Siege of Gergovia, May 52 BC
The unsuccessful siege of Gergovia (May 52 B.C.) was the only major setback suffered by an army led in person by Julius Caesar during the entire Gallic War.
At the outbreak of the Great Gallic Revolt the Gauls had hoped to prevent Caesar from rejoining his legions in northern Gaul. When this failed Vercingetorix attacked Gorgobina, a move that forced Caesar to pull his legions out of their winter quarters in an attempt to lift the siege. As the Romans moved south they captured a series of towns (Vellaunodunum, Cenabum and Noviodunum). Vercingetorix was forced to abandon the siege of Gorgobina, and after a minor cavalry clash at Noviodunum was forced, somewhat against his will, to assist with the defence of Avaricum. Despite his best efforts this town soon fell to the Romans, and was subjected to a ruthless sack and massacre of the population.
The fall of Avaricum came at the end of the winter of 53-52 B.C. and the improving weather convinced Caesar that he could risk a wider campaign. He split his army of ten legions in half. Four, under his most able lieutenant Labienus, were sent north into the lands of the Senones and Parisii, who at that point were the most northerly tribes to have rebelled. Caesar himself led the remaining six legions south to attack Gergovia, in the lands of the Arverni, Vercingetorix's own tribe.
Caesar's plan was disrupted by the first signs of trouble within the Aedui, his most loyal Gallic ally. This tribe was ruled by an annually elected magistrate, but this year two men, Convictolitanis and Cotus, had been elected by different factions and there was a danger of civil war. Caesar travelled to Decatia (modern Decize), in Aeduan territory, where he found in favour of Convictolitanis. Caesar then requested more cavalry and 10,000 infantry from the Aedui before returning to his legions.
Caesar's next problem was a natural obstacle – the River Allier – which was then too full to ford. Vercingetorix was guarding the west bank of the river, which Caesar would need to cross if he was to reach Gergovia. Eventually Caesar tricked the Gauls by sending four of his six legions on a noisy march down the river, while he remained in hiding with two legions. Once the Gauls had moved after the main force Caesar's men rebuilt one of the bridges over the river and crossed onto the west bank. Rather than risk a battle on Caesar's terms Vercingetorix retreated south to Gergovia, where he camped on a series of hills close to the town.
Gergovia itself was built in a strong position on a steep hill. On his arrival Caesar realised that he wouldn't be able to storm the city, and decided to prepare for a regular siege. Initially all six legions camped together, but after a few days Caesar decided to capture a small hill that he hoped would limit the defender's access to fresh water. Two legions were posted in a small camp on this hill, with the remaining four legions in the main camp on the plains. The two camps were linked by a double trench twelve feet wide which allowed the Romans to pass safely between them.
The Romans were not given the chance to conduct their regular siege. Convictolanis, Caesar's choice as chief magistrate of the Aedui, quickly decided to join Vercingetorix's revolt. He appointed Litavicus, one of his allies, to command the 10,000 infantry that was going to join Caesar. When this force was a few days march away from the Roman camp Litavicus claimed that the Romans had massacred every Aedui in their camp, and produced witnesses who claimed to have witnessed the events. The Aedui reacted predictably, killing the Roman envoys with the army and preparing to march to join Vercingetorix at Gergovia.
This first crisis was quickly defused. Eporedirix, a high ranking cavalry commander who was one of the men Litavicus claimed had been killed, discovered what was happening and informed Caesar. Caesar reacted by leading four of his six legions to intercept the 10,000 Aeduan infantry. When the two forces came face to face Caesar sent Eporedirix into the Aeduan camp, and Litavicus's plan promptly collapsed. He was forced to flee to Vercingetorix, and his men submitted to Caesar, who used them later in the siege.
Before his fall Litavicus had sent messengers back into Aedui territory to spread the story. Convictolanis used these stories to inflame a general revolt, which quickly spread throughout the tribe.
When this news reached Caesar he realised that he would have to abandon the siege of Gergovia and move north to reunite all ten of his legions. His problem was how to find to retreat without it actually looking like that was what he had done.
