The Roman conquest of Gaul, modern day France, was well documented by the Roman general and governor who led the armies of Rome to victory there: Julius Caesar. The great man in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico explained in detail how his victory was achieved, omitting no detail which would serve to underlie just how great a man he was.
The final victory, against the confederation of Gallic tribes under their chief Vercingetorix, came at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC. The defeated chief famously threw his arms at Caesar’s feet and all Gaul was won for Rome.
Strangely for such an important moment in the history of both Rome and Gaul, the location of the battle was lost for millennia. Caesar was uncharacteristically unspecific in locating the site of his most famous military victory, perhaps assuming that everyone already knew where Alesia was, and the true location of the battle was only confirmed in the 1990s.
Alesia was an ancient town and the capital of Mandubii, a small Gallic tribe in northeastern France. The battle is now believed to have been fought atop Mount Auxois which overlooks the modern French town of Alise-Sainte-Reine.
But while we may now know the site of the decisive battle, the events as described by Caesar still require a critical eye. Caesar was not above exaggeration in his descriptions of his victory, no doubt looking to increase his reputation as a military leader and a hero to the Romans.
So, what can we say actually happened at Alesia?
Caesar in Gaul
By the time Caesar met the Gauls at Alesia the majority of southern France had come under the control of the Roman Empire, in campaigns dating from 100 years earlier in the 2nd century BC. However, this had not been easy for the Rome and and there were many regions that still held out against the occupation.
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar led his armies into Gaul in order to put an end to the perceived threat of the Gauls to Rome, once and for all. After two campaigns, he was successful in reaching the Meuse river and following it north to the sea. He apparently considered his victory complete.
But as Julius Caesar was making attempts to invade Britain, the Gauls started reorganizing themselves. During the winters of 54 and 53 BC, the tribes of Gaul started revolting, and in 52 BC, they formed an alliance under Vercingetorix, a charismatic, young nobleman, and presented a united front against the Roman invaders.
Caesar, who had returned to Rome, was forced to marshal his army and face the insurrection. The Romans marched on Vercingetorix who was actively fighting Rome’s allied tribes in Gaul, but it seemed that Caesar was unready for an open conflict.
The Roman army’s march was punctuated by the taking of small towns which were stripped for supplies. The Romans were low on food and Vercingetorix knew it, harrying the Roman foraging parties and starving their army.
The Gallic leader had reckoned without Roman discipline however. Caesar’s winter encampment resisted the attacks from the Gauls and survived the harsh conditions, and as the weather grew fairer Caesar met the Gauls in open battle at Gergovia, Vercingetorix’s capital.
The Siege of Alesia
However, here the Romans were soundly defeated and Caesar’s army retreated in disarray. Regrouping and finding what new allies they could, the Romans changed their focus and instead attacked the town of Alesia, besieging the settlement.
Here Caesar’s genius as a commander reached its height. The Romans, with both the defenders of Alesia and the army of Vercingetorix to contend with, built two lines of fortifications. One faced inwards to the town and its inhabitants, and the other faced outwards against the Gallic army, with the Romans sandwiched between the two, both besiegers and besieged.
Vercingetorix attacked the Roman lines several times and the fighting was desperate. At one point it looked like the Gauls were going to break through the outer fortifications and, with nowhere to retreat to, the Romans would be massacred.
However, after several days it became clear that the Roman fortifications could not be taken and the Romans had the upper hand. Vercingetorix surrendered and Gaul was won for Rome. The Gallic leader, after a few years being paraded around Rome as a prisoner, was executed.
The Rediscovery of Alesia
Alesia fell to the Romans and was converted to a Roman town. However, after it was abandoned during the decline of the Roman empire in the following centuries, the location of Alesia remained unknown for a long period of time.
- Mausoleum of Augustus: Why Are There No Tombs of Early Roman Emperors?
- Did a Lost Roman Legion Wind Up in Liqian, Northwestern China?
During the 19th century, Emperor Napoleon III showed an interest in finding the exact location where the significant battle in the history of France took place. While he was writing the biography of Julius Caesar, he was impressed by the strong command Vercingetorix showed in uniting the armies of Gaul. He considered it as symbolic of a strong and vital French nation.
In the year 1838, an inscription was found near the town of near Alise-Sainte-Reine which dated to the Roman occupation, stating “IN ALISIIA”. Immediately, Napolean gave orders to Eugène Stoffel, one of his officers, to carry out an archaeological excavation of nearby Mount Auxois.
The excavations continued from 1861 to 1865, and after Roman siege lines were uncovered it seemed clear that the historical Alesia was located somewhere nearby. The town was well described by Caesar, built on a plateau defended by cliffs and with a curtain wall. Some 80,000 inhabitants were said to live there.
Napoleon was satisfied that he had found Alesia, but a consensus on the site was only reached a century later. A Franco-German excavation led by Siegmar von Schnurbein and Michel Reddé from the year 1991 to 1997 finally put an end to the discussions relating to the location of Alesia. The ancient town of Alesia is situated on Mount Auxois in the département of Côte d’Or, France.
Alesia, by this time, had entered pop culture in the most hilarious fashion. The comic characters Asterix and Obelix, during their adventure Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield, travel to find Alesia with their chief Vitalstatistix. Throughout the story the people they meet continually deny knowing where Alesia is, often becoming angry at the questioning.
Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, who wrote the story in 1967, would surely have been thrilled to find the historic site had been once again rediscovered.
Top Image: Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar at Alesia. Source: picryl / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri