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“By Toutatis!”

The Historical Inaccuracy of Asterix
Pilote Magazine, Hachette, 1959-2010
Writers: Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
Review by DG Stewart, 18 March 2016

“Asterix” is a comic book series comprising 36 volumes published over almost 60 years. The title character’s adventures have sold more than 300 million comic books and been translated into many languages (including, amusingly given the title character is often depicted fighting Romans, Latin). A national survey in France in 1969 indicated that two-thirds of the population of that country had read at least one of the Asterix comic books. As at the time of writer Rene Goscinny’s death in 1977, total sales in France of the comic book are said to have amounted to more than 55 million copies. “Parc Asterix” is a theme park in Paris based on the character’s adventures, and France has produced postage stamps featuring Asterix and his friends. Such is the title character revered in France that the first French space satellite, launched in 1965, was named “Asterix” in his honour. It is hard to think of any equivalent comic book character, measured by national recognition and success, in any Anglophone country.

Mr Goscinny and Mr Uderzo are described as having used Roman emperor Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” as their “bible” for the historical accuracy of the series. Asterix is depicted as living in a village in what is now Brittany, in around 50 BC. There has been informed speculation that the village is located in Erquy (Côtes d’Amor) The village is described as resisting Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (the region now comprising more or less modern day France).

Some of that success of resistance to Roman rule is attributed in the comic to the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix, which gave the village inhabitants temporary superhuman strength (and averting the need for Asterix to ever draw his sword). Some of the success is otherwise attributed to the Gauls’ plucky stamina.

The Gaullish village is surrounded by no less than four Roman garrisons – which would have been a considerable and expensive array of force against the sole hold-out village. The Gallic War was a brutal campaign. Caesar’s armies fought tribes across Gaul, many of whom had been allies of Rome against the decimated Helvetii tribe. In his narrative on the war in his text “Life of Caesar”, Roman historian Plutarch wrote that “For although it was not full ten years that he waged war in Gaul, he took by storm more than eight hundred cities, subdued three hundred nations, and fought pitched battles at different times with three million men, of whom he slew one million in hand to hand fighting and took as many more prisoners.” Gaul was then sacked for its gold and silver – as Plutarch says, “For these did not learn of the victory until the wailing of the men in Alesia and the lamentations of the women were heard, as they beheld in the quarters of the enemy many shields adorned with gold and silver, many corselets smeared with blood, and also drinking cups and tents of Gallic fashion carried by the Romans into their camp.”

Plutarch was certaintly exaggerating, and is indeed famous for that. But the violence in the Gallic War must have been extreme. “Asterix”, with that historical backdrop, is reminiscent of the US television series “Hogan’s Heroes” (CBS, 1965-1971) in its depiction of Nazis as goofy and inept villains rather than genocidal butchers of the Third Reich: Caesar is not quite Colonel Klink, the bumbling Nazi camp commander of “Hogan’s Heroes”, but he is depicted as easily outwitted by the cunning Asterix. The reality is that Rome smashed the many tribes of the Gauls in this war, and left the dead and wounded of all ages and genders scattered like chaff across the countryside of ancient France.

But the reality of the Roman occupation of Gaul after the war was however more nuanced. Roman governors and administrators were very likely to leave well alone the vast majority of the tribes in Gauls in its empire, and generally exercised considerable tolerance of religious beliefs, freedom of movement, customs and lifestyles. Disturbing the Gauls with unnecessary brutality after the war’s conclusion was not on the Roman agenda, and no doubt, if Plutarch is correct, the male population of Gaul’s tribes had been significantly diminished by the war. By 16 BC, Gaul was calm enough so as to be a staging platform for Roman invasions of Germania (modern day Germany).

The etymology of the name Asterix has been explained by Mr Uderzo in interviews. Vercingetorix was the leader of the Gauls in a notable rebellion against Julius Caesar in the late 50s BC, the last of a series of battles which had occurred between Rome and various tribes from Gaul over the preceding 350 years and which included the sack of Rome in 390-387 BC by Celtic tribes from Gaul. Vercingetorix is described Caesar, in his “Gallic War”, as a Gallic nationalist.

Upon his army being defeated by superior Roman soldiery at the Battle of Alesia, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar by laying down his arms at Caesar’s feet (repeatedly depicted in an amusing fashion in “Asterix” by Mr Uderzo as the defeated Gaul dropping various metal swords and weapons directly upon Caesar’s sandal-clad feet and thereby causing Caesar to yell in pain). Vercingetorix’s fate was grim, however: he was sent to Rome in chains and was executed in 46 BC.

Vercingetorix’s name was the catalyst for the decision by the creative team during the comic’s development in 1956 that all of the Gauls in the comic should have a name ending in “ix”. This convention was followed in the English translation of the comic, although some of the names of major characters were significantly altered so as to be more accessible to an Anglophone audience: the tone-deaf village bard Assurancetourix (‘assurance tous risques’, or ‘comprehensive motor insurance’) is instead Cacofonix; the French dog Idéfix is Dogmatix.

And so there is no historical foundation for the naming process of the characters, and certainly the names of Gauls generally did not end in “ix”. Other notable Gauls had names such as Bolgias, Cerethrius, and Acichorius – admittedly, Latinised versions of Gaullish names but which were very unlikely to have the suffix “ix”.

(As an aside, the translators of “Asterix” from French to English were presented with other issues in respect of some of the jokes. “Asterix” is known for sly parodies of classic works of art. The most famous of these is the reworking of Géricault’s very famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” as a lifeboat for a ramshackle and disgruntled party of pirates in “Asterix the Legionnaire”. In the French original work, a pirate cries out, “Je suis medusé” – “I’m medusa-ed/dumbfounded”. But this wordplay does not work in English, and so “Je suis medusé” was replaced by “We’ve been framed, by Jericho!” – the word “framed” directing the reader to note the parody of the oil painting.)

Mr Uderzo has otherwise noted that as for “Asterix”, if the title commenced with the letter “A” then as a consequence of alphabetical organisation the comics would be placed first in the bookshop shelves and libraries. “Asterix” is not the name of any known Gaul in history, and instead is a reference to the character being the “star” of the title. In addition, the costumes worn by the characters (perhaps especially supporting character Obelix’s striped blue and white pants) have no correlation to what the Gauls wore in Roman times.

Paris (the Roman name was “Lutece” or “Lutetia” as translated into English) is sometimes depicted in Asterix as a village sitting on what is now Île de la Cité. It would be nice to think that ancient Paris did indeed resemble this depiction.

The “Asterix” volumes are charming and entertaining books, but it is perhaps best not to rely upon them as faithful ancient history texts.