Most Recent Visit: May 2022
In antiquity, the chief settlement of the Mandubii was located on the plateau of the Mons Alisiensis, the modern Mont Auxois. It is likely the town which Caesar refers to as the Oppidum Mandubiorum. Today, the remains of the settlement are located just outside the French town of Alise-Sainte-Reine, which bears some vestiges of the ancient name in the first part of the modern name. The name of Alesia may derive from Celtic terms either describing the rocky height on which the town is built, from the description of nearby healing springs, or the name of the alder tree. The Celtic god Alisianos likely shares one of these roots as well, though any link between the deity and the city is unclear, and they may just independently share the same or a similar linguistic root.
Alesia is referred to in ancient texts as being a particularly old city, legendarily founded by Hercules on his journey back from Iberia, with a possible root of the name as having derived from a word for ‘wandering’. Diodorus Siculus even calls it the ‘mother city’ of all of Celtica. The Mandubii, whose name is believed to derive from the Gallic word for ‘pony,’ were a relatively small population group. Though they were an independent entity, they appear to have been heavily affected at different times by the influence and fortunes of their larger neighbors, the Adeui and Lingones. Prior to Roman contact, the Mandubii were apparently especially renowned for their ceramics.
The city of Alesia is most famous for being the site of the climactic final major engagement of the Gallic Wars in 52 BCE. Following his victory at Gergovia earlier in the year, the king of the Averni and leader of the ongoing Gallic revolt, Vercingetorix, used that success against the Romans to drum up more Gallic support. A subsequent loss to Julius Caesar at the Vingeanne River forced Vercingetorix into a retreat and withdrawal to the city of Alesia. Caesar’s loss at Gergovia was largely the result of a botched assault on the city, and so instead of assaulting Alesia, he laid siege to the oppidum, resulting in a circumvallation of Alesia and trapping the roughly 80,000 Gallic troops (according to Caesar) in addition to the local population of civilians. The total length of the siege works surrounding the city was roughly 16 kilometers and was constructed in a matter of weeks. Attempts were made to break out of the city, but they were unsuccessful. Despite the blockade, Vercingetorix was able to get messengers out of the city in order to fan out through Gaul and gather reinforcements in an attempt to attack the Romans from the outside and break siege.
As the relief force gathered, Caesar got wind of the plan and so he constructed a contravallation line to guard against attack from the eventual reinforcements; effectively creating a fortified circuit around the town with defenses facing inward to Alesia and outward to the countryside. With supplies running low inside the besieged city, the Gauls decided to send out the women, children, and elderly in hopes that Caesar would take the non-combatants prisoner or allow them passage out. The Romans, however, refused them, likely understanding it was a move to prolong the siege and sent the civilians back. Vercingetorix, however, subsequently refused them entry back into the city knowing that he could not feed both them and his troops. With both generals refusing to allow the civilians passage, they were left to die of starvation in the no-man’s land between the two armies. The Gallic relief force finally arrived, and despite attacks from within and without, the Gauls could not break through the Roman fortification. With no hope of breaking the blockade before those inside Alesia starved, the relief force dispersed and Vercingetorix surrendered himself and the city to the Romans. This effectively ended the revolt and large-scale, organized resistance to Roman hegemony in the greater part of Gaul. Vercingetorix would be held captive for years before finally being executed in 46 BCE.
Some sources claim that the town was razed following its capture, but Caesar makes no mention of any destruction visited upon Alesia. Occupation continued at the site through the Roman period and there was monumental construction in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, but there is little mention of the settlement after Caesar. Pliny the Elder does note a renowned silver-plating industry and evidence suggests there was also a robust bronze and iron working industry present in Alesia as well. The city seems to have suffered some destruction in 197 CE and again around the 260’s CE. These two events likely contributed to a general decline in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. By the 5th century CE, the site had been largely abandoned of significant habitation.
