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For centuries, Celtic tribes dominated the northern reaches of Europe and were the terror of Mediterranean cultures such as the Romans. Amongst these, the most powerful tribe of them all was that of the Gallic Arverni who hailed from what is present-day southern France. At the height of their power, the Arverni headed a massive tribal confederacy which was culturally sophisticated and powerful enough even to challenge the might of the fledgling Roman republic.
Arverni Icon

Rise of the ArverniEdit

"The Gauls" were actually the Roman name for the Celtic tribes that inhabited the areas now known as France. They moved into the area from east of the Rhine in 900BCE and by 500BCE established a distinct and uniform Gallic culture. They were divided into several tribes which were not politically united, but which would often accede hegemony to whichever tribe was strongest in the region. They were also introduced to Greek culture through contact along the Mediterranean coast during this time. However, Rome managed to contain them as their warlike society often put them at odds with other Gallic tribes as much as they did with Rome.

According to the Roman historian Livy, the Arverni, like their Aedui foes, were part of the great migration to Italy under Bellovesus in the 6th century BCE. It is thought that the Averni believed that they were destined to rule the lands they came to: indeed, in the Gallic language "Averni" means "the Superior Ones". The Arverni, who were present in southern Gaul (the French region of Auvergne is named after them), eventually proved to be the most powerful as early as the 3rd century BCE and had begun a great conquest of Gaul, exterminating or subjugating neighbouring tribes under its suzerainty.

Kingship and societyEdit

The Arverni choose their kings by election, in which all free men took part. The king, whom they called the Verrix, was believed to be divine, the incarnation of Arvernos. To them the natural place of the Verrix was to be high king of all Gaul. Unlike the many "eastern" empires of China and the Near East which attempted to create a centralised state, the Arverni did not absorb their neighbours with force. Instead, like many of the tribal societies of Europe, the Arverni instead chose to enact limited wars to secure compliance and by this manner they managed to create a confederacy, with the Arverni being the lead powermongers. At their height in the 2nd century BCE, the Arverni Confederacy extended its influence well across the territory of present-day France, and was rightfully feared by even the Belgae, whom the Romans would label as the fiercest of all Gallic tribes in Western Europe.

This power also bought great prosperity for the Averni, as they not only controlled the many tribes around them, but they also enjoyed the benefits of owning the trade routes which snaked across all Gaul all the way down to Helvetia and the Greek enclave of Massilia. The Averni were also master craftsmen specialised in ceramics. It is said there was no home in Gaul which did not have Arverni pottery, as so great was their reputation for making pots. Gergovia, the Arverni capital, is now believed to have been home to the greatest kilns in Gaul, in terms in quality and sheer numbers. This, combined with Arverni control of the northern trade routes, made them very wealthy and powerful — at their height, the warriors of the Averni had the best weapons and armour in all of Gaul, while their nobles could also import Greek-produced luxury goods. Greek sources state that the Verrix Luernos was clothed in a brocaded robe during a visit to Massilia.

Celtic village azangara Edit

The Gathering StormEdit

But all of this was about to come crashing down.

In 122BCE, consul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (an exceptionally common name for a consul) raised an army and marched to Massalia. The Saluvian chiefs fled to the Allobroges, so Bituitos sent envoys to Ahenobarbus to try and negotiate a peace treaty - but Ahenobarbus, intent on the glory through military conquest so overvalued by the Romans, refused to negotiate on the grounds that the Arverni were rivals of the Aedui, a Roman-affiliated tribe.

In 121BCE a second Roman army arrived under the command of Quintus Fabius Maximus (another very common name for a consul), who apparently brought along a contingent of war elephants, and the Romans marched against the Gauls. First they defeated the Allobroges on the river Sorgue, then moved against the main Arverni force; according to Strabo it numbered 200,000 men against the Roman force of 30,000, but even Bituitos in his chariot of silver and sparkly body armour could surely not afford to provision such a large army. Regardless, the Arverni were soundly beaten near Arausio (Orange).

Bituitos went to Fabius Maximus to offer his surrender, but in doing so he offended the arrogance of Ahenobarbus. In revenge Ahenobarbus treacherously seized him and took him prisoner to Rome. Unwilling to let Bituitos return to Gaul with his honour thus insulted lest he raise another army against them, the Senate allowed Bituitos to live out his days unmolested in the Latin city of Alba Longa near Rome with his son Congentiatos (whose name may have come down to us a little corrupted). As a result, the Arverni themselves were nearly wiped out, and the kingship lost its religious significance and was abolished. Gaul soon afterwards broke once more into chaos, the fragile unity brought by Averni military supremacy now shattered.

The Chief of a Hundred HeadsEdit

However, the battle of Arausio was not the end of the Arverni. By the time of the 1st Century the Arverni had defied all belief by beginning to recover from what had appeared to be a mortal wounding at the hands of Rome. This rising strength enabled the Arverni to, with the help of the Sequani, challenge the power of the Roman-backed Aedui. But even so the Arverni still suffered heavily, and they appeared to be losing the war. When the Sequani proposed inviting the Suebi to help them the chief of the Arverni, Celtillus, was vehement in his opposition. The Arverni and the Suebi hated each other, and Celtillus did not want their help. Nevertheless the Sequani invited them anyway, and brought disaster on themselves when the Suebi turned on the hand that paid them.

