Romans in the Minervois

Following the Greeks who established the trading town of Massilia (Marseilles) in about 600 BC, Southern France was subjected to classical influences for many centuries.  Gaul (i.e. France) as a whole consisted of three regions: the lands of the Belgae in the north and east of the rivers Marne and Seine; the Aquitani south and west of the river Garonne; and in between the people we call Gauls, although they called themselves Celts, occupied much of present day Languedoc.

After they defeated the Carthaginians in 202 BC Rome had the beginnings of an overseas empire in Spain, but communications with it had to be by sea. Land travel round the Ligurian coast from Pisa to Nice was very difficult, and though the Greek colony of Massilia (Marseille) was friendly to Rome, its Celtic neighbours, the Gauls of the hinterland, were very unpredictable. Eventually, in a series of campaigns between 125 and 120 BC, the Romans conquered the whole of what is now southern France between the Alps, the Cevennes and the Pyrenees;they founded a colonial outpost of Roman citizens at Narbonne (the new province was called ‘Narbonese Gaul’), and built a road around the coast to link up with their Italian road system at Genoa.

In the Languedoc roman Narbonensis surrounded the important roman city of Narbo (modern Narbonne). It was part of the province of southern Gaul, a land of the olive and the fig that rose to great prosperity and rich urban development under the Roman Imperial Government. The amphitheatres, temples and bridges still standing today, particularly in and around Nemausus (Nîmes), bear witness to this past grandeur.

The southern province of Gaul, around Massilia (Marseilles), was, in earlier times, deeply Hellenic, and despite the unstoppable progress of Romanisation, this portion of Gaul always remained a seat of Hellenism.

“The romanising of the south of Gaul had not in the republican period advanced so far as that of the south of Spain. The 80 years lying between the two conquests were not to be rapidly overtaken; the military camps in Spain were far stronger an more permanent than in Gaul; Here doubtless in the time of the Gracchi and under their influence Narbo had been founded, the first burgess-colony proper beyond the sea; but it remained isolated, and, though a rival of Massilia in commercial intercourse, to all appearance by no means equal to it in importance. But when Caesar began to guide the destinies of Rome, here above all – in this land of his choice and his star – neglect was retrieved. The colony of Narbo was strengthened, and was under Tiberius the most populous city in Gaul” p. 86

The strategically crucial route from Narbonne through Carcassonne to the headwaters of the Garonne – the shortest way you could get from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic – was in the territory of a Gallic people called the Volcae Tectosages, whose main centre was at Toulouse (Latin Tolosa).

The first thing we know about the Tectosages is that they were one of the contingents under the Gallic war-leader Brennus who had invaded Greece in 279 BC and sacked Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi. They were supposed to have brought back immense plunder from that expedition, but the story went that as soon as they returned the whole tribe was struck by a mysterious and deadly epidemic, and that the priests declared that the sacrilegious loot should be dumped in a nearby lake.

Other versions say the plunder was installed in temples, which were the normal treasure-houses in ancient times;however, the Gauls notoriously worshipped in the open air, and it’s quite possible that the lake, like sacred woods and groves, was dedicated to some deity, and that the story of the plague was just Roman rationalisation. Anyway, the treasure was there, in the lake. One version says it was 100,000 pounds’ weight of gold and 10,000 of silver; another, five million pounds’ weight of gold, 110,000 of silver.

Whether or not it was from Delphi, it was certainly spoils of war; that was the way Gallic tribes made their wealth. As such, it must have been dedicated to the god Esus, whom the Romans equated with Mars. Julius Caesar, in his description of Gallic customs, says that all booty won in war was sacred to Esus, and any warrior who was discovered failing to declare his loot was tortured to death. Esus was evidently a jealous god, not used to being cheated of his rights.

One inhabitant of Toulouse became well-known to history: Marcus Antonius Primus, described by the historian Tacitus as ‘energetic, a fast talker, good at putting the blame on others, given to theft and bribery, a villain in peace-time but not to be despised in war’. He was expelled from the Senate in AD 61 for forging a will, got himself reinstated during the civil wars of 68-9, and as commander of the seventh legion was an important part of the military campaign that led to Vespasian’s victory; the grateful emperor rewarded him with honorary consular rank, and in due course he returned home for a long and peaceful retirement. The poet Martial calls him ‘the glory of Tolosa, Minerva’s city’, a reference to the level of culture the Narbonese cities had now achieved.

