The enemy knew that he was coming by the scarlet cloak which he always wore in action to mark his identity; and when they saw the cavalry squadrons and cohorts following him down the slopes, which were plainly visible from the heights on which they stood, they joined battle. Both sides raised a cheer…
De bello Gallico VII, 88
Caesar’s De bello Gallico, his self-serving memoir devoted to his brilliance in Gaul as he strove to become Rome’s dictator, once gave me nightmares. The Latin tortured me. It was the set book for my O-Level exam in the ’60s. To be fair, for a 15-year-old gripped by archaeology, Caesar’s story was not dull, especially as I then lived in Wiltshire, an English county filled with Iron Age hillforts. It was the minefield posed by the tediously precise conjugation that tripped me up. And, of course, I failed. But I had a benign schoolmaster. He loved archaeology, and nurtured me through the test the second time, at which point I stopped overly thinking declensions and subjunctives, and about Caesar’s extraordinary siege of Alésia in Burgundy.
Now that Latin exam has come vividly back to life. If only I had had the chance before that exam to visit Alésia as it is today, with its snaking trail through a luxuriant landscape, an archaeological site set in golden cornfields, a disturbingly contemplative statue to the defeated Gallic noble, Vercingétorix, and a MuséoParc for the ages. Seeing it with your own eyes, the evidence on the ground shows that Caesar possessed not only extraordinary self-belief, but matchless organisational and strategic gifts. He also executed a Celtic genocide, in the words of the popular historian Dan Carlin. Of an estimated Gallic population of three million, one million perished and a further million were enslaved in the name of Rome and Caesar’s ambition.
It really is hard to credit such a violent clash of cultures in such a calming corner of France. Julius Caesar campaigned to conquer France for five years before the war of attrition reached its climax at Alésia. The patchwork quilt of tribal territories vacillated in their submission to the Romans. Then, in 52 BC, Vercingétorix led a coalition in an uprising that proved to be pivotal. Caesar resisted his nemesis, but only just, until Vercingétorix and his army sought refuge in the Mandubian hilltop oppidum of Alésia on Mont Auxois.
Vercingétorix could never have envisaged Caesar’s response. Recognising that the Gauls had superior numbers, including cavalry, Caesar set about a siege. Many armies, from the Crusaders at Antioch in 1098 to the Soviets at Stalingrad in 1942-43, have imitated the Roman’s awesome ingenuity and determination. First a trench was cut, stretching ten miles around the base of the Gauls’ oppidum. It was partly filled with water from the little Ozerain river, concealing menacing contraptions. Next a fortification was erected encircling the entire area. This fortification was in places two lines of ramparts with interval towers, and within it, stationed regularly, were the camps that contained Caesar’s legions. This fortification defended the aggressors from any approaching Gallic relief army. It also committed the Romans to finish the war – to win or lose – paradoxically trapped in a sense by an enemy without and within.
Four battles ensued. Almost certainly the outcome after a month was closer than Caesar describes to his readers. The Gallic relief army numbering tens of thousands impaled themselves on the outer ring of fortifications, just as Vercingétorix’s besieged troops did in the killing ground around the Ozerain. Caesar provides a blow-by-blow account. It culminates in him, dressed in his scarlet robes, leading cohorts to staunch a breach in his siege defenses. You can almost hear the war-horns, as this balding 48-year-old paces his story. Their yearning, keening howls were intended to terrorise, like Stalin’s organs at Stalingrad. Victory assured, the noble Vercingétorix surrendered to his nemesis. He was taken to Rome to garland Caesar’s triumph, and then six years later was ceremonially garrotted at Rome’s Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The Mandubian oppidum itself was given the Roman treatment. Like other fortresses, it was urbanised with streets, public buildings, shops, and grand townhouses. The Romans quickly capitalised on the extraordinary resources enjoyed by the Gauls.
