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Athena Review Vol.I, no.4

Gaul Before the Romans

Julius Caesar, in the first lines of his Commentaries on the Gallic War, sets the stage for all subsequent historic discussion of Gaul in the 1st century BC: "All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, the third, those who in their own language are called Celts, and in ours, Gauls.All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these people the bravest are the Belgae. They are the furthest away from the culture and civilized ways of the Roman Province, and are least often visited by the merchants who bring luxuries which tend to make people soft; also they are nearest to the Germans across the Rhine and are continually at war with them."

Greek Colonization of Gaul: When Caesar wrote his Commentaries in 52-50 BC, the Graeco-Roman world had already known Gallic peoples for hundreds of years in both warfare and trade. Between 734-580 BC, Ionian Greeks from Phocaea on the northwest Turkish coast established ports in Mediterranean Gaul to acquire metals and other raw materials. Massalia (Marseille), France's oldest city, was founded ca. 600 BC beside marshy lowlands at the Rhône's mouth to conduct trade with Iron Age settlements upriver. By the late 7th century BC, two other Phocaean sites, St.-Blaise and La Couronne, were established near the mouth of the Rhône, with evidence of coins minted at Massalia, and Greek pottery from Rhodes, Ionia, Athens and Corinth as well as Etruscan ware. Other Greek colonies along the Riviera included Tauroention (Le Brusc), Antipolis (Antibes), Nicaea (Nice), and Olbia. The Phocaeans also founded Aléria on the island of Corsica around 560 BC, where refugees from Massalia fled when invaded by Persians in 544 BC.

[Fig.1: Cultural regions in Gaul described by Caesar, ca. 58-50 BC (after Cunliffe 1988).]

Iron Age Commerce: Commerce with the Iberian peninsula was largely controlled by the Phoenicians, who in 814 BC had spread westward from the Levant coast (modern Lebanon) to found Carthage. While the Greeks held Sicily, southern Italy, and northern Mediterranean shipping, Phoenicians dominated the south as far as the Straits of Gibraltar, cutting off Greek access to the Atlantic. Thus, to trade with Iberia's east coast, where ports such as Ampurias were then held by Carthage, Greek merchants in Gaul needed overland routes. Between 600 and 450 BC, Western Hallstatt  (Early Iron Age) cultures in Gaul traded widely for Greek, Etruscan, and Massalian luxury items, including amphorae, bronze drinking vessels, and small objects of gold, ivory, and amber often found as grave goods. Greek trade also reached inside the native strongholds, with Greek and Etruscan pottery and Massalian coins found at the Celtic hillfort at Ensérune by 550-425 BC.

Gallic Invasions in Italy: The original Gallic homeland extended from Transalpine Gaul to the Danube valley. According to the ancient historians Livy and Polybius, between 600-400 BC growing populations of Gauls began to spread over the Alps into northern Italy, drawn by abundant food resources. Corresponding archaeological remains of 6th-4th century BC Gallic sites have been found in Lombardy, Romagna, and the upper Adige valley. In 386 BC invading Gallic Senones tribesmen reached as far south as Rome, sacking and burning the city before being driven out. By 378 BC Rome had built a protective city wall against future attacks. During the next century, Gauls remained a constant threat to the Romans. In the last Samnite war of 295 BC, Gallic tribes joined with Samnites and Etruscans attempting to stop Rome's rise to power. Only after putting down several revolts by 282 BC did Rome reduce this threat of Gallic invasions.

In 218 BC, Gauls joined with Hannibal as he crossed the Rhône to invade Italy. Upon Hannibal's defeat in 202 BC, the Gauls again tried to organize against Rome, but the Boii, then the dominant Gallic tribe, were subdued by 191 BC. Thereafter, the Gauls were never again able to successfully challenge the Roman military. In the years following Hannibal's defeat, the Romans expanded throughout the Mediterranean. After reinforcing the northern colonies of Placentia and Cremona in 203 BC, Roman troops expanded into Cisalpine Gaul north of the Po River valley. They waged costly, drawn-out campaigns against Gallic and Iberian tribes, adding Spain (201 BC), Greece, and Carthage (both, in 146 BC) to their control. Finally, in 121 BC, the Gauls were defeated on the lower Rhône, opening southern France to Roman rule.

Roman Towns in Gaul: In 118 BC, Rome founded its first colonia (veteran's town) in Gaul at Narbo Martius (Narbonne). Its province of Transalpina, later renamed Narbonensis (today's Provence), extended from the Maritime Alps westward to the Pyrenees, and north to Lake Geneva. After the Cimbric Wars, Germano-Celtic uprisings that occurred between 109-101 BC, regular Roman trade and organization became more secure.

