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France in the 1st century BC


Roman Gaul
Roman Gaul

Rome was prompted to expand north by two developments. First, Germanic and Celtic tribes began threatening the borders of the empire, eliciting a Roman military response. Second, Julius Caesar, the governor of the Roman province that included Massalía, schemed to advance his political career by making large conquests in Gaul. In 58 bc Caesar began military operations to subdue the area west of the Rhine River.

Caesar exploited divisions among the tribes, but once Rome threatened to dominate them, the tribes united behind Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe. In 52 bc Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar following the successful Roman siege of Alesia, and he was taken prisoner.

Vercingetorix was exhibited in chains during Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome in 46 bc, after which he was executed. Meanwhile, Roman troops eliminated the last vestiges of resistance. As a result of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which lasted until 51 bc, more than 1 million people died, and almost that many were sold into slavery after the conquest. Following Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the Romans divided the area north of Narbonensis into three provinces: Aquitania, Lugdunensis, and Belgica. These provinces corresponded roughly to the three parts of Gaul that existed at the time of Caesar’s campaigns, and which he described in On the Gallic Wars.

Narbonensis developed somewhat differently than did the three northern provinces. It had been under Roman domination for over half a century before the time of Caesar, and it was absorbed into the empire relatively quickly. To further this process, Caesar settled members of his legions in four colonies in Narbonensis shortly after the conquest.

The three northern provinces adopted Roman institutions more slowly. Although the Romans eventually established colonies in these provinces as well, they forestalled opposition to their rule by disturbing the preexisting order as little as they thought necessary. The Romans permitted the old Celtic elites to maintain positions of power so long as they followed Roman orders. The Romans also imposed a moderate, if not low, tax burden.

The three northern provinces, each with its own governor, were subdivided into units called the civitates. Like the provinces, the civitates largely followed political divisions that predated the Roman conquest. The civitatesall elected representatives to a joint Gallic Council, which coordinated administrative policy and sent common grievances to Rome. The Romans also built an excellent system of roads and waterways in the provinces. Although built largely for military purposes, these improvements also helped to unify Gaul. A system of courts and administration based on Rome’s highly developed system of law, internal pacification, and a new transportation system encouraged the growth of cities and the expansion of the economy. Cities mushroomed in many regions of Gaul.

Caesar
Caesar

They were built on the model of Rome itself, often financed by Roman capital.They featured typically Roman buildings such as public baths, marketplaces, city halls, and temples. A considerable number of these structures survive today in various stages of decay, particularly in southern France, which was most heavily Romanized. The economies of these cities benefited from activities connected with public administration and the law, but their chief sources of wealth were trade and goods manufactured by artisans. In the countryside, agricultural production was carried on mainly in the villas—large estates owned by a few wealthy people and worked by tenant farmers called coloni.

The governing elite in the cities were the first to adopt Roman institutions, which then slowly spread to the countryside and the lower classes. Latin gradually replaced the old Gaulish languages, even if the Latin commonly spoken in the street was a vulgarization of “purer” forms. Similarly, Roman pagan cults and worship of the emperor slowly drove out the old Celtic religious practices of the Druids. In the 2nd century ad, religions from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, including Christianity, began to take root. Following the general cultural pattern, Christianity was first practiced in cities, each under a bishop, and spread gradually to the countryside. Christianity’s impact outside urban areas was minimal until long after Roman rule collapsed. Nonetheless, Roman authorities resisted the spread of the new faith and in some instances tried to repress it. The decline of Roman Gaul after ad 200 was part of the complex process that led to weakening of the grip of the Roman Empire everywhere in the west. The population declined due to plague, and people migrated to the cities. These events crippled agricultural production—the main source of wealth in almost all premodern societies. As agricultural production fell, so, too, did state revenues from taxes. Furthermore, the empire was no longer expanding and could not depend on plunder for fresh supplies of slave labor and material wealth, as it had for centuries. Landlords tried to legally bind their tenants to the soil, while emperors embarked on administrative and tax reforms. But in the end, the economic decline was not reversed.

In the 3rd century, Germanic tribes, especially the Franks and the Alemanni, began penetrating the eastern boundaries of Roman Gaul and settling down without much disruption. These new arrivals may at first have actually strengthened Roman rule, because they provided a workforce that was badly needed to boost agricultural output and secure the borders of the empire. However, not all such penetration was peaceful. To counter the growing pressure from some of these tribes in the 5th century, the Romans made the Franks, and later the Burgundians and Visigoths, their foederati, or allies. This strategy allowed Roman Gaul to escape collapse but caused Rome to gradually lose control. The assignment of military responsibilities to these allies who were spreading through the four provinces of Gaul meant that Roman Gaul was not so much conquered from without as it was Germanized from within. The Roman occupation of Gaul had an overwhelming impact on later French history. It gave Gaul its first collective political identity. Dozens of France’s modern cities were founded in Roman times, including Paris.

Modern France is literally built on Roman origins inasmuch as millions of French people today drive on highways paved over Roman roadbeds. Rome left behind its legal system, which heavily influenced the course of French jurisprudence, as well as its artistic traditions, most conspicuous in Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. The French language is derived from Latin, although it has been enriched by Germanic and other infusions. In modern times, the French imagined that the spread of French political influence and culture throughout the world was a continuation of the civilizing mission they had acquired from Rome in ancient times. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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