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Books and Culture

Barry Strauss
The Antiwar Museum That Wasn’t
Alésia and the contradictions of the European heart
17 June 2013

A year ago, France opened a dramatic new museum and archaeological park in Burgundy. Best known for its wine, the region also stands as the site of the Battle of Alésia in 52 BC, the climactic struggle of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The MuseoPark Alésia does not confine itself to this ancient history. The contradictions of the European heart and mind and of the “European project” are here, too. On the one hand, the MuseoPark offers a first-rate, entertaining, and scholarly reconstruction of ancient warfare. On the other, Alésia represents a culture that rejects war, transcends nationalism, and distrusts heroism.

For most of its history, and especially in the nineteenth century, Alésia was a symbol of French military valor. No one made more of Alésia than Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew and heir, Napoleon III, who ruled France’s Second Empire between 1852 and 1870 after serving as the first elected president of the French Republic from 1848 to 1851. Napoleon III turned Alésia into a patriotic rallying point, something like a French version of the Alamo.

To put it mildly, things didn’t work out as planned. Napoleon’s bellicosity brought on the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and eventually led to his own humiliating defeat and exile. A disaster for France, the war also marked the start of the long, bitter road to the First and Second World Wars. Today’s European Union rose from these ashes.

The designers of the new center are well aware of this background. What they’ve created in response is not so much a museum about war as a museum about war museums, and it raises a question about just what the post-nationalist ideology of today’s Europe can achieve. In a sense, the new museum at Alésia is a museum against Napoleon III. His shadow hangs heavily over the place. As a stand-in for Napoleon I and Hitler, Napoleon III shows the danger of poeticizing war and empire. So the new museum at Alésia’s purpose is to turn nationalist belligerence inward, toward self-criticism and reflection.

It doesn’t work. A visit to Alésia does nothing so much as fan an interest in warfare. Napoleon III would have been delighted; EU officials, not so much. While the contemporary European project is a cold shower meant to chill individual and collective vainglory, Alésia turns up the heat, in spite of itself.

The Romans under Julius Caesar invaded Gaul in 58 BC. After initial defeat and surrender, the Gauls and their great leader, Vercingetorix, rose up in rebellion in 52 BC. They made their final stand at Alésia. When Caesar’s men laid siege to Alésia and surrounded the town with a wooden wall, Vercingetorix called a large relief force to his defense. But with the help of allied German cavalry, Caesar prevailed. He beat back the Gallic reinforcements, while starving out Alésia’s soldiers and civilians. After a two-month siege, Vercingetorix surrendered. Gaul remained Roman for the next 500 years.

The Gauls were largely forgotten until the French Revolution, when the new France looked back on them as ancestors—a view that endured under the Empire and the Republics. Indeed, even non-white schoolchildren in French colonies read history books that invoked “our ancestors, the Gauls.” Thus, the Gauls’ demise at Alésia evolved into a great French struggle. As a symbol of French resistance, Vercingetorix became a rallying point on par with the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine—those barbs to French pride in the years before 1914.

That was how things stood until the mid-twentieth century. Hammered by two decades of defeats in Europe, Indochina, and Algeria, French nationalism has taken a decidedly less militant turn since the 1960s. Nowadays, references to the Gauls as French ancestors might evoke a bemused smile. Vercingetorix is less known as a figure from history than as a character in the Astérix comics, going strong since 1959.

By contrast, Napoleon III used the Gauls and their struggle as icons of France’s indomitable will. Eager to establish the precise site of the Battle of Alésia, Napoleon III sponsored excavations that found Gallic and Roman weapons as well as evidence of Caesar’s siege works. In the twentieth century, aerial photography clarified the lines of Caesar’s fortifications. More recent excavations in the 1990s, carried out by Franco-German teams, greatly expanded understanding of the site. Nowadays, most scholars are satisfied that Alise-Sainte-Reine is Alésia, and that the foundations of Caesar’s siege works have indeed been found.

All of which brings us to the new MuseoPark. Its architecture and scope, its design and presentation, evoke a lost grandeur. But what is the stuff of Alésia’s soul—its purpose for those who visit?

It consists of an Interpretive Center housing indoor exhibits and, outside, a life-size reconstruction of a section of Caesar’s double fortifications; the nearby remains of the Gallo-Roman town of Alésia, which thrived until the 400s AD; a monumental bronze statue of Vercingetorix erected in 1865; and, in prospect for 2016, an archaeological museum displaying finds on the site from prehistory on, as well as about 25 miles of “Discovery Itineraries,” spread across some 17,000 acres and tracing the events of 52 BC.

The Interpretive Center and a forthcoming archaeological museum were both designed by Bernard Tschumi, the prominent French-Swiss architect and postmodern architectural theorist, who also created Athens’s Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009. Both the Interpretive Center and the museum-to-be are round in shape. Their keynotes are authenticity, naturalness, and modesty. As Tschumi’s website explains: “The interpretative center is built of wood, much as the Roman fortifications would have been at the time of the siege. The roof of the building is a garden planted with trees and grass, camouflaging the presence of the building when seen from the town above. A keen awareness of the surrounding landscape as it pertains to the historic battle is integral to the visitors’ experience.” The website adds that “the buildings manage to defer to the battle site while fostering a sense of respect and awe through a muted formal presence.”

