As we did last summer, we made a short trip to the Gers in southwest France to visit our friends Jef and Val. They were spending two weeks in the little fortified village of Larresingle. The mayor had invited them back to give interactive presentations to visitors of the medieval site. (Here’s last year’s post about Larresingle and Jef and Val’s activities.) The main purpose of our trip was to visit with our friends. But we had a little extra time to continue our exploration of the region.
Because our friends’ favorite historical period is the medieval, that’s what we first think about in this part of France. We also learned a bit last year about the conflicts in the Gers between the English and French during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1435). But we hadn’t really thought about the Roman period before all that. When we think of Roman sites in France, we think of the showy Roman monuments, like the Arena at Nîmes, the Theatre and Arena at Arles, the Triumphal Arch of Orange, and the traces of the Via Domitia in Narbonne. And there are traces of the first Roman fortifications in the walls of the Cité de Carcassonne. But all these are close to the Mediterranean: “You can see Rome from here!”
But near the Atlantic, in a quiet corner of modern France? Well, of course, we now realize. The Romans were everywhere!
In searching for something new to explore in the Gers, and maybe for once not medieval, we found the Late Roman Villa of Séviac. While the walls do not remain, many of the attractive mosaics do. Let’s explore.
We found an angular white cloud floating over the landscape (more about that in a minute). The translucent fabric protects and illuminates the layout of the large villa from the late Roman Empire.
The welcome center provided us with a booklet that describes a self-guided tour. We stopped at each marked location, and Mike read the details.
Some background from the booklet:
A Villa (or country house) was a hallmark of civilization, just like an amphitheater or a spa. When the Roman Empire crumbled in the West in the fifth century C.E., the model of a Villa only survived it for a short while. The Villa Séviac was built on a small plateau in the heart of agricultural lands.
In the High Roman Empire, around 130 C.E. the first building on the site (a farm from 50 B.C.E.) was replaced by a Villa. Towards 380 C.E. a vast structure including a bath house complex saw the light of day. This was the late Villa which is the one on show to visitors today. In the year 500 C.E. the Villa underwent transformation, and in the second half of the 6th century is was reduced by two thirds and fell into a dilapidated state.
The site was still inhabited in the 7th century but could no longer be called a Villa.
The size of dwelling with its colonnade peristyle, bathhouse complex and mausoleum seems to indicate that the owner was well to do. A part of his agricultural land was used to produce wine. The late Villa enjoyed the same layout right up to the beginning of the 6th century.
We were struck by how large and grand this villa had been.
The exterior walls were apparently mostly blank, without windows. Inside the walls, a fragment of Imperial Rome flourished. Outside the walls, fields and forests surrounded the imported world. We tried to imagine what the life of the rich owners would have been. Think of the cultural and commercial willpower to plant and maintain an outpost of Rome so deep in the provinces. Especially in what would be the last centuries of the Empire.
A sumptuous dwelling for powerful landowners in the heart of an agricultural domain.
The High Roman Empire dwelling (around 380 C.E.) covered 5,700 m2, including the courtyards. No expense was spared to heighten the pleasure of the landowner and his visitors: the decoration (marble, mosaics, painted mural frescos) and comfort (space, spas, heating in certain rooms) were all exceptional.
The luxury and ostentation apparent in the Villa reflect the social standing of the owners who must have held important positions in the empire. The pars urbana (dwelling place) was flanked on the Northern side by the pars rustica (agricultural buildings) which have not been excavated. Together they made up a domain whose total area was between 300 and 400 hectares.
The Villa was self-sufficient with its own agricultural production. The landowner paid an imperial tax and marketed his surplus agricultural supply. The Villa also possessed craftsmen’s workshops for textiles and ironwork.
We have a weakness for mosaics. We have seen relatively small examples in other ancient sites, as well as those transplanted into museums. But here, it is much easier to imagine walking barefoot around this very big villa, enjoying beautiful patterns underfoot. Areas with showy mosaic patterns of plants and curves were for the owners and their guests. (Did the guests roll their eyes at the ostentation of their hosts, or long to imitate them?) Areas with simpler geometric patters were mostly private and utilitarian areas, zones that were more about running the household than entertaining. (We assume there were slaves serving in this household.)
