Episode 24: The Two Lost Centuries:
Today’s episode is unlike any other, and its subject matter is just as shocking to you as it is to me. As I researched the history of Gaul I picked up a great number of books and instantly noticed a pattern; either they ended around 69 CE, the Year of the Four Emperors, or they started around the mid-3rd century. I kept looking for book after book on the inbetween period. I even searched Ancient Encyclopedia Online, and when that turned up nothing, I resorted to Wikipedia. I know, shocking right? Yet, I found nothing. Then one book by J.E. Drinkwater, explained why this was the case: essentially two centuries of Gallic history are missing. You heard that right; the history is just gone. There are tiny snippets of information in other Roman records but they’re usually just a passing reference or a name of a governor’s appointment, which isn’t enough to establish any meaningful narrative of Gallia from 70 CE until the mid-3rd century, known as the Crisis of the Third Century, because Rome nearly fell apart and Gallia actually broke off from Rome and formed its own empire.
So, how is it that nearly 200 years of history is just lost? To explain, we have to look at the two sources for record-keeping on Gallia and why their records were scarce, or destroyed. The two sources for a Roman province’s history would come from central record-keeping in Rome, or at least Italy, and records from the provinces themselves.
First, let’s talk about Roman sources. The truth, as far as classical historians can tell, is that the Romans stopped keeping detailed records on Gallia after Vespasian came into power during the Year of the Four Emperors. As you might recall from our last two episodes, a revolt in Gallia brought down the Emperor Nero, replacing him with Galba. Then when the German legions and the Gauls were unhappy with Galba they revolted in favor of a new emperor Vitellius. Both of these emperors lost their thrones in short order and Vespasian arose out of the east and conquered Rome. When Vespasian finally brought order to the empire he decided it was time to neuter Gallia. After all, Gallia brought down two emperors and Vespasian wasn’t going to become the third. The Roman Senate and the citizens of Rome favored gutting Gallia since it had brought so much chaos to Rome, chaos which raised the old prejudices of Gauls as barbarians at Rome’s doorstep.
First, Vespasian turned the Germanic territories Rome had conquered into their own provinces, separate from Gallia. This administrative line meant that the armies stationed in Germania weren’t as close to the Gauls. Second, Vespasian lessened the number of auxiliary troops from Gallia and those troops served under foreign leaders. These two measures meant that the Gauls had virtually no regular army. Meanwhile eight full legions and numerous auxiliary troops manned the Rhine frontier as part of the limes system, a string of fortifications that established the limits of the empire. After Vespasian took away the Gaul’s military power he destroyed their political power. He reversed Claudius’ reforms, expulsing the Gauls from the Senate and upper echelons of power.
These acts by Vespasian meant that Gallia was reduced to just another territory within Rome, without any ability to change the direction of the empire militarily or politically. As such, there was no real reason for Roman historians to write about Gallia since it was subjugated. Roman writers detailed Britannia and the eastern provinces over the years due to repeated military incursions. The Romans also detailed the history of Italy since it was their home. But Gallia was adequately defended from invaders and incapable of any mass uprising, so there was no impetus for the Romans to write about it.
If a province has no major military or political activity, one major cause for writing on it would be for its economy, and in this area Gallia was severely lacking. Economically, Gallia was one of the poorest provinces of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t any fault of Gallia’s it’s just that at this time Western Europe was a relatively backward place. The richest countries in the Old World at the time were China, India, Persia and Egypt, meaning the closer a place was to these then the wealthier they were. Since Gallia was on the other end of Europe, it was relatively poor. For all these reasons the Romans didn’t bother recording the history of the Gauls.
The Gauls did not keep a history of themselves or if they did it is lost for a number of reasons. First, there were very few educated Gauls. Aristocrats could only advance their political careers by leaving their homes, since Gallia was effectively a political dead-end. While the Gauls adopted Latin record-keeping for imperial matters the Celtic practice of maintaining their own oral history could have created oral traditions which died out. Finally, barbarian invasions from the 3rd-century onward destroyed many Gallic cities. What few histories the Gauls may have kept have been burned or smashed. For all these reasons, two centuries are virtually lost from history.
You might ask, “Is there anything we know about Gallia before the Crisis of the Third Century, when Rome nearly falls and barbarians overrun the borders?” There are several things we can glean from the scant references and even from the absence of records. First, Gallia was remarkably tranquil. The Rhine borders held for nearly 200 years, and Gallia wasn’t swept up in the many civil wars and intrigue of the Empire. So while virtually every other province was fighting border wars or dealing with insurrections, Gallia was incredibly peaceful. There are hints at revolts here are there, but this is largely guesswork. The province was a stable corner of the Empire and continued to grow in population and prosperity. When war did come to Gallia it took the Gauls completely by surprise and they barely fought. In 193, the Year of the Five Emperors Gallia played almost no role. In 197 Severus defeated Albinus at the Battle of Lugdunum and became Emperor, but few Gauls actually served in the army.
Gallia prospered under Severus and even had something of a Celtic cultural revival. Celtic was allowed in some law courts and Celtic measurements were used in place of Roman measurements such as the mile. In the mid-210s Emperor Caracella granted citizenship to most free people in the empire, though in practice this changed little in Gallia.
That is virtually all we know from the official histories. But even as the official histories disappeared a new historical tradition emerged: church history. Now we’ve finally come to the part of the podcast where we talk about Christianity, something which will have an enormous impact on the history of France, but which arrived relatively late to this country.