Getting There: The remains of Alesia are today located adjacent to the small town of Alise-Sainte-Reine, about an hour northwest of Dijon. While Alise-Sainte-Reine doesn’t have a train station, the nearby, slightly larger town of Venarey-les-Laumes, where the museum is also located, does host the Les Laumes-Alésia train station. There are a number of direct daily trains from Dijon that take about half an hour to 45 minutes and cost between 5 and 11 Euros each way. This does appear to be a sort of commuter line, and the vast majority of departures are between 6:00 and 9:00 in the morning or between 15:30 and 20:30 in the evening. The same is true for the return schedule, which can be found here. From the train station in Venarey-les-Laumes, it is then about a 3 kilometer, 45 minute or so walk (partially up hill); I could not find any bus service between the train station and archaeological park. There is ample parking at the site and museum if using a private vehicle (recommended).
The archaeological area of the Gallo-Roman Town of Alesia is located at 1 Chemin des Fouillés; it’s pretty much the only thing on the road up to the pinnacle of the hill aside from a cemetery. The site is open daily from Feburary 15th to March 31st and in November from 10:00 to 17:00, In April, May, June, September, and October from 10:00 to 18:00, and in July and August from 10:00 to 19:00. It is closed the rest of the year (December through mid-February). Admission to just the site is 4 Euros, but there is also a combination ticket with the museum for 12 Euros.
Just inside the park, across from the entry pavilion are a set of remains that has an identification sign, but which was unfortunately placed at a location and angle that was not accessible when I visited; part of the path was closed off. It looks to be perhaps a residence with a taberna, though. Just beyond that to the north, is the theater. The theater was constructed in the first half of the 1st century CE, largely using the gentle slope of the area as support for the cavea of the seating area. Capacity is estimated to have been about 5,000 people. Not much is visible of the stone of the seating area, but the orchestra as well as some elements of the scenae area are. The retaining wall along the exterior of the seating can also be seen. Unfortunately the theater is mostly inaccessible. There is a path that leads out to the area of the scenae, as well as around the top, but the interior part of the theater is roped off.
East of the theater is the forum and monumental core of Alesia. The western area of the forum is dominated by a temple precinct. A roughly 45 meter by 45 meter precinct is surrounded on three sides (south, west, and north) by a portico that enclosed a sacred area with a temple situated in the enclosed area. The temple itself was dedicated to Jupiter, though other deities such as Mars and Cybele seem to have also been worshipped here. The portico and area within the portico are inaccessible.
The eastern part of the sacred area opens onto the civic basilica. This building was constructed at a later period than the temple and other structure of the forum, about the beginning of the 2nd century CE. Earlier public buildings existed in this spot before construction. The basilica has small apsed areas on the north and south sides, as well as a larger exedra on the western side, facing the temple, which is believed to have been an area that served as the curia of Alesia. Like the sacred area, though, the basilica is largely not accessible, but it can be pretty clearly scene from the exterior of the actual building.
The basilica made up the western end of the actual open area of the forum. Some structures, part of the portico and shops, line the southern part of the forum, with some scant remains of a monumental gate visible on what amounts to the eastern extent of what remains from the southern limits of the forum that have been excavated. There are some corresponding remains on the north side of the forum, the so-called edifice with a double colonnade, so named because of the remains of two periods of porticos being identified here. One of the most interesting aspects of this building are the remains of a hypocaust system in a room at the northeast part of the structure. Interestingly, the northern portico is not quite parallel with the southern portico, creating a not quite square/rectangular shaped forum area.
Continued in Alesia, Gallia Lugdunensis Part II
Caesar, Julius. Commentarii de Bello Gallico, 7.34-90.
Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca Historica, 4.19, 5.24.
Grant, Michael. A Guide to the Ancient World: A Dictionary of Classical Place Names. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997.
Pliny the Elder. Historiae Naturalis, 34.48.
Plutarch. The Life of Caesar, 27.1-8.
Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography. Walton & Murray, 1870.
Stillwell, Richard, William L. MacDonald, and Marian Holland. McAllister. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1976.
Strabo. Geographika, 4.2.3.