Indebted to Napoleon III
Today, schoolchildren come in droves to marvel at this civilised hilltop metropolis. Alésia has a profound place in the French psyche, thanks to Napoleon III. Perhaps sensing the nationalism in surrounding countries, he reinvented Alésia. Between 1861 and 1865, his archaeologists – with the aid of engineers – plotted much of the Roman siege works. Then Napoleon added his own memorial to the Gauls: a towering bronze statue to Vercingétorix by the Parisian sculptor Aimé Millet. Finished in 1865 and first displayed in Paris, the noble chieftain was lent the facial features of Napoleon himself and took a contemplative stance. Soon, the great statue was taken by horse-drawn cart to the west end of Alésia and erected above the plain where the Gauls met the invader. Here, his long thick hair parted down the centre of his head, with his hands reaching for his great sword, the noble Gaul – like those from Hellenistic and Roman sculptures – became a French talisman. Many copies and riffs on this great image have followed. Perhaps the most celebrated of all are the comic-strip stories of Asterix and Obelix that, in Albert Uderzo’s playful rendering, owe their features and form to the bronze statue. Here, in a sleepy but blissful corner of Burgundy, is a French trope that today is itself under siege in a post-colonial age. What makes this place so important for all archaeologists is that the MuséoParc boldly tackles exactly these issues of ethnicity.
We were staying in Flavigny-sur-Ozerein, next to a barn that claims to be ‘Caesar’s Seat’. The name might be wishful thinking, but a modern LiDAR survey shows that this picturesque village was indeed one of Caesar’s camps encircling Alésia. It also happens to be the village made famous by the film Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche, in which Johnny Depp sails into the town on a barge. No such river exists. The hill is a citadel looking out over a verdant valley of copses, vineyards, and meadows inhabited by herds of white Charolais cattle. A signposted trail leads from Flavigny’s late medieval postern gate down the hillslope and through the thick oak woods directly opposite to Alésia. Thomas Hardy’s Dorset comes to mind.
The first section follows the north-facing girth below Camp Drouot, another of Caesar’s camps, before dropping down to cross the Ozerain. Lost in the thick spring vegetation is a near-perfect humped-back bridge, almost certainly of Napoleonic date. The path then winds its way past a public washing shed, up to the east end of the Iron Age oppidum. From here, in glorious countryside, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain stands proud above its lush garter of trees. At this east end, Vercingétorix had his command post. Every angle that fateful September must have reminded him, as it does today, of lush farming.
The trail continues along a track bisecting the oppidum. Ancient Alésia soon emerges from the rolling cornfields at the west end, where one of the excavated areas can be visited. The path then cuts across to the very western tip of Mount Auxois. Here, the statue of Vercingétorix stands in bare, open ground, visible to all below. The chief’s eyes are downcast, almost melancholic, gazing longingly at the valley beneath. From here, a flight of wooden steps leads into the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, clinging to the side of the hill.
Past the Auberge de Cheval Blanc, the trail follows the road through the village and its Napoleonic mairie, before dropping down to the MuséoParc. Bernard Tschumi’s post-modern edifice sits like an abandoned spaceship in open country. Reconstructed tracts of the Roman defensive works lie in its grounds, evoking the menace that troubled Vercingétorix. The MuséoParc, devoted to explaining what happened here, also has a good terrace restaurant.
I will come to this challenging venture in modern archaeology in a moment. Enough to say that no visitor will be indifferent to the experience. It compels you to have opinions.
To return, the trail leads back up the hill towards Alise-Sainte-Reine and then for half a mile along the valley-bottom road to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, before turning right to a watermill straight out of a belle époque French drama. The track then plunges upwards once more into the thick woods below the falaise on which the Romans were encamped. It ascends and dips for over a mile before reaching a fork below Camp Drouot. Here, taking a steep holloway, the trail arrives on the hilltop among acres of sunflowers and corn, and curves around to a farm, from which a discreet path dips down into Flavigny-sur-Ozerian. The walk is about seven miles and takes around three hours. Much of it follows old lanes through thick deciduous woodland. Unsurprisingly, it is the luxuriant beauty of the rolling landscape rather than the memory of a month of visceral violence that remains in the mind. The opulence of colours cannot have been lost on the great actors involved in the siege of 52 BC.