A chance for a minor success soon presented itself. For most of the siege the hill that contained the Gallic camp had been heavily defended, but one morning the Romans realised that most of the garrison had disappeared. Captured prisoners revealed that the Gauls were building fortifications on a different part of the hills to prevent the Romans from cutting them off. Caesar decided to attack the Gallic camp, a success that would allow him to retreat from Gergovia without loosing face. According to Caesar's account that was as far as the attack was meant to go – once the camp was captured they were to hold their ground and advance no further.
The legions involved in the attack quickly captured the Gallic camp, nearly taking one Gallic king prisoner. Caesar then gave the signal to halt, but only the tenth legion obeyed the order. Led by a number of centurions who Caesar states were driven by greed, the rest of the attacking force attempted to storm the walls. A small force led by the centurion Lucius Fabius even reached the top of the walls, but the Roman attack ended in chaos. Gallic reinforcements soon reached the crisis point, and the outnumbered Romans on the walls were cut off and killed. Caesar had sent his Aeduan allies on a diversionary attack to the right, but when they returned from this attack they were mistaken for hostile Gallic reinforcements, causing a panic. Only the tenth legion and some cohorts from the thirteenth legion prevented the chaos from turning into a rout and eventually the Romans were able to return to their camps. The failed attack on the walls cost them 46 centurions and nearly 700 men.
On the next day Caesar censured his men for their rashness and for disobeying his orders. He was still looking for a way to abandon the siege with some credit, and so after haranguing his men he led them out of their camp and the army formed up in order of battle. Vercingetorix refused to take the bait. Caesar portrayed this as his being unwilling to risk a battle against the superior Roman army, and on the following day led his men back up the Allier. A few days later they were able to ford the Loire and the entire army was reunited in the lands of the Senones.
Vercingetorix (82-46 BCE) was a Gallic chieftain who rallied the tribes of Gaul (modern-day France) to repel the Roman invasion 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.
The Germanic Incursion & Caesar
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.
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.
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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.
The Scorched Earth & Avaricum
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.
The Siege of 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.
Vercingetorix's Death & Legacy
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.
BC-Today in History, FRI MAY 28, HFR
Today is Friday, May 28, the 148th day of 2021. There are 217 days left in the year.
On May 28, 1977, 165 people were killed when fire raced through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky.
In 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, made up of freed Blacks, left Boston to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
In 1912, the Senate Commerce Committee issued its report on the Titanic disaster that cited a “state of absolute unpreparedness,” improperly tested safety equipment and an “indifference to danger” as some of the causes of an “unnecessary tragedy.”
In 1918, American troops fought their first major battle during World War I as they launched an offensive against the German-held French village of Cantigny (kahn-tee-NYEE’) the Americans succeeded in capturing the village.
In 1929, the first all-color talking picture, “On with the Show!” produced by Warner Bros., opened in New York.
In 1934, the Dionne quintuplets — Annette, Cecile, Emilie, Marie and Yvonne — were born to Elzire Dionne at the family farm in Ontario, Canada.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed a button in Washington signaling that vehicular traffic could begin crossing the just-opened Golden Gate Bridge in California. Neville Chamberlain became prime minister of Britain.
In 1940, during World War II, the Belgian army surrendered to invading German forces.
In 1959, the U.S. Army launched Able, a rhesus monkey, and Baker, a squirrel monkey, aboard a Jupiter missile for a suborbital flight which both primates survived.
In 1964, the charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization was issued at the start of a meeting of the Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem.
In 1972, Edward, the Duke of Windsor, who had abdicated the English throne to marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, died in Paris at age 77.
In 1987, to the embarrassment of Soviet officials, Mathias Rust (mah-TEE’-uhs rust), a young West German pilot, landed a private plane in Moscow’s Red Square without authorization. (Rust was freed by the Soviets the following year.)
In 2003, President George W. Bush signed a 10-year, $350 billion package of tax cuts, saying they already were “adding fuel to an economic recovery.”
President Barack Obama praised Poland’s transition to democracy following a meeting in Warsaw with President Bronislaw Komorowski (kah-mah-RAWF’-skee). After a four-year blockade, Egypt permanently opened the Gaza Strip’s main gateway to the outside world. North Korea freed Eddie Jun, an American it had held for a half year for reportedly proselytizing.
