Ep. 18 Pax Gallia: Rebuilding a Roman Gaul
In our last episode, Gaul was in ruins after roughly a decade of brutal war. Gaul had suffered a massive Roman invasion, repeated German incursions and raids, and numerous inter-tribal civil wars. The result was that perhaps 20% of the population were killed or sold into slavery, with many others dying of hunger. But in 50 BCE the war ended, as the tribes of Gaul surrendered their independence to Rome and the last of the major uprisings were quelled. After ten years of utter devastation, Gaul was about to enter into a long period of peace and reconstruction. Though the Gaul that emerged after the Roman invasion was not the same as the one before, as evidenced by the fact that its very name was changed from ‘Gaul’ to the Latin ‘Gallia.’ Under Augustus Gallia would be split up into different provinces, but when Caesar left it in late 50 BCE, Gallia was a largely unorganized territory, with a capital at Lugdunum, or modern-day Lyon. There were numerous Roman forts and outposts in eastern Gallia, which not only discouraged local rebellions, but kept the Germans at bay.
In 49 BCE Julius Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon river and launched his civil war. The showdown with Pompey had finally come. But while Italy, Africa, Hispania, and the Eastern provinces were caught up in a maelstrom of war, Gallia was spared. Gallia, after all, was firmly under Caesar’s control, and Pompey never got the opportunity to contest power there, as his forces and Caesar’s battled it out, largely in the East. In fact, the only battle that took place in all of Gallia, largely didn’t involve Gauls. This was the Siege of Masallia. As I mentioned in episode 8, a community of Anatolian Greeks settled in southern France and founded the city of Masallia, at modern-day Marseille. From there they built a small but important empire, with colonies across southern Gaul. Many of these colonies were absorbed by Rome, as Masallia was a naval power, not a land power, and could not contest invasion by the Ligurian tribes, or their Gallic cousins. But while the Masallian empire fell apart, the city grew richer than ever under Rome’s protection. So rich, that it became highly conservative and its ruling oligarchy aligned itself with Pompey, the Senate and the Optimates against Julius Caesar and the Populares. Furthermore, Pompey sent a small army to the city to ensure their loyalty.
While Caesar marched west into Hispania he left one of his generals with three legions to besiege the ancient city. The general blockaded the city, the Masallian navy was kept in the harbor and attempts to break the blockade failed. Instead a 4 month-long siege took place wherein Caesar’s forces wore down the defenders until they eventually surrendered. In the ensuing treaty Massalia lost all of its territories outside the city and was granted a degree of autonomy, although it was now firmly under Roman control, and would eventually adopt the Latin name Masillia.
While the Siege of Massalia was the only major battle fought in Gallia during Caesar’s Civil War, many Gauls did engage in the war, as auxiliaries or under the newly-created Legio quinta alaudae, the “Lark-crested Fifth Legion,” so named because the high crest on the soldiers’ helmets made them look like larks. The fifth legion drew from Gallia Narbonensis and was a melting pot of Gauls, Ligurians and Roman subjects. The fifth legion was the first Roman legion composed of provincial soldiers, as opposed to Roman citizens, and marked a major turning point in Roman military history. At this time, Caesar paid the soldiers with his own resources, but after his victory in the Civil War…oh, did I mention Caesar eventually wins?… well after he wins the legion is recognized by the Roman Senate. The fifth legion was raised to fight Vercingetorix in the Gallic Wars, and stayed in Gaul until 49 BC, when it was moved to Spain. This new legion got around quite a bit, and fought in Greece at the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48 BCE against Pompey’s soldiers. It then fought in Northern Africa at the Battle of Uzita in 47 BCE and again in 46 BCE at the Battle of Thapsus. It was at Thapsus that the fifth legion became famous when it withstood a charge of war elephants by Juba I, king of Numidia. Caesar rewarded them with an emblem of a war elephant and it became their standard ever since. The fifth legion then joined Caesar at the Battle of Munda in 45 BCE, the last major battle of the war, which saw Caesar triumph over his rivals, paving the way for his return to Rome.