The only known senator from Narbonne was a much less colourful character. Lucius Aemilius Arcanus held commissions in three different legions – X Gemina (stationed at Vienna), I Minervia (at Bonn) and II Augusta (at Caerleon) – before coming home and doing his duty in the local magistracies of his native city. Hadrian made him a senator, but we would never have heard of him if one of his dependants hadn’t set up an honorific statue, of which the inscribed base survives. Narbonne, the original colonial settlement, was the provincial capital and centre of the imperial cult, but it seems to have been a bit overshadowed by the wealthier cities which were on the sites of historic tribal lands.

The Roman peace lasted for three centuries. Our area evidently belonged to the short-lived breakaway ‘Gallic empire’ of Tetricus in AD 271-4 (milestones with his name on are known from Béziers, Carcassonne and near Toulouse), and by the early fifth century it was again defending itself – this time unsuccessfully – against invaders from outside the empire. Narbonne and Toulouse were captured by the Visigoth Athaulf in 414, and by about 475 the Burgundians were in control of the whole area between the Rhone and the Pyrenees.

Despite the dominance of wine production today throughout the Languedoc, during Roman times the culture of the vine was developed slowly due to suspicion of the “Gallic winter.” This prejudice was reinforced by the disinclination of Italian wine producers to encourage any competition. Indeed, the Roman republic placed under police prohibition any culture of the vine and the olive on the south coast of Gaul. In the Augustan age (a few decades either side of AD 0) wine was still unknown in the northern part of the Narbonese province. For centuries it remained restricted to the Narbonensis and southern Aquitania; the Gallic wines of this time were only Allobrogian (Burgundian) and Biturigian (Bordeaux). It was only in the third century, when the Italians lost control of the empire, that this changed. Probus (AD 276-282) opened up wine-making throughout Gaul.

Parts of the modern A9 highway are founded on the road laid down by the Romans in about 118BC. The 257km Via Domitia was the first Roman road to be built in Gaul, and the area around is peppered with evidence of Roman life. On the 8km stretch between Beaucaire and Nîmes there are still Roman milestones in place. Further south are the ruins of the settlement of Ambrussum with the remains of a Roman bridge spanning the River Vidourle.

Narbonne, capital of the Roman province Gallia Narbonensis, has an archaeological museum (00 33 4 68 90 30 54; set in the Archbishop’s Palace and open Tues-Sun 10am-noon and 2-5pm; adults ¤5.20/ £4.30). Here you gaze at an absorbing Roman collection of stone carvings, paintings and more.

In recent years, the passages and chambers of a Roman horreum (literally, a granary) have been discovered, and made accessible to the public, running under the streets of central Narbonne.

But the most spectacular Roman sites are concentrated in the Nîmes area. The city itself holds two truly spectacular Classical constructions. Right in the heart of Nîmes, dominating the square that was once the forum, is the small and perfectly formed temple known as the Maison Carrée (open daily 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm; adults ¤4.50/£3.75). With its elegant pediment and Corinthian columns, it is beautifully preserved – and will remain so thanks to conservation work now taking place. Only priests were once allowed entry but today tourists can take a look inside – where they see a 3D film about Roman life, its dialogue spoken in Latin, with French and English subtitles. Equally impressive and considerably larger is the city’s Roman amphitheatre south west of the temple (except for special events, open daily 9.30am-5pm; adults ¤7.70/£6.50 including a lively audio guide).

The Romans significantly developed the infrastructure of Languedoc-Roussillon: not merely miraculous surviving structures such as the Pont du Gard, but by creating the tracks that many still follow – both in the street plans of the hearts of Nîmes, Montpellier and Perpignan, and in the ancient superhighways that still carve across the region. But over the centuries since then, many more thoroughfares have imposed themselves over the landscapes, from old mule paths to 21st-century high-speed rail tracks. And some of the Languedoc-Roussillon trails are perfect for exploring on two legs, two wheels, or four legs – or, while sitting down and taking in some superb scenery and engineering. More modest examples of architectural traces of the Romans in and around Caunes have been collected to constitute the Romanesque Art Tour of the Minervois.

“Through gusts of flamboyance and riots, the great histories of Languedoc have shaped the Languedoc as we know it today. Greeks, Romans, Benedictines, Cathars, all left their marks to build, layer after layer, a powerful identity: the Civilisation of Languedoc.”