The mosaics discovered on the site are only part of the original decor. If they now cover 625 m², in the first half of the 5th century, they probably extended to nearly 1500m². Installed in several campaigns since the second half of the 4th century, they adorned important spaces such as baths, galleries and ceremonial rooms. By their decorations, geometric then vegetal, they are representative of the School of Aquitaine, a stylistic school of mosaicists active in the southwest of Gaul between the end of the 4th and 6th centuries. The ensemble is of such magnitude that it was classified as a Historic Monument in 1978.
Something very Roman as well as very high-end here was the system of underfloor heating, or hypocaust. The excavations show the spaces through which hot air was pushed. You can see the stacks of tiles that held up the tiles and mortar that underlay the mosaics.
The owners of the villa developed a large bathing complex just to the south of the villa proper. It had all the parts of the model back in Rome: cold, tepid and hot water pools, changing rooms, lounging areas. This part of the villa was open to invited public. The baths were the center of social, cultural and commercial life.
The villa of Séviac is also characterized by the existence of vast thermal baths, which extended at the beginning of the 5th century over nearly 520m². Several redevelopments show the importance attached to them by successive owners. The first thermal baths are modest and date from the first half of the 2nd century. They are ostentatiously restructured when the late villa is furnished, after 350, with marble coverings, the floors of the pools and the heated rooms. A swimming pool adorned with mosaic and marble was then built and can still be seen today.
The white fabric structure floating over the villa as added very recently, in 2018. A Portuguese architect, João Luís Carrilho da Graça, is the designer. Its elegance and effectiveness struck us. Its being thoroughly modern and abstract means it doesn’t compete with the delicate mosaics. The white fabric provides an even illumination. The panels that extend almost to the ground protect the site from prevailing winds and the afternoon sun.
The site of the Gallo-Roman villa of Séviac, located in the Gers department, reopened its doors on June 4, 2018, transformed after 18 months of work for the restoration of the mosaics and the construction of a roof building for a new experience visit. The precarious conservation conditions of part of the mosaics necessitated rapid intervention on the protective structures. As part of an overall site rehabilitation project, the large roofing building was built to protect the mosaics after their restoration.
The architectural competition jury selected the project by João Luís Carrilho da Graça. This Lisbon architect is internationally recognized for his ambitious heritage preservation and enhancement projects. His works, rational but inventive, constitute one of the finest experiences in contemporary architecture. In 2010, da Graça won the Piranesi Prix de Rome (international competition of Architecture for Archeology) to recognize his design for the ancient site of Praça Nova – São Jorge Castle in Lisbon.
It was fascinating to walk through the vestiges of this late Roman villa, and to imagine what life might have been like out in the Roman provinces. We thoroughly two hours of time travel.
What would life have been like here in the last years of the Roman Empire?
We found an interesting article in Forbes about another Late Roman villa located about 250 km north of the Villa at Séviac, in the same province.
In an era before electric lights, internal combustion engines and the proliferation of branding, what constituted luxury for wealthy Romans living in western France? To find out I visited the city of Saintes, located an hour and a half drive north of Bordeaux city.
Once home to the Gallic tribe known as Santon, this region fell under the power and rule of the expanding Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus, decades before the Christian era began. The town now named Saintes became known as Mediolanum Santonum, strategic for Romans because of its position at the intersection of the Charente River with the road linking Toulouse to the Atlantic Ocean. This town with some 18,000 residents became the capital of the Santons region, and perhaps a temporary capital of the entire Roman province of Aquitania.
By the second century of the Christian era, Saintes was fully enfolded into the Roman Empire. The town included grand monuments and symbols of Roman infrastructure and administration—such as a local amphitheater, the massive stone Arch of Germanicus that guarded the town entrance, aqueducts delivering water from outside the city and the thermal baths of Saint-Saloine.
Some wealthy residents had private and tastefully decorated thermal baths built at their homes. One of these in Saintes had an inner ceiling studded with decorative seashells and colored squares of glass, while the outer portico walkway was coated in polychrome mosaics.
Meals for the wealthy included luxurious banquets intended to display status and possessions. In Saintes, these were held in a triclinium formal dining room, where a table was set with Italian or southern French ceramic wear stamped with its provenance, as well as silver pitchers and locally produced colored glassware. According to Nancy Delucia Real, who has taught culinary workshops at the Getty Villa in California, recipes from books such as De re coquinaria tell of meals in Rome and Gaul often being preceded by an aperitif of a warm, spiced wine that may have included honey, ground black pepper and bay leaves.