Upon his return Caesar prepared to declare himself dictator for life. But that was not meant to be, as a conspiracy of senators assassinated Caesar. For a brief moment it appeared as if the Senate would retake control of the Roman world, as Caesar’s leading general Mark Antony and the pro-Caesar factions were scattered and in disarray. But then Caesar’s funeral took place. While Caesar was hated by the Senate, he was beloved by the Roman people. Mark Antony seized the opportunity and delivered a eulogy for Caesar and condemned his assassins, turning popular support against the Senate.
Meanwhile a new character enters our stage, one that will radically reshape world history: Gaius Octavius Thurinus, known as Octavian before his ascension to power, and Augustus after he became the first Roman emperor. Octavian was Caesar’s grand-nephew and a personal favorite of the Roman general. Because Caesar had no living children, he declared Octavian his heir. When word of Caesar’s assassination reached Octavian his friends advised that he go into hiding. But Octavian was both daring and a political genius, perhaps one of the greatest political minds in all of human history. Rather than fleeing to Macedonia, Octavian sailed from Illyria to Rome. Upon arriving, Octavian learned that Caesar had made him his heir, meaning Octavian should have inherited the greatest fortune in all the Roman world. I say should have, because Mark Antony tied up the funds in order to hamstring the young man. But while Octavian struggled to acquire his fortune he did claim something else: godhood. Despite objections from Mark Antony the people of Rome demanded that Caesar be declared a god, and afterward Octavian took full advantage of this, claiming that he was the descendant of a god, and therefore divine himself. Octavian, like Caesar, was brilliant at propaganda and what better way to get people on your side than to tell them you are literally a living god?
Furthermore, Octavian was able to get the continual support of the Senate and the ruling elite on his side through clever political maneuvering. In 43 BCE, Mark Antony demanded that Cisalpine Gaul be given to him. This alarmed the Senate, who worried that Mark Antony was growing too bold. Additionally, if Mark Antony controlled the passes leading into Gallia proper he could claim a massive Roman province and raise even more troops. Octavian wisely asked the Senate for permission to use his private armies to quell Mark Antony’s rebellion, to which they readily agreed. Antony was humiliated, Octavian came off as a defender of peace and the old Roman order, and Gallia was spared from war.
While Mark Antony became increasingly unpopular he was not done for. Furthermore, Octavian was a cold pragmatist. As soon as Antony’s rebellion ended the two united and launched a war against Caesar’s assassins. In this civil war the fifth legion again served and helped deliver victory for the pro-Caesar faction.
After the war Octavian, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, a former ally of Caesar, formally inaugurated a political union known to history as the Second Triumvirate. Unlike the first which was an informal understanding between the three leading figures in Rome, the Second Triumvirate was a legally-binding union, which gave Africa to Lepidus, Eastern Europe and the Near East to Mark Antony, Western Europe to Octavian, and meanwhile Italy was a sovereign province nominally ruled by the Senate, though Octavian controlled it from behind the scenes. But this union was one made purely for political convenience and was not intended to last and all sides knew it.
The first of the three to fall was Marcus Lepidus. Much like Crassus before him, Lepidus knew he was the third wheel and wanted to acquire power and glory for himself. From 44-36 BCE Sextus Pompey, son of the late Gnaeus Pompey, led a pirate-based insurrection out of Sicily. Lepidus was ordered by the Senate, which was firmly under Octavian’s control, to quell the rebellion. After finally doing so, Lepidus demanded that he be given Sicily to rule. This outraged the Senate and the people of Rome, as they considered Sicily to be a part of Italy. Octavian then engaged in a propaganda war against Lepidus, claiming that he aimed to make himself dictator and tear the Roman world apart. At this point Lepidus was condemned by the two greatest authorities in the Roman world: the Senate, which was the ancient and sacred governing body, and Octavian, who many believed to be a living god. Humiliatingly, Lepidus’ legions defected to Octavian, who then forced the disgraced general into exile.
With Lepidus out of the way, the Roman world was again divided between two egotistical men. However, two decades earlier, Caesar and Pompey had relatively equal standing in terms of military and popular power. By 36 BCE, Octavian was clearly the dominant power in the Roman world. The Senate loved him and despised Mark Antony. The Roman people loved him and were lukewarm about Antony. Octavian had access to a massive fortune which he could use to bribe senators and raise armies personally loyal to him. Add to this that he was worshipped as a literal god, and Octavian was unquestionably the most powerful man in Rome.
