mont-Auxois, near Alise-Sainte-Reine) in September 52 BC, and was later executed in Rome.
Vercingetorix’s doomed revolt against Rome has made him a particularly potent French culture hero, co-opted and invoked by everyone from Marshal Pétain (“self-sacrifice for the greater glory of France”) to Charles de Gaulle (“the first résistant of our race”), and from Napoleon III (who erected a huge statue of Vercingetorix at Alesia, with the face modelled on his own) to Jean-Marie Le Pen (“Gaul for the Gauls”). It is no surprise that Vercingetorix is the first pre-modern “Frenchman” to be admitted to Gallimard’s prestigious NRF Biographies series.
This handsome series of volumes (forty-nine so far) is a kind of literary Panthéon of French national luminaries: Vercingetorix’s immediate predecessors in the series were Montaigne, Louis Aragon, François Mitterrand and Bonaparte. The occasional foreigner has crept in (Mao, Fellini, Nabokov), as have a tiny handful of women (three out of forty-nine), but on the whole, the NRF Biographical Club is very serious, very male, and very French indeed.
Jean-Louis Brunaux has written a string of popular books on the history and culture of pre-Roman Gaul, and his Vercingétorix is a work of passion and grandeur: it will sell by the thousands. The trouble is that Vercingetorix is about the most unsuitable subject for a biography one could possibly imagine. Our evidence for his life consists, in its entirety, of the following: (1) Caesar’s Gallic Wars Book VII, covering military events of the year 52 BC from the Roman perspective, with a couple of patently fictitious “speeches by Vercingetorix”; (2) a few pages of Cassius Dio’s Roman History, written some 250 years later, which recapitulate Caesar’s account with some additional tabloid flourishes; (3) gold coins bearing the name VERCINGETORIXS, apparently struck during the revolt. Of Vercingetorix’s life before 52 BC we know literally not a thing.
Don’t despair! Are you aiming to write a “serious” 300-page biography of someone about whom we basically know nothing – Wat Tyler, Nefertiti, or Pontius Pilate? Easy: it is all just a matter of careful manipulation of narrative past tenses. When you have genuine evidence for something, you can use the passé simple (and a footnote): “After his defeat at Alesia, Vercingetorix threw his arms down at Caesar’s feet (Caesar, Gallic Wars VII 89.4)”. When the evidence gives out, but there is space for legitimate speculation and analogy, you can use the passé spéculatif: “Caesar may well have required Vercingetorix to pass beneath a yoke of spears, the standard Roman military ritual for humiliating defeated enemies”.
But your secret weapon is what we might call the passé présomptif, a special linguistic tool only used by struggling historical biographers. We have not a scrap of evidence for Vercingetorix’s childhood, or indeed any aspect of his life before the revolt of 52 BC; but presumably he came from a chieftain’s family, presumably among the Arverni, who presumably lived as other elite members of the Arverni did in the first century BC – and suddenly your book starts writing itself:
The family of Vercingetorix would have owned [possédait] several landholdings, and at least one large villa – in fact a huge agricultural manor – at the heart of his estates . . . the young Vercingetorix would have come to know [connaissait] the skill, even the genius of the artisans working on his family estate: the blacksmiths who could forge the most fearsome swords and wheel- and barrel-bands; the potters who, in the plain of Limagne, produced the most beautiful and fascinating ceramics, painted with strange and fabulous animals; the weavers who created coloured fabrics with geometric designs, sometimes embroidered with gold and silver filigree. And so it was that through the first twelve years of his life, this young boy gained experience of a lifestyle, as the Gauls conceived it, intimately linked to nature, and of the people with whom a Gallic chieftain had to deal.
Statements framed in the passé présomptif have several useful characteristics. First, they are not subject to refutation. (Try showing that Vercingetorix wasn’t familiar with late La Tène ceramic ware with painted zoomorphic decoration, or that he wasn’t reared to a “lifestyle intimately linked to nature”.) Second, once you have the knack, statements in the passé présomptif can be strung together into 156 pages of vivid and colourful biography (Brunaux’s first seven chapters, covering Vercingetorix’s life before 52 BC) without breaking sweat. Pick literally any event or object known from first-century BC Gaul; voilà, you have something that Vercingetorix “would have eaten”, “must have seen”, “could have known about”. Third, and most insidious, it allows a biographer to take the moral high ground. Earlier historians, with their tedious insistence on sticking to the evidence-based passé simple, have based their picture of Vercingetorix on the one-sided account of his enemy Caesar; I have got beyond this chauvinistic Roman perspective to show what his life would really have been like.
As a specimen of biography in the passé présomptif, Brunaux’s Vercingétorix is as good as they come. His narrative of the great revolt of 52 BC is swift and exciting, and he does full justice to Caesar’s terrible sieges at Avaricum, Gergovia and Alesia, though the absence of a map does make the campaign unnecessarily hard to follow. But for all its thunderous cadences, Vercingétorix is a deeply problematic book. When its protagonist surrenders to Caesar at Alesia, Cassius Dio claims (probably spuriously) that the defeated chief hoped to be pardoned, “since he had once been on friendly terms with Caesar”. On the basis of this phrase alone, Brunaux includes no fewer than twenty-four pages on the years Vercingetorix “must have spent” as a hostage in Caesar’s camp between 58 and 56 BC. It gets worse: Brunaux reconstructs a year-by-year chronology of their friendship – Caesar was first attracted to Vercingetorix in 58 BC, but their “deep and intimate” friendship only began in 57 BC, and so on. We are in the same territory as Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth or Robert Graves’s I, Claudius.
This kind of thing can be done well. In 2005, Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin wrote a first-rate biography of Boudicca (Boudica: Iron Age warrior queen), about whom we know even less than we do about Vercingetorix. Hingley and Unwin offer not a single example of the passé présomptif: they include one short chapter summarizing what we actually know about Boudicca, two chapters on the material culture of Boudicca’s Britain, and five rich and absorbing chapters on her afterlives in the British imagination, from the Elizabethan period to the present. A book of this kind about Vercingetorix, showing how he has been used and abused by everyone from Napoleon III to Le Pen, would be a terrific thing to have. But Brunaux’s Vercingétorix, I fear, is not that book.