Nevertheless, with the Aedui all but wiped out, and the Sequani beaten, the Arverni stood a good chance of regaining their former power. Celtillus began to develop dreams of grandeur, if he had not already, believing the path open to revive the office of Verrix. Thus he set out to unite Gaul. But his dreams were all cut short when his nobility assassinated him out of fear what a united Gaul would bring on them. As the son of Celtillus, the deliberately named Vercingetorix (which means Man who is Chief of a Hundred Heads), was too young to rule so the nobles ruled in his place. However, the sudden rise of the Suebi raised fears of another mass migration of Celts into Italy, and so the consul Julius Caesar was sent to Gaul to forestall any sudden advances into the Italian peninsula. Caesar also wanted to invade Gaul, because he was heavily in debt and needed loot to pay off his creditors. His eventful journey north culminated in the Battle of Bibracte, which secured for Caesar two important elements for his continued campaign - local allies, headed by the Aedui, as well as a supply base for his troops.

The Last StandEdit

Vercingetorix would go on to eventually take control of the Arverni and in time became the leader of the great revolt against Rome in 53. Alongside the Arverni Guard, an elite formation he created, Vercingetorix lead his men into battle. In the Winter of 53 BCE, the Carnutes organised a massacre of Roman traders in their capital of Cenabum (Orléans). At the same time, Vercingetorix took the initiative and seized power among the Arverni. By March, dozens of Caesar's reliable allied tribes had defected. Caesar had outstayed his welcome; the Gauls flocked to Vercingetorix's banner.

Nevertheless, Caesar was not the only one having problems. Vercingetorix himself meanwhile was wrestling with the Arvernian political system. Internal rivalries prevented him from taking control; in the end the Arvernian assembly, led by his uncle Gobannitio ("Servant of the Smith-God"), drove him out of the capital city of Gergovia but Vercingetorix raised an army in the countryside and with it returned to Gergovia and staged a coup, proclaiming himself king. His first act was to dispatch messengers to all the other Gaulish tribes, summoning them to war as was the ancient right of the King of the Arverni. In response, Caesar broke off his engagements in northern Italy and risked a dangerous race through the Alps in winter, linking up with his legions ready for the start of the campaigning season.

Knowing that he could'nt defeat Caesar in open battle, Vercingetorix instead marched to Gorgobina, the stronghold of the Roman-affiliated Boii, and laid siege to it. Caesar meanwhile seized Cenabum and burned it to the ground, and then Avaricum (Bourges), capital of the Bituriges, which he spared, but to no avail. More and more of his allies became disaffected and joined Vericingetorix - including the Aedui, which although historic Roman allies had also long been internally divided on the matter. With the defection of their leader, the Aedui confederacy collapsed, forcing Caesar to split his troops to repacify friendly territory which he desperately needed for supplies. Vercingetorix, still refusing open battle, then moved back to his capital at Gergovia, where Caesar attacked him but was repulsed - with only Caesar's account of the battle it is difficult to say how badly it went, but Caesar was now decidedly on the back foot.

Caesar regrouped his forces however, and Vercingetorix marched his army to Alesia, capital and mighty fortress of the Mandubii, while he sent for the rest of the Gaulish tribes to rally there - his greatest mistake. Although an unassailable fortress, it was not large enough to hold enough supplies for Vercingetorix's defenders. Famously, Caesar built a vast ring of defenses around the city, keeping the defenders in, and a second ring behind that to keep reinforcements out. After a fortnight-long siege, Vercingetorix's men close to starving, the Gaulish reinforcements finally arrived. Vercingetorix sallied; but neither force was able to break the siege and they retreated. The next day, famously, Vercingetorix turned himself in and threw his weapons at Caesar's feet. He was was paraded through the streets of Rome in Caesar's triumphal procession, then left to rot in a cell where he was quietly strangled in 44 BCE.

LegacyEdit

Surprisingly, the Arverni received fairly lenient treatment at Caesar's hands, but by now were reduced to mere subjects of Rome, and they have been a part of whatever larger power controls most of Gaul ever since.

Even so, they cast a long shadow. It must be said, until the 19th century the Gauls were more or less a forgotten people; historians bickered over details of origin myths tracing the earliest inhabitants of France to Troy, and, rather like how England continues to do to this day, counted French history to really begin with the invasions of the Germanic tribes after the fall of the Roman Empire. But in 1828, a man named Amédée Thierry published a book called "The History of the Gaulish since the most distant times"; from thereon France's recognition of its Iron Age heritage has really taken off.

In 1866, Emperor of France Napoleon III commissioned a statue of Vercingetorix, seven metres tall, to be built on the site of Alesia. The inscription on its base reads:

La Gaule unie
Formant une seule nation
Animée d’un même esprit,
Peut défier l’Univers

ReferencesEdit

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