A 3-year-old boy fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo he was rescued by a team that shot to death a 400-pound gorilla named Harambe after the rescuers concluded that the boy’s life was at stake, a decision that led to mourning and criticism around the globe. New Orleans Pelicans guard Bryce Dejean-Jones was shot to death by an apartment resident after kicking down the door of what he mistakenly thought was his girlfriend’s flat in Dallas.
Actor Carroll Baker is 90. Producer-director Irwin Winkler is 90. Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry West is 83. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is 77. Singer Gladys Knight is 77. Singer Billy Vera is 77. Singer John Fogerty (Creedance Clearwater Revival) is 76. Country musician Jerry Douglas is 65. Actor Louis Mustillo is 63. Former governor and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., is 61. Actor Brandon Cruz (TV: “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father”) is 59. Country singer Phil Vassar is 57. Actor Christa Miller is 57. Singer-musician Chris Ballew (Presidents of the USA) is 56.
Rapper Chubb Rock is 53. Singer Kylie Minogue (KY’-lee mihn-OHG’) is 53 Actor Justin Kirk is 52. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is 50. Olympic gold medal figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva is 50. Television personality Elisabeth Hasselbeck is 44. R&B singer Jaheim is 44. Actor Jake Johnson is 43. Actor Jesse Bradford is 42. Actor Monica Keena is 42. Actor Alexa Davalos is 39. Actor Megalyn Echikunwoke (eh-cheek-uh-WALK’-ay) is 39. Pop singer Colbie Caillat (kal-LAY’) is 36. Actor Carey Mulligan is 36. Actor Joseph Cross is 35. Chicago Cubs pitcher Craig Kimbrel is 33.
The recovered male skeletons were all soldiers who had died in the famous 480 BC Battles of Himera more than 2,400 years ago, but until now nobody had a clue where they had come from. The researchers found “a potential bias in ancient writings” which they think means Ancient Greek historians intentionally downplayed the role of foreign mercenaries in the Battles of Himera.
In these battles in 480 BC, the ancient Greek city of Himera successfully defended a string of attacks from a Carthaginian army. According to Hellenicaword it is known this army, led by Hamilcar, comprised troops from “Carthage, Libya, Iberia, Liguria, Helisycia, Sardinia, and Corsica against the Sicilians”. However, an accurate break down of the soldiers of this multi-national army has always been elusive from the available evidence.
Now, the authors of the study are comparing the new geochemical evidence to the historical accounts of the battle. Dr Reinberger compared the analysis of isotopes against the claims of Ancient Greek historians and discovered the two data sets didn’t match. Something was far wrong, for the isotopes revealed Hamilcar´s force comprised significant amounts of “mercenaries and foreign soldiers”. But the Greek accounts mentioned little about this.
Mass grave excavated at Himera (Davide Mauro / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
4. November 4, 1958: Dyess Air Force Base, Texas
When a B-47 carrying a nuclear warhead catches fire on takeoff, it’s a problem. That’s what happened when a B-47 left Texas’ Dyess Air Force Base in November 1958 to transport a thermonuclear device to another location. At 1,500 feet it began experiencing trouble. Three of the plane’s crew members ejected safely, but one was killed when the plane subsequently crashed, setting off the bomb’s conventional explosives and blasting a crater 35 feet in diameter and 6 feet deep. All the nuclear components were recovered at the scene.
The Decline of the Maya
Despite the Maya’s remarkable scientific achievements, their culture began to decline toward the beginning of the 11th century. The cause and scope of the decline is a matter of some debate today. Some believe that the Maya were wiped out by war, while others attribute their demise to the disruption of their trade routes. Still others believe that the Maya’s agricultural practices and dynamic growth resulted in climate change and deforestation. While much of what was left of the ancient Maya culture was subsumed by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, the legacy of Mayan scientific achievement lives on in the discoveries that archeologists continue to make about this amazing ancient culture.
Man arrested for attempted kidnapping in Battle Creek
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — A man was arrested for attempted kidnapping in Battle Creek after a similar incident minutes before.
