Thursday, 24 January 2013

Gaul's forgotten cities - Gergovia

So what about the other great cities of Gaul? I've already mentioned Bibracte, Cenabum and Lutetia whose principle purpose was international trade. From a Gallic perspective, they were modern metropolitan centres located to specifically take advantage of trade routes - a concept that went entirely against the reason for the traditional Gallic Oppidum - the fortified citadel on top of a mountain. If anything, the existence of these 'lowland' cities by the 2nd-century BC suggests the tribal states of Celtic Gaul were already moving towards a more peaceful trade-based economy rather than one previously based on planting and harvesting with some raiding in between. But that's not to say the great hilltop Oppida were falling out of use - Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul mentions several - and it seems some were urbanised fortified cities rather than the Gallic version of medieval castle. Perhaps the most important was Gergovia - the Arvernian capital, and a city from which much of central and southern Gaul was governed during the 3rd and 2nd-centuries BC.

The plateau of Gergovia above
modern day Clermont-Ferrand 

Gergovia sits atop a 1000-ft plateau that juts from the Central Massif above the valley of the River Allier. The original Oppidum dates from around 700 BC when the ancestors of the Arverni reached the Allier valley  from Austria. By the 2nd-century BC much of the plateau was walled in - enclosing a similar area to Bibracte - suggesting the city may have boasted a population of around 15,000-20,000. Unlike Bibracte, Gergovia relied more on military muscle to preserve it's status. It did control overland trade routes south through the Central Massif to the Mediterranean and Spain, and west to the Atlantic coast, but compared to the river traffic in Central Gaul, the Arverni were very much on the peripheries of the major trading routes. But what they had on their side was clearly a more organised style of Gallic warfare than the 'trading states' - resulting in much of the trade money made in the Loire and Saone valleys going to Gergovia as cash tributes in exchange for protection. The Arvenian Kingdom peaked around 126 BC - after this they lost much of their southern territories to the new Roman province of Transalpine Gaul - but received the status of 'Friend of Rome' and a peace treaty recognised by the Roman Senate in return.

Twenty years later the city of Gergovia was specifically targeted by the 1-million strong invading Cimbri from Jutland - they besieged the city for perhaps a year or more, reducing the residents to cannibalism, but despite this Gergovia never capitulated. In May 52 BC Julius Caesar arrived with the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 13th and 14th legions - around 27,000 battle-hardened troops at the height of the 'Great Rebellion'. Within a week, two of his legions had been effectively ruined as fighting forces and he was in full retreat. Gergovia was one of the worst defeats of his career - and the city famously never fell to any attacker - a stark reminder of its incredible defensive position not to mention the quality of Arvernian infantry. However Gergovia may have won the battle but it didn't win the war. Just as Bibracte, a Roman city - Augstonemetum - was built down in the Allier Valley a few decades later, usurping Gergovia's role in the region. Augustonemetum became Clermont-Ferrand and Gergovia is now an empty plateau - a legacy of the Pax Romana.  

The Arvernian field of influence
during the mid-1st Century BC

Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life after the Gallic Wars

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