History of the Arverni
The Arverni were a powerful tribe of central and southern Gaul during the latter half of the Iron Age until the Roman conquest of Gaul. They are perhaps one of the better-known peoples of peri-Mediterranean Europe in this period, thanks largely to the great rebellion against Julius Caesar’s occupation of Gaul which they spearheaded in 52 BCE under their famous leader Vercingetorix, a figure still recognised today in France as a national hero.
Who were they?
The origins of the Arverni as an ethnic and political entity, referred to for convenience hereafter as a “tribe”, is impossible to reliably establish; one must remember we are dealing with Prehistory. However, a highly characteristic ceramic tradition, a widely-accepted method for identifying tribal groups in the northwestern European Iron Age, which continues into Arvernian times, can be traced back to approximately 300 BCE. This then is the best date we have for the emergence of the people calling themselves the Arverni. Their chief city at this time was called Nemossos, modern Clermont-Ferrand.
Gaul, at this time, which essentially encompasses the territory of modern-day France but extends eastwards as far as the Rhine, was divided into numerous small tribes, probably mostly ruled by kings. Gaul was the heartland of what is called the Celtic culture, which, at its greatest extent in the later third century BCE, covered to a greater or lesser degree most of Western and Central Europe; it may have developed along western Gaul, Iberia and the British Isles in the later Bronze Age out of traditions coming ultimately from Anatolia or the western Steppe. The Celtic culture was characterised by relatively closely related languages; shared religious beliefs and other social customs; and, by the Iron Age, the Hallstatt and La Tene material cultures, which developed between 1200 and 500 BCE in the region north of the Alps, had also been added to this cultural package. Early modern attempts to rediscover and identify the Celts rested on attempts to equate either language or material culture with populations or “races”, however, the picture is altogether more complex; the nature and origin of the Celtic presence in many regions of Europe are still very poorly understood.
Nearly all Gauls were country-dwellers and farmers. They lived in rectangular thatched houses, usually made of timber, in settlements varying in size from single homesteads and small hamlets to large walled hillforts and densely populated fortified towns. They had a middle class, composed of specialist craftsmen such as smiths, leather-tanners and storytellers, as well as petty warriors; and a twofold upper class, made up of influential international holy men known as “druids”, and on the other hand of landowning warrior-chiefs – however the two functions could overlap. They had law-codes, carefully passed down by the druids, and coinage, learned from the Greeks and Romans they traded with and raided; they had carefully maintained roads, they had cities, spectacular artwork, large quantities of precious metals; they were the inventors of chain mail, a form of protection which would remain an armour of choice until the proliferation of gunpowder, and the power of their political leaders was carefully circumscribed. These people were barbarians par excellence; but they were not mindless savages.
The name “Arverni” is Gaulish, a language related to modern Breton, Welsh and Irish, and probably means “the people of the alder (ar-uerno-)” – although other glosses have been proposed, such as “the superior (ar-uer-no-)” and “the dwellers of tilled land (aru-erno-)”. Inscriptions recording a god “Arvernus”, evidently the patron of the tribe, are known; but whether the tribe takes its name from the god or vice versa is unknown.
Early history: 400-121 BCE
The earliest historical mention of the Arverni is in the works of the first century Roman historian Livy, who mentions them briefly as one of the major tribes of Gaul around 400 BCE, and they are again mentioned briefly during the Second Punic War when, according to Livy, an Arvernian ambassador guided an army sent to reinforce Hannibal through southern Gaul – however, neither of these comments can be verified. The Arverni really enter history in the late second century BCE, when the Romans decided they would try to link up their possessions in northern Italy and Marseille with their Spanish provinces overland. Unfortunately, this brought them into direct conflict with the Arverni, whose power at this time was at its height. According to Livy all the tribes of Gaul elected a king of one of the tribes to rule over them; at the time of the Gallic sack of Rome around 390 BCE this king was from the Bituriges, but by the second century it seems the Arverni, according to Strabo, had inherited this position. Their hegemony certainly extended over most of south-central Gaul. The historian Poseidonius relates the story that their king Louernios (“Foxy”) was so wealthy that he used to ride among his followers in a chariot, scattering coins as he passed. Archaeology tells us that the territory of the Arverni was also exceptionally densely populated, in contrast to the sparse settlement pattern of most other parts of Gaul. Whether the story of Louernios’s lavish displays of wealth is true or not, the Arverni were certainly by this time extremely powerful in Gaul.
