Monday, August 27, 2012

France's ancient Alesia dispute rumbles on

It was the battle in which Julius Caesar beat the Gauls under Vercingetorix, thus bringing France into the Roman world.

Had it gone the other way, the French might have ended up German. In the Asterix comic book The Chieftain's Shield, the opening scene shows Vercingetorix throwing his weapons not before, but on Caesar's feet. Right now, there is an added reason to contemplate this key moment in early European history. An impressive new museum-cum-activity centre has just opened on the official site of the battle, in northern Burgundy.

Image from the Asterix comic The Chieftain's Shield depicting Gaulish leader Vercingetorix throwing his weapons on Julius Caesar's feet after losing the battle of Alesia "Clang!" The story of Vercingetorix and Caesar at Alesia is taught to generations of French children. The Alesia MuseoParc, beneath the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, consists of a circular museum building containing artefacts and displays, and then - outside - a full-scale reconstruction of part of the Roman siege lines.

Visitors come away with a thorough grounding in Gaulish fighting techniques, or in Caesar's strategic genius. What they hear little of is a controversy that questions the museum's very raison d'etre. Understandable perhaps, because after 10 years of planning, and 75m euros (£60m) of investment, who wants to be told that the battle never took place here at all?