A city seems like an awfully big thing to lose, and yet this occurs from time to time. Some people search for cities that simply do not exist, like Shangri-la and El Dorado. Some lost cities are transformed through legend and art into something else, so that the historical location is something different from the place we long to see. Such is the case with places like Xanadu and Arcadia. Camelot and Atlantis, on the other hand, fall somewhere in between, due to their tenuous connection to any sort of physical reality. Our main evidence that a place called Atlantis ever existed, and later fell into the sea, comes from Plato’s account in the Timaeus, yet even at the time Plato wrote this, it already had a legendary quality about it.
….[A]nd there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia … But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune … the island of Atlantis … disappeared in the depths of the sea.
Camelot and Avalon, for reasons I don’t particularly understand, are alternately identified with Glastonbury, though there are also nay-sayers, of course. Then there are cities like Troy, Carthage and Petra, which may have been legend but which we now know to have been real, if only because we have rediscovered them. The locations of these cities became forgotten over time because of wars and mass migrations, sand storms and decay. They were lost, as it were, through carelessness.
But is it possible to lose a city on purpose? The lost city of Alesia was the site of Vercingetorix’s defeat at the hands of Julius Ceasar, which marked the end of Gallic Wars. The failure of the Roman Senate to grant Caesar a triumph to honor his victory led to his decision to initiate the Roman Civil War, leading in turn to the end of the Republic and his own reign of power, which only later came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated by, among others, Brutus, his friend and one of his lieutenants at the Battle of Alesia. Having achieved mastery of Rome in 46 BCE, Caesar finally was able to throw himself the triumph he wanted, which culminated with Vercingetorix — the legendary folk hero of the French nation, the symbol of defiance against one’s oppressors and an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere –being strangled.
Meanwhile, back in Gaul, Alesia was forgotten, and eventually became a lost city. It is as if the trauma of such a defeat, in which all the major Gallic tribes were defeated at one blow and brought to their knees, incited the Gauls to erase their past and make the site of their humiliation as if it had never been. Ironically, when I went to the Internet Classics Archive to find Caesar’s description of this lost city, I found the chapters which cover Caesar’s siege of Alesia to be completely missing. The online text ends Book Seven of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars just before the action commences, and begins Book Eight just after the Gauls are subdued, while the intervening thirty chapters appear to have simply disappeared into the virtual ether.
In the 19th century, the French government commissioned archaeologists to rediscover Alesia, and they eventually selected a site near Dijon, today called Alise-Sainte-Reine, as the likely location. The only problem with the site is that it does not match Caesars description of Alesia, and Caesar’s writings about Alesia is the main source for everything we know about the city and the battle.
I have rooted around in my basement in order to dig up an unredacted copy of Caesar’s Commentaries, containing everything we remember about the lost city of Alesia:
The town itself was situated on the top of a hill, in a very lofty position, so that it did not appear likely to be taken, except by a regular siege. Two rivers, on two different sides, washed the foot of the hill. Before the town lay a plain of about three miles in length; on every other side hills at a moderate distance, and of an equal degree of height, surrounded the town. The army of the Gauls had filled all the space under the wall, comprising a part of the hill which looked to the rising sun, and had drawn in front a trench and a stone wall six feet high. The circuit of that fortification, which was commenced by the Romans, comprised eleven miles. The camp was pitched in a strong position, and twenty-three redoubts were raised in it, in which sentinels were placed by day, lest any sally should be made suddenly; and by night the same were occupied by watches and strong guards.
— Commentaries, Book VII, Chapter 69