Part of 1865 Spruner Map of Gallia: black dots indicate the main locations covered in this section: Burdigala/ Bordeaux, Vesunna/Périgueux, Mediolanum Santonum/Saintes, Augustodunum/Autun, Vindunum/Le Mans, Durocortorum/Reims, Bagacum Nerviorum/Bavay, Atuatuca/Civitas Tungrorum/Tongeren and Turnacum/ Tournai; red dots indicate locations covered in other sections: Lugdunum/Lyon, Augusta Treverorum/Trier, Colonia Agrippina/Cologne, Colonia Ulpia Traiana/Xanten and Londinium/London
The whole of Gaul that is comprehended under the one general name of Comata (Gallia Comata, i.e. Gallia by the long hair - and moustaches - which distinguished its inhabitants from those of Gallia Narbonensis (Southern France) and Gallia Cisalpina (Northern Italy) who were already Romanized and had short hair), is divided into three races of people, which are more especially kept distinct from each other by the following rivers. From the Scaldis (Scheldt) to the Sequana (Seine) it is Belgic Gaul; from the Sequana to the Garumna (Garonne) it is Celtic Gaul or Lugdunensis (thus named after Lugdunum, its capital); and from the Garumna to the promontory of the Pyrenaean range it is Aquitanian Gaul, formerly called Aremorica. Agrippa makes the entire length of the coast of Gaul to be 1800 miles, measured from the Rhine to the Pyrenees.
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book 4 - Translation by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley.
The Gauls do not pay much attention to agriculture, and a large portion of their food consists in milk, cheese, and flesh; nor has any one a fixed quantity of land or his own individual limits; but the magistrates and the leading men each year apportion to the tribes and families, who have united together, as much land as, and in the place in which, they think proper, and the year after compel them to remove elsewhere. (..) It is the greatest glory to the several states to have as wide deserts as possible around them, their frontiers having been laid waste. They consider this the real evidence of their prowess, that their neighbours shall be driven out of their lands and abandon them, and that no one dare settle near them. (..) (In the Hercynian forest) there are (..) those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this kind of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. (..) The size, shape, and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen. These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.
Julius Caesar - The Gallic Wars - Book 6 - Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn
Caesar's description of the customs of the Gauls and of the Germans tended to highlight the aspects which made them appear more primitive, if not still savage, to the eyes of a Roman, especially considering that the society of the time regarded farming as the best of all Roman occupations. Some passages however depicted a better image of Gaul; the term "state" is the English translation for Latin civitas, which indicated a structured community of citizens, rather than an uncivilized tribe.
Museum of Aquitaine at Bordeaux: (left) three-faced bust of Jupiter wearing a Gallic garment and a torc, a necklace amulet; (right) stela to Mercury; both dated ca IInd century AD
The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. Induced by such great advantages, many embrace this profession of their own accord, and [many] are sent to it by their parents and relations. They are said there to learn by heart a great number of verses; accordingly some remain in the course of training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in almost all other matters, in their public and private transactions, they use Greek characters. (..) The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes. (..) They worship as their divinity Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions. Caesar - Book VI
According to tradition the Romans charged the Carthaginians with sacrificing children and Caesar did almost the same with the Gauls, with the clear purpose of discrediting the Druids, the priests who performed the sacrifices and who were extremely hostile to the Romans. He indicated however that some of the local gods were already portrayed according to an iconography which the Gauls had learned through their contacts with Massilia (Marseille), a Greek colony in Southern France.
The survival of local cults is evident in many statues and reliefs of the centuries which followed the Roman conquest. Horns were important for the Gauls, as well as for the Germans, as described by Caesar, and the frontal face of Jupiter was embellished with two horns. The three-faced depiction of a god can be noticed elsewhere in Gaul, e.g. at Lyon. The relief of Mercury shows the god with a horned animal which is absent in his traditional iconography (see other reliefs in which Mercury was associated to a local god).
