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Vercingetorix › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 14 January 2016
Vercingetorix (Carole Raddato)

Vercingetorix (82-46 BCE) was a Gallic chieftain who rallied the tribes of Gaul (modern-day France) to repel the Romaninvasion of Julius Caesar in 52 BCE. His name means "Victor of a Hundred Battles" and was not his birth name but a title and the only name he is known by. The Gauls kept their birth name a secret, known only to themselves and their close family, since they believed that knowledge of a person's true name gave others power over them. Vercingetorix is described as a tall and handsome charismatic leader, an inspiring public speaker, and demanding general. He is considered the first national hero of France for his defense of the land and was greatly admired in his time even by his enemies.


Little is known of Vercingetorix prior to his rebellion of 52 BCE except that he was the son of an aristocratic Gallic chief and a respected member of his tribe. Vercingetorix's father, Celtillus, was an aristocrat and leader of one of the strongest tribes in Gaul, the Averni, who commanded the allegiance of some lesser tribes. The Averni maintained a long-standing feud with another Gallic tribe, the Aedui, who had their own allies to help maintain the balance of power. Although the tribes had united to attack and loot Rome in the 4th century BCE, they did not much concern themselves with matters outside their region.
The traditional lifestyle of the Gallic tribes was forced to change, however, when Germanic tribes began crossing the Rhine River into their territory. The Germanic Helvetii tribe found themselves uprooted by others on the move and crossed into the region of Gaul known as The Province (modern-day Provence, France). At this time, Julius Caesar was governor of nearby Hispania (modern Spain) but had moved into The Province and expanded his control there. When the Helvetii petitioned Caesar to allow them to enter the region he refused and then attacked. The Helvetii were easily defeated, but their incursion into the lands under Caesar's control caused him to consider the many other Germanic tribes and the possible problems they might raise in the future. He enlisted the aid of the Gauls as mercenaries to supplement his forces and drive the Germanic people back across the Rhine into their own lands. Vercingetorix was among these Gauls Caesar employed and led cavalry units for the Romans against the Germans in these battles. He gained valuable experience at this time in Roman warfare and tactics, which he would make use of later.


After the problem of the German incursion had been settled and they were driven from Gaul, Caesar expanded his control of the region and began instituting Roman law and culture. The Gauls refused to accept this new status as a conquered nation, especially because they had been so instrumental in driving out the Germans. A Gallic leader named Ambiorix of the Eburones tribe raised his people to revolt, claiming their right to freedom in their own country. Caesar took command of the Roman forces himself, instead of trusting the mission to one of his generals, and attacked the Gauls without hesitation or mercy. The Eburone tribe was massacred as an example to any others who might dare raise a force against Rome and, to underscore his message, any survivors were sold into slavery and the tribe's lands burned.
Map of Gaul

Map of Gaul

Vercingetorix could not stand for this and counseled for war on Rome to avenge the Eburones, but the others on the tribal council of elders were not willing to take the risk. Vercingetorix's father had died and he was now in the position of head of his tribe. He ignored the counsel of the elders and took it upon himself to drive the Romans from Gaul. He attacked Cenabum in 52 BCE and massacred the Roman settlement there to avenge the massacre of the Eburones. He then handed out the supplies of food the Romans had stored to his people and armed them with weapons the Romans had stockpiled. He sent messengers through Gaul to spread the word of his victory, inviting all to join his cause and save their homeland from conquest ; almost all of the tribes responded.


Caesar was out of the country at this time and had left his second-in-command, Labienus, in charge. Labienus had never dealt with a guerilla war like the kind Vercingetorix now waged: making swift strikes on the Romans and their supply lines, then disappearing into the surrounding landscape. There could be no victory for the Romans because there was no enemy for them to engage. The Gauls struck and vanished like spirits and, besides this, it was now winter in Gaul and Labienus already had little enough food even before his supplies had been cut. If Caesar had depended upon Labienus to win Gaul for him the whole of the country's history would have been different. Caesar was not that kind of leader, however, and when he heard of the revolt and Labienus' troubles, he mobilized his army. Nothing would stop Caesar from reaching Gaul and destroying the rebel forces, and he marched his men through blizzards and over mountains, through snow up to six feet deep sometimes, to accomplish his goal.


