Good and bad polytheists (part 8): Vercingetorix and Brennus


Coin_VercingetorixThe Celts were a large ethnic group of peoples that inhabited what is today France, Britain, Western Spain, Austria, Bohemia, South Germany, North Italy, Belgium, Slovenia and parts of Croatia and Serbia. They were a warlike and fertile people who increased their numbers, expanded and migrated from time to time in search of land to accommodate them. Their culture, already beautiful, also benefited from trade and exchange with the south, and therefore by the 1st century BCE, we hear of large and prosperous cities in Gaul (the ancient word for France). By that time, they had already clashed several times with Rome in the north of Italy, because of pressure from expanding Germanic tribes to the north, and the Germans were also interested in expanding beyond the Rhine river. Unfortunately for them, not only the Germans were interested in expansion, but also the Romans, who had defeated the Carthaginian empire 100 years before and taken all their lands. The Celts thus fell between two powers and pressures. To make matters even worse, Rome in 59 BCE was under the power of two ambitious men of different parties: Pompey, who had lately returned from conquests in the east, stood with the senatorial faction, and Caesar, jealous of his victories, opposed him on the plebian side. Pompey was rich from conquests and new provinces, but Caesar was in debt from his consulship, because (among other reasons) he spent vast sums of money to feed the poor to increase his popularity. At first, Caesar, who was governor in North Italy, considered conquering Dacia (today Romania) in order to get out of debt and get into fame, but he found a better opportunity with the Celts to the North. In 58 BCE, the Helvetii, a confederation of five Celtic tribes inhabiting modern Switzerland, prepared for a migration to the west in order to avoid pressure from the Germans. There was news that their leader Orgetorix intended to rule all Gaul, but this may have been a rumor from Caesar to justify war. When the Helvetii requested peaceful passage through Roman territory in south Gaul, Caesar (the governor of the province) deliberately refused, knowing this would provoke war.

 The politics of Gaul by this time had become very complicated, and Caesar thrusted himself to intervene on behalf of some of Rome’s Gallic allies, but this was done dishonestly for ambitious purposes. After defeating the Helvetii who had attacked some Gallic allies of Rome, he turned to punish the Suebi, the  Germanic tribe that had crossed the Rhine into Gaul and caused disorder in the land. Pompey and the Senate tried to stop the war (knowing Caesar’s ambition) by declaring the Sequani friends of Rome, but Caesar engaged with them and defeated them in defiance of the senate. After this the German tribes left Gaul. Caesar should have returned to Italy by this time, but chose to remain and act as the leader of Gaul, by attacking the Belgae, a Celtic tribe that gave its name to Belgium, which had attacked Roman allies earlier. After this was over, in 56 BCE (after two years in Gaul) he marched to the west of Gaul to attack a confederacy of Celtic tribes that had formed against Rome. Being victorious again and hearing of his popularity in Italy, he crossed into Britain and fought there too. By 54 BCE, the Celts throughout Gaul were extremely resentful at his imperialism. Later in that year, a huge uprising in north eastern Gaul broke out under Ambiorix, which destroyed the Roman garrison. This was part of a larger uprising designed by Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe in central Gaul, to drive out the Romans. At first Vercingetorix was opposed by his uncle and other nobles who feared Rome, and they drove him out of the city. However, in 52 BCE he gathered an army of the poor and returned to his tribe by force as king. Although his father was executed for ambitions to rule over Gaul, Vercingetorix had enough reason to unite the Gallic tribes against Rome, and most began to side with him. He tried to starve the Romans by scorching the earth around his territory, an unfortunate but necessary policy of war. In that year, he scored a great victory in his native town against the Romans, and then he withdrew to Alesia with 100,000 people and built a large fortified settlement. The Romans later in the year besieged the settlement; after many thousands of starvations, but stout resistance, the Gauls surrendered. Vercingetorix at this time behaved in the noblest manner possible, as a king of his people. He rode to Caesar’s camp, threw down his sword, dismounted and lay down humbly at Caesar’s side, requesting that his people be spared in exchange for his life. This was granted, but Gaul now became a conquered province of Rome, and Caesar was soon to march against Rome itself. Vercingetorix was imprisoned and died five years later, strangled after a triumphal march, according to Roman custom. His name should be remembered among all Celtic peoples, as a brave king who resisted Rome in order to preserve the honor and customs of his people.



