Asterix and Obelix – who doesn’t know the two brave Gauls with their magic potion. The great comics and movies entertained an audience of millions. Only from one country there was not so much encouragement: from Italy.
Unsurprisingly, the Romans mostly came off as douchebags in the many stories. Even if Gaius Julius Caesar with his numerous legions was the victor in the end, some Gaulish tribes taught him the fear, especially under the leadership of the Gallic general Vercingetorix.
Encirclement of the Gauls
Already for six years Julius Caesar tried to conquer the Gallic territories during the Gallic War. Vercingetorix was at the head of the Gallic coalition and wanted to stop the advance of the Romans. After an unsuccessful attack, Vercingetorix fled with his men to the oppidum Alesia, the fortress of the Mandubians. (Oppidum – Latin for fortified country town – was the term the Romans used to describe fortified settlements.)
The Romans pursued the fleeing Gauls and began the siege of the fortress. They set up their camps on the surrounding hills and formed two fortification lines of walls, towers and traps. The first line with a length of 15 kilometers surrounded the oppidum and at the same time encircled the Gauls. The second line with a length of 21 kilometers protected the Roman camps from the approaching arrival of the Gallic rescue army.
MuseoParc Alesia: the building has a concrete structure. The lattice-like wooden cladding made of larch wood is said to give him his identity. On the right the fortification ring of the Romans. Photo: Ingo Paszkowsky
The theater of war
Alesia is the place where in the year 52 v. Chr. the famous clash between the Roman army under Julius Caesar and the Gallic army under Vercingetorix took place. 80.000 Gauls and 50.000 Roman legionaries are said to have faced each other here. In the end, the proven Roman war machine prevailed and Vercingetorix’s forces were defeated. He became a prisoner and was brought to Rome. A year later, in the year 51 v. Chr., the Gallic War ended. The outcome of the battle allowed Julius Caesar to subjugate all of Gaul to Roman rule.
Almost two thousand years later, Napoleon III. (1808 – 1873) from the battle and sent out military experts to identify the exact location. His experts found what they were looking for. First excavations were successful.
Today now we can see the war action in the MuseoParc Alesia. In the ultra-modern museum and interpretation center you are literally immersed in history. Interactive stations and a cinema bring the past to life.
Further plus: Audio guides are also available in German. The explanatory texts on the panels are not only in French and English but also in German – this is very praiseworthy and so far not very common in France.
From the figures you can guess how fierce the battle between Romans and Gauls raged. Photo: Ingo Paszkowsky
Caesar’s detailed descriptions
Caesar’s accounts of the events of the time are a veritable treasure trove. In De Bello Gallico (The Gallic War), the general and author describes his own view of things. He reports in the 3. Person to lend objectivity to his account, but tends to omit and dramatize the action – historians are certain of this.
Caesar lists times, places and persons as well as troop strength and number in detail. He describes the main movements of the battle, the formation of the troops and the terrain.
In his descriptions of the customs and traditions of the Gauls, it looks as if Caesar was inspired by someone else. Presumably by Poseidonios of Apameia, who conquered Gaul towards the end of the 2nd century. Jh. v. Chr. toured.
It is unlikely, according to the historians of the Alesia Information Center, that Caesar strongly deformed the actual events in his writings. Because the numerous witnesses would not have contested his accounts. His text was also immediately recognized as a masterpiece of the Latin language.
The Gallic War did not exist
Gaul does not correspond to modern France, but extended over a larger area. The people, called Gauls by the Romans, did not form a unified nation. They were divided into different tribes. Each tribe decided for itself on its attitude towards Rome. The alliances changed. Moreover, the tribes did not develop a common strategy.
Under the term Gallic War the regional wars are summarized. Although many still believe it today, there was no "shock of civilization" between the two armies. It was not poorly equipped "barbarians" who met superior equipped Romans. The main difference was rather geostrategic: the Roman army could draw on the resources of an empire, while the Gallic units were supported only by their own people and their allies.
Moreover, the war did not take place uninterruptedly. There was no fighting in the winter: Caesar went to his provinces, the officers returned to Rome, the troops took up quarters.
Weapons and equipment of Romans and Gauls did not differ significantly from each other, but their fighting technique did. Photo: Ingo Paszkowsky
The equipment of the troops
Caesar highlights the number of weapons of the Gauls in his description, but does not provide details about the equipment itself. Other literary sources state indeterminately that this "corresponded to the size of the men", the information center goes on to say.
Archaeological excavations, however, provide clues to the armament of the Gauls in this period. The equipment of a warrior depended on his tribe, the regional traditions, his fortune, his position in society and the type of battle.
The classic equipment of an infantryman usually consisted of sword, shield, lance, helmet and sometimes chain mail. It differed only slightly from that of a Roman soldier.
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Perhaps for this reason Caesar did not give precise details about it, historians suspect. The combatants differed above all in their movements in battle, their strategy and tactics. This is clearly demonstrated on site in an animation.
The Gallic cavalry is consistently praised in older writings. It was the elite of the Gallic army and was divided into light and heavy cavalry. The light cavalry were the archers. The riders used saddles and spurs, but no stirrups.
Symmetry and asymmetry
Enough history at this point – you can learn more at the Interpretation Center, which by the way was designed by the famous architect Bernard Tschumi. "At Alesia, we were interested in the spatial dimension of the battlefield, its circularity and the concentric circles formed as a result, with the oppidum as the pivotal point. We also want to offer the 360-degree panoramic view," star architect Tschumi is quoted as saying.
That is why the concrete building is designed as a circle, symbolically recalling the role of the besiegers and the besieged. The asymmetry of the columns in the atrium points to the chaos of the war from which the stability of a new Gallo-Roman civilization will emerge. The lattice-like wood cladding gives the structure its identity.
The imposing building has a diameter of 52 meters, a height of 16 meters and has a total area of 6650 square meters across all floors. The restaurant seats up to 100.
The building in Alesia is circular in shape and thus modeled on the siege rings. Photo: Ingo Paszkowsky
80.000 to 90.000 visitors to the museum every year – that’s not much for this extremely worthwhile site. With only about 2.500 visitors a year, Germans nevertheless form the largest foreign visitor group.
A destination for the whole family
Don’t worry, the kids won’t be bored. The (reenacted) exhibition fights of the former warring parties also ensure that this will happen. Or the program Young Legionnaires (for children from 8). Small children can also be taken into care.
The remains of the ancient city and the statue of Vercingetorix are also worth a visit.