Julius Caesar parleys with Divico. Painting by Karl Jauslin for the publication «Schweizergeschichte in Bildern» (Swiss history in pictures), 1885.
Julius Caesar parleys with Divico. Painting by Karl Jauslin for the publication «Schweizergeschichte in Bildern» (Swiss history in pictures), 1885. Museumsverbund Baselland

Divico – a forgotten national hero

Around 200 years ago, just when there was a shortage of heroes, the myth of Divico was born. As the chief of the Tigurini people of Helvetia, he made history on account of his brave deeds and the often disrespectful way he talked to Julius Caesar.

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner

Katrin Brunner is a self-employed journalist specialising in history and chronicler of Niederweningen.

The Helvetii are not accustomed to supplying hostages; they are more used to taking them. This is how Gaius Julius Caesar quoted the pugnacious Tigurinian Divico at the end of the 2nd century BC. Divico and his tribe claimed the territory along the present-day Jura Mountains as far as Lake Geneva. Feeling the ever-growing pressure from the tribes from the north, Divico and his people in turn set out to find new land resources. This quest led them to the regions of present-day Burgundy and southern France. A sub-tribe of the Helvetii, the Tigurini crossed the home territory of other peoples, and they weren’t peaceable about it. They were considered hostile. In 107 BC, the Romans and the Helvetii finally came face to face at Agen in southern France. The Roman troops had responded to the cries for help from the resident and now threatened peoples, also out of their own interest: They wanted to put an end to the expansionist desires of the Nordic peoples and protect the borders of their empire. The ensuing battle, however, was to end in disgrace for the well-equipped Roman troops, in which, among other things, their commander, Consul Lucius Cassius Longinus, was killed.
The Romans are enslaved after the Battle of Agen. Painting by Charles Gleyre, 1858.
The Romans are enslaved after the Battle of Agen. Painting by Charles Gleyre, 1858. Wikimedia
It wasn’t until June 58 BC that a painful defeat on the banks of the Saône brought the Helvetii to the negotiating table. Julius Caesar taught them an appalling and bloody lesson. According to Caesar’s perhaps somewhat propagandistic report, his people very swiftly built a bridge over the river in order to chase the defeated Helvetii and give them a further beating. Their adversaries, on the other hand, tried to get across the river using simple means such as dugouts and logs lashed together. The Helvetii did, in fact, seem to have been impressed by the Roman troops, and were subsequently willing to parley. During the negotiations that followed, Divico didn’t hesitate to point out that the Helvetii had learned from their fathers and ancestors that it was more effective to fight with bravery than with guile. In actual fact, in previous battles luck had been on the side of the Helvetii.
Negotiations at the Saône. Historical painting by Karl Jauslin.
Negotiations at the Saône. Historical painting by Karl Jauslin. Wikimedia
His bold appearance and his sometimes irreverent speeches towards the Roman proconsul and later autocrat Julius Caesar made Divico an early “William Tell”. His death in July 58 BC, on the battlefield of Bibracte, where the Tigurini and other Helvetian tribes fought and lost against a superior Roman force, was heroic. Even though this battle broke the hold of the Helvetian peoples in the region, Divico became a legend. Along with William Tell, whose story has been told in countless different versions since the 15th century, Divico had what it takes to become a national hero. To the extent that Conrad Ferdinand Meyer summarily relocated the scene of the Battle of Agen to Switzerland. That’s where the battle is fought in his 1882 poem Das Joch am Leman (The Yoke at Lake Geneva).
Pencil sketch of Divico by Karl Jauslin, 1882.
Pencil sketch of Divico by Karl Jauslin, 1882. Museumsverbund Baselland
Meyer’s 1882 poem about the Battle of Agen. He arbitrarily shifted the scene to the territory of present-day Switzerland.
Meyer’s 1882 poem about the Battle of Agen. He arbitrarily shifted the scene to the territory of present-day Switzerland. Deutsches Textarchiv
Unlike his counterpart from Central Switzerland, the narrative surrounding Divico was for a long time familiar to a more scholarly society, because Julius Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars, written in Latin, were required reading at universities. But both stories left an enduring impression, and have always been a balm to the Swiss spirit.

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