The Iron Age oppidum is little more than a shadow today. The faint outline of its once-powerful defences can be made out in places. But great gates and the outworks of that era have been eclipsed by what happened afterwards. Much of the long saddle-backed hill today is filled with wheat, but a segment has been extensively excavated over the past 150 years. Not everyone believed that this was Mont Auxois. Some academics made the case for Alaise in the Doubs region, as well as Salins-les-Bains in the Jura. Once these were discounted, a claim was made for the siege being at Chaux-des-Crotenay in the Jura. Supporters of this location have now truly lost out, as one section of the MuséoParc exhibition makes witheringly clear. Apart from the archaeology, an inscription found on Mont Auxois in 1839 conclusively points to this being Alésia. This dedicatory inscription in Gallic using Latin characters baldly states that: ‘Martialis, son of Dannotalos, offered this building to Uceutis, with the blacksmiths who honour Ucuetis at Alesia.’
The excavations were principally the idea of Napoleon III, who became the first president of France in 1848 and subsequently emperor from 1852 to 1870. Fascinated by history and archaeology, he wrote a book entitled The History of Julius Caesar (1865). To accomplish this, he set out to identify the key sites in Caesar’s memoir of his Gallic Wars. He entrusted the excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine to Eugène Stoffel (1821-1907), a former artillery officer. Three years of excavations began in 1862, supported by the Société des Sciences Historiques et Naturelles, established in nearby Semur-en-Auxois. The Society proceeded to undertake excavations thereafter until university teams took over in 1958.
Judging from the ceramic and numismatic evidence, Caesar saw to the transformation into a Roman town almost at once. Colonising the province involved importing Roman lifeways as much as a taxation structure. Alésia’s theatre dates to the 1st century AD. Much of its upper parts have long since disappeared, but this was conceived for a community of many thousands. Close to it is the Temple of Jupiter, sitting in its own precinct. The forum occupied a large open area. Its cookie-cutter buildings belonged to town life throughout the empire. But it is the more modest craft and residential quarters that catch the eye. Metalworking was obviously important here. The agricultural and metallic resources of this countryside were, by one means or another, fed back into the coffers that nourished the grandiosity of Rome and its politicians.
The town was abandoned in the 5th century. In its place, the hillside village of Alise-Sainte-Reine grew up around a later medieval abbey and half a millennium of urban history ended.
The Greek author Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Caesar’s near contemporary, wrote: ‘Our enemies fight naked. What injury could their long hair, their fierce looks, their clashing arms do us? These are mere symbols of barbarian boastfulness.’ Even so, the Gauls certainly won the respect of the Romans. Caesar, in his memoir, is for the most part flattering of Gallic gallantry and bravery. Arguably the most-celebrated portrayal of these people is the so-called Dying Gaul, a marble statue found in the 17th century in or near Rome, which imitated an earlier bronze version made by the 3rd-century sculptor Epigonus for Pergamon. This heroic pose certainly had a lasting impact on later politicians and poets. Byron wrote of the statue in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand; – his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low –
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one…
Napoleon Bonaparte was so taken with the statue that he had it brought to Paris in 1797, where it remained until his exile in 1815. It was surely this naked masterpiece that was on Napoleon III’s mind when he commissioned the statue of Vercingétorix from Aimé Millet. Made of rivetted sheet copper, it stands 6.6m tall on a 7m-high pedestal made of local granite, designed by the celebrated architect and restorer Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The great chieftain possesses an introspective posture – resigned and defeated. Almost in contradiction to this melancholic pose, the inscription around the pedestal reads: ‘Gaul united, forming a single nation, animated by a common spirit, can defy the universe – Napoleon III in memory of Vercingétorix’. Could Napoleon III have foreseen that he himself would soon be captured and deposed, in 1870 by Bismarck? A last portrait, a photograph of 1872, shows him as both defeated and resigned, much like his Celtic forebear.
Millet’s statue is awash with anachronisms. Vercingétorix has the facial features of the young Napoleon. His long hair and moustache – quintessential Gallic traits – are an invention that have found lasting fame in the Asterix comic strip. The noble’s gear is a real confection: his armour and ornaments are Bronze Age rather than those worn in the late Roman Republic, while his breeches are medieval.