Hearing of Caesar's march on Gaul, Vercingetorix expanded the scope of his scorched earth policy; everything which could help the Romans in any way was destroyed. Whole cities, villages, even personal farms and homes were burned to keep them from falling into Caesar's hands and providing food or shelter for his army. The Gauls understood the necessity for this policy and the orders of Vercingetorix were obeyed until he came to the city of Avaricum. There the Gauls pleaded with him that it should be defended, not destroyed, as it was so beautiful and a point of pride for the people. Vercingetorix was against the plan and argued that Rome could easily destroy the city, slaughter the inhabitants, and turn whatever they plundered to their advantage. The Gauls persisted, however, and he grudgingly gave in to their request but refused to be trapped in the city with them. He rode off and camped less than twenty miles away; close enough to be of help, should they need it, but far enough to escape if the battle went to the Romans.
Caesar, at the head of his army, arrived at Avaricum to find it heavily defended and fortified. He immediately lay siege to it, surrounding it with trenches and towers, but the Gauls fought back fiercely. Caesar, in his memoirs of the time, writes:
The Gauls are truly ingenious at adapting ideas and putting them to their own use. They trapped our siege ladders with lassos, and then used winches to pull them within the walls. They caused our siege walls to collapse by undermining them. They are expert at this kind of work because of the numerous iron mines in their territory.And their entire wall was fortified with towers (7.22).
The defenders fought valiantly but were no match for Caesar's determined persistence. When they destroyed one siege engine, he had another built, and no matter how many siege ladders were roped and pulled over the walls, others took their place. Night and day Caesar's soldiers worked hauling earth and building an enormous slanting knoll against the outer wall of Avaricum. The siege went on, day after day, until a heavy storm blew in, and the defenders sought refuge from it indoors.Seeing the walls deserted, Caesar had his men roll one of the siege engines up the knoll and against the city's walls. The Romans then dropped the doors open and entered the city in the midst of the storm without resistance. No quarter was given to the people; of 40,000, only 800 escaped to tell of the massacre.
The stories of the fall of Avaricum rallied the country against Rome. Verceingetorix's army almost doubled in numbers in the following weeks. He continued his tactics of guerilla warfare, burning bridges, cutting supply lines, and carrying out effective strikes on Roman foragers. At the Siege of Gergovia, Vercingetorix managed to manipulate the situation so that the Gauls who had been enlisted by Caesar to guard his supply lines turned on them instead. Caesar was defeated in a direct assault led on the town and was forced to move on without taking it.
The chief advantage Vercingetorix had over Caesar in every encounter was his cavalry which could out-fight, out-run, and out-maneuver the Roman forces. Caesar recognized he needed horsemen who could equal the Gauls and so enlisted his former enemies, the Germans, who were well known for their skilled horsemanship.
Reconstruction of the Rampart of the Circumvallation, Alesia

Reconstruction of the Rampart of the Circumvallation, Alesia


Vercingetorix continued his surprise attacks on the Roman forces but was surprised himself when his cavalry was put to rout by the German mercenaries. He was driven from the field after one such skirmish and pursued. With no time to find a safe place in the countryside to hide, Vercingetorix led his men to the city of Alesia, which he then fortified as strongly as he could in the time he had.
Caesar arrived soon after him and, after surveying the city and the surrounding lands, he set up siege works, just as he had done at Avaricum, but also built defenses around his army to prevent attack from reinforcements which might try to relieve the defenders and lift the siege. Vercingetorix and his Gallic forces, as well as the citizens of the city, who had been taken surprise by his arrival, were trapped inside the city walls, and the food steadily began to run out. Vercingetorix first released all his horses and as many of his men as he could spare to go bring help; some of them were able to break through the Roman lines and escape. He then sent the citizens of Alesia out through the gates, hoping the Romans would let non-combatants pass as these were mostly the elderly, women, and children; the Romans lines held fast, however, and these people died slowly of starvation and the elements in the noman's land between the two adversaries.
Vercingetorix's cousin, Vercassivellaunus, had been sent out with his cavalry to bring reinforcements when Vercingetorix had first arrived at Alesia. He returned now with a sizeable force and struck Caesar's lines to the northwest at a small gap in the siege works. Seeing help arrive, Vercingetorix ordered his men out of the city to strike at the same place, and the two Gallic forces caught the Romans between them. The Roman line began to crumble, and victory seemed near for the Gauls. Caesar, watching from a tower, put on his well-known red cloak, instantly recognizable to his men and to the enemy, and entered the battle himself, encouraging his men as he struck down the enemy with his own sword. The Romans rallied and drove the Gauls back, winning the battle.
The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul


All hope was now lost behind the walls in Alesia. The hoped-for help had been defeated and driven off, and siege would continue. Vercingetorix understood there was no escape for himself and his men. At this point two different versions of events emerge: according to Caesar, the Gallic chiefs in Vercingetorix's army decided to hand him over to end the siege while, according to the historian Cassius Dio, Vercingetorix surrendered himself, taking Caesar and his staff by surprise in their camp. According to Cassius Dio, Vercingetorix "came unannounced, appearing suddenly at a tribunal where Caesar was seated in judgement" (40.41). Dressed in his finest armor, Vercingetorix was an imposing figure, even in defeat, and Dio claims that many in Caesar's camp were startled; though not, it seems, Caesar himself. Without saying a word, Vercingetorix slowly removed his armor and then fell to his knees at Caesar's feet. Dio writes, "many of those watching were filled with pity as they compared his present condition with his previous good fortune" (40.41). Caesar was not filled with pity, however, and had him taken away in chains and sent to prison in Rome. The defenders of Alesia were massacred, sold as slaves, or given as slaves to the soldiers for their service during the siege. When Caesar had completed the last details of his conquest of Gaul, Vercingetorix was dragged from his prison to appear in Caesar's triumphal parade through the Roman streets; then he was executed.
Although defeated, Vercingetorix's fame grew, and he became a popular cult figure and legend shortly after his death. The scholar Philip Matyszak notes that "the Gauls never forgot the time when they had united as a nation" and how "today he is widely recognized as the first national hero of France" (127). The courage and resolve of Vercingetorix as he risked his life and the lives of his people to resist foreign conquest and enslavement still inspires people in the modern day, and his name continues to be honored among the great heroes of the ancient world.

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 07 March 2018
Aethelflaed (Anonymous)

Aethelflaed (r. 911-918 CE) was the daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 871-899 CE) and became queen of Mercia following the death of her husband Aethelred, Lord of the Mercians (r. 881-911 CE). She is best known as the “Lady of the Mercians” who defeated the Vikings and established English rule which would be consolidated by her brother Edward the Elder (r. 899-924 CE) and lay the foundation for the reign of the first recognized English king, Aethelstan, who was king of the Anglo- Saxons 924-927 CE and King of the English 927-939 CE.
Aethelstan is recognized by later historians as a pivotal figure in British history for his achievements in defeating the last of the Viking strongholds, centralizing the government, and establishing Britain as a potent force in European politics. It is unlikely, however, that he would have been able to accomplish what he did were it not for the influence of Aethelflaed of Mercia.
Her reign was so effective that she would eclipse those of contemporaries such as her brother Edward the Elder in Wessex and, in her own time, she seems to have been more widely respected than even her famous father. Aethelflaed continued the policies initiated by Alfred in accord with Aethelred but, after her husband's death, ruled on her own as she orchestrated the policies and practices which resulted in diminishing the power of the Danes in Britain and allowed for unification of the land under Edward and later Aethelstan.