The Battle Creek Police Department says that just before 3:30 p.m. Friday, officers responded to the 1600 block of W. Michigan Avenue near Geiger Avenue in the Urbandale area.
When they arrived, witnesses told them a 38-year-old man driving a red compact vehicle pulled up to a woman riding her bicycle. Police say the man got out of the car from the passenger side, came up behind the woman, pulled her off the bike and tried to get her in the car. Police say people in other cars stopped to help the woman. When the man saw people coming toward him, he let go of the woman, got back into the car and left.
The officer got a description of the man and vehicle involved. They said they had dealt with the man just a few minutes before on a separate incident.
Police say the previous incident happened only a couple of blocks away in the 100 block of Lacey Avenue north of W. Michigan Avenue when the man was found in the backyard of a home. Police say the man was seen driving in the area, then pulled up to a house. He was spotted in the backyard, a woman yelled for help and her brother chased the man out of the yard. When police got there, the car was spotted and contact was made with the man.
Police say they ticketed the man for prowling after the incident on Lacey. BCPD added that due to legislation that went into affect earlier this year, people committing nonviolent crimes are not arrested, but rather issued appearance citations.
The man was arrested for the second incident after a witness identified him.
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Confederate return: End of the war and memory
By January 1864, the strategic situation had changed so much that Corinth was no longer needed by the Union, so the Federal army abandoned the town. The contraband camp was moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and Confederate military units returned to the city. But years of war and occupation had taken its toll, and Corinth would not serve a major role for the remainder of the war. The one exception was that the Confederate Army of Tennessee camped there a short time in the winter of 1864-1865 after its disastrous invasion of Tennessee and defeats at Franklin and Nashville.
The story of Corinth in the Civil War, therefore, is a tale of fighting, occupation, and carnage. But it is also a story of courage and freedom. In order to mark and interpret these Civil War events, the Federal government has taken several steps through the years. The twenty-acre Corinth National Cemetery, established in 1866 immediately after the war, contains the remains of nearly six thousand Union soldiers who fought at Corinth and in the surrounding area. There are also a few Confederates within its walls, but most Confederates are buried in long-lost mass graves around the town.
In the ensuing years, local preservation efforts marked several sites related to the siege and battle, but it was in 2004 that the National Park Service opened an interpretive center in Corinth. A unit of nearby Shiloh National Military Park, this visitor center sits at the site of the climactic fight at Battery Robinett and interprets Corinth’s rich Civil War history. It provides the visitor insight into the many different facets of war that occurred in this northeast Mississippi town that once sat at the crossroads of history.
Timothy B. Smith, Ph.D., is a veteran of the National Park Service (Shiloh National Military Park) who now teaches at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is working on a study of Mississippi’s homefront during the Civil War for the Mississippi Heritage Series, and is also nearing completion of a study of Corinth in the Civil War.
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Yet paradoxically, even as the modern oath's use has burgeoned, its content has tacked away from the classical oath's basic tenets. According to a 1993* survey of 150 U.S. and Canadian medical schools, for example, only 14 percent of modern oaths prohibit euthanasia, 11 percent hold convenant with a deity, 8 percent foreswear abortion, and a mere 3 percent forbid sexual contact with patients—all maxims held sacred in the classical version. The original calls for free tuition for medical students and for doctors never to "use the knife" (that is, conduct surgical procedures)—both obviously out of step with modern-day practice. Perhaps most telling, while the classical oath calls for "the opposite" of pleasure and fame for those who transgress the oath, fewer than half of oaths taken today insist the taker be held accountable for keeping the pledge.
Indeed, a growing number of physicians have come to feel that the Hippocratic Oath is inadequate to address the realities of a medical world that has witnessed huge scientific, economic, political, and social changes, a world of legalized abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and pestilences unheard of in Hippocrates' time. Some doctors have begun asking pointed questions regarding the oath's relevance: In an environment of increasing medical specialization, should physicians of such different stripes swear to a single oath? With governments and health-care organizations demanding patient information as never before, how can a doctor maintain a patient's privacy? Are physicians morally obligated to treat patients with such lethal new diseases as AIDS or the Ebola virus?
