This week: Roman battles

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, painted c.1899 by French artist Lionel Royer (1852-1926).

As any Asterix fan will tell you, the siege of Alésia occupies a special place in the French psyche.

The climactic action of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul took place in September 52 BC – two years before the adventures described in Goscinny and Uderzo’s indomitable tales – and is referenced throughout the comic-book series.

One running joke has it that Alésia is the name that must never be uttered. Another repeated gag is the image of Vercingétorix, the vanquished Gallic chieftain, laying down his arms with a mighty crash, right on top of Caesar’s sandle-clad feet.

As we learn this week on The Past, however, Alésia was no laughing matter.

The battle itself was a classic of siege warfare: an innovative double encirclement – of the Gallic settlement of Alésia, in Burgundy – that would be imitated down the centuries by other armies, including the Soviets at Stalingrad in 1942-43. Over the course of a month, the besieged Gauls (and a large relief army sent to rescue them) were gradually impaled on the hastily erected Roman fortifications, until noble Vercingétorix was finally hauled off in chains to garland Caesar’s triumph in Rome.

But while Alésia remains of great interest to students of military history, its real legacy is as a symbol of national trauma, and of the brutal subjugation of Gaul – roughly corresponding to present-day France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and parts of Switzerland, Germany, and Northern Italy – before the conquering might of Rome.

According to many historians, Caesar’s Gallic War (58-50 BC) should really be seen as a deliberate act of genocide – a ‘Celtic holocaust’, during which two-thirds of an estimated population of three million either perished or were enslaved, and which paved the way for five centuries of Roman rule.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, Richard Hodges visits the scene of the siege, and examines how Alésia still haunts the imagination more than 2,000 years later.

Also this week in CWA, David Breeze, who guided us through the story of Qasr Bshir Roman fort in our latest edition of The PastCast, revisits another of the Roman Empire’s most spectacular sites – Aquincum in Budapest – to celebrate the 130th anniversary of its ground-breaking museum and archaeological park.

Elsewhere on The Past, we have been delving into the archives for more about Roman battles: we looked at how the Gallic War raged across north-west Europe for almost a decade; we travelled to Cumbria in search of evidence of a long-forgotten battle in the Lake District; and we examined a remarkable discovery at the site of the famous Roman defeat at the Teutoburg Forest.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is themed around Roman battles. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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