(left) Tongeren: statue of Ambiorix in the central square of the town; (right) Gallo-Roman Museum of Tongeren: Pre-Roman gold hollow discs which were used as coins
Sabinus orders those tribunes of the soldiers whom he had at the time around him, and the centurions of the first ranks, to follow him, and when he had approached near to Ambiorix, being ordered to throw down his arms, he obeys the order and commands his men to do the same. In the mean time, while they treat upon the terms, and a longer debate than necessary is designedly entered into by Ambiorix, being surrounded by degrees, he is slain. Then they, according to their custom, shout out "Victory," and raise their war-cry, and, making an attack on our men, break their ranks. There L. Cotta, while fighting, is slain, together with the greater part of the soldiers; the rest betake themselves to the camp, from which they had marched forth, and one of them, L. Petrosidius, the standard bearer, when he was overpowered by the great number of the enemy, threw the eagle within the entrenchments and is himself slain while fighting with the greatest courage before the camp. They with difficulty sustain the attack till night; despairing of safety, they all to a man destroy themselves in the night. A few escaping from the battle, made their way to Labienus at winter-quarters, after wandering at random through the woods, and inform him of these events. (..) Caesar himself marched to depopulate the country of Ambiorix, whom he had terrified and forced to fly, but despaired of being able to reduce under his power; but he thought it most consistent with his honour to waste his country both of inhabitants, cattle, and buildings, so that from the abhorrence of his countrymen, if fortune suffered any to survive, he might be excluded from a return to his state for the calamities which he had brought on it. (..) He sent either his legions or auxiliaries through every part of Ambiorix's dominions, and wasted the whole country by sword, fire, and rapine, and killed or taken prodigious numbers. Caesar - Book V and Book VIII
Ambiorix might not have been the actual name of the chieftain who in 54 BC slew a Roman legion, -rix being an adaptation of Latin rex (king/ruler) which was used also for Vercingetorix, the leader of a large anti-Roman alliance and other Gallic commanders. Ambiorix became a symbol of national identity for the Kingdom of Belgium which was created in 1830 and in 1866 a statue was erected to him at Tongeren near the site where the Romans were ambushed. A similar celebration of local leaders who fought against the Romans occurred in Britain (Boadicea), Germany (Arminius) and France (Vercingetorix); their monuments were symbols of that nationalism which eventually led to WWI and WWII.
Museum of Aquitaine at Bordeaux: arrowheads and sling balls from Uxellodunum (Puy d'Issolud, Vayrac, east of Périgueux), the site of the last revolt of the Gauls against Caesar in 51 BC
Luterius (a Gallic chieftain) had once in his prosperity possessed a powerful influence over the Cadurci, who were his countrymen, and being always the author of new projects, had considerable authority among the barbarians; (..) he seized Uxellodunum, a town formerly in vassalage to him, and strongly fortified by its natural situation; and prevailed on the inhabitants to join him. After Caninius (a Roman commander) had rapidly marched to this place, and perceived that all parts of the town were secured by very craggy rocks, which it would be difficult for men in arms to climb even if they met with no resistance; and moreover, observing that the town's people were possessed of effects, to a considerable amount, and that if they attempted to convey them away in a clandestine manner, they could not escape our horse, or even our legions; he divided his forces into three parts, and pitched three camps on very high ground, with the intention of drawing lines round the town by degrees, as his forces could bear the fatigue. (..) Caesar was informed by numerous letters from Caninius of (..) in what conduct the town's people persisted: and though he despised the smallness of their numbers, yet he thought their obstinacy deserving a severe punishment, lest Gaul in general should adopt an idea that she did not want strength but perseverance to oppose the Romans. (..) Having arrived at Uxellodunum, contrary to the general expectation, and perceiving that the town was surrounded by the works, and that the enemy had no possible means of retiring from the assault, and being likewise informed by the deserters that the townsmen had abundance of corn, he endeavoured to prevent their getting water. (..) The townsmen still continued to make an obstinate resistance, and even, after losing the greatest part of their forces by drought, persevered in their resolution: at last the veins of the spring were cut across by our mines, and turned from their course. By this their constant spring was suddenly dried up, which reduced them to such despair that they imagined that it was not done by the art of man, but the will of the gods; forced, therefore, by necessity, they at length submitted. Caesar, being convinced that his lenity was known to all men, and being under no fears of being thought to act severely from a natural cruelty, and perceiving that there would be no end to his troubles if several states should attempt to rebel in like manner and in different places, resolved to deter others by inflicting an exemplary punishment on these. Accordingly he cut off the hands of those who had borne arms against him. Their lives he spared, that the punishment of their rebellion might be the more conspicuous. Caesar - Book 8
With the fall of Uxellodunum Caesar completed his conquest of Gaul which he had started in 58 in response to an attempt by the Helvetii, a bellicose tribe in today's Western Switzerland, to invade the territories of the Allobroges, who had already accepted Roman hegemony, in the River Rhône valley.