Other physicians are taking broader aim. Some claim that the principles enshrined in the oath never constituted a shared core of moral values, that the oath's pagan origins and moral cast make it antithetical to beliefs held by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Others note that the classical Oath makes no mention of such contemporary issues as the ethics of experimentation, team care, or a doctor's societal or legal responsibilities. (Most modern oaths, in fact, are penalty-free, with no threat to potential transgressors of loss of practice or even of face.)
With all this in mind, some doctors see oath-taking as little more than a pro-forma ritual with little value beyond that of upholding tradition. "The original oath is redolent of a convenant, a solemn and binding treaty," writes Dr. David Graham in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association (12/13/00). "By contrast, many modern oaths have a bland, generalized air of ➾st wishes' about them, being near-meaningless formalities devoid of any influence on how medicine is truly practiced." Some physicians claim what they call the "Hypocritic Oath" should be radically modified or abandoned altogether.
Below, see classical and modern versions of the oath.
*Orr, R. D., N. Pang, E. D. Pellegrino, and M. Siegler. 1997. "Use of the Hippocratic Oath: A Review of Twentieth-Century Practice and a Content Analysis of Oaths Administered in Medical Schools in the U.S. and Canada in 1993." The Journal of Clinical Ethics 8 (Winter): 377-388.
Hippocratic Oath: Classical Version
I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant:
To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art—if they desire to learn it—without fee and covenant to give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but no one else.
I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment I will keep them from harm and injustice.
I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.
I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work.
Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves.
What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself, holding such things shameful to be spoken about.
If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.
—Translation from the Greek by Ludwig Edelstein. From The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, by Ludwig Edelstein. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1943.
Hippocratic Oath: Modern Version
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.
I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.
—Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today.
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Caesar's Gallic War
Caesar's Gallic War: Caesar's reports on his conquests in Gaul. The Roman senator Cicero thought it was a splendid text, and although we can recognize the book's bias, it still is a remarkably efficient piece of writing.
Caesar's Gallic War consists of seven parts ("books"), each devoted to one year of campaigning. The first book covers the year 58 BCE: it opens with the war against the Helvetians, continues with a victorious battle against a Germanic army, and culminates in the modest remark that Caesar had concluded two very important wars in a single campaign. In the next book, which deals with the year 57, we visit the Belgians, who lived way up north. Again, the book culminates in a triumphant note: when the Senate received Caesar's dispatches, the august body decreed a thanksgiving of fifteen days, "an honor which, until then, had been conferred on no one".
The next books cover campaigns along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean (Book Three), the invasions of Germany and Britain (Book Four) and the second invasion of Britain (Book Five). The sixth book offers descriptions of some hard fighting in the valley of the Meuse and a second invasion of Germany. Finally, the book dealing with the events in 52 BCE, is probably the most exciting one: it deals with the war against Vercingetorix. We read how the Roman lines of communication were almost cut off, about the siege of Bourges, about an unsuccessful attack on Gergovia, and finally about the siege of Alesia, which culminates in a remark about a thanksgiving of twenty days. (Book Eight, which describes mopping-up operations in 51 and 50, was later added by one of Caesar's colonels, Aulus Hirtius.)
The structure of the description of the siege of Alesia illustrates Caesar's method. If we are to believe him, the outcome of the war depended on one single siege. This may have been correct, but the fact that fighting continued for two more years suggests that things may have been more complex. The outcome of the siege was - according to Caesar - decided on one single day during that day, one single fight really mattered and that clash fight was decided by one man, Julius Caesar, who appeared on the scene when things were going wrong. In other words, it was Caesar who personally won the fight, the battle, and the war. This is splendid propaganda.
For centuries, the Gallic War has been the first real Latin text, written by a real Roman, for children who were trying to master the ancient language. Caesar's language is not very difficult indeed. Cicero says:
The Gallic War is splendid. It is bare, straight and handsome, stripped of rhetorical ornament like an athlete of his clothes. … There is nothing in a history more attractive than clean and lucid brevity. note [Cicero, Brutus 262.]