Most residents of Saintes would have subsisted on grains, legumes, and focaccia baked bread, while the wealthy would have enjoyed a greater range of foods. They would regularly eat beef, mutton, lamb, seafood and pork, as well as the renowned salted hams of Gaul. A main dish at dinner might include baked meat or chicken with herbs, olive oil, nuts and wine, or a sweeter portion including eggs with pears, honey and spices. A cookbook of Roman meals from this region includes a lentil and coriander salad, oysters with cumin sauce, and a comfit of prunes and shallots.
The wealthy had access to a wider range of spices than just the salt available to most residents. This range was a testimony to the status of a host and could include cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon and pepper and the condiment garum, a fish sauce. Honey rather than sugar was used for sweetening.
Beer was popular, though the wealthier tended to drink wine, according to information from the archaeological museum in Saintes. This was originally imported from the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy in clay containers—amphora—then from the Catalan region of Spain when this became more economical. Before the middle of the second century when wooden barrels and perishable containers turned fashionable (barrel making technology was invented in Gaul and exported to Rome), wine was stored in these same clay amphora, whether imported or produced locally at the Cloux field workshops on the right bank of the Charente River. Whether imported or from a host’s own vineyard, wine was transferred by slaves from large amphora to smaller two handled clay or metal pitchers, from where it was served. These wines were often spiced and sweetened, and sometimes colored with saffron.
This relatively luxurious life for wealthy Romans within the Santons region lasted at best until the fifth century, when many troops were pulled out to protect Roman Italy and the Visigoths asserted local control. Arena spectacles and sumptuous Roman banquets may have vanished, but the agricultural bounty and associated wealth of the region was strong enough that the basic boundaries and name of the ancient Roman Aquitania province, which includes Bordeaux, now form the existing province of the Aquitaine. The impact of Rome’s influence on French wine and food endures.
What was going on around here before and during the life of this Villa? Recall that the Villa existed from about 130 C.E. until about 600 C.E. At the scale of the Roman world, these centuries were chaotic, brutal, and transformative. Imagine living and working in this corner of the empire while the Roman Empire fell apart. Was it a calm oasis deep in the provinces? Did invading forces ravage the region? Did the residents of the Villa live in fear, or did they go on with their rural lives?
In pre-Roman times, the inhabitants of Gascony [the Gers today] were the Aquitanians (Latin: Aquitani), who spoke a non-Indo-European language related to modern Basque. The Aquitanians inhabited a territory limited to the north and east by the Garonne River, to the south by the Pyrenees mountain range, and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean.
The Romans called this territory Aquitania, either from the Latin word aqua (meaning “water”), in reference to the many rivers flowing from the Pyrenees through the area, or from the name of the Aquitanian Ausci tribe, in which case Aquitania would mean “land of the Ausci”. In the 50s BC, Aquitania was conquered by lieutenants of Julius Caesar and became part of the Roman Empire.
Later, in 27 BC, during the reign of Emperor Augustus, the province of Gallia Aquitania was created. Gallia Aquitania was far larger than the original Aquitania, as it extended north of the Garonne River, in fact all the way north to the Loire River, thus including the Celtic Gauls that inhabited the regions between the Garonne and the Loire rivers.
In 297, as Emperor Diocletian reformed the administrative structures of the Roman Empire, Aquitania was split into three provinces. The territory south of the Garonne River, corresponding to the original Aquitania, was made a province called Novempopulania (that is, “land of the nine tribes”), while the part of Gallia Aquitania north of the Garonne became the province of Aquitanica I and the province of Aquitanica II. The territory of Novempopulania corresponded quite well to what we call now Gascony.
The Aquitania Novempopulana or Novempopulania suffered like the rest of the Western Roman Empire from the invasions of Germanic tribes, most notably the Vandals in 407–409. In 416–418, Novempopulania was delivered to the Visigoths as their federate settlement lands and became part of the Visigoth kingdom of Toulouse, while other than the region of the Garonne river their actual grip on the area may have been rather loose.
The Visigoths were defeated by the Franks in 507, and fled into Spain and Septimania. Novempopulania then became part of the Frankish Kingdom like the rest of southern France. However, Novempopulania was far away from the home base of the Franks in northern France, and was only very loosely controlled by the Franks. During all the troubled and historically obscure period, starting from early 5th-century accounts, the bagaudae are often cited, social uprisings against tax exaction and feudalization, largely associated to Vasconic unrest.
And now for fellow map geeks: