My village, or the hill it’s built on at any rate, first sneaks into history in 52 BC. That date is known to all French school children; it marks the final showdown between two colossal figures, Julius Caesar and the rebellious Gallic chieftain, Vercingetorix. In the summer of that year, Vercingetorix decided to make a stand at a place called Alésia, a hill fortress belonging to the Mandubii tribe. With hindsight, you can see both why he chose the site, and why it was a bad idea. The hilltop at Alésia is broad and shaped like a spearhead; it’s easily defensible, with sheer rocky sides in most places, and Vercingetorix had just handed Caesar a regular thumping at another hill-fortress, south in Gergovia. Besides, Vercingetorix ‘ troops outnumbered Caesar’s, and he was expecting help from 250,000 more coming up from the South. He was setting a trap with himself as bait, and he fully expected Caesar to fall into it and to be crushed.
That flat, defensible hilltop is also dry, however; in this damp countryside, it’s one of the few places where there’s not a spring to be found. It was mid-August when Vercingetorix and his army arrived, though army is a misleading word; the Celts were individualists, each one in search of single combat that would make him glorious, and often accompanied by slaves or wives and even children. Caesar says there were 80,000 of them but it’s hard to imagine so many fitting on that hilltop, and in any case classical authors always inflate their figures. Imagine, though, even a tenth of that number on a rocky hillside with no water.
In August, it gets very, very hot.
It’s more difficult, at first glance, to understand why Caesar chose the site he did, the high plateau beyond where our village now stands. Seen from the modern road, the hillside west and north of the surviving town looks gentle, even friendly. There are meadows with ponies low down, then a band of trees, then golden wheatfields on top. What the trees hide, however, is the fact that this hilltop too is abrupt, really a band of small cliffs running all around the top of the hill. There is a path between the outcrops of limestone, but you have to know where it is, and leaving the path is simply foolish. You think to yourself, “I’ll just cut cross-country and come down on the top of the Brigand’s pasture. That way I can be home for supper.” You start to head due west, but once off the path, you realise your mistake; the whole hillside is fissured with crevices, and where there aren’t crevices there are boulders, all of this invisible under a thick cover of dark yew trees and bloodthirsty blackberry brambles. Such experiments always result in hours of delay and missing supper entirely.
While the forest was virgin in Caesar’s day, and the undergrowth therefore perhaps less completely vicious, the boulders and fissures would have posed severe obstacles to both cavalry and infantry. Caesar’s choice was a wise one in other ways: the hillside has plenty of small springs, one of which supplies the town’s water to this day. As for the dense woods, they were just what Caesar needed. The Gauls were undeniably brave, and they were bigger than the Romans (almost all the ancient sources mention their intimidating height) but the Romans were engineers. Once their headquarters was chosen, they began to build. First they excavated a huge ditch down on the plain where the trains would later run, to hold back the relieving army (which was late in any case). Then they began to cut down trees and to build: 7 satellite camps, 23 redoubts, miles and miles of walls hemming Vercingetorix in on one side, and keeping the other Gauls out on the other, dozens of booby traps from pits filled with stakes and covered with bracken to ditches flooded with water cleverly diverted from the streams that run on either side of Alésia, the Ozerain and the Oze.
Up on their rocky plateau, the Gauls could see and no doubt hear what was happening; sounds echo back and forth between these hills, you can hear a donkey bray a mile away or someone take a shot at a pheasant in October. They sat up on the rock, in a din of crickets, scanning the horizon for the army that would arrive to rescue them and instead they must have seen great holes open up in the forest as trees fell, as space was cleared for the construction of towers and palisades. Everything was made to precise specifications: the ditches were five feet deep, Caesar tells us, and the tips of the fire hardened spikes in the specially dug pits were only to protrude four inches from the ground. This was the same ruthlessly efficient Roman army that once built a bridge across the Rhine big enough to march a legion over, in ten days. To the Gauls it must have seemed like black magic.
And all this time the army didn’t come and didn’t come because the chieftains of the Gauls were engaged in one of their interminable arguments about whether to side with Vercingetorix or Rome, and August wore on into September, the most beautiful month of the year, with brilliant blue skies and a touch of autumn in the air. September is the month when the grapes and the blackberries fatten up and get sweet, and it’s the best month for taking long walks because it hardly ever rains. Up on top of the plateau at Alésia, the limestone runs an inch or so beneath the soil. In this bedrock near the place where the Gauls had their camp, there are some shallow rectangular scrapes, possibly intended to catch and hold water. But they are small and desperate. In September the Gauls drove all civilians out of their camp; down before the Roman fortifications women and children, starving already, wept and begged for food. But Caesar—and he reports his own ruthlessness ruthlessly—forbade the guards to let them in, and so they died.
By the time the relief army finally arrived, almost two months after Vercingetorix had sent for it, it was too late. Caesar’s forces were too strongly entrenched and in the few pitched battles that were fought, his German cavalry, even taller and more terrifying than the Gauls, and with the benefit of Roman training, chopped the Gaulish horsemen into messes and drove the rest back. There was one final effort—Vercingetorix tried a sortie against Caesar’s camp on the hill, while his cousin Vercassivellaunus, commanding the relief army, tried to break through the Roman line further north. But the Romans rained missiles on them from their towers, Caesar sent out a youthful Brutus to engage the Gauls on the plain and then showed himself in his purple commander’s cloak to give heart to his men, the terrible Germans galloped out again, and then it was all over.
In the nineteenth century, everyone was looking for an aboriginal ancestor. The British, ruled by Victoria, found theirs appropriately enough, in Boudicca, leader of another Celtic revolt against the Romans some hundred years later. The Germans have Arminius, irresistibly known as Herman the German, whose struggles against Augustus are the subject of the first books of Tacitus’ Histories. There are wildly Romantic statues of both of these, the first in Piccadilly (?) and the second in the Teutobergerwald. Herman, in fact, is hollow like the Statue of Liberty, and you can climb up inside of him. Vercingetorix is more aloof. No driving around him, no getting inside him. He stands at the point of that spear-shaped plateau, leaning on a huge sword, looking down over the plain where his destiny played out. His hair and moustache are very like those depicted on one of the coins he minted for himself two thousand years ago, though he looks more than a little like Napoléon III too. You can sit in his shadow to eat your picnic, up on the top of the hill where there are no trees and its very quiet except for the song of the occasional lark.