A very, very ancient road in Northern Gaul

6 September 2008
The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

The road between Tongeren and Maastricht

Centuries before the Romans arrived in Gaul, even centuries before the Celtic culture spread over Europe, there were already people living in what is now northern France and southern Belgium. Although these people were usually farmers, there must have been traders among them too, because we are certain that already in the last phase of the Neolithicum, there were important roads. They can be recognized if you plot the burial mounds on a map; immediately, you will see that they are arranged in long lines. The people wanted to be buried along a road.

One road appears to have been of extreme importance, as people continued to be buried along it in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman Age as well. It leads from modern Amiens to Bavay, Tongeren, and Cologne – in other words, it connected the capitals of the Atrebates, Nervians, Tungrians, and Ubians, the main ethnic units of Gallia Belgica at the time of the Roman conquest. It was used by Caesar when he invaded Belgica in 57 BCE and defeated the Nervians, was used by the Fourteenth legion Gemina when it had to suppress the Batavian Revolt (70 CE), and was used in the late fourth century by Frankish warriors who left Toxandria and settled on more fertile soils.

In the Middle Ages, the road from Bavay to Tongeren was called Chaussée Brunehaut (“road of Brunhilda”), a name that is still officially used and can be found in many municipalities in northern France and southern Belgium. This Brunhilda was one of the most powerful rulers of the late sixth and early seventh century. She became the heroine of many sagas, and it is now difficult to see behind the legend and find out whether she really had something to do with the streets still named after her.

The modern name Via Belgica, coined by archaeologists and planologists, is rather ill-chosen. The Romans named their roads after the men who built them: Via Appia or Strata Diocletiana. If a street has a geographic element in its name, this invariably indicates a destination, not the country it traversed (Via Labicana, Via Portuense). Via Belgica would therefore be the name of the road leading to Belgica and can never have been an indication for a road through Belgica.

That being said, the Chaussée Brunehaut or Via Belgica or whatever you prefer to call it, is an important monument. I am not certain, but it may be one of the oldest roads in the world that is still in use. You can find more information here.

Narbo Martius and Arelate (Narbonne and Arles)

8 August 2008
A small part of the Via Domitia

A small part of the Via Domitia

The capital of Gallia Narbonensis was Narbo Martius, modern Narbonne in southern France. It was founded in 118 BCE when the Romans built the Via Egnatia, which connected northern Italy with Catalonia. Soon, it became an important city, partly because Julius Caesar settled veterans of the Tenth Legion in this city.

A similar story can be told about Arelate, modern Arles: a Roman city in southern France, home to soldiers of Caesar’s Sixth legion Ferrata. Both sites have some ancient monuments left – Arles a bit more than Narbonne, which has a Celtic oppidum across the corner.

Augustus’ Trophee at La Turbie

25 May 2008

Just north of Monaco, high up the mountains, are the ruins of the Tropaium Augusti, a monument dedicated to the emperor Augustus, “because under his guidance and auspices, all Alpine nations … were submitted to the Empire of the Roman people”. The generals in charge were Augustus’ stepsons Drusus and Tiberius. The event was also commemorated by the poet Horace, who devoted Ode 4.4 to these victories.

The monument itself almost fifty meters high. It consisted of a square podium, twelve meters high, on which the inscription was written, flanked by two Victories. The second tier, accessible by stairs, consisted of a roofed circular colonnade. Between the twenty-four columns, one could see statues of various commanders. On top of a stepped cone, the visitor could see the statue of Augustus. I imagine that the gilded parts must have been visible from a great distance and may have served as a beacon for ships.

A visit to the monument can easily be combined with the Villa Kerylos in nearby Nice (or a visit to the casino of Monte Carlo).

The Siege of Alesia

25 May 2008

The statue of Vercingetorix, with the moustache of Napoleon III.

The Siege of Alesia in 52 BCE is one of the most decisive battles in world history. Julius Caesar overcame the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, and broke Gallic resistance against the Roman conquest. Until then, the Roman Empire was essentially the Mediterranean world, but now, it expanded far beyond the well-known sea, all the way to the Rhine.

Caesar’s own account is very artful: everything depends on one single siege, Alesia; during this siege, all is decided on one single day; during that day, one single fight really matters, the one in the northwest; and the fight over there is decided by one man, Julius Caesar. Things must have been more complicated; in the end, the Gauls had to prostrate for Roman organizing skills and discipline, but Caesar could rightfully claim that it was his generalship that had won the battle.

The photo shows the statue of Vercingetorix at Alise St Reine.