Between about 120-60 BC, many of the central Gallic cultural regions bordering Transalpina to the north, including Arverni, Bituriges, Aedui, Sequani, and Helvetii had begun to organize themselves into rudimentary state governments, undoubtedly influenced by their proximity to the Roman province. Each civitas, or individual Gallic polity, elected a chief magistrate whom the Romans monitored to prevent the possibility of a dictatorship. Various Gallic civitates began issuing their own coins to help facilitate trade. Civitates were divided by Gauls into smaller units (pagi), each having at least one trade center at oppida (hillforts), and many urban centers began to prosper from trade with the south. Such administrative zones were later retained under Roman rule. Bibracte, the somewhat remotely located capital of the Aedui (later replaced by Autun), became one such successful Gallic oppidum. Here, trade thrived on the distribution of Roman wine. Quantities of amphora from long-distance trade shows Gaul was becoming integrated into the Roman economic system by the early 1st century BC .

[Fig.2: Plan of the Roman town of Narbonne, with modern city streets (after Bedon et. al. 1986).]

Caesar and the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC): Soon after Caesar became consul of Cisalpine Gaul in 59 BC, he also gained command of Transalpine Gaul, the province comprising the southern coast of France and the lower Rhône Valley. A year later, he began eight successive campaigns in Gaul and Britain known as the Gallic Wars. To the north and west were lands considered barbarian, collectively called Gallia Comata, or "long-haired Gaul," which contained large parts of modern France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany. Caesar's opening to his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars that "Gaul is divided into three parts" refers specifically to cultural subdivisions within Gallia Comata. Furthest north were the Belgae, north and west of the Marne and Seine rivers. Next mentioned were the Aquitani, living between the Garonne river and the Pyrenees Mountains. The largest group, the Celtae, inhabited the remainder of Gallia Comata (fig.1). Archaeological investigation has supported Caesar's original cultural separation between the Celtae, Belgae and Aquitani (Cunliffe 1988). A further tripartite regional subdivision, however, can also be made within Caesar's large central area of the Celtae, into Armorican Gaul, eastern Gaul, and central Gaul. Effective native resistance in Gaul ended after 52 BC when the leader Vercingetorix was defeated by Caesar at Alésia. Three years later, during the Roman Civil War, Caesar captured the Greek cities of Massalia and St.-Blaise, and in 46 BC was formally declared triumphant in Gaul.

Augustan Administration of Gaul: Full-scale integration of Gaul into the Roman system began with the census of 27 BC. Over the next fifteen years, Augustus and his legions stabilized frontiers and reorganized Gaul's boundaries by building roads, establishing a system of tax-collection, and founding colonies at strategic locations. Gallia Cisalpina was broken up into three small provinces of Alpes Maritimae, Alpes Cottiae and Alpes Poeniae, plus a section added to Italy.

Extensive information taken from the census allowed the boundaries of the civitates to be more standardized. Throughout Gaul, new cities from Augustodonum Aeduorum (Autun) to Augusta Treverorum (Trier) were founded as local administrative centers. In Narbonensis, new cities that joined Narbo Martius included Forum Julii (Fréjus) in 49 BC, Arelate (Arles) in 46 BC, and Baeterrae (Béziers) in 36 BC. Outside of Narbonensis, Romanization was slower, with only two coloniae besides Lugdunum immediately founded: Noviodunum (Nyon) on Lake Léman; and Raurica (Augst) on the Rhine. In many cases, such as the locally effective pagi units, the Gallic civitas or native state was simply incorporated into the Roman system of government. Roman immigrants soon populated the towns alongside many natives who were given full rights of citizenship. The standard blueprint for a Roman town (fig.2: Narbonne) included a grid plan, based on an axis of two main streets, cardo (north-south) and decumanus (east-west), enclosed by a wall. At the town center was a forum or market, a law court basilica, a curia or meeting hall, often a horreum or grain warehouse, and the Capitolium for official state worship of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Sophisticated public amenities included aqueducts and bath complexes, plus the social entertainments of theater and amphitheater. Deep-rooted native elements such as Gallic religious cults, however, persisted in temples which often combined Celtic and Roman gods including Mercury.


Bedon, R. 1988. Architecture et Urbanisme en Gaule Romaine, v2. Paris, Editions Errance

Caesar, Julius. ca. 50 BC. The Conquest of Gaul (tr. S.A. Handford, 1951,1982). Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Cunliffe, Barry. 1988. Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: New York, Methuen.

Holmes, T. Rice (1911). Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. 2nd ed.. Oxford, the Clarendon Press.

Polybius. ca.140-130 BC. The Rise of the Roman Empire (tr. Ian Scott-Kilvert 1979). Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Strabo. ca.20 BC. Geography (tr. H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, 1854). London, Henry G. Bohn.

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