Nothing is known of Aethelflaed's youth and she only enters the pages of history at the age of 15 or 16 when she was married to Aethelred. Her probable date of birth is 870 or 871 CE based on the approximate date of her marriage. Her name most likely means “overflowing with nobility” according to scholar Joanna Arman (32). “Aethel” means “noble” but the meaning of “flaed”, again according to Arman, is unclear but “could mean something like `flood', or something flowing over.” (32). Her name has also been translated as “noble beauty”.
Aethelflaed's mother was Ealhswith, a noblewoman of Mercia. Ealswith came from a long line of Mercian nobles just as Aethelflaed's father, Alfred, was descended from the royalty of Wessex. Sources regularly cite Aethelflaed as Alfred's oldest daughter but it is unknown whether she was also his oldest child. Her brother, Edward, appears to have been younger than she was.
There can be little doubt, however, that Alfred's children were brought up in an atmosphere of piety, scholarship, and devotion to family and country which were all defining characteristics of the king. Arman notes how young women who dedicated themselves to the church and renounced the world were provided with a good education but that “there are allusions to all of Alfred's five children, including his two daughters who did not go into the church, having enjoyed an education.” (74).
In the same way that her brother Edward was provided with a tutor, so too may Aethelflaed have been. It is apparent from her later rule and court life that she was highly educated and cultured. It is unlikely, however, that Alfred himself would have spent much time with his daughter as he was occupied throughout her childhood fending off Viking incursions into Wessex.
Statue of Aethelflaed

Statue of Aethelflaed

The Vikings had first appeared in Britain in 793 CE when they landed off Dorset and sacked the priory of Lindisfarne, slaughtering the monks and carrying off anything of value. From that time on, Britain was at the mercy of these raiders from the sea who struck without warning, slaughtered without discrimination, and plundered at will.
By the time Alfred was a prince and military commander, in c. 865 CE, these raids had transformed into full-scale invasions under the leadership of skilled warriors like Halfdane (865-877 CE) and his brother Ivar the Boneless (c. 870 CE). These two commanders led the massive invasion of the Great Army in 865 CE which proved itself invincible, defeating every force thrown against it, and conquering every region they entered.
Alfred and his brother, Aethelred of Wessex (r. 865–871 CE), met the Vikings in battle at Reading and were defeated but at The Battle of Ashdown in January of 871 CE their combined forces drove the Vikings from the field and proved Alfred's skill in battle. His victory did nothing to halt the Viking incursions, however, and he was afterwards defeated and driven into hiding.



It is unknown whether Aethelflaed would have accompanied her father into exile. The sources - which only focus on the king and not on his family - only note that Alfred traveled in secret, and often disguised, with a small company of men. He was forced into this position by a Viking raid on Chippenham led by the Viking warlord Guthrum (died c. 890 CE) in 878 CE which caught him and his army completely by surprise. Alfred and his family were at Chippenham celebrating Christmas when the attack was launched and, since anyone who did not manage to escape was killed or enslaved, it is more than probable that Alfred took his family with him when he fled.
After a few months in hiding and conducting guerrilla raids on Viking settlements, Alfred was able to mobilize a sizeable force and defeated the Vikings under Guthrum at The Battle of Eddington in May 878 CE. This was the decisive engagement which gave Alfred the power to finally dictate terms to his opponents who, thus far into his reign, had consistently held the upper hand. Guthrum and thirty of his chieftains were baptized as Christians as part of the treaty and they swore not to raise arms against Wessex again.
Although the Vikings kept their word and stayed clear of Wessex, the treaty in no way stipulated that they had to leave Britain;and so they stayed and fortified previously established settlements in Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia. In 886 CE Alfred drove the Vikings from London and secured it and, shortly afterwards, arranged the marriage between his eldest daughter and the king of Mercia, Aethelred.


Although it is sometimes claimed that Aethelflaed's marriage was arranged to secure an alliance between Wessex and Mercia, this is inaccurate. The two regions were already allied by the marriage of Alfred and Ealswith decades before and Aethelred had already accepted Alfred as his lord prior to 886 CE. A more accurate understanding of the marriage is that it was a display of unity which not only renewed each region's commitment to the other but made a clear statement of strength to the Vikings.
Aethelred was at least ten years older than Aethelflaed and had probably been betrothed to her early on. He had accepted Alfred as his overlord as early as 883 CE following Alfred's victory at Eddington. Aethelred is referred to as a great Christian warrior who fought against the heathen Vikings but there is no record of how he became king of Mercia. However it happened, he had control of the region by the 880's CE and was a powerful warlord at the time of the marriage.
St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

St Oswald's Priory, Gloucester

Aethelred and Aethelflaed began their reign from the city of Gloucester, not far from Wessex, and close to her family's estates.Even though later romantic traditions would come to characterize their union as a loveless marriage of convenience, there is no evidence for this claim. They had one daughter, Aelfwynn, who is first named on a land charter in 903 CE but was not old enough to sign it as a legal witness. She may have been born shortly after the marriage but her birth date is unknown. William of Malmsbury, writing much later, claims that the birth of Aelfwynn almost killed Aethelflaed and she took measures to make sure she had no more children.


