Roman Gaul

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Roman Gaul

Roman Gaul consisted of an area of provincial rule in the Roman Empire, in modern day France, Belgium, Luxembourg, western Switzerland and western Germany. Roman control of the area lasted for more than 500 years.

The Roman Republic began its takeover of Celtic Gaul in 121 BC, when it conquered and annexed the southern reaches of the area. Julius Caesar completed the task by defeating the Celtic tribes in the Gallic Wars of 58-51 BC and the romanization that ensued was quickest in the cities; Latin was spoken by a majority of Gauls in the third century AD but with some remains of the Gallic language.

The last vestige of Roman rule was effaced by the Franks at the Battle of Soissons (486); displacing the Visigothic kingdom of Toulouse in 507, the Franks brought most of Gaul, except Septimania in the south, under the rule of the Merovingians, the first kings of France.

The city of Lugdunum (now Lyon) had long been the capital of the Gaul.

Geographical divisions

Gaul had three geographical divisions, one of which was divided into multiple Roman provinces:

  1. Gallia Cisalpina or "Gaul this side of the Alps” covered most of present-day northern Italy.

  2. Gallia Narbonensis, formerly Gallia Transalpina or "Gaul across the Alps" was originally conquered and annexed in 121 BC in an attempt to solidify communications between Rome and the Iberian peninsula. It comprised the present-day region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, most of Languedoc-Roussillon, and roughly the southeastern half of Rhône-Alpes.

  3. Gallia Comata, or "long haired Gaul", encompassed the remainder of present-day France, Belgium, and westernmost Germany, which the Romans gained through the victory over the Celts in the Gallic Wars. The Romans divided Gallia Comata into three provinces:

Gallia Aquitania

Gallia Belgica

Gallia Lugdunensis

The Romans divided these huge provinces into civitates corresponding more or less with the pre-Conquest communities or polities sometimes described misleadingly as "tribes," such as the Aedui, Allobroges, Bellovaci, and Sequani but the civitates were too large and in turn were divided into smaller units, pagi, a term that eventually became the modern French word "pays". These administrative groupings would be taken over by the Romans in their system of local control, and these civitates would also be the basis of France's eventual division into ecclesiastical bishoprics and dioceses, which would remain in place—with slight changes—until the French revolution.

Language and culture

In the five centuries between Caesar's conquest and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Gaulish language and cultural identity underwent a syncretism with the Roman culture of the new governing class, and evolved into a hybrid Gallo-Roman culture that eventually permeated all levels of society. Current historical research suggests that Roman Gaul was "Roman" only in certain (albeit major) social contexts, the prominence of which in material culture has hindered a better historical understanding of the permanence of many Celtic elements. The Roman influence was most apparent in the areas of civic religion and administration. The Druidic religion was suppressed by Emperor Claudius I, and in later centuries Christianity was introduced. The prohibition of Druids and the syncretic nature of the Roman religion led to disappearance of the Celtic religion. It remains to this day poorly understood: current knowledge of the Celtic religion is based on archeology and via literary sources from several isolated areas such as Ireland and Wales.

The Romans easily imposed their administrative, economic, artistic (especially in terms of monumental art and architecture) and literary culture.

After the Roman conquest of Gaul (finished in 51 BC), Romanization of the Celtic upper classes proceeded more rapidly than the less complete romanization of the lower classes, who may have spoken a Latin language mixed with Gallic. The Gauls wore the Roman tunic instead of their traditional clothing. The Romano-Gauls generally lived in the vici, small villages similar to those in Italy, or in villae, for the richest.

Surviving Celtic influences also infiltrated back into the Roman Imperial culture in the 3rd century. For example, the Gaulish tunic—which gave Emperor Caracalla his surname—had not been replaced by Roman fashion. Similarly, certain Gaulish artisan techniques, such as the barrel (more durable than the Roman amphora) and chain mail were adopted by the Romans.

The Celtic heritage also continued in the spoken language (see History of French). Gaulish spelling and pronunciation of Latin are apparent in several 5th century poets and transcribers of popular farces. The last pockets of Gaulish speakers appear to have lingered until the 6th or 7th century.

