Western Europe’s future history.
The general peace of the early Roman Empire, disturbed only by occasional minor rebellions and brief civil wars, grew increasingly troubled by the late third century, when in conjunction with a slow diminution of Rome’s power, incursions increased in frequency and intensity across the Rhine and Danube frontiers made by marauding Germanic tribes—barbarians to the Romans. The empire coped as best it could. It battled back, and various administrative redivisions were decreed. For a time, Gaul was governed by a separate line of emperors. Sometimes pushed themselves by pressures from enemies behind them, tribes were allowed asylum. They settled in frontier areas and became military allies of Rome. Sicambri, Chamari, and others took service and land under Roman rule on the far northern fringes of Gaul. The Goths appeared in eastern Europe in the late fourth century, and a western branch—the Visigoths—occupied areas along the Danube.
Both Germanic power within the empire and pressure from tribes out-side its borders increased, and a general unease persisted. Roman power in the West collapsed utterly in the early fifth century, and Rome itself was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths. The subsequent settlement of the entire tribe, estimated to have totaled some 200,000 people, in southwest Gaul served as a model for absorption of Germanic peoples. Alamans arrived in Alsace, and Burgundians occupied the borderlands of today’s eastern France. On the northern frontier, the Salians advanced south and west. Pushing progressively farther and farther, they and allied groups eventu-ally emerged supreme over all of modern France, save for the extreme south, where the Visigoths held sway, and the Brittany Peninsula, where Celtic peoples clung to control. They coalesced under the leadership of a sole, powerful ruler—Clovis—and under a name—Franks—that they bequeathed to a country whose origins they would lay.
Roman Conquest and Pacification
When Julius Caesar, proconsul of the Roman Republic, halted on the banks of the middle Rhône River in 58 b.c.e. to engage the Helvetii tribe, he stood on familiar territory. In this area, called Gallia Transalpine (Gaul across the Alps) in what is today Provence in south-ern France, Romans had been governing for 75 years. The Greek city-state of Massilia had long been an ally of Rome, though it had suffered from a siege by Caesar for having supported his rival Pompey (106–48 b.c.e.) in their civil war (49–44 b.c.e.) for rulership of the late republic.
The city called for help in controlling Celto-Ligurian peoples, who were its immediate neighbors, and Rome responded, dispatching its legions, who arrived, first in 154 b.c.e., when they quickly departed, and again in 125 b.c.e., when they stayed. They secured their presence in August 121 b.c.e., when they defeated the Allobroges, a warlike Gallic tribe living between the Rhône and the Lake of Geneva.
Although Rome’s motives are still debated, probable reasons for the occupation include an awareness of the geographic utility of holding an area that could serve as an outpost to defend Italy from incur-sions from the north, as well as to facilitate communication between Italy and possessions in Spain that Rome had acquired following the Second Punic War (218–201 b.c.e.) with its inveterate opponent, the city-state of Carthage.
The Romans settled in, founding a colony at Narbo Martius (Narbonne) in 118 b.c.e. and building a road—the Via Domitia—linking Italy to the Iberian Peninsula. So securely did Roman might take hold that at some still uncertain date the judicial status of the area changed from that of a war zone to a permanent possession of the empire. Romans came to refer to this land across the mountains as Provincia Nostra (Our Province), or simply Provincia (the Province), a name that endures as Provence.
Unrest and revolt plagued the Province for 50 years, but by the time the new governor, Julius Caesar, turned his attention to lands lying beyond, the area was reliably loyal. To Roman minds the regions to the north and west—territory that now lies in France, Belgium, and parts of Switzerland—seemed wild and forbidding, full of rushing rivers and thick, dark forests, a place that they somewhat disparagingly referred to as Gallia Comata, that is, “Long-haired Gaul,” a land peopled by mus-tachioed barbarians sporting massive tousles of hair and wearing trou-sers. Their reputation for ferocity was founded in Roman consciousness when Rome’s forces were beaten and the city plundered by Brennus (or Brennos) and his Celtic hordes around 390 b.c.e., the shock of that defeat instilling fear of the terror Gallicus forever after.
Various individual tribes made up these general groupings, and their names, too, come to us from Roman accounts: among others, the Veneti in Brittany, the Sequani in Burgundy, the Arverni in Auvergne, the Aedui in the upper Seine region, the Lingones at the headwaters of the Seine and Marne, and, among the Belgic tribes in the far north, the Eburones and the fierce Nervii. Although they were far from backward—those nearest the Roman armies had long engaged in commercial contacts, wine from Italy being in especially great demand—the Gauls fought continuously, within, between, and among tribes.
Lacking order and discipline in their political and military dealings, leaders strove to win power over internal rivals and looked for aid from whomever they entered northern Gaul seeking booty and land. Such movements brought pressure on the resident peoples, threatening to displace, in particular, the Helvetii, a tribe that had originally lived beyond the Rhine River in today’s Germany who had moved to areas on today’s French-Swiss border, and who, by the late 70s b.c.e., began to feel embattled in their territories.
