History of Europe

Pax Romana in Roman Gaul

Last updated:2022-07-25

After the conquest by Julius Caesar, the Pax Romana prevailed in Roman Gaul , which quickly became one of the most prosperous provinces of the Empire. Despite a few recent revolts, the "Roman peace" settles from the principate of Augustus and in two centuries, the landscape of Gaul is transformed. The countryside is organized, the country is adorned with new cities, architects are establishing roads and monuments. Romanization seems acquired. These two centuries of Pax Romana give an impression of prosperity:agriculture and crafts are developing, exchanges are fruitful. However, real difficulties are gradually appearing, harbingers of subsequent major crises.

Caesar's conquest of Gaul

Roman settlement in Gaul dates back to the end of the 2nd century BC. It was then occupied by a myriad of Gallic peoples reputed to be warlike. Responding to a call for help from the Greek colony of Massalia, the Romans occupied it in -121 and progressed along the coast towards their Iberian province and along the Rhone Valley. They founded the colony of Narbonne, which would become the center of the new and very prosperous Roman province of the same name. To secure the latter and to consolidate his power in Rome, the Roman general Julius Caesar undertook in -58 the conquest of Gaul called "hairy", which extends from the Pyrenees to the Channel and the Rhine. The Gauls, united around the Arverne chief Vercingetorix, were finally defeated during the siege of Alesia, at the end of a war that lasted seven years.

Gaul is slowly recovering from the ordeal of war and Roman conquest; Caesar then directs his policy in two directions:on the one hand, he provides, especially in Southern Gaul, for the installation of former soldiers, veterans, in military colonies which must ensure control of the country and constitute centers of Romanization:this is the case of Narbonne, Fréjus, Béziers, Arles and Orange; on the other hand, he secured the support of the Gallic notables. Some had helped him during the conquest, others supported him during the civil war which opposed him to Pompey; he makes them Roman citizens to whom he gives his name, Caius Julius. Thus is constituted what has been called “a nobility of the Julii”, on which his successor, Augustus, relies.

Pax Romana in Roman Gaul

When Augustus, after eliminating Antony at Actium in 31 BC. J.-C., sets up the principate, he takes care to disseminate a certain number of ideological themes that bring hope and confidence. The civil wars prior to the seizure of power by Octavian, the future Augustus, were so long and so deadly that it was essential to reassure the populations of the Roman Empire. Augustus promises peace and makes this objective a real political program. It is the Roman Peace, in other words, submission to Roman law. In Rome is built the Altar of Peace, which commemorates the final pacification of the Iberian Peninsula. In all the provinces, altars are also erected reminding the provincials that the time of war is over and that a new era is beginning, that of the Peace of Augustus.

The action of the new emperor manifests itself in many areas. It is important first of all to pacify, which means, in reality, to put out by force the ultimate sources of resistance which, sporadically, reignite. The emperor brings in his son-in-law Agrippa, who, in a few battles, eliminates the opponents, in Aquitaine in particular. On several occasions, Augustus himself came to Gaul to appease the troubles, still frequent, in the bordering areas.

The Footprint of Augustus

The territory is divided into provinces divided into two sets. On one side, the former province of Transalpine Gaul, delimited by the Pyrenees, the Cévennes, the Alps, the Mediterranean, and of which the Rhône valley constitutes the median axis; now called Narbonnaise Gaul, it is placed, as in the Republican era, under the control of the Senate. On the other, the whole of Trois Gaules, made up of three provinces governed by legates appointed directly by the emperor:Aquitaine, whose northern border is extended to the Loire; the Lyonnaise, between Seine, Loire and Marne; and Belgian Gaul, which occupies the entire north of the country. Each of these provinces is divided into cities.

This set of Trois Gaules has a federal capital which is the subject of all the care of Augustus and which is located in Lyon. On this crossroads site, occupied very early by the Celts, was founded on the hill of Fourvière in 43 BC. AD a Roman military colony:Lugdunum. The rapid progress of this colony is partly due to the center of commerce which developed at the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône.

