The Celts – Part 2 – Alesia, the Mother City of Celtica

[4.19.1] Heracles, then, delivered over the kingdom of the Iberians to the noblest men among the natives and, on his part, took his army and passing into Celtica and traversing the length and breadth of it he put an end to the lawlessness and murdering of strangers to which the people had become addicted; and since a great multitude of men from every tribe flocked to his army of their own accord, he founded a great city which was named Alesia after the “wandering” (alê) on his campaign.

[4.19.2] But he also mingled among the citizens of the city many natives, and since these surpassed the others in multitude, it came to pass that the inhabitants as a whole were barbarized. The Celts up to the present time hold this city in honour, looking upon it as the hearth and mother-city of all Celtica. And for the entire period from the days of Heracles this city remained free and was never sacked until our own time; but at last Gaius Caesar, who had been pronounced a god because of the magnitude of his deeds, took it by storm and made it and the other Celts subjects of the Romans.”

Extract from LIBRARY OF HISTORY BOOK IV by Didodorus Siculus

The Greeks were so in awe of the Celts that they took credit for their creation. Greek demigod Heracles, or Hercules was not only closely linked to the Celts, but he was credited as being their physical father. The Greeks were a lot shorter in stature to the Celts, so the Greeks believed the Celts spring up from a giant among them.

The Tenth Labour of Heracles

According to Greek mythology, to accomplish his tenth labour, Hercules had to journey to the end of the world. Eurystheus ordered the hero to bring him the cattle of the monster Geryon. This creature had three heads and three sets of legs all joined at the waist. He lived on an island called Erythia, which was near the boundary of Europe and Libya.

Hercules and Geryon (ancient Greek vase)

On this island, Geryon kept a herd of red cattle guarded by Cerberus’s brother, Orthus, a two-headed hound, and the herdsman Eurytion. Hercules set off on for Erythia, encountering and promptly killing many wild beasts along the way, and he came to the place where Libya met Europe. Here, Hercules built two massive mountains, one in Europe and one in Libya, to commemorate his extensive journey. These mountains became known as the Gates or Pillars of Hercules. The strait Hercules made when he broke the mountain apart is now called the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco, the gateway from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Pillars of Hercules (land on right is Morocco, left is Gibraltar)

Sailing in a goblet which the Sun gave him, Hercules reached the island of Erythia. Not long after he arrived, Orthus, the two-headed dog, attacked Hercules, so Hercules bashed him with his club. Eurytion followed, with the same result.

Another herdsman in the area reported these events to Geryon. Just as Hercules was escaping with the cattle, Geryon attacked him. Hercules fought with him and shot him dead with his arrows.

When he carried away the oxen of Geryon, he visited the country of the Scythians. Once there, while asleep, his horses suddenly disappeared. When he woke and wandered about in search of them, he came into the country of Hylaea.

He then found Echidna in a cave. She was a monster, half-woman and half-snake and was the mate of the fearsome monster Typhon and was the mother of many of the most famous monsters of Greek myth. When he asked whether she knew anything about his horses, she answered, that they were in her own possession, but that she would not give them up, unless he would consent to stay with her for a time. Heracles accepted the request, and became by her the father of Celtos, Galatos and Iberus, the ancestors of the Celts, Galatians and Iberians.

The Battle of Alesia

Julius Caesar’s Seige of Alesia

The battle of Alesia in 52 BC that marked the defeat of the Gauls under Vercingetorix by the Romans under Julius Caesar corresponds with Diodorous’ description of a great Celtic city founded by Hercules. Caesar described the battle in detail in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Book VII, 69–90). The battle’s outcome determined the fate of all of Gaul: in winning the battle, the Romans won both the Gallic Wars and dominion over Gaul.

After being conquered by Caesar, Alesia became a Gallo-Roman town. It featured a town centre with monumental buildings such as temples, a theatre and a forum. The location of Alesia was unknown for many centuries until Emperor Napoleon III developed an interest in the location of this crucial battle in pre-French history. He was writing a biography of Caesar and saw the command of Vercingetorix over all Gaulish armies as a symbol of the French nation. At the same time he realized that the future French nation was heavily influenced by the Roman victory and centuries of rule over Gaul.

Napoleon III, First President of France 1848-52 and Emperor 1852-70

In 1838, a find with the inscription: IN ALISIIA, had been discovered near Alise Sainte-Reine in the department Côte-d’Or near Dijon. Napoleon ordered an archaeological excavation by Eugène Stoffel around Mont-Auxois. These excavations in 1861–65 concentrated on the vast Roman siege lines and indicated that the historical Alesia was indeed located there. It was protected by a wall enclosing the area, with at least two pincer gates and in 52 BC it possibly had a population of 80,000 including refugees and men under the command of Vercingetorix.

Later archaeological analysis at Alise-Sainte-Reine has corroborated the described siege in detail. The remains of siege rings said to match Caesar’s descriptions have been identified by archaeologists using aerial photography validating these findings and ending the long debate among archaeologists about the location of Alesia.

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