History of The Roman City of Lutetia

Interior of the Roman baths, (Hotel de Cluny)

The Roman city of Lutetia (also Lutetia Parisiorum in Latin, in French Lutèce) was the predecessor of the modern-day city of Paris and the home of the Parisii, a Gallic tribe, from about the middle of the 3rd century BCE. Traces of Neolithic settlement have also been found at the former site of the city. Lutetia was an important crossing point of the Seine, and was located at the intersection of land and water trade routes. In the 1st century BCE, it was conquered by Romans and was gradually rebuilt into a Roman city. Ruins including a forum, amphitheater, and Roman baths still remain. In the 5th century it became the capital of the Merovingian dynasty of French kings, and thereafter was known simply as Paris.

Traces of Neolithic habitations, dating as far back as 4500 BCE, have been found along the Seine at Bercy, and close to the Louvre, The earliest inhabitants lived on the river plain, raising animals and farming. In the Bronze Age and Iron Age, they settled in villages, in houses made of wood and clay, which could be easily dismantled and moved if needed. Their life was closely attached to the river, which served as a trade route to other parts of Europe.

The Gallic settlement

The original location of Lutetia, the early capital of the Parisii, is still disputed by historians. Traditionally, historians had placed the settlement on the Île de la Cité, where the bridges of the major trading routes of the Parisii crossed the Seine. This view was challenged after the discovery between 1994 and 2005, during the construction of highway, of a large early Gallic settlement in Nanterre, in the suburbs of Paris. This is composed of a large area of several main streets and hundreds of houses over 15 hectares. Critics also point out the lack of the archeological findings from the pre-Roman era on the Ile de la Cité.

Other scholars dispute the idea that Lutetia was in Nanterre. They point to the description given by Julius Caesar, who came to Lutetia to negotiate with the leaders of the Gallic tribes. He wrote that the oppidum, or fortress of Lutetia, which he visited, was on an island. In his account of the war in Gaul, “De Bello Gallico”, Caesar wrote that, when the Romans later laid siege to Lutetia, “the inhabitants had burned their structures and the wooden bridges which served to cross the two branches of the river around their island fortress,” which appears to describe the Île de la Cité.

Proponents of the Ile de Cité as the site of the Gallic settlement also address the issue of the lack of archeological evidence on the island. The original oppidum and bridges were burned by the Parisii to keep them out of the hands of the Romans. The houses of the Parisii were made of wood and clay. Since then every square meter of the island has been dug up and rebuilt, often using the same materials, multiple times, making it unlikely that traces of the Gallic settlement would remain on the island. They argue that a settlement in Nanterre did not necessarily exclude that the Île-de-la-Cité was the site of the oppidum of Lutetia; both settlements could have existed at the same time. Finally, they argue that, while Gallic settlements sometimes relocated to a new site, the new sites were usually given a new name. It would be very unusual to transfer the name of Lutetia from the Nanterre settlement to a new Roman town on the Île-de-la-Cité. They also argue that if Lutetia had not already existed where Paris is today, the new Roman city would have been given a Latin, not a Gallic name. This seems to support the argument that Lutetia was in fact located at the center of modern Paris.

The Parisii first agreed to submit to Caesar and Rome, but in 52 BC they joined other tribes, led by Vercingetorix, in a revolt near the end of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Battle of Lutetia was fought with the local tribe. The Gallic forces were led by Vercingetorix’s lieutenant Camulogenus. They burned the oppidum and the bridges to keep the Romans from crossing. The Romans, led by Titus Labienus, one of Caesar’s generals, marched south to Melun, crossed the river there, marched back toward the city, and decisively defeated the Parisii. The location of the final battle, like the location of the oppidum, is disputed. It was fought near a river, which some historians interpret as the Seine, and others as the Yonne; and near a large marsh; a feature of the countryside near both the Île-de-la-Cité and Narbonne. Whatever its location was, the battle was decisive; Lutetia became a Roman town.

Roman Lutetia

he first traces of the Roman occupation of Lutece appeared at the end of the 1st century BCE, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. At the beginning of the 1st century AD, the construction of a Roman city was already underway

The new Roman city was laid out along the “Cardo Maximus” or central axis of Lutece, which was directly perpendicular to the Seine and the bridges on Île de la Cité. It began at the heights of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève on the left bank, went downhill along the modern Rue Saint-Jacques, across a marshy area to the bridge connecting to the Île de la Cité; across the island, and across a bridge to a smaller enclave on the right bank. The low-lying land along the river was suitable for farming, Since it was easily flooded, the road was raised. though the land was still initially suitable for farming.

