A Voyage in Time: The Roman History of Paris

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A Voyage in Time: The Roman History of Paris
The City of Light that we all know and love was originally inhabited by the Parisii, an Iron Age Celtic tribe who occupied the area between the third century B.C. until the Roman conquest in 52 B.C. Settling on the Île de la Cité and the surrounding area along the banks of the Sequana River (the Seine), the Celts– whom the Romans called Gauls– named their settlement, Leucotecia, after the Celtic word, luco (marsh). The Parisii were not the first people to inhabit the banks of the Seine, but they they were the first to establish ongoing communities. They sowed seeds in the fertile soil, minted coins, built toll bridges, traded with others as far away as Germany and Spain, and enclosed their settlement with a wall — the first of eight walls built around Paris over the centuries. Celtic tribes inhabited much of mainland Europe, comprising modern-day France, parts of Belgium, western Germany and northern Italy. The Parisii created what was thought to be an oppidum (fortified Celtic village) on the Île de la Cité, but no trace of this has been found. However, archaeological excavations between 1994-2005 in Nanterre (ancient Nemetodunum), have revealed streets and the ruins of houses over a 15-hectare area, as well as tombs, weapons, ornaments and pottery, suggesting that this was actually their oppidum. A map of Lutetia, Paris. Photo © WikiImages, Pixabay During the 40-year reign of Julius Caesar, the Romans launched a military campaign against the Celts, killing them by the thousands and destroying their culture. Led by Vercingétorix, the chieftain of the Arverni tribe and Camulogène, chieftain of the Parisii, the Celts rose against Caesar in 52 B.C. Camulogène died in the battle of Lutetia on the land which today forms the plain of Vaugirard in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. The rue Camulogène is named after him to honor his defense of what would become the city of Paris. A second battle took place on the site of the current Champs-de-Mars, on the Grenelle plain. There the troops of Camulogène were defeated by the Roman general Labienus. Vercingétorix was captured during battle and taken to Rome in chains, exhibited as a prize of Caesar’s successful conquest of Gaul, and executed six years later. With the defeat of Vercingétorix, the Roman subjugation of Gaul was complete. The Romans renamed the city Lutetia Parisiorum (Marsh of the Parisii) which gradually evolved into  Lutetia, and later, Parisius. The Romans established a new city on the Left Bank of the Seine, now Sainte-Geneviève Mountain. It comprised the high ground above the floodplain and marshland, between what is now the Panthéon and the Luxembourg Gardens where rue Saint-Jacques and rue Soufflot meet. Rue Saint-Jacques is considered the oldest street in Paris. If you view Paris from any high point on the Right Bank today, or the  Île de la Cité, you’ll see the dome of the Panthéon rising majestically on this hill. The rue Saint Jacques was  the Cardo Maximus (north-south axis) of the Roman city which ran all the way to Spain and north to Senlis, a commune on the edge of the Chantilly Forest. A second road,  the present-day rue Galande, entered from Italy, passing through Lyon, Beauvais, Rouen, and the Normandy coast. Linked by the Decamani Maximii (a grid of perpendicular east-west streets), this street plan remained at the core of Paris through the Middle Ages.

Lead photo credit : The Panthéon, Paris. "To the great men the grateful fatherland". Photo © Hervé Seignole, Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Sally Watkins
    2020-10-11 12:52:22
    Sally Watkins
    Enjoyed this and learned from it! Increases my wish to return to the fabulous city of Paris.


    • Sue Aran
      2020-10-12 05:21:29
      Sue Aran
      Hello Sally, I'm pleased you enjoyed the article and hope you'll be able to visit Paris soon! Kind regards, Sue