LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Every summer, a French village in Burgundy celebrates a Gallic chieftain who lost a major battle to Julius Caesar in 52 B.C. The mythic leader of the Gauls is a French national hero today. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, for 2,000 years, he lay nearly forgotten.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (French spoken)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Actors posing as Gauls and Roman legionnaires engage in a mock battle at a newly opened museum in Burgundy, where the real battle of Alesia - also known as the Battle for Gaul - took place. In the verdant countryside not far from the museum, a giant statue of the sandal-footed Gallic leader, Vercingetorix, rises from a hilltop, sword by his side, long hair and mustache flowing. Museum visitor Olivia Surge says even though Vercingetorix lost to Caesar, it was a noble defeat.
OLIVIA SURGE: (Through translator) We might have lost, but we held on. And Vercingetorix was the first leader in France to speak of liberty. And that's our motto today: liberty, equality, fraternity.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING)
BEARDSLEY: Surge has brought her children to watch the jousting. Every French schoolchild learns about our ancestors, the Gauls. Although vanquished and Romanized, the Gauls are seen as the moral victors in the collective memory of France, and have become a national symbol. There are the iconic Gauloise cigarettes, and millions of readers around the world know the beloved comic book characters Asterix and Obelix, whose Gallic village is the last to resist Roman invaders thanks to a druid's magic potion that grants them super strength. But for nearly 2,000 years, Vercingetorix and the Gauls were mostly forgotten in France. It was Emperor Napoleon III in the 19th century who commissioned the first archaeological digs here, built the statue and resurrected the myth of Vercingetorix. Museum curator Karine Marchadour says Napoleon III needed Vercingetorix.
KARINE MARCHADOUR: (Through translator) Napoleon III used Vercingetorix to get across a powerful political message: Get behind me, and we will fight together against the invader. And at that time, the invader was Prussia.
BEARDSLEY: Historians say the statue of Vercingetorix even has the face of Napoleon III, under all that unruly Gallic hair. It didn't do him much good. In 1871, he lost the Franco-Prussian war to Otto Von Bismarck.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BEARDSLEY: Every summer, there is a festival in the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, which sits on a hilltop believed to be the former Gallic stronghold of Alesia. Just like in the comic book "Asterix and Obelix," there is music, drink and wild boar roasting on a spit. Eleven-year-old Jasmine Moussereau says she and her friends look forward to the festival every year, and Vercingetorix is their hero.
JASMINE MOUSSEREAU: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: He's a famous guy who showed that France knows how to fight, she says. He knew how to lead troops, and he motivates us to do well in school. After the battle in 52 B.C., each Roman soldier was given a Gaul as a slave. Vercingetorix was captured and exhibited during Caesar's triumphal procession back in Rome before being executed. But no one here actually considers the Gauls' defeat such a bad thing. The Romans did bring roads and bridges and ushered in three centuries of peace. For 65-year-old Noel Monard, Vercingetorix was simply the first French resistance fighter.
NOEL MONARD: (Through translator) Vercingetorix stood up to the Romans, and we can never forget that. We are all Gaulois, and we're proud of it.
BEARDSLEY: There has been some argument over the years as to whether the final battle for Gaul actually took place in here Alesia, or in a spot further southeast. Though archaeologists have unearthed Gallic and Roman weapons and even pieces of Roman fortifications and tents, the site doesn't completely match Julius Caesar's description. But here, in the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, there is no doubt that Vercingetorix is all theirs. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.