During a recent visit here, a dear friend gave us a very interesting book about the history of France: The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France, by Ina Caro (1994). The author has organized a grand tour of France by traveling chronologically; she has selected places and monuments that make tangible the great sweep of history in what is today France, from Roman times to the 17th Century.
The first chapters focus on southern France where we can find most of the remaining Roman monuments, such as theaters and arenas, triumphal arches, temples and aqueducts. One chapter focuses on the town of Narbonne which lies only about 45 minutes from Carcassonne, near the Mediterranean. Narbonne was an early, prosperous and significant Roman seaport and crossroads. During the contraction of the failing Roman Empire, the Visigoths made Narbonne their capital in the region. Christian Rome and the Christian Church developed out of Roman Narbonne (and, of course, other places too). Narbonne’s museums and townscape hold archeological evidence of all of this history, almost in our neighborhood.
(I’ve quoted a few paragraphs from The Road from the Past at the end of this post so you can read some of the history that intrigued me.)
Up until now, we have only passed through or by Narbonne on the way to other places. After reading the Narbonne chapter, it was obvious that we needed to do some exploring.
We selected a sunny cool day, booked a restaurant for lunch, and headed out. The chill of November meant that almost no tourists were in evidence, so we discovered day-to-day Narbonne. School kids enjoyed their lunchtime along the sunny canal-side promenades. Business people worked hard at their obligatory two-hour restaurant lunches. Accompanied as they often are by large dogs, street people were obvious without summer’s distracting tourist crowds.
A few images of the historic center of Narbonne:
A Carcassonne friend lent us a fascinating book that combines authentic post-card images with an imagined correspondence between cousins in the period between 1905 and 1914. In it, the correspondent in Carcassonne in 1907 tells his cousin in Paris about the distress and outrage of the wine industry of the region. Over recent years, cut-rate wine, illegally extended with water and sugar, had flooded the market. The demand for authentic wine collapsed, leading to destitution in Languedoc-Roussillon (the region that contains Carcassonne, Béziers, and Narbonne). Immense demonstrations and riots arose, including one with at least 600,000 people in Narbonne in 1907. Among the changes that this revolt forced is the current system of AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) that ensures the quality and ingredients of most of the wine in France. (More history here.) The people of Narbonne do not forget the upheaval of 1907:
In the center of the square in front of the town hall sits an excavated section of the Via Domitia, the Roman road that connected Italy and Spain. This section led to the nearby forum at the center of Narbo Martius, Roman Narbonne. You can even descend to the level of the stones (the level of the city has risen over the centuries) and walk on the Roman road.
Just behind the town hall, we found the main archeological museum, located in the 13th-14th century Archbishop’s Palace. I have a weakness for maps, so had to stop in front of these two maps that put Narbonne in some geographic historical context.
The museum does a good job of explaining how archeologists unearthed and meticulously reassembled the remains of floor mosaics and wall paintings. Very few wall paintings endured vertically on walls; most often, archeologists found fallen pieces of plaster, lying horizontally where walls fell, with the painted sides down. They carefully numbered the pieces, pulled them up, and then tried to put the puzzles back together. Imagine finding jigsaw puzzle pieces in a box, without knowing if all the pieces were there (probably not), without edges, and without knowing what the image was. We spent time with the reconstructed wall paintings, pondering the world and spaces they had framed. The museum displays examples mostly from the first and second centuries of our current era.
The museum is also full of stone and ceramic pieces. While each is interesting just because of its antiquity, we find the wall paintings and stone mosaics most enthralling because they invite us to imagine the places where people lived and worked in Narbonne 2000 years ago.
Narbonne offers more Roman places and remains: too much for our first day’s visit. Blog post Roman Narbonne (Part II) will appear soon!
Excerpt from The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France, by Ina Caro (1994)
[Narbonne’s] location was the reason that in 118 BC the Roman Senate selected the inland Celtic settlement to be the first Roman colony in France and the capital of Roman Provence. Although the Republic had for some time resisted establishing colonies in Gaul, in that year two roads built for the swift movement of troops — the Via Domitia, linking Rome with Spain, and the Via Aquitania, which ran west from Narbonne as far as Toulouse — had just been joined up at Narbonne. Since Hannibal had shown Provence’s vulnerability a hundred years before, the Senate decided to protect the new roads by creating a colony. The junction of the roads made Narbonne (Narbo Martius) the most strategic site.
I find what the Romans did after deciding to colonize Narbonne absolutely thrilling. They didn’t just choose the little settlement; they transformed it, in a way that revealed their determination to impose their will on the natural world, to let no obstacle stand in their way — to order and plan not only roads but every aspect of life. They turned an inland town into a seaport, one of the great ports that made the Mediterranenaen into the Mare Nostrum — “Our Sea,” the Roman sea. And in so doing, they displayed Rome’s remarkable ability to impose the will of man on his environment.