Dying GaulAs mentioned in part 6, the 4th century BCE was a time of war in south east Europe. Phillip II of Macedon was at war from time to time with the Illyrians and Thracians to the north, as well as with the Greeks to the south. Just to the north of the Illyrians, the very warlike Celtic confederations of the Boii and Volcae were spreading, and interested in more land. It is said they sent a delegation in 335 BCE to Alexander (soon before he left for Persia), seemingly to pay respects, but actually to survey his forces. After the death of Alexander, the region continued to suffer from wars, as Illyrians fought with Macedonians for revenge and domination; the fever of conquest that Alexander had raised now infected the world, and certainly the Celts. In 310 BCE, a Celtic warlord attacked the Illyrians so fiercely that Macedonia became concerned enough to join with the Illyrians against them. After about 20 years, these Celtic conquerors (seemingly ambitious to control all south east Europe) attacked more deeply and reached the Macedonian borders, but were defeated by King Cassander of Macedon. After another 20 years, a new Celtic expedition was attempted, bolder than ever. It may have resulted from necessity, since two historians record that it was a migration forced by overpopulation or famine, whereas another disagrees by saying it was for plunder. But regardless of these details, it is well known that 85,000 Celtic warriors, divided into three divisions, marched south to Macedonia and Greece. One of the divisions was led by a warlord named Brennos.

The three divisions succeeded, in cooperation with one another, to attack Macedonian settlements and towns for plunder. Although they returned after the expedition, it was Brennos who persuaded them to gather more men and set out again to plunder the riches of Greece. It is recorded that as many as 175,000 Celts took part, although this may be larger than the true number. Nevertheless, Brennos did march with a force huge enough to make the Greeks (now united by a confederation of defense) resort to the strait of Thermopylae as the 300 Spartans had done during the Persian invasion 200 years before. Brennos’ army suffered great losses, especially because the Greeks used skirmishers instead of close combat with the fearsome Celts. But like the Persians, in time Brennos found another way through the mountains, but the Greeks escaped by sea before they met with them. At this moment, Brennos designed a heinous and greedy expedition on Delphi, the most sacred land of the Greeks, to rob it of its reputed riches. However, historians relate that the attempt was thwarted by the Greeks and their Gods. Thunderstorms raged when the Celts encamped, disabling them from preparations, the night was frosty and uncomfortable, and then the Greeks attacked them on two sides in the morning. At nightfall, the Celts suffered so miserably that they killed their wounded men in order to retreat faster, and they began to quarrel and break into factions. Those who remained retreated and were later taken off by Greek forces who waited for them, and in the meantime the wounded Brennos, who had offended his Gods as well as those of the Greeks by his criminal ambition, took his own life.   

2 thoughts on “Good and bad polytheists (part 8): Vercingetorix and Brennus

  1. heathenembers

    Excellent post Melas, you’ve clearly put a lot of work into this series. I also really enjoyed your one on the Romans with the man that killed his own daughter rather than let her be defiled. Crazy stuff! I was just watching a documentary on the Celts that featured Vercingetorix today actually. The host said that if what the Romans did to the Celts happened today, it would be called genocide. How much worse would it have been if not for Vercingetorix’s sacrifice? His name should be remembered forever.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Melas the Hellene Post author

    Many thanks. It is certainly not easy to select two parallels among other stories, while also taking chronological order and ethnic diversity into consideration. Yet I have educated myself through this series to say the least. Yes, Vercingetorix is a famous name; I wish Caesar were more infamous than he’s usually represented. What Caesar did surely amounts to genocide, and the Romans (both before and after Christianity) continued with cultural genocide. Vercingetorix is an immortal hero of the Celtic peoples on the continent, just as Boudica was a heroine for them in the Isles. I wish more people on the continent would seek out their Celtic roots (besides the Bretons of France), in order to defy the Roman invasion and honor the memory of Vercingetorix.

    Liked by 3 people


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