But it is to the Emperor Augustus that Lyon owes the importance of its political role. The city is promoted capital of the Three Gauls. It became the annual gathering place for delegates from all the Gallic cities, who dealt with all provincial problems there. These assemblies, in another form, existed before Romanization.

Thus, with remarkable political sense, Augustus invested for the benefit of his politics and that of Rome, the ancient organs of power of independent Gaul. It also makes the city a centralizing pole, as testified, in a masterful way, by the road network designed by Agrippa:from Lyon the main roads start in a star pattern towards the North, the North-East and the Rhine border, towards the East and the Alpine passes, to the South and the Mediterranean, to the West and the Massif Central. Finally, Lyon is the capital of the official cult rendered to Rome and Augustus.

Very early on, the imperial cult was established in the municipal context, as shown by the Maison Carrée in Nîmes or the temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienna. This cult reinforces the power of the emperor at the same time as it favors the integration of the provincials.

Augustus' action also extends to southern Gaul. Urbanization, already well advanced in the 1st century BC. AD, accelerated thanks to numerous measures:foundations and reinforcement of colonies, granting of a more favorable legal status (Latin law), financing of municipal works:it offered a rampart to the cities of Vienna and Nîmes and subsidized the construction of theaters in Arles, Orange and Vienne.

Resistance and Integration

However, Gaul, during the 1st century AD. J.-C., is shaken by revolts of which it is not easy, for lack of sources, to understand the finalities. The first broke out under Tiberius in 21, and shook the Pax Romana. They are recounted by Tacitus, who highlights a particularly serious question, that of debts. It is because they are crushed by excessively heavy taxes and because they are forced into debt that the populations of the Loire Valley, the Trévires and the Aedui take up arms. Their dissatisfaction is all the greater as they previously benefited from tax immunities that Emperor Tiberius, faced with a serious financial crisis, had to lift. These revolts, led by Romanized Gallic nobles, broke out especially in the North and Northeast; they were strongly repressed by the Roman legions, coming from the Rhine border.

Another revolt was fomented, almost fifty years later, in 69-70, under very different conditions since it was due, at least originally, to the crisis that affects the imperial regime itself, weakened under the reign of Nero. It is possible, however, to identify within this complex movement the expression of clearly affirmed anti-Roman sentiments. We know that Aedui peasants (eight thousand, say the sources) follow a Celt Boïen, Mariccus, who, evoking the oppression of the Romans, presents himself as the "liberator of Gaul". The enterprise is without follow-up, since, arrested by the magistrates of Autun, Mariccus is executed. It is no less significant for the echo it has encountered in rural areas. Despite this sporadic resistance, the prevailing feeling is that of an attachment to Rome, more particularly in the ruling classes.

It is indeed in terms of integration that relations between Gauls and Romans are increasingly established , which the Emperor Claudius understood very well. In a speech delivered in 48 AD. J.-C., partially preserved in Lyon on a bronze plaque, he became the advocate of the notables of hairy Gaul wishing to be able to accede to the imperial magistracies. Before a reluctant senate, Claude deploys all his knowledge and all his historical culture to demonstrate that the strength of Rome has always resided in its ability to welcome and integrate the conquered peoples. After much procrastination, the senate was convinced:integrating the Gauls, didn't this promote the development of the subjugated provinces?

Transformation of the Gallic rural landscape

Ancient authors tended to equate the development of the Gallo-Roman countryside with the Pax romana:it was thanks to the peace established by the Romans that Gaul, fertilized by nature, can engage in agriculture. The vision is partial. Agriculture had reached a remarkable level of development long before the conquest. But it continues to grow in Roman times thanks to a more rational exploitation of the soil, the increase in productivity, a more intense insertion of production in trade.

The Romans exerted their influence on the rural population in two ways:on the one hand, they seized land in order to allocate it to former soldiers, Roman citizens who were freeholders law within the framework of the colonies; on the other hand, they demanded from non-citizen provincials a land tax, the tribute, an obvious mark of their subjection. To set up the colonies, take a census of the population and fix the tax base, the Romans undertook a vast grid of the land, some fossilized forms of which are still visible in the current landscape.

