Monday, 21 January 2013

Gaul's forgotten cities - Bibracte

The walls of Bibracte
Well, yesterday we had a look at why Gallic cities like Bibracte existed, but today we're going to take a closer look at the city itself. Traditionally, historians have looked upon Gallic cites like Bibracte as fortified hilltop Oppida - small, well-defended redoubts to which the surrounding communities could evacuate during a time of crisis. They may have covered a few acres, the harvest may have been stored there and the local king or aristocrat may have maintained a residence there. However, by the time Bibracte was founded in the 3rd-century BC, international trade was overtaking farming in importance in Celtic Gaul, and large scale trading needed cities rather than scattered villages. What did this mean for Bibracte? Well, it means Bibracte was built on a large scale right from the outset. The earliest walls enclosed an area of 500 acres, they stood 17-ft high, were punctuated by fifteen gates and were surrounded by a 13-ft deep ditch that was 33-ft wide. At this stage the city was part of the Arvernian Kingdom which stretched across most of central Gaul. However during the 2nd-century BC the Arvernians were weakened by losing much of their southern territories to Rome (to form parts of Transalpine Gaul) and then the catastrophic invasions of the Cimbri. The great German invasions during the last decade of the 2nd-century coincides with Aedui independence (by default) and the building of a second inner wall at Bibracte. This wall was some 3.1-miles long, and consumed 30,000-cubic ft of timber, 60,000-cubic ft of earth and 30-tons of iron. The wall was built hurriedly and carved through much of the outer suburbs - so it was most likely erected during the Cimbri invasions between 109 BC and 102 BC.
A map of Bibracte showing the earlier outer wall
and the newer inner wall

Bibracte was not just the home of the local chief and a few grain silos, rather it was a city of at least 20,000 people and was larger than most of the Roman provincial cities built afterwards. Many of the houses in the Aeduan capital were built of timber - rectangular cottages inhabited by the thousands of artisans, metal workers and merchants who drove the Aeduan urban economy. However at the centre of Bibracte was a town square known as the 'Horse Park' surrounded by much larger Roman influenced stone villas that included hypocausts and sewers. One of these villas covered some 12,000sq-ft. The city also featured large urban fountains that may have had civic or religious purposes - or both. There is no doubt that prior to Julius Caesar's conquest, Bibracte was one of the most sophisticated cities in northern Europe - and after the Gallic wars Bibracte maintained its importance for several more decades. Within two years of the 'Great Rebellion' - when the Aedui had turned against Caesar's legions and had hosted proclamation of the Arvernian, Vercingetorix, as the King of the Gauls - Bibracte had a brand new Roman basilica from which the region was governed until 15BC. The Romans then established the new regional capital of Augustodunum (Modern Autun) 16-miles to the west - this move was the beginning of the end of Bibracte - as it was for several other Gallic hilltop cities, particularly the Arvernian capital of Gergovia...but that's another story.

Central Gaul in 52BC

Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life in Gaul after Caesar

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