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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Prehistory to Roman
     Neolithic villages
     Arrival of the Celts
     Marseilles and the Romans
     Caesar's years in Gaul
     The Gallic War
     Roman Gaul

French kingdoms
Normans and Capetians
The Valois dynasty
16th century
Louis XIII
Louis XIV
18th century
Political turmoil
Third Republic
Fifth republic
To be completed

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Cave-dwellers of France and Spain: from 30,000 years ago

The area to the north and south of the Pyrenees, in modern France and Spain, is occupied from about 30,000 years ago by palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who make good use of the many caves in the area. They leave astonishing signs of their presence, and of their sophistication, in the paintings with which they decorate the walls.

There are many surviving examples, of which the best known are Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But almost twice as old are the paintings recently discovered in the Chauvet Cave in France.


Neolithic villages: from the 5th millennium BC

In the regions bordering the Atlantic coast, the transition from palaeolithic hunter-gatherers to neolithic villagers begins in about 4500 BC. These villagers later develop a striking tradition of prehistoric architecture.

In most of Europe neolithic communities live in villages of timber houses, often with a communal longhouse. But along the entire Atlantic coast, from Spain through France to the British Isles and Denmark, the central feature of each village is a great tomb, around which simple huts are clustered. The tomb chambers of these regions introduce the tradition of stonework which includes Passage graves and megaliths.


A famous early example of a stone passage grave, from about 4000 BC on the Île Longue off the southern coast of Brittany, has a magnificent dome formed by corbelling (each ring of stone juts slightly inwards from the one below). It is the same principle as the beehive tombs of Mycenae, but they are more than 2000 years later.


The arrival of the Celts: from the 6th century BC

During the last centuries of their prehistory, France and northern Spain are infiltrated by energetic tribes originating in central Europe. They speak an Indo-European language, and they know how to work iron. Their arrival inaugurates the Iron Age in these regions. They are the Celts, known to the Romans as the Gauls.

Meanwhile civilization has been brought to the coasts of both France and Spain by colonists from further east in the Mediterrean. The most important colonies are Massilia (Marseilles), settled by Greeks in about 600, and Cadiz, established by the Phoenicians at about the same time (though tradition gives it a much earlier date).


Marseilles and the Romans: 3rd - 1st century BC

The traders of Marseilles extend a network of colonies along the coast, and so become the commercial rivals of the Carthaginians, the successors of the Phoenicians in Spain. This makes Marseilles the natural ally of Rome in the Punic Wars. Thereafter Marseilles is of great importance to Rome in keeping open the coastal route between Italy and Spain.

In 121 a Roman army wins a conclusive victory over the surrounding Celtic tribes. The Roman province of Gallia Transalpina (also called Gallia Narbonnensis, from its capital at Narbonne) is established by 118 BC. Marseilles, a loyal ally to Rome, remains a free city. The tribes elsewhere in Gaul retain their independence until the campaigns of Julius Caesar.


Caesar's years in Gaul: 58-50 BC

Caesar is away from Rome for eight years. During this time he systematically subdues the Celtic tribes in Gaul, making separate alliances with their many independent chieftains. He even adventures beyond the natural boundaries of Gaul - the region framed by the Alps, the Rhine, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees.

In 55 and again in 53 he bridges the Rhine for brief campaigns into Germany. Twice in the same period he crosses the Channel to test the mettle of the Celts in Britain (see Caesar in Britain). According to Plutarch, writing 150 years later, this expedition is the first to prove to certain sceptical scholars in Rome that Britain really exists.


Caesar's campaigns into Germany and Britain suggest that he considers Gaul itself secure. The year 52 BC proves him wrong. The Celts find an inspiring leader in Vercingetorix, a young chieftain of the Averni. His early successes against Roman contingents are in the absence of Caesar, who has been wintering south of the Alps. But the great general's arrival does not make quite the difference to which he has become accustomed.

Caesar is besieging the town of Gergovia when Vercingetorix attacks and routs the Roman forces, killing 700. This is Caesar's first defeat in all his years in Gaul. It prompts many more tribes to come out in support of the rebels.


The next siege in the campaign reverses the situation. Vercingetorix holds the fortress of Alesia. Caesar and his troops, attempting to blockade the garrison, are themselves threatened by a large army of Gauls. But when the Romans win the first major battle between the two sides, the Gauls melt away. To save further lives, Vercingetorix rides out of the town and surrenders - in a dramatic gesture of Celtic chivalry.

He is kept in captivity for six years, until Caesar finds the right moment to lead him through the streets of Rome in a triumphal parade.


The Gallic War: 52 BC

It is probably in the autumn of 52 BC, after his defeat of Vercingetorix, that Caesar settles down in his winter quarters at Bibracte (to the northwest of modern Lyons) to record for posterity his successes in Gaul over the past six years.

The title he writes at the head of his papyrus is 'Gaius Julius Caesar's Notes on his Achievements' - though historians will come to know his book simply as The Gallic War. When the work is finished a copy goes off to Rome, where it is probably published during 51. Caesar has been assiduously cultivating support back in the capital, for political struggles to come. The book of his achievements is an important shot in this other campaign (see Caesar and his book).


Roman Gaul: 1st century BC - 5th century AD

Gaul proves one of the most stable and economically important regions of the Roman empire outside Italy itself. This can be clearly seen in a town such as Nîmes. Founded during the reign of Augustus, it is supplied with water by one of the most spectacular pieces of Roman engineering - the great aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard.

Other superbly preserved buildings in the town demonstrate how the Romans export both their state religion and their favourite entertainment. The famous Maison Carrée is an exquisitely simple temple to the Roman gods. The amphitheatre holds some 24,000 people (about half as many as the contemporary Colosseum in Rome) for gladiatorial shows or chariot races.


But Nîmes also shows traces of the end of Roman Gaul. In 407 it is sacked by the Vandals. About sixty years later it is occupied by the Visigoths, who build a fortress in the amphitheatre.

Great Germanic tribes, of which these are but two, have been pressing for centuries on Gaul's eastern frontier. Often they have made deep and devastating incursions into Roman territory. Always, eventually, the Roman armies have driven them back - until the 5th century, when new forms of accomodation are devised, turning the tribes into Roman allies. The result, by the end of that century, is a Gaul shared between Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks.


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