At this point I must note that I am approaching religious discussions from a historical perspective; my aim is not to take a side in theological matters or to promote any one interpretation of texts. I also don’t aim to offend and if I do it is unintentional. To begin with, I think it’s worth talking about the early history of Christianity because even though many of you are probably familiar with the general tenets of modern Christianity, early Christianity was radically different than what it has become and these differences will impact the development of Gallia and its successor states, even as these influence Christianity.
What we call Christianity began in the Roman province of Judea. Ever since Rome conquered Judea they faced violent religious opposition. In fact, a movement sprung up in Judea called the Zealots, which tried to forcefully expel the Romans. Numerous different groups developed their own political and religious ideologies, some of which overlapped, as a means of explaining why the Romans had conquered their Holy Land and how they could organize to remove them.
In the 20s a man named Yeshua bar Yosef, who we call, “Jesus son of Joseph” preached an entirely new message to the masses. While the established Jewish schools tried to work with the Romans for political control and the Zealots tried to organize violent rebellion, Jesus told his followers to turn away from material concerns and look inward to the betterment of their souls. He taught that this world was a temporary thing, filled with sadness and controlled by evil, ever since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Jesus told his followers to give away their earthly possessions and care for each other. This message ended up being very popular among the masses due to its egalitarian nature. Jesus preached that men, women and people of all races, could achieve spiritual fulfillment and the love of God. Furthermore, it encouraged cooperation between people at a time when the Romans and many Jews believed that their God, or gods, wanted them to conquer. Finally, Jesus’ message of giving away material possessions was pretty appealing to people who didn’t have any, which in the first century Judea, and really much of the Roman Empire, most people had very little.
Jesus was hated by established Jewish religious schools since his message conflicted with theirs and according to the Bible he was executed via crucifixion sometime between the years 30 and 33. What happens next depends on your religious persuasion. His followers claimed that he did not really die but rose again and promised to return. Meanwhile, the early Christians were instructed to spread his message across the world.
At this time the early Christians were persecuted by Jews and Romans alike, so organizing a central church structure was nearly impossible, especially given their proselytizing mission. After Jesus’ death the early apostles passed on oral traditions for roughly forty years until the Gospel of Mark was written. Then roughly fifteen years later the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, then the Gospel of John, alongside a number of other apocrypha. Over the next century a number of different Gospels and epistles emerged, some of which eventually made it into the established canon while others were deemed heretical. Despite all these differences, early Christians across Rome were united in a the general beliefs that (1) there was an afterlife split between pleasure in heaven and punishment in hell, (2) Jesus interceded between the spiritual world and through his teachings one could achieve salvation, and (3) this material world is a temporary test, while the spiritual is eternal and thus has all precedence. These main principles and a common identity as Christians held this religious group together across cultures and languages, so that while individual stories and interpretations differed the overall message remained the same.
Gallia received Christianity relatively late, due to its position on the other side of the Mediterranean. There are several legends claiming that early church figures travelled to France. One particular legend holds that Mary Magdalene and Lazarus were sent out in a rudderless boat by Romans to die, but God guided the boat to Marseille where they converted the populace. This legend was first told around the 13th century, over a millennia after these two figures died, so consider me skeptical. Our main sources of information on early Christians come from early church historians Eusebius, who wrote in the late 3rd and early 4th century, and Gregory of Tours, who wrote in the 6th century. These drew on oral traditions and placed a heavy emphasis on miracles, so historians have debated their accuracy. However, given that there are no other sources, we have to use these to have any idea of how Christianity spread during this period.
Christianity probably came to southern Gallia around the turn of the 2nd century and spread from there. Eusebius begins his narrative of Gallia under Marcus Aurelius (161-180). During this period there were already sizeable Christian populations. He recounts that Christians were shut out from public life, including markets and baths. Mob attacks and stonings were common occurrences. Despite this there were there were already 2 churches in Gaul at this time, with Lugdunum as the most important. Under Marcus Aurelius, Roman officials tortured Christians with whips and red hot plates, which were used to inflict enough pain to make Christians de-convert, though if they remained true to their faith they were used to painfully execute them. Romans were hostile to Christians because they refused to sacrifice to the gods, which the Romans thought endangered the empire, and they refused to call Caesar a god, which was both a religious and political transgression.
In 177 Eusebius recounts a large-scale persecution of Christians in the Lugdunum amphitheater. Numerous Christians had to fight off animals, while others were roasted alive in an iron seat. Yet, many Christians maintained their conviction even to death, wowing many non-Christians who watched them. These public spectacles had the opposite effect that the Romans intended as they spread the message of Christianity across the empire, giving it a mystique.
During the late 2nd century Lugdunum was probably the only bishopric in Gallia, and local churches depended on it. Meanwhile the bishops of Lugdunum willingly subordinated to the Bishop of Rome, who was not then universally recognized as the leader of the Catholic Church. Christianity rapidly spread, despite persecution, and in 250 seven priests were sent to Toulouse.
The expansion of Christianity in Gallia and Rome had an enormous impact on history. During the medieval period the church would adopt many state functions as the Roman political order collapsed. Churches also provided education. This is especially evident in Gallia since there are no official Roman histories on the period and we have to turn to church histories to get a glimpse of what was occurring during these two centuries.
Next time, we’ll talk about the Crisis of the Third Century. As Rome falls apart, Gallia breaks free and creates its own empire.
Ancient History Encyclopedia
Cassius Dio’s Roman History
Eusebius’ Church History
Gregory of Tours’ The History of the Franks
Drinkwater, J.E., Roman Gaul, 1983