Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Gauls - the forgotten city builders

It's one of those strange paradoxes of archaeology - an ancient authority on Gaul describes Gallic cities 2000-years ago but his descriptions are often ignored by modern historians. The 19th and 20th century produced the idea of Gauls as the 'Noble Savage' and clearly, noble savages couldn't go around living in cities. As a result many of us - if we've ever heard of Gauls at all - will conjure up images of Asterix and Obelix living in thatched roundhouses rather than a sophisticated western civilisation that was rapidly catching up with Rome and Greece. Julius Caesar embraced this latter concept when he foresaw Gaul in its ascendancy - his reaction was to control the economic powerhouse Gaul could become through diplomatic and military force. If he hadn't, then it's likely just a few unified states from modern day central France would have had the economic means and resources to make Rome a client rather than the master.

Celtic Gaul was dotted with several large commercial hubs by the 1st-century BC - many, such as Cenabum (modern day Orleans) and Lutetia (modern day Paris) had built their power on river trade. Cenabum's position on the Loire allowed it to control almost all commodity trading between the Atlantic Coast and the Mediterranean Basin, likewise Lutetia controlled the Seine, the gateway to the North Sea and the Baltic lands. But for both of these shipping corridors to prosper, short land routes between the southwards flowing Saone and, the northwards flowing Loire and Seine was an unavoidable necessity - making the area between Chalon-S-Saone (Cavillonum) and Nevers (Noviodunum) the place where the real money was to be made. This 100-mile land corridor was the bridge for all north-south trade across Celtic and Belgic Gaul. For all intents and purposes, every wine amphora moving north and every talent of iron heading south had to be taken off ships and road hauled. So whoever controlled this land bridge stood to make a lot of money - and it they did so by collecting tolls. Think about it - imagine a single freeway linking northern and southern Europe over which every pedestrian, pack animal and wagon had to pay for the pleasure. It was a cash cow and it was critically important - and it drove Gallic politics before and after Julius Caesar arrived in 58BC. The money this region was producing was almost certainly the reason for the continual warring between the Arverni and Aeduans in the early 1st-century BC and why Julius Caesar moved to eject Ariovistus and his German mercenaries from the same region as soon as the Romans arrived. That Caesar elected to maintain close relations with the Aeduans rather than the more powerful Arverni also suggests he was much more interested in where the Aedui were - rather than who they were.

So what's this got to do with Gallic cities? Well, it seems probable that the wealthiest and largest city in 1st-century BC Gaul was the Aeduan capital - Bibracte (modern Mont Beuvray) . Founded in the 3rd-century BC - around the same time as the regional toll roads - it sat on the watershed between the Loire and Saone Valleys. It's location, wealth and reason-for-being was entirely built around one of Europe's most important pre-Roman highways - and if history had gone in some other direction, you might know its name as well you know Rome, Athens or Carthage. Tomorrow we'll take a closer look at this great Gallic city - the city that 'crowned' the first and only King of a unified Gaul.      

Check out my latest book - Vagabond - life in Roman Gaul

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