Lutetia occupied an area of about 54 hectares, and had a population of about eight thousand persons. It was not the capital of the Roman province (Sens had that distinction) and it was to the west of the most important Roman north-south road between Provence and the Rhine. The importance of the city was due in large part to its position on important meeting place of land and water trade routes. One of the most striking archeological finds from the early period is the Pillar of the Boatmen which was erected by the corporation of local river merchants and sailors and dedicated to Tiberius. It featured statues of both Roman and Gallic deities, Excavations along the river have turned up bronze coins minted by the Parisii, as well as amphorae of wine from Italy and ceramics from Lyon and Italy.

The city was constructed on the model of Rome, with a forum, baths, and an arena. The principal axis of the city was the Cardo Maximus. a roughly north-south road which ran from the heights of Mount Sainte-Genevieve on the left bank, down to the bridges over the Île de la Cité, and across to a small enclave on the north, or right bank, at the modern Rue Saint=Martin. Since the left bank was marshy and frequently flooded, the center of the city was higher up the scope, where the Cardo Maximus met the Decumanus, or east-west Main Street, located at modern rue Soufflot. Here the Romans constructed a civic basilica, containing a tribunal, and a temple. Gradually the city was furnished with a forum, and baths, all on the upper slope of Mount Sainte-Genevieve.

Major public works projects and monuments were built in the 2nd century AD. An aqueduct fifteen kilometres long was constructed to bring water from the plateau of Rungis, south of the city. It took the form of a bridge over the valley of Bièvre river at Arcueil-Cachan. The piers and ruined arches are still visible, and their arches give the location its name.

In the 3rd century, according to legend, Christianity was brought to the town by St Denis, and his companions Rusticus and Eleuthere. In about 250 AD he and two companions were said to have been arrested and decapitated on the hill of Mons Mercurius thereafter known as Mons Martyrum (Martyrs’ Hill, or Montmartre). According to tradition, he carried his head to Saint-Denis, where the Basilica of Saint-Denis was later built The first documented bishop of Paris was Victorinus, in 346. The first council of Bishops in Gaul convened in the city in 360. When Saint Martin visited the city in 360, there was a cathedral, near the site of Notre-Dame de Paris.

The mid third century brought a series of invasions of Gaul by two Germanic peoples, the Franks and the Alemanni, which threatened Lutetia. The city at the time had no fortifications. Portions of the left bank settlement, including the baths and amphitheater, were hurriedly abandoned, and the stones used to construct ramparts around the Île de la Cité. The city was reduced in size from one hundred hectares during the high Roman Empire to ten to fifteen hectares on the left bank, and ten hectares on the Île de la Cité. A new civic basilica and baths were built on the island. Their vestiges can be seen today in the archeological crypt under the Parvis in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral, Square John Paul II.

In the 4th century, Lutetia remained an important bulwark defending the Empire against the Germanic invaders. In 357–358 Julian II, as Caesar of the Western empire and general of the Gallic legions, moved the Roman capital of Gaul from Trier to Paris. After defeating the Franks in a major battle at Strasbourg in 357, he defended against Germanic invaders coming from the north. He was proclaimed emperor by his troops in 360 in Lutetia. Later Valentinian I resided in Lutetia for a brief period (365–366).

The end of the Roman Empire in the west, and the creation of the Merovingian dynasty in the 5th century, with its capital placed in Paris by Clovis I, confirmed the new role and name for the city. The adjective Parisiacus had already been used for centuries. Lutetia had gradually become Paris, the city of the Parisii.

The Amphitheater, or Arenes de Lutece

The Amphitheater of Lutetia, or Les Arenes de Lutece, located near the meeting place of Rue Monge and Rue de Navarre, was a large outdoor amphitheater and arena. It had a stage and backdrop used for the presentation of plays, along with a larger space suitable for the combat of gladiators and of animals, and other large-scale festivities. Though there is no specific evidence to date the beginning of construction, it was probably built near the end of the 1st century AD. It was largely dismantled in the early 4th century so that the stones could be used in the construction of the fortress on the Île de a Cité, at a time when the province was threatened by barbarian invasion. Many of the remaining stones were reused in another major project, the city wall of Paris constructed by Philippe-Auguste in the 12th century.

The site was discovered in 1867-68 during the construction of Rue Monge by Louis-Napoleon, and excavations were begun in 1870. An omnibus depot was planned to be built on the same site, but a coalition of notable Parisans, including Victor Hugo, insisted that the remaining vestiges be saved. They were declared a monument, and partially rebuilt between beginning in 1915-16.

The Arena is about 100 meters by 130 meters in size, making it one of the largest in Gaul. It could accommodate as many as seventeen thousand spectators.

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