The fragmentary and sometimes contradictory nature of the historical record for this period makes it difficult to recount in any detail the conflict between the Romans and the Arverni for control of the southwest Mediterranean coast of Gaul. However, a general picture can be sketched. The Greek city-state of Massalia (Marseille), whose immense prosperity was founded on Gaulish demand for Greek goods and their inestimable position at the mouth of the Rhine to control trade, had allied with the Romans at the beginning of the third century BCE; and in 125 BCE, according to the Roman account, they called on the Romans to fulfill their side of the bargain and repel the attacks of the local Ligurian tribe, the Saluvii. The Romans responded to the call; however, networks of alliances and systems of clientage and obligation, perhaps not fully understood by the Romans, meant that very rapidly more powerful neighbouring tribes were drawn in; first the Vocontii, then the Allobroges, and finally the all-powerful Arverni under their king Bituitos (“Worldly” or “Owner of the World”), son of Louernios.
In 122 BCE, 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 Roman allied tribe the Aedui. In 121 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 at the Battle of the Confluence 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).
The Gallic War: 58-50 BCE
The defeat and capture of Bituitos marked the end of uncontested Arvernian hegemony of Gaul. Their power was broken, their territory diminished, most of their vassals and allies locked on the wrong side of the new Roman border of the province of Transalpine Gaul. They disappear from the history books for the next sixty years. By the time of Caesar’s invasion, they were still a force to be reckoned with – but they no longer had a king, and Gaul could no longer be united behind one leader against foreign oppression. The Arverni do not feature for the first six years of Julius Caesar’s random marches across Gaul; his wars with the Germans, and then the Belgae, and then the Bretons, and then the Britons, and then the Belgae, and the Germans. But in 53 BCE, a magistrate and nobleman of the Arverni named Celtillos stirred up trouble by attempting to restore the Arvernian monarchy to replace the elected magistracies. He was executed for treason by the other magistrates, but this was a grave error; for Celtillus’s son was named Vercingetorix.
Vercingetorix (“High Warrior King”) had fought under Caesar’s banner, the leader of a squadron of allied Gaulish cavalry; he knew how Caesar fought. 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, making himself leader of the Anti-Roman Party. By March, dozens of Caesar’s reliable allied tribes had defected. Caesar had outstayed his welcome; the Gauls flocked to Vercingetorix’s banner.
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. This was another mistake however; in a matter of days the charismatic and persuasive Vercingetorix had 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. The still powerful Bituriges defected from the Aedui; and even the Ruteni in Transalpine Gaul, long Roman subjects, joined his cause, thereby endangering Caesar’s principal foothold. 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.
Vercingetorix knew that he could no defeat Caesar in open battle, and instead marched to Gorgobina, the stronghold of the Roman-allied the 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. Historian Christian Goudineau sees in this an attempted strategy by Vercingetorix to wear Caesar down with sieges in hostile territory- but underestimated Caesar’s penchant for rapid assaults.
Even Caesar’s victory however turned against him; 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 Aeduan 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.
The war for Gaul went on for another two years after that before the whole country was finally pacified, but the Arverni had no part in it. Vercingetorix 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. The Arverni were reduced to mere subjects of Rome, and they have been a part of whatever larger power controls most of Gaul ever since.
And yet- 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 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 in French:
Forming a single nation
Animated by the same spirit
Can defy the Universe.