While Mark Antony was not as politically savvy as his rival, he wasn’t stupid. He knew that the only way he could contend with Octavian was if he achieved glory comparable to that which Octavian inherited from Caesar. To accomplish this, Mark Antony decided to pull off a classic Roman move: he was going to invade Persia. Just like Crassus before him, he understood that a successful invasion of Persia would bring him unimaginable wealth and eternal glory. Yet his attempts at an invasion failed, in large part due to Crassus’ invasion. Following Crassus’ defeat in 53 BCE, Persia brought the kingdom of Armenia firmly under its power. While Armenia remained nominally independent and its king Artavasdes II, (remember him?) was allowed to remain in power, the Armenians knew Persia called the shots. After all, Artavasdes II had offered the Roman general Crassus the golden opportunity to conquer Persia but his stubbornness and stupidity ensured an absolute failure, which turned the Armenian king and his people away from Rome. When Mark Antony invaded in 40 BCE the Armenians fought against him. After six years of fighting it became clear Mark Antony could never hope to conquer Persia.
In retribution, Mark Antony invaded Armenia in 34 BCE, sacking its capital, and capturing the royal family, including our old friend King Artavasdes II. Artavasdes II and his family were taken to Egypt, Mark Antony’s base of power where he ruled the East with his lover Queen Cleopatra. There the old Armenian king and his family were forced to march in Antony’s triumph, wearing golden chains.
After failing in his conquest of Persia, Mark Antony resigned himself to living in luxury in Egypt, siring children with Cleopatra. In 34 BCE Mark Antony sent a proclamation to Rome called ‘The Donations of Alexandria’ which would give control of the eastern Roman territories to his son Caesarian. The Senate refused to ratify this, and the mere fact that Antony was trying to divide up the Roman world and give it to his child, particularly the child of a foreign kingdom, was an outrage.
In 32 BCE Octavian made a decisive move to seize total power in Rome when he produced what he claimed was Mark Antony’s will, which decreed that his son would inherit the eastern Roman world. Whether this was real or a clever forgery we will never know, but either way it launched the Final War of the Roman Republic. Octavian’s forces defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, which the fifth legion took part in. During the battle, Cleopatra ordered the beheading of Artavasdes II, and had the head sent to his lifelong rival the King of Media Atropatene, in order to secure his allegiance. But after Actium the war was clearly lost for Antony, who committed suicide on the 31st of July 30 BCE by stabbing himself in the stomach. On August 12th, Cleopatra let an asp bite her in the breast. A month later, their child was executed, and the civil war came to an end, with Octavian as the sole ruler of Rome.
Over the next few years Octavian consolidated his power but did so under the auspices that he was restoring the old Roman order and the power of the Senate. In 27 BCE he took up the title Augustus meaning ‘revered one’ and soon established his line as emperors of Rome. Thus the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire. Augustus, his descendants and claimants to his legacy would rule as the god-emperors of Rome until its fall in 476 AD.
The question we must ask ourselves is: what did the fall of the republic and rise of the empire mean for Roman Gallia? For the Gauls the rise of Augustus meant peace and economic transformation. After suffering devastation and arguably genocide under Julius Caesar, Augustus invested his time, wealth and wisdom into rebuilding this ravaged country. Though what emerged was markedly different from Celtic Gaul as Roman Gallia was a hybrid of these two cultures. There’s no way I can cover all of the incredible transformations Gallia underwent in one episode, so for this one I am going to talk about the early phase of Roman city-building, with future episodes covering politics, culture, religion, the military and the economy as Augustus completely reshapes Gallia.
Romanization was a steady, multi-faceted process that revolved around building fixed spaces. In order this is: the fort, the city and the villa. First, Rome would conquer an area and establish military bases in strategic locations. Soldiers stationed in these bases inevitably created their own economies as they bought goods from local farmers, merchants priests and…‘enterprising’ women.
Next, came the Roman city, many of which were built around Roman forts. Moreover, the Roman city adopted much of the forts’ physical layout as Roman cities adopted a grid-based system, as opposed to growing organically as most villages did. Furthermore, the early inhabitants of the new Roman cities were veterans who, upon being discharged from service, were granted land in conquered territory. Very often locals were pushed off their land. While this devastated the evicted farmers, very few would actually try to retake their land from these veteran soldiers.
