Why had Caesar spared Vercingetorix’s life… for 5 years?
I will not describe here the well-known facts about one of the most famous conflict between Romans and Gauls – the Battle of Alesia. Many books on Celts and many documentaries deal with the subject but I would always pause at the same place thinking that how Caesar had treated Vercingetorix in the end is not really logical.
Namely, when Vercingetorix decided to surrender and rode alone straight into the Roman ranks, Caesar had two logical options: 1. To kill him then and there or 2. To keep him alive due to some form of respect. But Caesar decided to do something quite strange – he kept him alive, humiliated him publicly every year and then had him executed at the end of the 5th year. Was Caesar really so sadistic, and was his ego really hurt so much, that he needed 5 years to get bored with humiliating his opponent before deciding to do what he could have done on the very day of the battle? Something was not logical but all the sources that I have seen state pretty much that this was the way Caesar demonstrated his might over the savage Gauls until he simply got bored. And that is the end of it.
However, Diodorus Sicilus brings out a very interesting information on Gaulic customs:
“And in pursuance of their savage ways they manifest an outlandish impiety also with respect to their sacrifices; for their criminals they keep prisoner for five years and then impale in honor of the gods, dedicating them together with many other offerings of first-fruits and constructing pyres of great size. Captives also are used by them as victims for their sacrifices in honor of the gods. Certain of them likewise slay, together with the human beings, such animals as are taken in war, or burn them or do away with them in some other vengeful fashion. ” Diodorus Sicilus V-32.6.
I believe that thanks to Diodorus we can finally understand the real reason behind this story and also have a glimpse into the mind of Caesar, which was in this case practical and cunning, rather than sadistic. By doing what he did he had actually sent a message – not to his fellow Romans but to the whole of Gaule, whose warriors were not afraid of losing their life on a battlefield, but to whom honor was very important. So this message in a nutshell could be the following: “Rome respects your laws, but stand up against the mighty Rome and you will end up imprisoned, dishonored and dead – not as a hero, but as a criminal you are.”
Now this could really be a message worth waiting… for 5 years?
“Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar” by Lionel Royer.