Aethelred and Aethelflaed worked in accord with Alfred of Wessex and mirrored his Burghal System of defense - in which fortified towns could easily be reinforced by others within a day's march - as well as his educational policies. Following Alfred's lead, they invited men of learning from other countries to Mercia to teach their clerics Latin and further other educational goals.They also restored, improved, and rebuilt cities and towns which had been damaged or destroyed during the Viking Wars.
The peace Alfred had won from the Vikings at Eddington and then at London, however, were only temporary respites in the struggle between the people of Britain and the Norse invaders. Although the period afterwards was somewhat less stressful, Viking raids and difficulties between Viking settlers and others continued, and in 892 CE the situation worsened when a new host of Viking raiders arrived under the leadership of the Dane Hastein (also given as Haesten). Alfred and Aethelred fought repeated engagements against Hastein from 892 CE until Hastein disappears from history in 896 CE. He may have been killed in battle but it seems this would have been noted; most likely he either left Britain or died of natural causes.
King Alfred died in 899 CE and was succeeded by his son Edward. Edward sent his son, Aethelstan, to the Mercian court in 900 CE to be raised by Aethelred and Aethelflaed alongside their daughter. Aethelstan would remain in Mercia throughout his younger years, educated at the court with his cousin Aelfwynn, and would later gain military experience on campaigns with Aethelred and then with Aethelflaed.
England Around 910 CE

England Around 910 CE

The king and queen of Mercia were great patrons of the church and freely endowed different priories and churches with large sums of money. They sent a raiding party into hostile territory to retrieve the bones of St. Oswald – the pious king of Northumbria who had founded the priory of Lindisfarne – and built a priory to house them at Gloucester. They would both be interred in this building, close by the relics of the saint, after their deaths.
They were especially generous to the church at Worcester who, in return, agreed to pray for them and dedicate services or at least psalms to their honor and for their continued health. In spite of these prayers, around 902 CE, Aethelred was stricken with a disease which seems to have incapacitated him. It would worsen over the next few years and, during this time, Aethelflaed effectively ruled alone.


Sources from this period reference Aethelred's illness and make clear that Aethelflaed was the defining power in Mercia. The most famous story comes from the Irish Annals and recounts how, in 907 CE, a Norwegian Viking named Ingimund came from Ireland with his troops to “Aethelflaed, Queen of the Saxons, for her husband Aethelred was sick at that time” asking for a place he could peacefully settle in (170).


She granted him lands near the city of Chester but, after he had settled his people there, he noticed there were even more attractive areas around what he had been given. He then complained to the neighboring Danes and other Norwegians that he had been given too little when he deserved so much more and initiated a plan to take Chester by force.
Aethelred is mentioned repeatedly throughout this story as being “sick”, “very sick” or “sick and on the verge of death” (171-173). Messengers arrived at the court to tell the queen about Ingimund's plan and, even though Aethelred is cited as party to the response, it seems to have been Aethelflaed who prepared the battle plan that saved the city.
She first gathered a large army and then instructed the people of Chester on how to deploy the troops outside the city and fight with the gates open. Inside the city walls a much larger troop of cavalry would be stationed and, at a given point, the army outside should give way before the Vikings and retreat through the open gates where the troop of horse would be unleashed on the invaders.
At the same time, Aethelflaed wrote to the Irish who had allied themselves with Ingimund and appealed to them as friends who had been wronged by a common enemy. She asked them why they were fighting in the interests of those who had invaded their own country against her people who had never done them any wrong and further suggested the Irish chiefs should ask the Vikings what lands and goods were promised them for risking their lives in a cause not their own. Her letter was effective and, either just before or during the battle, the Irish switched sides.
The defense of Chester worked almost as Aethelflaed had planned. The defenders retreated and the cavalry massacred the Vikings who followed them. The attackers refused to give up, however, and the battle went on as the people of Chester defended the city by pouring boiling hot beer down on the Vikings from the walls. When the Vikings defended themselves with shields, the defenders hurled down the hives of honey bees while continuing to scald the Vikings with beer until the attack was called off and the city was saved.
Miniature of Aethelflaed