But the general was not just writing for Cicero and other senators, who recognized Caesar's artful simplicity. In the Roman political arena, Caesar belonged to the populares, who sought legitimacy through the Popular Assembly. (The other tactic was that of the optimates, who focused on the Senate.) Although every Roman citizen had a right to vote in the assemblies, in fact only the urban citizens had an opportunity to do so. For Caesar, it was important to impress the craftsmen and wage workers, and the Gallic War was written for them as well. We must imagine that Caesar's half-literate adherents read his annual dispatches to their fellow-Romans.
Still, the simplicity of his style does not exclude dazzling phrases. The following quote, the longest sentence from the Gallic War, is one single period, which evokes the chaos during the Battle of the Sabis, in which Caesar overcame the Nervians. As usual, he speaks about himself in the third person, a trick to make the text look more objective.
When Caesar, who had addressed the tenth legion, reached the right wing, he found his troops under severe pressure and, because all the standards of the twelfth had had been collected into one cramped space, the soldiers packed so close together that they got in each other's way as they fought, while all the centurions of the fourth cohort had been killed - together with the standard bearer: the standard was lost - and those of the other cohorts as well, including the very brave senior centurion, Publius Sextius Baculus, who had so many terrible wounds that he could no longer stand, and when Caesar saw that the rest of the men were slowing down, and some in the rear ranks had given up fighting and were intent on getting out of range of the enemy, while the enemy in front kept pouring up the hill and were pressing us on both flanks, he recognized that this was a crisis because there were no reserves available, so he snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear ranks - Caesar had no shield with him - and went forward to the front line, where he called out to all the centurions by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the men, whom he ordered to advance and to open out their ranks so that they could use their swords more effectively. note [Caesar, Gallic War 2.25.1.]
It is easy to understand why this sentence is, in most modern translations, divided into three units. However, the chaos of the battle is evoked better if an experienced reader reads these words to his audience in one breath. When the reader runs out of breath, he has reached the climax: Caesar personally intervening and saving the day.
Meanwhile, a more sober analysis of the battle shows that it was not Caesar, but his colonel Titus Labienus who acted decisively. That Caesar in his account of the Battle of the Sabis gives all credit to himself, is unusual: under normal circumstances, he also mentions and praises his colonels and soldiers. Many of them were well-known in Rome and were popular with the masses. Others, like Quintus Cicero and Publius Licinius Crassus, were relatives of well-known senators, who certainly appreciated that their nephews or sons were mentioned.
A Political Geography
It would be exaggerated to say that for the Romans Gaul was terra incognita. Italian merchants and Roman commanders had already visited the valleys of the Rhône and Saône, and Gallic traders had told stories about the territories north and west of Lyon. However, the countries along the Ocean were poorly known. The description of the shores of Gaul by the Greek sailor Pytheas, almost three centuries old, was probably the best there was, and it was probably known only second-hand. Another source was Xenophon of Lampsacus, who believed that up north, one would find people with horses' hooves or ears of an extraordinary size. On the Birds Islands, Xenophon said, people lived on oats and eggs. note [Quoted by Pliny the Elder, Natural History 4.95.]
Inevitably, Caesar makes geographical mistakes. When he states that "the Meuse rises in the Vosges mountains, passes along the island of the Batavians, and flows into the Rhine about 80 miles from the sea", note [Caesar, Gallic War 4.10.1.] he confuses the river with the Moselle, which has its sources in the Vosges. He follows Xenophon when he states that the people along the Rhine have a diet of fish and eggs. note [Caesar, Gallic War 4.10.2.]
Other mistakes are intentional. Caesar knew that people at home had the most fantastic ideas about the edges of the earth, and he carefully exploited these prejudices. The ancients believed that if you left the Mediterranean and moved inland, you would reach increasingly barbarous people, until, when you reached the Ocean at the edge of the world, where ebb and flood occur, the land was inhabited by absolute savages. They lacked civilization, but were extremely brave. Take the famous opening lines of the Gallic War:
Gaul as a whole consists of three separate parts: one is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani and the third by the people we call Gauls, though in their own language they are called Celts. … Of all these peoples, the toughest are the Belgae. They are the farthest away from the civilized ways of the Roman province, and merchants, bringing those things that tend to make men soft, very seldom reach them moreover, they are very close to the Germans across the Rhine and are continually at war with them. note [Caesar, Gallic War 1.1.1, 3.]
