Meanderings through France ~ Alesia Museum in Burgundy: a new vision of Roman occupation of Gaul
To French people the Alesia battle is a symbol of the Gallic resistance to the Roman occupation and was therefore used for decades by successive governments to promote a patriotic spirit. Between 1870 and 1960 generations of French pupils learned how Vercingetorix the charismatic Gallic leader valorously fought the Machiavellian Julius Caesar and his Roman legions. It was seen as a metaphor of the antagonism of these years between France and Germany. Nowadays those hateful feelings are long forgotten and recent archeological research intends to restore a historical truth. The Alesia Museum was built in 2013 to promote this view of the French history of that time.
Gaul was first conquered by Romans around 120 BC and most of its southern part was occupied. They saw the Gallic people as tall and hairy men but most of all they coveted their legendary wealth. There were about 60 different Gallic tribes and a total of 9 to 10 millions inhabitants. It got more and more difficult to them to bear Rome domination and most of all the heavy taxes. In 58 BC Julius Caesar pretending that German tribes were trying to invade Eastern Gaul came across the Alps with his armies and invaded Gaul as far as Belgium and Brittany and further on he conducted the first invasion of Britain. But the Gallic tribes were beginning to rebel and he had to go back south.
Vercingetorix a Gallic name meaning “The mighty King of the Warriors” was born in 82 BC. As son of the Arvernic tribe chief, in present Auvergne, he got a Roman military education and was well aware of the Roman capacities. In 53 BC he succeeded to unit most of the Gallic tribes which was a difficult task but that allowed him to defeat Caesar in several engagements. The most famous one is the battle of Gergovia after which he was proclaimed king.
In October 52 BC Vercingetorix and 80.000 of his men were gathered in an Oppidum, a fortified town, called Alesia in Burgundy. Caesar besieged the town and Vercingetorix who was waiting for a supporting army of 250.000 men tried to resist as long as he could. But the reinforcements arrived too late and after a forty days siege men were dying of starvation and Vercingetorix had to surrender and was taken prisoner. He was imprisoned in Rome for 6 years before being publicly executed in 46 BC during Julius Caesar’s Triumph, the great festivities organised by Rome to celebrate the Conqueror. Vercingetorix was not the only one to pay a high price during these years of war, it is said that the Romans subjugated 300 tribes and destroyed 800 cities. Although it is difficult to know for sure it is reckoned that 1 million Gallic men and women were killed and another million were enslaved.
If you go to Burgundy to enjoy its wines the Alesia Museum will be on your way between Chablis, Dijon and Beaune, a beautiful area of green rolling hills. The museum is set in a round modern building where you will be immersed in History: artefacts, diorama, films, big models, multimedia terminals and reproductions of war machines will make you live the battle. Around the museum the Roman fortifications have been rebuilt and actors dressed like the legionaries will show you the daily life of the Romans during a siege as well as the way the war machines were used. You will also be able to see the remains of the Oppidum where the Gallic troops lived on top of a nearby hill: the theatre, a temple, a basilica and their homes are still partly visible. Walking round the hill you will discover a huge statue of Vercingetorix commissioned by Napoleon III. Made with sheet copper it probably is far from looking like the real Vercingetorix did!
Nearby you can go to Flavigny-Sur-Ozerain one of the most beautiful village in France. It was built on a hill where one of Caesar’s army camped. It’s a lovely medieval village where famous candies called Anis de Flavigny are made. You will be able to visit the former abbey where they are still made with organic produces.
Further south you can also visit the Fontenay Abbey, the oldest Cistercian abbey in France. It was built during the 12th century in the most uncluttered style. Don’t miss its remarkably large cloister.
Burgundy has much more to offer than wines and discovering its historical heritage may make you enjoy drinking them even more.
For more information: www.alesia.com
They have audio-guides in foreign languages and guided tours in English are available
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny