The A6 motorway leads south from Paris, past Auxerre and Beaune, where I used to turn east to take lesser roads to Pontarlier and the Swiss border. For ten years around the millennium, I was based for two years in Neuchâtel in Switzerland, and subsequently in Paris.

I often drove that route between Paris and Switzerland, and between Auxerre and Beaune, there was a sign pointing to Alesia. I never understood the significance of Alesia, until a French friend explained to me that Europe, as we know it today, resulted from a battle between the Gauls and the Romans, that had taken place there.

In that era BC, Gaul consisted of most of modern-day France, parts of Belgium, Western Germany and Northern Italy. But there were very many tribes and Vercingetorix, a young chieftain from Gergovia (present-day Gergovie) managed to unite many of them in resistance to the Romans.

In 52 BC, under the leadership of Vercingetorix, the Gauls had defeated the Romans, under Julius Caesar, at the battle of Gergovia, near Clermont-Ferrand. After indecisive skirmishes, Vercingetorix had moved his forces to Alesia.

Alesia is just outside the present-day town of Alice-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy.  It is equidistant between Beaune and Chablis, a short distance from the A6. The site of Alesia was on a plateau about 200 m above the valley floor.  It was protected by cliffs and a wooden wall.  It is thought that there were 80,000 Gauls there at that time.

Location of Alice-Sainte-Reine

When the Romans arrived and laid siege to the city, in only a few weeks they build a 15 km ring of fortifications around the city, and outside it, an additional ring of 21 km, to defend from attempts to relieve the siege by reinforcements. The fortifications must have looked like a huge doughnut. It worked. The relief forces were unable to breach the outer defenses and the city forces were unable to break out.

To spare his men their inevitable defeat, Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar, and he was eventually imprisoned in Rome. After one of Caesar’s ‘triumphs’, five years later Vercingetorix was paraded around Rome and then strangled in his prison cell.

Thought to be one of the only busts of Julius Caesar, made in his lifetime

The Vercingetorix monument at Alesia

In his Commentarii de Bello Galico, Caesar described the battle and the events leading up to it.  It is the only account of the battle that exists, for there has never been one written from the Gallic point of view.

Three years later, in 49 BC, having conquered Gaul, Caesar arrived at the Rubicon, a small river south of present-day Ravenna. It was the former border between Gaul and Italy.  He had been explicitly ordered not to lead his army across the river, but he ignored that. His action precipitated the Roman Civil War and he went on to defeat Pompey and become dictator of Rome.  He was assassinated in 44 BC.

How would Europe have looked today if Caesar had lost at Alesia and not eventually crossed the Rubicon?