The Roman province, the Gauls, the Belgae, the Germans: there is an increase of savagery, and Caesar never ceases to remind his audience of the country he was fighting in. The Ocean shores are often mentioned, even when there is no need to. In an account of an expedition against the Eburones, who lived in the east of modern Belgium, he mentions that some people "fled to the islands that are cut off from the mainland by the high tide". note [Caesar, Gallic War 6.31.3.] This cannot be true. Paleogeologic studies of the Belgian and Dutch coastal area have shown that the Zeeland archipelago did not yet exist the nearest islands were those along the Wadden Sea, more than 300 km away. Still, Caesar seized an opportunity to remind his readers that he was fighting at the edge of the earth, in a barbarous country, against dangerous savages.
The most interesting aspect of his geography is the way he defines his theater of operations: the Rhine is the eastern border of Gaul. He must have known that this is incorrect. The region of the Celtic states continued east of the river, along the Danube, all the way to Bohemia. The language of the Belgae was spoken as far as east as the Ems. Germanic migrants had in Caesar's time settled west of the river. Whatever the Rhine may have been, it was not a border between Celts and Germans.
Caesar's books were intended as an aid for future historians - that's why they are officially called Commentaries, and not History of the Gallic War - but the author often leaves out information that historians would have found interesting. In his continuation of the Gallic War, Hirtius mentions unsuccessful Roman actions and cruel executions of defeated enemies - information that Caesar, in the seven first books, had repressed. There are no accounts of the looting of the Gallic sanctuaries, which are known to have taken place, nor is there any reference to the sale of POWs. The latter can be explained: if a general sold people into slavery, the Senate received a share of the proceeds. By writing that these people had been killed, Caesar could keep the money himself.
/> Model of Caesar's bridge across the Rhine
Sometimes, lack of success was too well known in Rome to be ignored. Caesar explains his setback at Gergovia by blaming his soldiers, who had been over-eager to attack. On other occasions, an ethnographic digression helps to cover up things. In 6.9-10, Caesar's men build a bridge across the Rhine, and the reader is prepared for the invasion of the country on the east bank. Sections 11-28 are devoted to the customs of the Germans, and in 6.29, we learn that Caesar's enemies, the Suebians, had retreated, so that the legions could return. There is not a word about the campaign, which was obviously a disaster.
As it happens, we know what really happened, because the Greek historian Cassius Dio, a really independent mind and a clever historian, states that Caesar accomplished nothing and retired rapidly out of fear for the Suebians. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History 40.32.2.] In other words, the exact opposite of what Caesar claims that had happened. Dio also gives a description of a Roman attack on a refugee camp during an armistice that makes more sense than Caesar's own description of his fight against the Usipetes and Tencteri. note [Cassius Dio, Roman History 39.47.2 cf. Caesar, Gallic War 4.11-15.]
A third occasion on which Dio offers information that Caesar preferred to hold back, is the siege of Alesia. After the decisive fight, the leaders of the besieged Gauls met, and Vercingetorix said that they ought to decide what to do. They sent envoys to Caesar, who demanded them to hand over their weapons, and waited on his throne for the enemy leaders to arrive. The tribal leaders came and handed over Vercingetorix. At least, this is what Caesar writes, stressing that the Gauls themselves abandoned their leader. But it is probably not what really happened: according to Dio, Vercingetorix remained in charge to the very last moment, and surprised Caesar by appearing unexpectedly.
Cicero may have appreciated Caesar's stylistic qualities, but when he compares the Gallic War to a work of history, he only proves that he is a victim of Caesar's superior literary skills. The books were an instrument to influence public opinion at home. Had it been a history of the conquest of Gaul, the book would at least have contained an explanation about the causes of the conflict, but Caesar never explains why he went to war at all.
However, although Caesar's bias is evident, this does not mean that the work has no value at all. The author concentrates on the military aspects of the war, and for the study of ancient warfare, the Gallic War remains one of the most important sources. On the other hand, one can never use his descriptions at face value.
An earlier version of this article was published in Ancient Warfare , 2.4 (2008)