Autun: Saint-André Gate
In the years which followed the conquest of Gaul, Caesar was involved in a civil war and his assassination in 44 BC sparked another civil war and the partition of the Empire between Octavian and Antony. In 39 BC Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a friend of Octavian, was appointed governor of Gallia Comata and he took key initiatives to better structure the Roman presence in the province by dividing it into three smaller ones, a way of acknowledging the existence of different cultures; the new provinces were formally established in 27 BC. The leaders of their Gallic communities were periodically invited to attend conferences/ceremonies at the Amphitheatre of the Three Gauls at Lyon.
The valley of the River Saône, a tributary of the Rhône, ended very near those of the River Rhine and of the River Mosel, one of its main tributaries; its control by the Romans led to the development of a trade route having a south-north direction from the Mediterranean Sea to Northern France, Germany and Britain. A number of towns were founded to promote trade; Augustodunum, in the historical region of Burgundy, was named after Emperor Augustus. The suffix dunum is a Gallic word for "fortified town".
The upper left part of Saint-André Gate is a creation by Eugène Emmanuel Violletars-le-Duc (1814-1879), an architect who pioneered the restoration of historical buildings in France, but who is criticized today for having exceeded in reconstructing them (see the gate in an 1820s engraving). The Porte de Mars at Reims is another example of excessive restoration by a local architect.
Agrippa promoted the constructions of roads which from Lyon reached: a) Saintes near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean; b) Reims and Bononia or Gesoriacum (Boulogne-sur-Mer) on the English Channel; c) Trier and Cologne on the Rhine. Initially the roads had a military purpose, but eventually they were used for trade and were complemented by other roads, some of which created direct links between towns in Gallia Belgica and towns along the Rhine. The frequent relations with the latter led to the erection near Bavay of a Jupitersaule, a column having at its top a small statue of Jupiter and pedestals and shafts decorated with reliefs depicting other gods. These columns were typical of towns in Germany, e.g. Mogontiacum (Mainz), where the legions were stationed.
Brussels Museum of History & Art: cast of a funerary relief from "Orolanum" (Arlon), at the junction of roads from Bavay to Trier and from Cologne to Reims, showing a couple, fruit sellers and farmers
Ordinary life in Roman Gaul and in neighbouring Roman Germany can be understood through reliefs which decorated tombstones. They show the existence of a wealthy and laborious middle class who was proud of their jobs and businesses. The long period of peace that followed the Roman conquest favoured the economic development of Gaul, which gradually became a manufacturer of goods and a producer of wine which, in addition to local consumption, were exported to Britain, which was conquered by the Romans in 43 AD, and were sold to the German tribes beyond the Rhine.
In describing the Siege of Alesia, a key episode of the conquest of Gaul, Caesar listed forty-five states which were asked to send troops. Pre-Roman Gaul was a fragmented society and many towns were named by the Romans after the state where they were located. Over time however the links with the old civitates faded away and towns became the unit upon which the political and social structure of Roman Gaul was based, similar to what occurred in the rest of the Empire. This was less true for some mountainous regions such as Auvergne in Central France, which is still named after the Arvernii, a Gallic people. Towns enjoyed a degree of self-government which grew with the lessening of the legal differences between Roman citizens and peregrini, freemen of local descent.
Amphitheatres (and not temples or mausoleums) are the most characteristic monuments of Roman architecture and their presence in many towns of Gaul testifies to the development of a busy urban society. Early Christian sources associated them with the blood of the martyrs and with a secular way of living, but those in some towns of Gaul most likely housed only fights against bears of the Pyrenees or bulls and public executions of criminals; gladiatorial combats entailing a high-rate of deaths were a rare event.
Southern France is rich in large Roman monuments which were designed according to traditional patterns; in this respect the regions of France which are covered in this section and Belgium do not offer such a wide assortment, but they do have some interesting buildings. Tour de Vésone and the Temple to Janus at Autun, strike the viewer for their vertical thrust. Tour de Vésone was the cella of a temple dedicated to Vesunna, a local goddess after whom the town was named. Its design was probably based on that of the Pantheon because we know that the cella was preceded by a portico. It was turned into a defensive tower and this prevented its dismantling to reuse its materials. The monument was visited in 1845 by Prosper Merimée (1803-1870), a French writer who at the time was Inspector-General of Historical Monuments, who took the first steps for its conservation. We owe to him and to Alexandre de Laborde (1773-1842) the first detailed descriptions of the monuments of France.
The image used as background for this page shows a head of Juno at the Gallo-Roman Museum of Vesunna near Tour de Vésone.
