Modern French identity is rooted in the ancient world, chiefly in Celtic and Roman civilizations. Seen through the lens of time, the Celtic inheritance has the more romantic glow, and the French retain a sentimental attachment to it. The Celts provided the point of origin of French history and its first common culture, but the Romans laid down the first lasting foundations of any significance. Without its Roman past, France and French culture would almost certainly have developed differently.
Relatively little is known about the first peoples living in the area now called France. In the period following the arrival of modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Europe around 40,000 bc, a variety of migratory peoples circulated in the region. Fine paintings in the Lascaux caves dating from the Old Stone Age, around 15,000 bc, give striking evidence of a relatively sophisticated culture. The people who made these paintings were itinerant and depended on hunting and gathering for food. By about 6000 bc, people in what is today France had begun to develop a sedentary culture based on agriculture. This process fundamentally altered the entire French region by about 3000 bc and allowed the population to grow to about 4 million to 5 million people by 1000 bc. Metalwork was introduced around 1400 bc.
In the 8th century bc, waves of northern peoples entered the region. The most important of these were the Celts, who spread over most of France by 400 bc, mixing with other peoples already settled there. Although the Celts never unified the region politically, they left some traces of their culture. A Celtic word meaning “hero” or possibly “Celts” was the origin of the name Gaul.
Gaul was the common name for the region of France in antiquity, and it was associated with the Latin word gallus, meaning cock. Later, the cock became the symbol of the French nation. The Celts and the peoples who lived among them had developed a thriving culture of some 6 million to 8 million people at the time of the Roman conquest in the last century bc. This large pre-Roman population was sustained by intensive agriculture, which benefited from the use of a heavy, iron-tipped plough.
Commerce also enriched the population, much of it stimulated by and traded through the Greek colony of Massalía, which was founded in 600 bc on the site of present-day Marseille. Trade led to the development of urban centers, which were also used for religious ceremonies. The Celtic religion was polytheistic. Priests called Druids presided over the followers and met in yearly conclaves. Politically, the region was divided into hundreds of relatively independent units with constantly shifting borders. These units averaged 1,500 sq km (580 sq mi) in size and were grouped into about 60 larger federations. Units were also tied by tribal affiliations and strategic alliances. However, power relations among the hundreds of units were constantly changing, and no formal political structure emerged that could coordinate them in united action. This disunity made Celtic Gaul vulnerable to incursions by the Greeks and then the Romans.
Greek culture penetrated Gaul from Massalía. The Gauls encountered Roman culture as Rome expanded into the western Mediterranean and confronted Carthage during the Punic Wars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bc. Massalía was inevitably drawn into the military conflict, usually on the side of the Romans. At the end of the 2nd century bc, Massalía called on Rome for protection against Celtic tribes, and Rome occupied the city. A political settlement was worked out that maintained Massalía’s independence and gave Rome territory in what is today called Languedoc and the upper Garonne valley. During the 1st century bc, all these territories, including Massalía, were incorporated with the Roman province of Narbonensis. From there, Rome expanded northward, ending the independence of Celtic Gaul. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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