A few kilometres south of Montbard, on Mont Auxois, above the village of Alise-Ste-Reine is Alésia (closed Dec & Jan). It was here in 52 BC that the Gauls, united under the leadership of Vercingétorix, made their last stand against the military might of Rome. Julius Caesar himself commanded the Roman army, which surrounded the final Gallic stronghold and starved the Gauls out, bloodily defeating all attempts at escape. Vercingétorix surrendered to save his people, was imprisoned in Rome for six years until Caesar’s formal triumph, and then strangled. The battle was a fundamental turning point in the fortunes of the region, as Gaul remained under Roman rule for four hundred years.
The modern Muséoparc d’Alésia, inaugurated in March 2012, brings the battle of Alésia to life with a visitor centre, a museum and a multimedia exhibition about Gallo-Roman life. You can also visit excavations, including the theatre and a Gallo-Roman house.
On the hilltop opposite the Muséoparc d’Alésia, and visible from far and wide, is a great bronze statue of Vercingétorix. Erected by Napoleon III, whose influence popularized the rediscovery of France’s pre-Roman roots, the statue represents Vercingétorix as a romantic Celt – half virginal Christ, half long-haired 1970s heartthrob. On the plinth is inscribed a quotation from Vercingétorix’s address to the Gauls as imagined by Julius Caesar: “United and forming a single nation inspired by a single ideal, Gaul can defy the world.” Napoleon III signs his dedication, “Emperor of the French”, inspired by a vain desire to gain legitimacy by linking his own name to that of a “legendary” Celt.