Commerce in the Roman world was conducted primarily by ship, but Narbonne was not a seaport. It was not even on the Mediterranean. It was, though, only about twelve miles away, and some of the intervening miles were already under water, a marshy, mosquito-infested saltwater lake that had been left by a retreating ocean. So the Senate at Rome sent a proconsul and a legion to create a harbor large enough and sufficiently well sheltered for both military and commercial fleets. Using their administrative talents, engineering skills, and slave labor, the Romans turned the marshland into a harbor and made the new colony an important commercial center, an integrated link in a sophisticated economic empire. The marshy lake was dredged, lined with stones, and transformed into connecting lagoons and a harbor. A canal approximately three miles long, connecting Narbonne to the harbor, was dug and also lined with stones. The nearest source of water other than the sea was the Aude River, which flowed several miles north of Narbonne and emptied in the Mediterranean on the other side of the Massif de la Clape. By building a dike, the Romans diverted the course of the river so that it flowed where they wanted, through Narbonne, into the canal, filling the artificially created lagoons and harbor to a desirable depth for their ships. And suddenly Narbonne was no longer an inland town but a seaport, a great one rivaling Marseille, linked as it was with inland Gaul, Spain, Egypt, and Italy by the great Roman roads already in place. By the time the overall plan was completed, the Romans had transformed an inland settlement in the wilderness of Gaul into a crossroads of the ancient world. Chariots and troops could travel over a fifty-thousand-mile network of paved and well-drained roads. Barges from the interior of Celtic France and seagoing vessels from all ports on the Mediterranean were able to dock at Narbonne and use its new storage facility. […]
Narbonne was for centuries the seat of the Roman proconsul in Provence. When Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, Paulus, one of the seven bishops sent to Gaul to convert the heathens, was stationed in Narbonne, and an archbishopric was founded here. For over a hundred years the two leaders — secular and religious, Roman and Christian — ruled jointly over the area. The administrative, or episcopal, structure of the Catholic Church was modeled on the Imperial Roman administrative structure; its language was the Roman language. When the barbarian invasions began, Narbonne was one of the first cities abandoned by an Empire unable to defend its frontiers in the west. The emperor had moved from Rome to Constantinople; the Empire contracted eastward. Arles, east of the Rhône, replaced Narbonne as the region’s commercial center. Abandoned by the Empire, the Church, while barbarized, continued to exist, continued to keep its personnel, its land, its schools. The Church baptized the barbarian, who gradually barbarized the Empire.
It was after AD 410 that the Visigoths replaced the Roman rulers. Alaric, their king, swept across France and Italy, sacked Rome, and took the emperor’s half sister, Galla Placidia, hostage. Since the legions were unable to drive the barbarians out, as they had previously done, all the land west of the Rhône was ceded to Alaric and the Empire contracted east of the Rhône. Whereas Glanum [Roman town that was located about 20 km south of present-day Avignon] no longer existed following the barbarian invasions of AD 270, Narbonne now suffered another fate: to become the capital of a Visigoth kingdom.
The Visigoths were impressed with the Empire they looted. Wanting to continue it, they dressed like Romans, ate like Romans. Alaric’s successor, King Athaulf, married Galla Placidia, whom the barbarians had taken back to Narbonne by wagon train. The wedding took place in the house of a Roman nobleman in Narbonne with as much “Roman” pomp as the Visigoth king could muster. Athaulf dressed himself in Roman robes, adorned the house with the Roman loot he had plundered, and emphasized his relationship to the emperor in Rome by forcing Galla Placidia to lead the wedding procession. (At her first opportunity to escape, she fled to Arles, where she married a Roman general.)
The Visigoths wanted to enjoy the sumptuous life of the Romans; not destroy it. But they did not know how to administer the complex society they had conquered, or how to maintain the sophisticated physical plant created by the Romans. Illiterate, they could not read or understand the Latin laws; they did not know how to collect taxes or keep accounts. Ironically, it was because of the Visigoths’ inability to collect taxes that Narbonne’s Roman citizens, happy not to pay, accepted the barbarian rulers. Without the taxes, however, the barbarians were unable to maintain the city’s roads, canals, aqueducts, water supply, sewers, public baths, schools, and libraries. Learning became the province of the Church as the rest of the physical plant underwent a slow process of decay.
The Visigoths barbarized the Roman civilization they had conquered, but they were probably unaware of it. A hundred years later one of their chroniclers wrote that the king dined every Saturday night at a royal table “served with the elegance of Greece, the plenty of Gaul, and the order and diligence of Italy.”