Miniature of Aethelflaed


Aethelred died in 911 CE with no male heir and Aethelflaed became sole ruler under the title “Lady of the Mercians”. In Asser's Life of King Alfred (written c. 893 CE), the author goes on at length regarding the custom in Wessex of not allowing a woman to sit as queen alongside a king because of a former queen who abused her power and position. In Mercia, however, the queenship had long been respected even though no woman had ever ruled the kingdom alone before. It is to Aethelflaed's credit that there is no record of any challenge to her succession.
Her brother Edward either took or received London and the surrounding lands from her shortly after Aethelred's death and this transaction has been interpreted by some later historians as sealing a deal in which Edward recognized the legitimacy of Aethelflaed's reign. Edward and Aethelflaed worked together afterwards to enlarge the burh system of both their regions and join them together for a tighter network of defense.
Arman notes how “they occasionally brought armies with them to clear their paths of any Vikings” (160). Edward's burhs were constructed as a show of kingly authority and military strength while, according to Arman, Aethelflaed had a different focus:
Aethelflaed seems to have been asserting her lordship by ensuring her kingdom was well defended. Her new burhs were more than just defensive structures, however; they were also planned towns. Inside the walls of many burhs the streets were laid out neatly according to the old Roman pattern, with four main streets intersected north to south and east to west and smaller side streets veering off them. People were encouraged to settle, and the men who served in the garrison may have been given `burgage' plots within the town where they could live with their families. (162)
Aethelflaed oversaw the construction of these burhs between 912-917 CE while also fighting off Viking attacks and attending to the business of governing Mercia. In 909 CE, Edward had launched an offensive into the Danelaw in which the soldiers sacked villages and slaughtered inhabitants for over a month. In retaliation, the Vikings struck back at Mercia.
In 916 CE, an abbot named Ecgberht was murdered along with his companions while possibly on a diplomatic mission from Mercia to Wales. Arman, citing the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle, writes, “Aethelflaed's response was swift, decisive, and ruthless.Within three days, we are told, she had raised an army and marched them into Wales.” (191).
In 917 CE she again took the field at the head of her troops in a campaign against the Danes of Derby and was victorious. The next year she marched on Leicester which surrendered without a fight and these victories convinced the Danes of York to submit to her rule peacefully. The leading men of York were preparing for a formal submission when Aethelflaed died at Tamworth, possibly of a stroke, on 12 June 918 CE.



Her daughter Aelfwynn succeeded her but only for a few months before she was deposed by Edward who claimed Mercia for Wessex and united the regions under his rule. Aelfwynn was brought to Wessex by Edward but what happened to her after that is unknown. The Mercians opposed domination by Wessex and it seems likely that Edward positioned his son Aethelstan – who by that point was more a prince of Mercia than Wessex – as a mediator at this time. When Edward died in 924 CE, his son by a second marriage, Aelfweard, succeeded him but died only 16 days later.
Aethelstan was proclaimed king by the Mercians and was then reluctantly accepted by the nobles of Wessex to become King of the Anglo-Saxons and, eventually, the first recognized king of the English people. Among his early achievements was completing the work Aethelflaed had begun by conquering the city of York and uniting England under a single ruler in 927 CE.
Aethelstan had grown up at the court of his aunt and uncle in Mercia. His education had been entirely their responsibility and, most likely, this fell more to Aethelflaed than her husband. Aethelstan's great achievements in education, law, foreign policy, and building projects would all have been influenced by his early years in the court of Mercia.
Historians two centuries later would write of Aethelflaed as a great ruler, far more than they would of Edward or even Alfred the Great, and acknowledged her influence over the prince who became the greatest king of his age. These same historians, most notably William of Malmsbury, also recognize Aethelflaed's significance in her own right as a woman who effectively ruled her kingdom during a time of crisis and left a lasting legacy for her people not only through her influence on her nephew but chiefly by her own accomplishments.


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