Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ancestral Gauls

Here's an amusing trivia question, to test your knowledge of history.

This tomb is located in an abbey in Farnborough (famous for its air show) on the southern coast of England, but the man in the tomb was a foreigner. In his native land, in the middle of the 19th century, this man had the exceptional honor of being, not only the first elected president of that nation, but also its last reigning monarch. Who was this illustrious foreigner? And what was the land in which this man had been both a president and a monarch?

The man in question was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte [1808-1873], the nephew of France's first emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte [1769-1821]. In 1848, Louis-Napoléon took advantage of the family name to get himself elected as president of France's Second Republic. Then, in 1851, he initiated a coup d'état that enabled him to become the emperor of France, referred to as Napoleon III. Finally, in 1870, his armies were defeated by the Prussians, and France's Second Empire ceased to exist. Here's an etching of a dramatic encounter, after their final battle, of the defeated Frenchman and the victorious Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck.

The last emperor of France was forced to flee to England, and he died in Kent. Some 15 years later, the emperor's remains were transferred to the Catholic abbey in Hampshire… and it's not at all certain that the English are prepared to hand them over to France.

I've brought up the subject of this much-disparaged French ruler because I want to evoke the legendary ancestors of the French, referred to collectively as the Gauls. In 52 BCE, their celebrated leader Vercingétorix was forced to surrender to Julius Caesar after the defeat of the Gauls on the battlefield of Alesia, near Dijon in Burgundy.

Much of the enduring folklore concerning the Gauls was created during the reign of Napoleon III. In particular, the emperor arranged for a statue of Vercingétorix to be set up at Alesia.

It's quite funny to compare this statue with the various portraits of Napoleon III. There's little doubt that the facial features of the French emperor, with his imposing mustache, were used as a model for the chieftain of the ancient Gauls.

This image of Vercingétorix gave rise, in turn, to the appearance of our comic-book hero Astérix. At present, there's a major exhibition in Paris concerning the Gauls, and specialists concerning this ancestral people consider that they probably didn't look anything like what France's 19th-century artists have led us to believe.

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