Roman Gaul

History of France between 58 BC - 485 AD

Gaul (Gallia in Latin) was a region of Western Europe during the Iron Age that was inhabited by Celtic tribes, encompassing present day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine.

The Roman Republic began its takeover of Celtic Gaul in 121 BC, when it conquered and annexed the southern reaches of the area. The Roman general Julius Caesar pushed his army into Gaul in 58 BC. With the help of various Gallic clans (e.g. the Aedui) he managed to conquer nearly all of Gaul. While militarily just as strong as the Romans, the internal division between the Gallic tribes guaranteed an easy victory for Caesar, and Vercingetorix's attempt to unite the Gauls against Roman invasion came too late. As many as a million people (probably 1 in 5 of the Gauls) died, another million were enslaved, 300 clans were subjugated and 800 cities were destroyed during the Gallic Wars. The entire population of the city of Avaricum (Bourges) (40,000 in all) were slaughtered.

The Gaulish culture then was massively submerged by Roman culture. In the five centuries between Caesar's conquest and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Gaulish language and cultural identity underwent a syncretism with the Roman culture of the new governing class, and evolved into a hybrid Gallo-Roman culture that eventually permeated all levels of society. The Romans divided provinces into civitates corresponding more or less with the pre-Conquest communities or polities. These administrative groupings would be taken over by the Romans in their system of local control, and these civitates would also be the basis of France's eventual division into ecclesiastical bishoprics and dioceses, which would remain in place—with slight changes—until the French revolution. The Druidic religion was suppressed by Emperor Claudius I, and in later centuries Christianity was introduced.

Roman control over the provinces deteriorated in the 4th and 5th centuries, and was eventually lost to the kingdoms of the Franks, Visigoths and Burgundians. The Roman administration finally collapsed as remaining Roman troops withdrew southeast to protect Italy. The last vestiges of any Roman control over parts of Gaul were effaced with the defeat of Syagrius at the Battle of Soissons (AD 486). Almost immediately afterwards, most of Gaul came under the rule of the Merovingians, the first kings of a proto-France.

Certain Gallo-Roman aristocratic families continued to exert power in episcopal cities (as in the cases of the Mauronitus family in Marseilles and of Bishop Gregory of Tours). The appearance of Germanic given- and family-names becomes noticeable in Gallia/Francia from the middle of the 7th century on, most notably in powerful families, thus indicating that the centre of gravity had definitely shifted.

Previous historical period: Arrival of Celts (-700--59) | Next historical period: Frankish kingdoms (486-986)

Featured Historic Landmarks, Sites & Buildings

Historic Site of the week

The Church of the Holy Cross

The church of the former Franciscan monastery was built probably between 1515 and 1520. It is located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Old Rauma. The church stands by the small stream of Raumanjoki (Rauma river).

The exact age of the Church of the Holy Cross is unknown, but it was built to serve as the monastery church of the Rauma Franciscan Friary. The monastery had been established in the early 15th century and a wooden church was built on this location around the year 1420.

The Church of the Holy Cross served the monastery until 1538, when it was abandoned for a hundred years as the Franciscan friary was disbanded in the Swedish Reformation. The church was re-established as a Lutheran church in 1640, when the nearby Church of the Holy Trinity was destroyed by fire.

The choir of the two-aisle grey granite church features medieval murals and frescoes. The white steeple of the church was built in 1816 and has served as a landmark for seafarers.