Show Notes for Episode 370: Best Gallo-Roman Sites in France

Category: French History

Discussed in this Episode

  • Asterix Parc near Paris [50:00]
  • Go to a show at Orange [51:00]

ANTIQUITY: GALLO ROMAN SITES IN FRANCE

Book a tour with Elyse!

Or How a Region filled with Celtic Tribes called Gaul, by the Romans, assimilated Roman Culture/Law/Customs/Language, to create a new civilization called Gallo Roman Society

Places to visit:

With just a few exceptions, all the major sites and vestiges of Gallo-Roman times are in the south of France!

Major sites and places to visit in geographical order starting in the North – going East and then South and across Occitania.

Paris: The Baths (thermes) of Cluny – part of the Cluny museum Three rooms that show the importance and size of the public baths in ancient Lutèce. The Arena on rue de Monge.

Reims: An Arc de Triomphe and some vestiges of the ancient walls in the city center.

Lyon: The most important city of ancient Gaul – it was called Lugudunum and was founded in 43 bc. There are many vestiges of its imperial past including the theater, remnants of a temple and the Via Domitia. There is an archeology museum in the area on a hill called the Fourvière.

Vienne: A small city just south of Lyon it was a major imperial city founded before Lyon. It has an important collection of sites and vestiges from gallo-roman times. There is a temple dedicated to Augustus and Livia, part of a forum, remnants of the theater, a circus, baths, and a small piece of imperial road.

Clermont Ferrand in the Massif Central: There are the vestiges of a huge temple dedicated to Mercury on top of an ancient volcano which originally had been part of sanctuary to the Celtic god Lug

Vaison la Romaine: an entire city center was discovered in 1924 with houses, streets, remnants of baths, theater and a gate. Still the largest full ongoing archeological dig site in France.!!

Orange: The Theater of Orange is totally preserved and is still used for performances. Holds 10000 people and has perfect acoustics. There is also an Arch de Triomphe in the city center and some vestiges of the Via Domitia.

ARLES: was an Imperial City: it has a huge arena-amphitheatre that is one of the best preserved in the world. An Arch de Triomphe, many vestiges of its Roman past and a new museum which now displays boats from Roman times and one of the oldest busts of Caesar ever found.

Glanum (St Remy de Provence): An entire city center has been discovered with all the vestiges of an important commercial center. A huge site to visit – mostly vestiges but with many explanatory panels

NIMES: has the best-preserved temple dating from the time of Augustus. There is a brand new museum called the Musee de la Romanité (opened in 2018) There is the Magne Tower. And the Arena of Nimes which is the best preserved in the world.

The grand Aqueduct of the Pont du Gard: 52 km left built in three levels. There is a small museum that explains how the aqueducts worked.

Narbonne: Capitole of the Roman province called the Narbonnaise, there is a new museum called the NarboVia and in the city center you can see parts of the Roman road that went from Lyon to Spain. There are various archeological sites to visit scattered around the city.

Nice: On the Cimiez Hill there are the vestiges of the major Roman site and an archeology museum.

La Tourbie (near Nice): vestiges of the city and the temple

Toulouse: St Raymond Archeology Museum and the arena of Purpan

Villa: Montmaurin in the Haute Garonne south of Toulouse: An enormous villa (plantation) of over 1000 ha with buildings, baths, mosaics, and the piping system for having running water and heating and there are also outbuildings for the slaves.

Villa: Séviac, in the Gers. An incredible example of a large villa with an outstanding collection of mosaics that have been cleaned and restored. A great place to understand rural Roman life.

There is reconstitution of a Gaulois village in an archeosite in the area just south of Toulouse in Rieux Volvestre.

Cahors: Remnants of Roman society, walls and a fountain devoted to a goddess of water Divona.

in Perigueux. Vesunna.  A major excavation site in the Dordogne area that has been given a beautiful modern museum.

Bordeaux: An Arc de Triomphe, parts of the Roman wall

Sainte: A temple and an Arc de Triomphe

WHAT IS GALLO ROMAN CIVILIZATION?

Who were the Gauls?

Throughout what is now France and Belgium and parts of Switzerland there were many groups or tribes of Celts who had settled in Western Europe before 1000 b.c. Each region had different leaders, different dialects of the Celtic language, and somewhat different customs, but they were all part of the Celtic peoples who originally came from the farthest regions of eastern Europe and the steppes.

The different tribes were mostly in major groups; the Celts, The Belges, The Aquitains, The Ligures and the Iberes. By the Bronze age, (approximately 1500 b.c.) they had settled in different areas and by the Iron Age (500 b.c.) were in large, organized societies with their own religion, temples, villages, and agriculture.

Recent archaeological digs have found that well before the invasions of the Romans most of these tribes or clans were doing trade with Rome and with the Greek commercial settlements like in Marseille. In some parts of what came to be called Gaul by the Romans there was the beginning of a Hellenization: taking customs and attitudes from the Greek traders and the Roman merchants.