Over hundreds and hundreds of hectares, they traced large squares of 710 meters on each side, limited by paths, paths or markers. The properties within these large squares—centuries—are delimited, identified, attributed; all the information is then noted and archived by specialized administrative services, as the fragments of the cadastre of the colony of Orange still testify.

The Gallo-Roman villa

The former agricultural domain of pre-Roman Gaul was replaced by large rural establishments, the villae, which remained self-sufficient but also maintained exchanges, attested in particular by the dishes , the jewels found during the excavations. The villa is a production unit made up of an agricultural estate, the master's residence, the villa itself, and outbuildings and workshops:forge, carpentry, milling, brewery, weaving workshop and, for the southern estates, winery facility.

The dimensions of the domains are very variable and condition the modes of exploitation:it is likely that, within the framework by villa from 50 to 100 hectares, direct tenure is practiced with often slave labor, a common practice in the South. On very large farms, tenant farming or sharecropping is used. The predominance of the state structure should not make us forget that the countryside is also occupied by indigenous villages and hamlets.

Under such conditions, exploitation takes very diverse forms. Alongside food production, speculative production developed, especially within the framework of the villae, which benefited from the technical improvements perfected by the Gauls:plow with metal ploughshare, wheeled plow, harvester, various practices of rotation and manure. We are witnessing a net increase in productivity, which allows the release of a marketable surplus.

The North is devoted to cereals (wheat, millet, barley) and textile plants (flax, hemp), sold to the Rhine region. The Midi is increasingly directing its production towards olive trees and especially vines. The latter took off during the 1st century and spread as far as Burgundy and the banks of the Moselle. Thanks to well-adapted plants and well-developed vinification processes, Gallic wines circulated within the country and in the Mediterranean Basin. This development of the countryside is not unrelated to the extraordinary growth of urbanization.

Cities, political and cultural centers

The establishment by the Romans of municipal structures was accompanied by a considerable expansion of urbanization. The effort focused mainly on Trois Gaules, where the city was practically non-existent. The sites selected are most often in the plain near the oppidums:this is the case of Clermont-Ferrand at the foot of Gergovie, like that of Autun near Bibracte.

Contrary to a somewhat simplistic view, Gallo-Roman cities were not built according to a standard pattern more or less imposed by Rome; it is vain, for example, to want at all costs to find an orthogonal and regular plane. When circumstances permit, a grid is drawn, but this is not the main thing for the builders, it is above all important that the city be equipped in order to be able to fulfill its functions as a political, administrative, economic and religious centre. The heart of the city is occupied by the forum, a vast square around which the main public buildings revolve:the curia, the basilica, the temples to the official gods and to the emperor.

These political centers, with their porticoed forums, as at Ruscino, their colonnaded temples, as at Nîmes or Vienna, have a character that is both imposing and theatrical to which attached these small provincial cities. Alongside these centers of public life which, everywhere, recall the influence of Rome, the many buildings intended for leisure and relaxation testify to the importance of collective life.

Among these buildings, the thermal baths, theaters and amphitheatres always surprise by the size of the installations and the importance of their reception capacity:the Autun theater can accommodate 38,000 spectators; in the amphitheater of Arles, 28,000 people can gather, and in that of Nîmes 24,000. cities, at most populated with 8,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, but also that of the entire surrounding region.

Religions and Christianization of Roman Gaul

The religious universe in Roman Gaul is exceptionally rich. The cult of the emperor, associated with that of Rome, did not seem to have had any real impact on the Gauls:Gallic beliefs and practices were maintained in many cases; the great Celtic deities are still venerated, the native sanctuaries persist. But, in contact with the Romans, the pantheon widens, the iconography is enriched and diversified, and original syncretisms develop. In addition, from the 1st century, cults from the East, such as the cult of Cybele, the cult of Mithras and Christianity, settled in Gaul on the passageways, in the cities, in the border regions. The development of these religions of salvation with strong spiritual and affective content reveals the rise of worries and anxieties in difficult times.

