We have got a lot to be thankful to the Romans for. At least, that is what they are always telling us in their monuments and writings.
They arrived in France (then called Gaul) and found nothing but uncivilised barbarians. It was still prehistory here but, now that the Romans were here, history could begin.
After a lengthy period of Romanisation, ancient Gaul became organised, peaceful and civilised – as testified to by amphitheatres, aqueducts, villas and innumerable other archaeological sites.
That is the story most historians repeat: before the Romans there was not much of significance in France, or anywhere else.
Everything worth talking about started with them. The Romans introduced all the big ideas and, eventually, the conquered people were grateful for the improvements in their lives.
History, however, is never as simple as it seems. It is always written by the winners and it never hurts to question the standard narrative. The forgotten truth is more colourful and complicated. Gaul had a respectable civilisation of its own on the eve of the Roman invasion.
What the Romans did contribute was unity and standardisation. Ancient Gaul was the opposite to the Roman ideal. It was an ethnically diverse place.
Caesar divided the population into three groups: Celts in the middle, Aquitani in the southwest and the Belgae in the north.
This, however, is an over-simplification. There may have been as many as 60 separate tribes in Gaul – along with populations of Greeks and Phoenicians, Ligurians and Iberians. “Gaul,” says historian Franck Perrin, “was a mosaic of hundreds of ethnic groups living in a variety of ways.”
Although much of Gaul was forested, it would be wrong to think of it as a wild place with small scattered settlements.
Rather it was densely populated with a sedentary population estimated to have been around 12 million, a figure that compares favourably with the early medieval period. Nor was it a disorganised or chaotic place.
The Gauls developed sophisticated political structures – first monarchies but later oligarchies.
None of the tribes managed to dominate the rest and thus unify the country but they did not live entirely separately.
Culture, language and religion created links between them and they were able to co-operate with each other, especially in times of war.
Julius Caesar wrote that society was orderly divided into three classes: the Druids, who were the priests and educators; the warriors or aristocrats; and everyone else, including slaves, labourers and artisans.
The economy sustaining all these people was intricate and dynamic.
The Gauls excelled in craftwork and trade. They were skilled in metal-working, creating both functional and decorative items in bronze, silver and gold, but especially iron. Large areas of land were intensively farmed to grow crops and raise livestock.
Although many people lived in villages and isolated houses, the Gauls also created urban nuclei, the one exception to the rule that the Romans left lasting architectural monuments and the Gauls did not.
The archetypal Gaulish settlements was the oppidum, usually built on a defensive position and surrounded by fortifications. The oppidum was a small city, in which goods would be produced, stored and traded. It also served as the seat of political power.
Several oppida have been excavated and are fascinating to visit. What strikes you about the average oppidum is how large it is. Some were larger than Paris in the Middle Ages.
The plans of some oppida are strikingly modern in that they incorporate extensive areas of green space. In this they are very different to Greek and Roman towns. The best-known oppidum in France is Bibracte, near Autun, in Burgundy.
People who were as frequently involved in war and trade as the Gauls were, required roads for chariots and four-wheel carts to travel along. Before the Romans, Gaul had its own transport network. Just how elaborate and accomplished it was is a matter of debate.
Gaulish ‘roads’ largely followed the rivers to keep the need for bridges to a minimum.
Sometimes the Gauls built funerary monuments as landmarks to guide travellers.
Vercingétorix Memorial in Alesia, near the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine, Côte-d’Or
A few years ago the British author and fervent cyclist, Graham Robb, took off around France on his touring bike to explore the topographical evidence – roads and towns known to have been founded by the Gauls and place names with ancient origins – to test his hypothesis that the Gauls were more sophisticated than we give them credit for.
In the book he wrote of his experiences, The Ancient Paths, he explains that he tried hard to disprove his thesis but had to come to the conclusion that the Gauls had an extraordinary level of geodesic knowledge that the Romans effectively covered up so that they would not be outshone by the achievements of their predecessors.
For a long time, and even today, says Robb, ‘the idea that any of this knowledge may have come from cultures other than the Romans was unacceptable to some people’.
We may be impressed by the straightness of Roman roads, says Robb, but the Celts knew much more than we give them credit for. They were superb surveyors, capable of imposing straight lines on the landscapes through solar observations taken during the solstices.
“The Druids who directed the tribes were not fraudulent conjurers who made a nation’s destiny depend on the twitch of an entrail or the parabola of a bird’s flight. They were the coordinators of an immense work of art… It gave those tribes a view of Middle Earth that had once been the prerogative of the gods and would not be seen again by earth-bound mortals until the cartographic marvels of the Renaissance.”
It is undeniably true that the Romans brought many innovations to Gaul – tiles and mortar for building, vines for growing grapes and making wine – but to suggest that the Gauls were primitives waiting for civilisation to find them, is a travesty of history.
With thanks to Franck Perrin, lecturer and researcher into the ancient Gauls at Lyon University II, for his expert help with this article. Graham Robb’s The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe is published by Picador.
For more information on the Gauls, visit the National Archaeology Museum (musee-archeologienationale.fr) in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, outside Paris.
Theories for a disappearing culture
The Romans wrote their own history. They chose what to report and what to ignore and they frequently passed judgement, comparing what they found with how things should be according to the Roman ideal. The term “barbarians” was used pejoratively to mean anyone who did not conform to Roman ways.
The culture of Gaul was deliberately oral and aural, meaning that the Gauls left barely a written word about themselves compared to the volumes produced by the Romans. The priesthood of the Gauls, the Druids, in particular, were keen on passing down deeds and traditions only by word of mouth.
The Gauls did not, as a whole, build for eternity, as the Romans seemed to. They left little physical evidence behind.
The Romans repressed the Celtic culture of Gaul. It may have taken only a generation after the Roman conquest for the traditions of Gaul to have been largely forgotten. Certainly, when Rome converted to Christianity, the cults of Gaul were suppressed and unified under the one “true” religion.
The well-preserved remains of the Gaulish oppidum at Bibracte, near modern Autun in Burgundy, offers visitors a hint of the engi-neering skills of the ancient people