Well, maybe. For all its attempted modesty, the MuseoPark at Alésia is infinitely grander than the visitors’ center at, say, the Battle of Hastings site. Hastings, fought in 1066, is probably the most important military event ever to take place on English soil, since it permanently changed England from an Anglo-Saxon country to one run by a Norman French elite. Yet the Hastings battle site is understated.

True, the MuseoPark’s grandeur is a far cry from the heroic tone of, say, the Alamo museum. Nor is the MuseoPark mournful like any number of World War I sites in France. Yet, like the Museum of the Great War in Peronne in Picardy, the MuseoPark aspires to be a “museum of mentalities” rather than a military museum. The exhibits take pains to “decode the myth of the Gauls.” Vercingetorix is debunked: even his famous, manly mustache turns out to be a myth! Contrary to popular impression, long hair and thick mustaches were not fashionable in the Gaul of his day. Yann Trégouët, the actor who plays Vercingetorix in the Interpretative Center’s movie, settles for Hollywood-like stubble. With the help of CGI, the film packs plenty of blood and guts into its 20 minutes. The title, however, indicates that it, too, aims to debunk myth: “Alésia, le rêve d’un roi nu” (Alésia, the Dream of the Emperor’s New Clothes). By film’s end, a defeated Vercingetorix appears before Caesar, wounded and wearing a plain tunic.

Nothing could be a greater contrast to the 1865 bronze statue of Vercingetorix at the citadel of Alésia, located several miles away. Overlooking the battlefield and towering over the hill, Vercingetorix stands nearly 23 feet tall on a 23-foot stone socle. Napoleon III commissioned the statue to commemorate the end of his researches at Alise-Sainte-Reine. Some say that Vercingetorix, with his long hair and thick, drooping mustache, resembles Napoleon III himself. Vercingetorix wears armor, but his helmet lies at his feet and he leans on his sword. An inscription in raised-bronze capital letters, running around the socle, is addressed from Napoleon III to the French people. It celebrates Gallic unity and the spirit of defiance.

The new dispensation is different, of course. And yet, despite the eco-friendly museum in the round, the myth-busting insistence on scientific accuracy, and the frequent reminders that war is hell, the real motto of the MuseoPark at Alésia is—yippee!

Entering the Interpretive Center, you pass beneath life-size statues of Gallic and Roman soldiers charging at one another with weapons brandished. What follows is exhibit after exhibit on the battle, with no shortage of the meat and potatoes of military history—arms, armor, maps, and information about the lives of soldiers and of civilians caught in the siege. The lineup includes dioramas, reconstructions of ancient arms, mock-ups, videos, interactive terminals, a “ludothèque” (playroom) for children ages three to eight, telescopes to aim at key topographical sites on the horizon, and, of course, the film. The interpretive center’s archaeological artifacts (and there are many) tend to get lost among the reconstructions and videos. But the wonderful finds include helmets, shields, swords, a dagger, catapult bolts, slingshots inscribed to one of Caesar’s lieutenants, and a precious scrap of leather from a legionary’s tent. The explanations in the exhibit cases are thorough and scholarly.

Step outside the Interpretive Center, and you leave the museum of mentalities behind. Stretching before you is a wood-and-earth reconstitution of a double line of Roman fortifications 100 meters long and a section of the legionaries’ camp. They stand close to Caesar’s archaeologically attested lines. Complete with towers, ditches, and stakes, the reconstruction makes a remarkable sight; the original two lines ran respectively for about 9.5 and 13 miles.

But the reenactors of the ACTA Company, “specialists in archaeological activities and living-history shows,” provide the pièce de résistance. They put on several performances a day when the Interpretive Center is open, from March through December. When I visited, on a torrid July day last summer, half a dozen men in Roman or Gallic gear staged an excellent show of tactical maneuvers and gladiatorial combat-training moves. Afterward, a throng of children and a few adults visited the “camp” area, where legionary-style leather tents had been pitched, to get a look at the weapons and armor. I don’t recall seeing any children try on Roman legionary or Gallic helmets, as the website depicts, but I do remember thinking, as I watched the children walk among the reenactors, that the MuseoPark had subverted its own ethos. For all the talk of mentalities and demystification, Alésia grabs people by letting them play soldier.

If Alésia is a post-national museum for a post-national Europe, can it succeed? The American experience suggests otherwise. We forged a nation through a revolutionary war, and we recast our national existence in the Civil War, a conflict that continues to fascinate millions of Americans and no shortage of historical reenactors. Can the museum’s aversion to Alésia’s carnage bring together, and hold together, a new European “Unum”? The museum-makers seem to share my doubts; the museum is not nearly as antiwar as it claims to be. Boys will be boys—but will they be good Europeans?

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