Germanic placenames were first attested in border areas settled by Germanic colonizers (with Roman approval). From the 4th to 5th centuries, the Franks settled in northern France and Belgium, the Alemanni in Alsace and Switzerland, and the Burgundians in Savoie.

After the fall of Rome

The Roman administration finally collapsed as remaining troops were withdrawn southeast to protect Italy. Between 455 and 476 the Visigoths, the Burgundians, and the Franks assumed power in Gaul. However, certain aspects of the ancient Celtic culture continued after the fall of Roman administration and there was a remnant of the Empire for ten more years.

In 486, Gaul ceased to be a Roman state by the Franks at the Battle of Soissons. Almost immediately afterwards, Gaul came under the rule of the Merovingians, the first kings of France.

Certain Gallo-Roman aristocratic families continued to exert power in episcopal cities (as in the cases of the Mauronitus family in Marseilles and Bishop Gregory of Tours). The appearance of Germanic given and family names becomes noticeable in France from the middle of the 7th century on, most notably in powerful families, thus indicating that the center of gravity had definitely shifted.

The Gallo-Roman, or Vulgar Latin, dialect of the late Roman period evolved into the dialects of the Oïl languages and Old French in the north, and Occitan in the south.

Gallia and its equivalents continued to be used, at least in writing, until the end of the Merovingian period. Slowly, during the Carolingian period, the expression Francia, then Francia occidentalis spread to describe the political reality of the kingdom of the Franks (regnum francorum).

Gaul and Roman France

The area that was known as Gaul in Roman times includes modern France, and also Belgium, Luxembourg and western parts of Germany.

The conquest of the region by the Romans began in the 2nd - 1st centuries BC, and continued with the 'Gallic Wars', led by Julius Caesar, between 58 BC and 51 BC. At that time the region was also under threat from other directions - notably the Suevi and Helvetii tribes (from modern day Germany and Switzerland) - and initially it was defeating these tribes that posed the greatest challenge to the Romans.

It was in 53BC in Alesia that the final great battle took place between the Gauls and the Romans. The Gauls were defeated by Julius caesar and the Romans, and the Romans can be considered to have occupied France from that date on. The exact location of Alesia is still debated, although the most likely location is in Burgundy at Alise-Sainte-Reine near Dijon.

From about 53 BC onwards the focus of the Romans in the Gallic Wars was more on suppressing a series of smaller invasions and uprisings - including 52 BC when a group of tribes led by Vercingetorix posed a significant threat to the Romans, but this threat was also defeated. (Enthusiasts of Asterix and Obelisk, the extremy popular French cartoon characters, will be familiar with this period!)

Rome then controlled the area for about six centuries, until the Roman empire itself collapsed, in the face of constant invasions.

Romans in France built a number of fine villas and, notably, introduced vines from Italy. The heyday of the Romans in Gaul was during the first and second centuries AD, when there was little unrest and the later tribal invasions from the north and east had not yet started - it was a prosperous area, with prosperity built largely on pottery, wine and food exports.

Until the Roman occupation, the predominant religion was druid-based and very primitive. It was while under Roman rule that Christianity was introduced, and that Claudius I ordered the Druids suppressed. At the same time, the Gaulish language spoken underwent a fundamental transformation, and by the end of Roman rule the language spoken was a Latin based precursor of modern day French.

By the time the Romans left, to defend their homeland in the face of repeated invasions from the Visigoths, the Huns, the Vandals and others, (later as we know to prove successful), towards the end of the 5th century, the basic shape of Modern France had started to emerge. Although the Franks successfully invaded Gaul, they did little to alter the society that was by that time established. Gaul was soon established, with a King based in Paris, and the 'modern history of France' began.

Visiting Roman monuments in France

There are many locations in France where you can see ruins dating from the period of Roman occupation.

The greatest concentration of these, and the best place to start your exploration of Roman France, is in the south of the country near the border between Languedoc and Provence - highlights include the Pont du Gard aquaduct, the amphitheatre at Orange, and the colosseums at both Nimes and Arles, all found in quite close proximity to each other.

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