The Roman city served as nodes by which conquered territories were remade. Roman cities contained tens of thousands of people, an incredible figure given that 90% of the world’s population lived in villages of a few hundred people at most. Indigenous peoples were naturally drawn into these cities’ orbit as they delivered food and goods to the cities while purchasing Roman imports, namely artisanal products and exotic imports like wine, ivory, spices, metals, Chinese silk and other goods that couldn’t be acquired locally. Locals who entered the cities had to learn to speak basic Latin, while Roman city-dwellers learned the local languages and from this mixing hybrid languages emerged. Indigenous peoples often came to cities to worship at Roman temples, either because they adopted the Roman gods, or they came to visit shrines dedicated to their deities, since the Romans often adopted local gods into their pantheon. And of course, people often visited for cultural events held at the amphitheaters and arenas. In this way, cities reshaped the regions around them, bringing conquered peoples into the Roman orbit.
Augustus organized the construction or growth of numerous new cities, five of which shaped the landscape of Gallia and France for the next two thousand years. Those five were Arelate, Aurisio, Augustodunum, Lugdunum and Nemausus, or as they are known today Arles, Orange, Autun, Lyon and Nimes. For this miniature tour, we’ll start in the south and work our way up, since after all that was how Romanization occurred in Gallia. Each city’s history is tied in with the history of Gallia as a part-Roman, part-Celtic landscape emerged.
Our first great Roman city is Arelate, today known as Arles, though the ancient city was closer to the sea. Arelate was originally a Ligurian town which the Romans conquered in 123 BCE. For nearly a century Arelate was a minor town that was overshadowed by Masallia. Following the siege of Masallia, Rome seized its outlying territories, giving Arelate more room to expand. When Augustus came to power he heavily invested in it, as he wanted a Roman city to supplant the semi-autonomous Massalia. In 28 BCE he resettled veterans from the Legio VI Ferrata, which had its base there and is why the city’s proper name was Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum, “the ancestral Julian colony of Arles of the soldiers of the Sixth.” But try putting that on a welcome sign.
Arelate rapidly became a city of considerable importance in the province of Gallia Narbonensis. It covered an area of some 40 hectares (99 acres) and possessed a number of monuments, including an amphitheater, triumphal arch, Roman circus, and a full circuit of walls. It also had (and still has) the southernmost bridge on the Rhône. Very unusually, the Roman bridge was not fixed but consisted of a pontoon-style bridge of boats, with towers and drawbridges at each end. The boats were secured in place by anchors and were tethered to twin towers built just upstream of the bridge. This unusual design was a way of coping with the river’s frequent violent floods, which would have made short work of a conventional bridge. Nothing remains of the Roman bridge, which has been replaced by a more modern bridge near the same spot.
Our next city is Nemausus, modern-day Nimes, just inland. Its earliest inhabitants were Ligurians, before the area was conquered and colonized by Masallia. This land was conquered with the siege of Masallia in 49 BCE. After defeating Pompey, Caesar settled veterans of the Roman legions who had served in his Nile campaigns, who at the end of fifteen years of soldiering, were given plots of land to cultivate.
When Augustus came to power he made Nemausus the capital of Narbonensis, and increased its population to 60,000. Augustus gave the town a ring of ramparts six kilometres (3.7 miles) long, reinforced by fourteen towers. To this day two gates remain: the Porta Augusta and the Porte de France. Like many large Roman cities it had an amphitheater which is still largely intact. But the crown jewel of Nemausus is the Roman temple, today known as La Maison Carrée or ‘The Square House” which is perhaps the best preserved Roman temple in France. Built around the turn of the millennium, it was dedicated to the sons of Emperor Augustus. It’s a wonderful, symmetrical building which the Emperor Napoleon later used as the model for the Madeleine church in Paris.
Of all the incredible building projects across Gallia, the most impressive was the massive aqueduct that serviced Nemausus, today known as the Pont du Gard. This 50 kilometer long aqueduct carried 40,000 cubic meters, or 8,800,000 gallons of water daily to the baths and homes of Nemausus. The Pont du Gard is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges, and is largely preserved; because the Romans built to last. So the next time you visit Nimes you can see much of the old Roman city.
