Six hundred years before Old Sarum fell,
the might of Rome faced down the Gallic tribes
on earthen ramparts between circles scribed,
intent to bring rebellion to the quell.
Caesar himself came out to face the Gauls
but Vercingetorix had scorched the land
and left the Legions without ground to stand
until they reached Avaricum’s great walls.
For pity there the Celtic chief forsake
his strategem to render all to ash
that might assist the Empire in the clash,
thinking to starve the Legions ‘till they break.
__The price to pay for tenderness of heart:
__Avaricum’s fair people torn apart.

Avaricum’s fair people torn apart
sent shockwaves through the scattered tribes of Gaul.
Revenge and grief served to inflame them all
and drew their chiefs together to compart
a plan to out-run, out-horse, out-fight Rome
at strong Gergovia, the oppidum
of the Averni: Beat familiar drums,
call Caesar’s slaves up to defend their home.
All along the baggage train the slaves rise
against the Roman rearguard; now the fight
is raging on two fronts. Legions take flight
to escape the burning lines of their supplies.
__The Celts embraced the glory of that day,
__though where pride reigns, defeat may yet hold sway.

Where pride reigns, defeat will find a hold.
Caesar learned his lesson: His investment
of Alesia showed re-assessment,
approach and bearing grim, no longer bold.
The Celtic chieftain occupied the fort.
Romans swiftly dug contravallation
facing the encroaching Gallic nation
who sought to ensure that his siege was short.
The rebels should have won, except that each
tribe vied with the other for the honor
of escorting Caesar to his slaughter.
Rome raced into the wide chaotic breach.
__Vercingetorix could not control
__his men, and thus ended the age of Gaul.

Vercingetorix could not control
his men. The Celts are like that, wild, unruly,
answering to no one. Still, he truly
loved them all, surrendering the knoll
fort of Alesia to save their lives.
For this Rome gave him lasting fame, a long
ride in a small cart through a jeering throng,
strangled to his death in iron gyves.
(Later on, a monument was built
by Napoleon the Third. Not bad
press for our brave Averni comrade
who set the course of empires atilt.)
__One must move mountains to make men unite;
__in this he failed, yet fought the righteous fight.

“In this he failed.” So say textbooks obscure
that relegate a nation to a page,
a paragraph to circumscribe an age
when hill tribes bested empires at war,
when nomadic peoples rode out freely
over marsh and moor, with blue tattoos
upon their handsome faces, leather shoes
dyed red, with crimson laces. How dearly
did they love and fight, adorn their hands
with silver rings, and braid their flaxen hair
with colored strings. To see them, oh, so fair
beneath bright banners, racing through green lands,
__gold sun and silver mist; thus Celts did dwell,
__six hundred years before Old Sarum fell.



Cindy Hill is an attorney and writer living in Vermont. She has been writing poetry since 1970 and been writing professionally since 1978. She has won a number of awards for journalism and short fiction, and the 2002 Ralph Nading Hill award for a narrative poem. Her poems have been published in Literary Mama, PanGaia, Sagewoman, WildEarth, Vermont Life, Measure, and the National Public Radio Themes and Variations program.

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7 Responses

  1. Gail

    Many of my favorite images were recalled to mind by this work of yours. Thank you so much!

    The originals were inspired by the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, a heroine of mine. I regularly reread the titles that are set in Roman Britain. She revised every text three times; it shows!

    • Dave Whippman

      It’s long time since I heard Rosemary Sutcliff’s work mentioned. As a kid, I also loved the historical novels of Henry Treece.

      One has to feel sympathy for Vercingetorix and his unfulfilled dream of Gallic independence; but the organisation and determination of Caesar’s men were awesome! By the way, in the current “woke” climate, how long before the statues of the Roman emperors are torn down? Or maybe empires get a free pardon if they are not English-speaking.

      • Gail

        I think most of the woke folk need an audience who will applaud. Are there enough who know or care about the history of Rome’s emperors? Probably not.

        I’ll have to look up Henry Treece.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    A good poem about the intensity of the Celtic fighting spirit. Those of Celtic blood have always shown especial prowess in battle. Consider the New York Irish Brigade during the Civil War, which fought fiercely, and took more casualties than any other Union unit. Or the Scottish Black Watch Battalion in World War I, who were so terrifying in their kilts and pipes that the Germans called them “Die Damen aus der Holle” (the Ladies from Hell). Just the skirl of those Black Watch bagpipes spread fear through the German trenches.

    There’s one verbal problem in the first stanza. In line 9 “forsake” can’t work, because the past tense for that verb is “forsook,” which would require a different rhyme in line 12. To keep “forsake,” you’d need to change “Celtic chief” to the plural “Celtic chiefs,” and change “his stratagem” to “their stratagem” in the following line.

    • Cindy Hill

      Thanks– I did indeed take poetic license on the verb tense. Meanwhile I think my next Celtic band has got to be named The Ladies from Hell. (My present Celtic band is merely named O’hAnleigh after the founders’ family name.)

  3. Yael

    Very nice! I love a well-rhymed history lesson, even if there’s a problem with a verb’s past tense. It seems like that could be fixed rather easily. The drama and suspense fit the subject matter really well, IMO. This is much better than just the average deadly dry rehearsal of historical events; it’s actually worth reading and re-reading, for the sake of the poetry and the history, thank you.
    Having grown up with all the Asterix comic books and movies I can well appreciate the tale of Vercingetorix retold.

    • Cindy Hill

      Thanks so much, Yael! I loved those Asterix comic books too! I have visions of one day writing the epic movie about Vercingetorix, but alas that would involve having a rudimentary knowledge of screenplay-writing, which I do not have.


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