Determined to migrate westward through Gaul, they met resistance from the Aedui, whose lands they would have to cross, and from the Romans, allies of the Aedui. Diplomacy having failed, in 58 b.c.e., Caesar defeated the immigrants in battle and sent them marching back to their own region. His martial might ready to hand, other friendly Gallic nations asked for help. The Suebi, a Germanic tribe, having settled in large numbers in Alsace after coming to the aid of the Arverni and Sequani to defeat the Aedui, were beaten by Caesar in the same year, and they and their allies, under Ariovistus, were driven back over the Rhine frontier.
In the following year, Caesar traveled to the far north to vanquish the Belgic tribes and to the Atlantic coast to prevail over the Veneti and their neighbors. Tensions continued to simmer, leading to a savage campaign against certain groups among the Belgae in 53 and culminating, in 52, with the defeat at Alésia of the great Gallic revolt led by Vercingétorix, the leader of the Arverni. After two more years of spo-radic fighting, the last lingering sparks of resistance were stamped out.
Having conquered all of Gallia Comata, Rome had no need for so many legions. Troops were demobilized and settled in full-scale colo-nies (coloniae) of veterans at Narbo Martius, Arelate (Arles), Forum Julii (Fréjus), Baeterrae (Béziers), and Arausio (Orange). Except pos-sibly for Forum Julii, they were set up in, or alongside, existing towns. The administration of some native centers was transformed to conform to Roman municipal arrangements as lesser colonies and their rul-ing aristocrats made into Roman citizens, chief among them Vienna (Vienne) of the Allobroges and Valentia (Valence) of the Segovellauni. In the south, now more tightly bound to Rome than ever, the colonies would serve as magnets advertising the attractions of Greco-Roman civilization. Roman culture and commerce struck deep roots here.
The Caesarian settlement of Gallia Comata differed dramatically from that in the far southeast. Direct Romanization was neither sought nor encouraged. Only three colonies were founded—at Noviodunum (Nyon), Raurica (Augst), and Lugdunum (Lyon), the last two after Caesar’s death—all on the periphery of the newly conquered lands and all geographically located to cover a likely invasion route from the Rhine into the Province and Italy. Military occupation continued, and the power of local aristocratic leaders was strengthened by granting them gifts and concessions.
Caesar’s successor after a prolonged civil war, Octavian (r. 27 b.c.e.–c.e. 14), who, in changing his name to Augustus (“revered one”) and adopting the title of princeps (emperor), launched imperial Rome, brought administrative refinements to the region. Additional colonies of veterans and grants of privileges to local communities advanced the process of Romanization in the Province, which was renamed Gallia Narbonensis in 27 b.c.e. In recognition of its close connections with Rome, it was placed directly under the control of the Roman Senate.
The rest of Gaul was formally divided into the provinces of Aquitania (Aquitaine), Lugdunensis (Celtic or Lyonnaise Gaul), and Belgica (Belgic Gaul), a tripartite division based loosely on Caesar’s classification. To strengthen the Roman hold on the Three Gauls (Tres Galliae), Augustus decreed the construction of a system of military roads and laid the foundation of a regular imperial adminis-tration in following Caesar’s policy of using the tribe as the basic unit in defining administration districts.
Groups of civitates were incorpo-rated into the new provinces, although Caesar’s threefold definition of their relationship with Rome as either allied states (nominally sovereign communities), free states (subject to Rome with certain privileges), or tributary states (subject to Rome with no privileges)meant less and less. By the early first century c.e., these distinctions remained simply as badges of rank.
Each province received a governor, who, as the emperor’s deputy (his legate [legatus]), was appointed by him and answered directly to him. The governor was commissioned as the military commander in chief to protect his province from outside aggression, to maintain internal peace, and to uphold Roman law. Each maintained their main resi-dence at Lugdunum for Lugdunensis, Durocorturun Remorum (Reims) for Belgica, and, after a period at modern-day Saintes and Poitiers, at Burdigala (Bordeaux) for Aquitania.
Sensitive to Gallic self-pride, Augustus founded no further colonies in the Three Gauls. The Roman political presence was concentrated at Lugdunum (or Lugudunum), which, due to its strategic location at the central intersection of the road network, emerged as the virtual capital of Gaul. Founded in 43 b.c.e. by Lucius Munatius Plancus (ca. 87–ca. 15 b.c.e.), a lieutenant of Caesar, the city ranked highest among the three provincial capitals not only as a Roman colony but also as the host and guardian of the worship of Rome and Augustus. The cult was inaugurated on August 1, 12 c.e., at a great altar located just outside the city at Condate, which became a magnificent showplace of Greco-Roman art and architecture.
Gaul remained central to Roman strategic planning so long as vig-orous campaigns against the Germanic tribes across the Rhine River continued. Great levies were raised to support imperial armies, which drove east as far as the Elbe River, only to meet disastrous defeat in 9 c.e. in the Teutoberg Forest. Rome retreated, the legions settling down behind earth-and-timber fortresses along the left bank of the Rhine, content to play a purely defensive role. Far behind the frontier districts, in Gaul, freed from the demands of incessant war, both Romans and natives settled down also, to carry on what had become by now a thriv-ing intercultural exchange.