Further inland along the Rhone river is our third city of Aurisio (modern day Orange). In 35 BCE Augustus resettled the Legio II Augusta veterans that served Augustus against Mark Antony in the city. Aurisio, more than any other city was created as a miniature Rome both to appease incoming Romans and to awe the local Gauls. Aurisio boasted a theater, forum and public baths. Augustus constructed a massive amphitheater in 25 BCE, which still remains.
Aurisio’s unique monument is its triumphal arch. Built around 20 BC, the arch was dedicated to [Augustus’ stepson] Tiberius and was part of the Via Agrippa, the famous Roman road linking Lugdunum to Arelate. The arch is sculpted with the campaigns of the second legion and its exploits. If you are in Orange be sure to get up close to see the carving, which is still remarkably intact, and you can see carvings of the great battles and the triumphant naval engagement of the legion against Antony and Cleopatra.
Midway between the Mediterranean and the northernmost tip of Gallia was Lugdunum, or modern-day Lyon. In 43 BCE the Roman Senate ordered the creation of a settlement for Roman refugees of war with the Allobroges. Augustus enacted this mandate and founded the city as Colonia Copia Felix Munatia, on the Fourvière hill, but again, the long-form name didn’t catch on. The city was immediately recognized as among the most important in Gaul as it was halfway between north and western Gallia, and it was where the Rhône and Saône rivers converged. During Augustus’ rule Lugdunum became the capital of Gallia and possibly largest city in Gallia, at the very least the largest north of the coastal province of Narbonensis. The Grand Roman Theatre of Lyon was built in 15 BCE, and seats 10,000 people. This and the smaller Odeon theater are still used for plays today. These huge theaters indicate just how massive this city became in such a short time, and explains just how central Lugdunum was. One final note that shows how important this city was is that the future emperor Cladius was born there in 10 BCE. It is this city which would dominate Gallia for much of its history, while the northerly city of Lutece, today known as Paris, became important after the Frankish invasions half a millennia later.
While Augustus was largely responsible for the rise of Lugdunum, he couldn’t have been happy that it became the great city of Gallia, since he wanted another city to be the capital. His preferred city and our final one, is Augustodunum, or modern-day Autun. This city was founded by Augustus to be the new capital of the Aedui tribe, replacing the devastated Bibracte. Augustus filled the city with large monuments to the greatness of himself and of Rome in order to win over the Gauls. While much of these are destroyed, the Roman amphitheater and the Temple of Janus remain, even after 2 millennia.
There were many other cities within Gallia which Augustus made though none were as spectacular as these five. The new Roman cities served as the foundries that reforged Gaul into Roman Gallia. Their sheer size and patronage by the Roman state meant that most trade, political gatherings, religious ceremonies, centers of education and cultural festivals were held within the cities. By Augustus death, 85% of Gauls still lived in rural villages of a few hundred people at most. But despite this, the cities served as the fulcrums by which all the most important functions of society where conducted and controlled by Roman oversight. The Gauls either entered into the orbit of the cities, or remained in their scattered villages where they were incapable of raising any serious threat to Roman rule.
One final step in this process was the Roman villa, which we will discuss more in later episodes. The villa was a large-scale agricultural unit where a rich landlord owned the land and hired farmers to work it for him. The pacification of Gaul meant that enterprising Romans, who understood how rich the Gallic soil was, entered Gaul and set up villas near large cities. Following the Gallic Wars and the forced resettlement of Gauls to make room for incoming Roman soldiers, many Gauls had no choice but to work on the villas. In this manner the villas served as additional nets that caught up many impoverished Gauls and ensured they would remain in the orbit of the Roman commercial system, and if they were in the Roman commercial system, they would feel the effects of Roman law, religion and culture.
One important thing to note is that while the villa system came from Rome, many Gallic villas were owned by elite Gauls who adopted this Roman invention. Thus, it wasn’t just Romans who were catching up the displaced Gauls and pulling them into the city-system but Gallic elites as well.
Under Augustus the Roman forts were turned into cities surrounded by villas and it is this geospatial reconfiguration of Gaul that sped up Romanization. Next time, we’ll dive into what Romanization meant for the Gauls, as they struggled to maintain their local customs and identity in the face of Roman politics, culture, language, religion and economic system. The Romans may have reshaped the physical structure of Gaul, but could the Gallic spirit live on? Tune in next time to find out.
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