The Alésia MuséoParc
Perhaps inspired by President François Mitterand’s support for the major museum at nearby Bibracte, the site of an earlier battle between Caesar and Vercingétorix, the Département de la Côte-d’Or regional authority carried out a study between 2000 and 2001 aimed at creating a major entity dedicated to the siege at Alésia. The objective was to create an interpretative centre on the Plaine des Laumes that gave visitors the opportunity to understand the history of the siege in 52 BC and its historical consequences. Whoever championed this cause needs to be warmly complemented: it led to the Alésia MuséoParc, which opened in 2012. At a stroke, Alésia was given new meaning as a place.
The Département hired celebrated architect Bernard Tschumi. Known for the Acropolis Museum and the Blue Condominium in New York, he designed a circular building that symbolically represents the Roman encirclement of the Gauls. The striking outer covering is made of larch wood slats that echo the Roman timber fortifications. Its almost stark solitariness on the plain, some distance from a car park hidden in trees, aims to convey its purpose. Inside, the asymmetry of the columns is meant to conjure up the chaotic nature of the battles, from which a new and stable civilisation emerges. It is an altogether sober – if not slightly portentous – invention, which, frankly, is quickly forgotten after visiting the extraordinary exhibition.
The first-floor gallery is reached by an unassuming stair that in no way prepares you for the assault on your senses. A darkened atrium sets the scene like no other I have experienced. Holograms of a dozen or so modern French citizens are quizzed about what it is to be a Gaul/Gallic/French. Behind them, a near continuous sequence of moving and still images respond to the hilarity of their Twitter-length opinions. This introduction, without becoming didactic, shows how we cling to stereotypes and tropes like lifebelts at sea in an increasingly perplexing cosmopolitan ocean. The effect is electric. The heroic Vercingétorix would surely have disapproved, but Julius Caesar before hubris claimed him might have grasped what was happening. It is a triumph.
What follows is a combination of an archaeology exhibit, accompanied by a hologram of an archaeologist in an orange jumpsuit, and a brilliant depiction of what actually happened in September 52 BC. The archaeology is enhanced by state-of-the-art digital technology including LiDAR, ground-truthed by armies of archaeologists. The battles are described through talking statues, no less – Julius Caesar being one, Napoleon III being another – as well as a riveting 10-minute film deploying vivid sketched battle scenes, as well as brilliantly articulated maps. Arrows and animated depictions of the conflict bring to life the clash of two very different armies. Thousands perished in the killing zones in front of the Roman entrenchments.
The exhibition culminates in a gallery illustrating how the myth of the Gauls has inhabited the French psyche. It is both powerful and disturbing, as it would be for any nation to confront how it deploys its historical images in the invention of its own national myths. Last, but not least, is a virtual storage area where the colossal quantities of finds from a century and a half of research can be examined.
Forget the architect’s high-minded conception, what knocks you for six is the sheer audacity to treat the past this way: to show how invested the present is in narratives that were created for political purposes. The designers of the MuséoParc certainly took me by storm. Even Asterix has been respectfully banished to history. Outside, on the plain, after this assault on the senses, the full-scale reconstructed lengths of fortifications and ditches, with watchtowers and tents, are almost as tame as the archaeology on Mont Auxois. There’s no doubting the public appetite for treating a sacred past this way: presently, nearly half a million visitors annually come to be immersed in this narrative for a post-colonial age.
Winners and losers
The MuséoParc now occupies my mind as much as the gloriously opulent countryside in which Julius Caesar and Vercingétorix fatefully resolved their destinies. Apart from the ethnicity issues, as Russia brings terror to Ukraine, it is mightily hard not to feel for the oppressed Celts. In very different ways, both the visitor centre and countryside make you think anew about France, not just in Roman times, but as a modern nation-state. That said, to be sure, any SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of this corner of France would pick out, ranking with Caesar’s legacy, the fine wines from the Domaine de Flavigny-Alésia, as well as the sublime gastronomy at Régis Bolâtre’s Auberge de Cheval Blanc, in the shadow of Vercingétorix’s melancholic statue. Caesar rather than Vercingétorix has lent his name to one wine, such are the perverse vagaries of history, too often in the hands of those telling it. Now, more than 50 years since I studied De bello Gallico, following the Alésia trail, I grasp so much more about the spare Latin prose, its calculated rhetoric, and the exultant hubris of its narrator.
Richard Hodges is President Emeritus of the American University of Rome.
All images: © Richard Hodges, unless otherwise stated