Brussels Museum of History & Art: reliefs from the Belgian province of Luxembourg (see a page on the Roman memories in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg): (left) Roman legionaries; (right) Chariot of the Sun
Gallia Belgica was subject to raids by German tribes who lived beyond the Rhine or by revolts of tribes, e.g. the Batavii, whom the Romans had allowed to settle in the territory of the Empire. Some of the reliefs found in Belgium testify to the presence of Roman legions there. The small one depicting the Chariot of Sun could be associated with the military too; this subject is often seen in larger reliefs portraying Mithra or it could have decorated an altar to Sol Invictus; in the IIIrd century AD both cults were widespread among the legionaries.
In 235 Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated at Mainz by legionaries who were unhappy about his attempts to reach peace agreements with hostile German tribes. It was the beginning of a military anarchy which lasted fifty years and had a major impact on Gaul, especially after 260 when Postumus, commander of the legions along the Rhine, rebelled and created an empire which included Britain and Spain in addition to Germany and Gaul (the rebellion was put down in 273); the coins issued during that period had a lower content of silver which led to inflation; the emperors were portrayed wearing a radiating crown, a reference to Sol Invictus (see an interesting relief depicting the god) and an indication that they claimed a divine role during their lifetime. Emperor Diocletian tried to tackle inflation by imposing price controls; in order to effectively implement this and other initiatives, he strengthened his power by creating more provinces of a smaller size and assigning them to officers reporting to him or his vicars. The four provinces of Gaul plus that of Germany were replaced by more than fifteen provinces. The economic crisis led many small farmers to sell their land and themselves to owners of large estates. The decline of the towns and that of independent farming together with the territorial fragmentation were key causes of the medieval feudal system.
Brussels Museum of History & Art: luxury items found in tombs (IInd/IIIrd century): (left) brooches for fastening garments; (right) small bronze vessel
The élites of the Gallo-Roman society of the IVth century were often reluctant to embrace Christianity. In 350 Emperor Constans who had issued decrees against pagan ceremonies was killed by Magnentius, commander of the Imperial Guard who was born in Gallia Belgica. He ruled over the Western part of the Empire until 353 and he restored some of the traditional cults. In 392 Arbogastes, magister militum, commander of the army on the Rhine, made an alliance with members of the senatorial class of Rome to stop the growing power of the Christians. In 394 he was defeated at the Battle of the River Frigidus by Emperor Theodosius, who imposed the Christian faith in its Nicene creed as the sole religion of the State. These conflicts weakened the structure of the Empire which Theodosius left in the hands of Arcadius and Honorius, his two inept young sons. Honorius withdrew Roman troops from the Rhine frontier to protect himself at Ravenna; on the night of December 31, 406, profiting from the fact that the Rhine was frozen, bands of Vandals, Alans and Suebi crossed the river near Mainz and gained control of its western bank. They were followed by their whole tribes and they moved into Gaul.
Brussels Museum of History & Art: (left) modern painting by Grzegorz Rosinski depicting the Baptism of Clovis, King of the Franks, at Reims in 508; (right) Merovingian metalwork
The fields of Gaul summon home their native. Disfigured they are by wars immeasurably long, yet the less their charm, the more they earn pity. (..) Now is the time after cruel fires on ravaged farms to rebuild, if it be but shepherd's huts. Nay, if only the very springs could utter words, if only our very trees could speak, they well might spur my laggard pace with just complaints and give sails to my yearning wishes. (..) The stars, which watch all things in their unceasing motion, never looked upon a fairer empire (that of Rome).
Rutilius Claudius Namatianus - De Redito Suo - Loeb Edition - 1934. Namatianus wrote these verses in 415 on his way back from Rome to Gaul.
The first invaders were pushed across the Pyrenees by the Visigoths to whom Honorius formally assigned Gallia Narbonensis. The Franks established a small kingdom having Tournai as capital. In 30 years (481-511) Clovis, their king, conquered most of Northern and Central France. In 507 he defeated the Visigoths and conquered Toulouse. His name evolved into Louis and it became the most common name of the Kings of France (18 Louis versus 10 Charles). Merovingian is the name of the dynasty of rulers of the Franks until 751, when the last of them was deposed by Pepin the Short who initiated the Carolingian dynasty. The French monarchs acquired their main southern territories in 1271 (County of Toulouse) and in 1481 (County of Provence) and Gaul became France.
Plan of this section:
Atuatuca or Civitas Tungrorum (Tongeren)
Bagacum Nerviorum (Bavay)
Mediolanum Santonum (Saintes)
Vindunum (Le Mans)
Roman villa of Montcaret
and an excursion to Laon