Roman France - Sarah Woodbury

Roman France

Roman France, as an entity, existed long before Roman Britain.

In earlier videos, I talked about the Roman takeover of Britain, which began in the first century AD. Southern France was significantly more accessible to the Roman legions than Britain, and Rome began moving into Celtic Gaul around 120 BC. The conquest was completed under the rule of Julius Caesar, starting around 50 BC.

Over the next several hundred years, the people of the area developed a Gallo-Roman culture that was neither Roman nor Celtic but with characteristics of both.

This culture was exemplified by the Roman sites we visited on this trip: Carcasonne, a fortified city on the plain of the River Aude; Glanum, a city near the current town of Saint-Remy; and Arles, a major Roman city situated between the two.

Carcasonne has been occupied since Neolithic times as an important stop on the road from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and thus a center of trade. The Romans recognized the strategic location very quickly and occupied the site starting around 100 BC. They built the first city, fortifying it with a circuit of walls. The distinctive red brick they used as accent in the walls can still be seen today. The walls were rebuilt on the Roman foundations in the Middle Ages to protect the city inside.The medieval structures of the city were restored in the early 19th century, and it is now seen as the best example in  France of a medieval fortified city.

Glanum was actually founded by Gauls around the 6th century BC when they built ramparts on the hills surrounding their village to protect themselves from invaders. Greece was very influential initially on the development of the city, and according to my guidebook, Glanum ‘is the finest example known to us’ of Gallo-Greek culture. The hallmark of the town was a sacred spring that gave rise to water cult that lasted through the centuries, emphasizing one god or another depending on which culture was preeminent.

By the 2nd century BC, when the ramparts around Glanum were expanded, Rome rather than Greece was the rising power, and Rome was called in to help fend off Germanic invaders, who were defeated in 125 BC.

This victory sparked off a golden age in Glanum, in which the citizens built houses and public monuments and even issued their own silver coins called “Glanikon”. In Glanum today, houses, baths, temples, and a market, all along a central road, remain. It is worth noting the drainage system, which included piping fresh water into the houses and waste water out of them.

Unfortunately for Glanum, rebellions in the country around them brought suppression by the Romans and the destruction of their town on several occasions during the 1st century BC, culminating in the heaviest fighting after 50 BC when Julius Caesar took Arles and Roman generals (Octavian, Mark Antony, Lepidus) fought among themselves for absolute power.

Things had settled out by 22 BC, at which point Glanum achieved the status of oppidum Latinum, which meant Glanum’s aristocracy acquired Roman citizenship. Glanum prospered for a while, but as Rome decayed, it did too, until it was abandoned in 260 AD. The city was lost to history until 1921 when the first excavations began.

Arles had also been a Gaulish settlement, but it was taken over by the Romans in 122 BC. It gained preeminence under the patronage of Julius Caesar in his march to power, and it is still a significant city in southern France to this day. We visited the ampitheatre, the theatre, and the bath, all designated World Heritage sites.

Arles was a port city in antiquity, since it was closer to the sea than it is today. Like Carcasonne, it sat at an important crossroads and trade route, and was favored by the emperors of Rome, including Constantine, who built the baths. His son Constantine II was actually born in Arles. At its peak, it may have been home to upwards of 100,000 people.

That many people need entertainment. Thus the building first of a theatre during the time of Augustus, roughly 12 BC, parts of which are still standing today. It sat 8-10,000 spectators. Later, in 90 AD, an ampitheatre, which sat over 20,000 people, was built nearby. In the Middle Ages, the ampitheatre was transformed into a fortified town, with two hundred houses built inside. These were only torn down and the site restored to its Roman shape in the 19th century.

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