In the 2nd century AD. J.-C, the Christian presence is observed in Lyon and Vienna in communities from Asia Minor. After the persecutions of 177 AD. BC, Bishop Irenaeus wrote the first Christian texts in Gaul. The evangelization of Gallic towns became very active in the 3rd century thanks to various bishops:Denis in Lutèce, Trophime in Arles, Martial in Limoges, and Saturnin in Toulouse. Contrary to the towns, the countryside remained attached to the pagan cult, and it was necessary to wait a hundred years and Saint Martin, bishop of Tours, to see them become completely Christianized. The massive conversion of Gaul therefore only took place under Constantine, the emperor who established the Christian religion throughout the Empire in AD 312. AD

Trade and crafts at the time of the Pax romana

In cities, all trades and all craft activities are represented. The traditional woodworking trades:joiners, carpenters, coopers, are known by their important corporations, mutual aid organizations of a religious nature; the metal trades have left enough remains:weapons, vases, jewels, coins, to bear witness to the skill of the founders, blacksmiths, bronzers. The stone trades are, on the other hand, more recent:the Gauls had little or no stone architecture; they quickly turn out to be excellent builders:quarrymen, stonemasons, masons are active in the many construction sites opened in Gaul.

But it was perhaps in the work of ceramics and glassware that the Gallo-Romans achieved the greatest mastery. Indeed, Gallic potters, numerous and skilled at the time of independence, very quickly adopted manufacturing techniques from Italy, and particularly from Arezzo. They make a red-paste ceramic called sigillée, from sigillum, the name of the punch with which they sign their vases. Sigillated pottery manufacturing centers are multiplying:in the South-West, at Graufesenque, Montans and Banassac; in the Centre, with the Lezoux workshops; in the Northeast. This ceramic fuels a fruitful trade in Gaul, Italy and the provinces.

Solid glass was used for a long time by the Gauls for their ornaments (bracelets, necklaces), but Roman times, the spread of the blown glass technique enabled master glassmakers to manufacture with incredible boldness flasks, bottles, goblets in the most varied shapes and colors.

This artisanal production feeds, with agricultural production, local, regional and international trade. Lyon, Narbonne, Arles and, to a lesser extent, Bordeaux became leading commercial centres, but all the towns traded in raw materials (lead, copper, tin), agricultural products (wheat, wine, oil), textiles, manufactured products (ceramics, glassware).

The trade flows have definitely lost the colonial character they could have had during the Republican era. The clientele shows a diversity of needs; it benefits from a relative flexibility of the market, from an overall, if not general, rise in the standard of living. The example of the wine trade is very significant:while Gaul exports, as we have seen, wine in quantity, and in particular to Italy, we observe that at the same time it continues to import precisely Italian wine!

Why? These are wines of very different qualities:Gallic wine is an ordinary wine, intended mainly for the population of Rome, a very large consumer; the Italian wine delivered to Gaul is of a quality reserved for a wealthy clientele. The same observations can be made for the oil trade. These lucrative activities are managed by specialists, the negotiatores, well known in Lyon and Narbonne. As part of their powerful corporations, linked to carriers and shipowners, they are notable.

The end of the Pax Romana in Gaul

Life in Gaul in the first two centuries AD. Jesus Christ gives off an impression of peace and prosperity. In all sectors of economic life, activity was intense and, at the end of the 2nd century, resistance seemed definitively reduced. Gaul, protected by solid fortifications along the Rhine, seems able to resist the formidable incursions of the Germans. Yet already some cracks appear:the budgets of the cities are more and more in deficit; the peasants are agitated in the face of the process of land concentration which seems to be accelerating; the state itself, under the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, was shaken.

From the 3rd century, Gaul had to face both the military anarchy that shook the Empire and the first barbarian invasions. Despite some periods of respite, the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, and with it the Pax Romana. Roman Gaul will survive in the new kingdoms founded, notably that of the Franks.

To go further

- Journey to Roman Gaul, by Jean-Claude Golvin. Wandering, 2016.

- History of the Gauls, by Christine Delaplace and Jérôme France. Armand Colin, 2020.

- How Gaul became Roman. Discovery, 2010.