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Gergovia

GERGOVIA

Between 58 and 53 b.c. Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul had dealt successively with the east, north, and west of Gaul, but the center had remained virtually unscathed, especially the Massif Central, the homeland of the Arverni, the most powerful tribe in Gaul in the second century b.c. and still a major force in the first century. Among the Arverni, the leader of the anti-Roman group was a young noble, Vercingetorix, who attempted a coup d'état during the winter of 53–52 b.c. but was expelled from the main town, Gergovia. The setback was short-lived; Gergovia was quickly back in Vercingetorix's hands, and he started building a coalition with the neighboring tribal states to oppose Rome.

Caesar was in northern Italy, but he moved swiftly to combat any attack on the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul. He raised an army and, despite the fact that it was winter, crossed the Cevennes into the Auvergne. He moved on to gather his legions, which were in winter quarters around Agedincum (Sens). With these forces he was able to take the offensive, capturing the oppida (defended towns) of Vellaunodunum (Château-Landon), Cenabum (Orléans), and Avaricum (Bourges). Sending four legions north under Labienus against the Parisii, Caesar returned with the remaining six to attack Gergovia. Vercingetorix had arrived before him and had installed his troops in and around the oppidum.

Caesar describes the town as lying on a high, steep-sided hill, easily accessible only by a col (narrow neck of land joining two pieces of high ground) on the western side. The town was surrounded by a wall, with a second stone wall 2 meters high halfway up the slope; the Gallic forces were camped on the slopes, with garrisons on the neighboring hills. Caesar captured a poorly defended hill at the foot of the town and constructed his "large camp"; he subsequently captured a second hill "facing" the town, on which he built the "small camp," linked with the large one by a double ditch, or "duplex" (Caesar's use of the word "duplex" has been interpreted by some scholars to mean two parallel ditches separated by a pathway, and by other scholars as two ditches on the side facing the enemy protecting the route). Rather than attempt a siege, Caesar launched an attack; though his troops overran the outer wall, attacked the gates, and even mounted the town wall, they were forced to retreat, the only defeat Caesar suffered in the field. It led to a general revolt among the Gauls, and but for a tactical mistake by Vercingetorix, leading to the siege at Alesia, the Romans might well have been forced to retreat from Gaul. The battle of Gergovia had almost changed the course of the history of the Western world.

As early as the sixteenth century the Italian cartographer Gabriele Simeoni located Gergovia on the Plateau de Merdogne just south of Clermont-Ferrand. On the summit there are traces of a rampart enclosing the 75-hectare plateau, with traces of stone buildings, pottery, and Gallic coins. In the 1860s, as part of Napoleon III's research project to identify the sites in Caesar's De bello Gallico, Colonel Eugène Stoffel carried out excavations to locate Caesar's siege works. He claimed to have found Caesar's large camp on the Serre d'Orcet and the small camp on a hill overlooking the village of La Roche Blanche, as well as lengths of the double ditch. The plan prepared by Napoleon III for his Histoire de Jules César (1865–1866), based on Stoffel's excavations, has illustrated almost every edition of Caesar's De bello Gallico since. At a visit by Napoleon III, the village of Merdogne officially changed its name to Gergovie. Unfortunately, the finds from the excavations have been mixed inextricably with those from Alise-Ste-Reine, and no details of Stoffel's excavations were published. The ditches of the large camp were confirmed by excavations in the 1930s conducted by M.-M. Gorce, but his report is fairly schematic and produced no datable finds.

Scientific excavations on the plateau itself between 1932 and 1949 showed that it had been densely occupied in the second half of the first century b.c. and abandoned about 10 b.c. for the new town of Augustonemeton beneath modern Clermont-Ferrand. Only a double stone temple of Gallo-Roman type continued in later use. The excavations located a sequence of small industrial stone buildings on the southern side of the oppidum, where the gateway attacked by the Romans probably lay. A second gate of mortared masonry was found in the southwest corner of the site. The ramparts, still visible on the southern and western flanks of the oppidum, consist of a dry-stone wall, to whose rear stone buttresses have been added; in front there is a terrace 12.5 meters wide, producing a vertical face some 3 meters high. Nothing, however, dated to the period of the Caesar's attack in 52 b.c.

Several other sites have been suggested, most notably the site of the Côtes-de-Clermont, a volcanic plateau to the north of Clermont-Ferrand with Iron Age occupation as well as a Roman temple and settlement. Several books, including a detailed analysis of Caesar's text, have been published, promoting this alternative site. Excavations by Vincent Guichard from 1992 show that the Iron Age occupation is too early for the period of Caesar, and the claimed "defenses" are part of post-medieval field terracing. The supposed Roman structures on Chanturgue (the "small fort") also are more recent field boundaries, and the layout of the town of Montferrand (the "large camp") relate to the medieval planned town, not a Roman fort.

Changes in the dating of Late Iron Age finds also mean that some from the traditional site can be dated to the middle of the first century. Excavations elsewhere, however, show that there was a succession of sites predating the foundation of Gergovie: an open settlement at Aulnat (second century b.c.), followed by the oppida of Corent (c. 120–80 b.c.) and Gondole (c. 80–70 b.c.). Thus, the Greek writer Strabo's statement that Vercingetorix was born at Gergovia is unsupported. Ongoing excavations show that the history of the rampart on Gergovie is more complex than was assumed, with a Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age rampart preceding the stone wall; the buttresses represent an Augustan reconstruction. Guichard's excavations on the "forts" excavated by Stoffel have confirmed the ditches, with finds typical of the middle of the first century b.c. as well as Roman military equipment (stone ballista balls, iron catapult points). The Lac de Sarliève, which Caesar's large camp overlooks, has been shown by recent excavations to be a post-Roman phenomenon, which accounts for Caesar's not mentioning it. The traditional site thus can be accepted as Gergovia.


See alsoWarfare and Conquest (vol. 1, part 1); Oppida (vol. 2, part 6).



bibliography

Brogan, Olwen, and Émile Desforges. "Gergovia." Archaeological Journal 97 (1940): 1–36.


Chatelet, P., and H. Chatelet. "Eugène Georges Céleste Stoffel, 1821–1907." Association site de Gergovie 14 (1997): 5–20.

Deberge, Yann, and Vincent Guichard. "Nouvelles recherches sur les travaux Césariens devant Gergovie (1995–1999)." Revue archéologique du centre de la France 39 (2000): 83–112.

Eychart, Paul. La bataille de Gergovie (Printemps 52 av.J.C.): Les faits archéologiques, le sites, le faux historique. Nonette, France: Editions Créer, 1987.

Gorce, M.-M. César devant Gergovie. Tunis, Paris: Editions Le Minaret, 1942.

Holmes, Thomas Rice Edward. Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. London: Macmillan, 1899.

Napoléon III. Histoire de Jules César. 3 vols. Paris: Plon, 1865–1866.

Provost, Michel, and Christine Mennessier–Jouannet. LePuy–de–Dôme, pp. 33–44, 266–291. Carte archéologique de la Gaule Series 63/2. Paris: Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1994.

Texier, Yves. La question de Gergovie: Essai sur un problème de localisation. Vol. 251. Brussels: Collection Latomus, 1999.

John Collis

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