The area where there was the most exchange between these peoples was in what is now the southwest of France, mainly at first along the Mediterranean and a bit inland. This familiarized the local people with Roman culture, customs and objects, even if the laws and the way of life were very different.

ROMAN INVASIONS

Starting in 58 b.c. the Roman Empire expanded west with large contingents of Roman legions led by Julius Caesar invading the area of what is now Occitania and Acquitaine and eventually reaching as far north as Belgium, and the southern half of England. The period from 58 b.c. to 50 b.c. is known as the time of the Gallic Wars.

In a series of military campaigns, the different tribes and areas were eventually forced to submit to Roman control. The southern tribes, under Vercingetorix, fought the longest and the hardest to keep their region independent of Roman domination. The famous battle of Alesia in 52 b.c. where the Celts ALMOST WON, was decisive. If, in fact, the Celtic tribes had been more organized and unified, as Caesar said, they would have won, but there was too much division among the groups.

So, by 50 b.c. the Romans had conquered or taken control of all of Gaul (All of France, parts of Belgium, and England too) They established formal borders and frontiers: THE ACTUAL FRONTIER BETWEEN FRANCE AND GERMANY ALONG THE RHINE RIVER WAS ESTABLISHED BY THE ROMANS)

WHAT THE ROMANS FOUND IN GAULE

When the Romans began their conquest of the land of the Celts, they encountered a large, well- developed society. There was an aristocracy (landed and by vote) simple but well-organized villages with houses made of wood and thatching, stone temples devoted to the Celtic gods, roads and fields devoted to agriculture. To their surprise too, the region was more or less heavily populated: estimates are of about 10 million people living in Gaul. These groups had had contact with Rome through trade and were excellent craftspeople. Their work in wood and metal was prized even in Rome itself.

So, when the Romans did take over, the Celtic tribes were not totally foreign to them, and the Celts were not completely surprised by the Roman way of doing things.

WHAT THE ROMANS BROUGHT AND CHANGED

In the southwest of what is now France, the Celtic tribes, who had had the most contact already with Rome, for a long time, soon adopted many of the Roman customs. They changed the names of some of their gods; for instance, a temple devoted to the Celtic god Lug, became the temple of Mercury. The Romans were good organizers, so that the idea of a central administration which had not existed before, became the norm. Names were Latinized, to show allegiance to Rome, and the local aristocracy took on the toga as a show of respect and allegiance to the new rulers.

The Celts, particularly in the southwest, put up less resistance to the Roman domination and soon changed even their personal habits like shaving and cutting their hair!!!!!

It was in fact in the areas of law and administration that Rome had the greatest influence. And of course, the Roman administrators required loyalty and military aid if necessary. The Romans also introduced their engineering techniques and their supremacy in building both in roads and in major structures. It was thanks to the Romans that brick making, and the use of arches were brought to Gaul. The Romans were meticulous builders and used a grid system for the creation of new towns and built new towns everywhere.
They also introduced the techniques for having running water, and even heated water in the urban areas, and in villas, which were large plantations. Their sophistication in all things structural was amazing.

It is thanks to their ingenuity that so many Roman structures still exist (whether in pieces or whole) and they did have an idea of building for eternity since for over 400 years their empire dominated the entire Mediterranean basin.

HOW THE TWO CIVILIZATIONS MIXED TOGETHER

In the southwest of France, where the Romans had been the longest, and had done the most building, there was the most intermixing of the two civilizations. Many place names from Celtic times were kept or only slightly altered (like Tolosa which was the Celtic name) or Sainte which came from the name Santones. Romans intermarried with the local population, the foods were mixed together, and certain techniques in metallurgy and in the use of wood were appreciated and adopted by the Romans. The Celts were good at commerce, and so when they adopted the Roman ways, they flourished.

The Romans re-created everything that was in Rome: temples, theaters, forums, arenas, fountains for water, buildings made of brick and stone. Many “new” cities were built from scratch including Toulouse, Saintes, Burdigala (Bordeaux), Vaison-la-Romaine and at least 60 others. The Celts had lived in oppidum, fortified hill villages with wood palisades. The Romans introduced geometric, organized cities lower down on the plains, with a central place public gathering, for the temple, the market and all monuments. They had running water, and a highly well organized and centralized administration

Thanks to the predominance of all these things, what is called the Romanization of Gaul lasted a lot longer in the south. There was a true mixing of cultures both in the language and in the customs. So here we do not speak of the Roman civilization but the Gallo Roman civilization. Public life and service were very important as were urban centers and independent villas and the Celtic peoples were very soon part of this new society.

Altogether, the Roman conquest changed forever both the way of relating to society and the structures that we have. Our theaters and arena are hardly any different from the antique model of the Romans. Our system of heating water and having floor heating goes back to the Romans, and our use of bricks and tiles for roofing exist thanks to Roman ingenuity. The biggest differences between Roman conquest elsewhere and in southern France is that the influences in the south were so profound that they continue now and are amazingly still visible!

Going to see some of these sites is the best way to understand just how much we owe to Roman influence and ideas.

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Category: French History