Paris Wanderlust: Romanizing the Parisii

Romanizing the Parisii

No structure remains from the period before Caesar conquered the Celtic tribe of the Parisii.

In fact, Celtic Lutèce wasn’t even located at the site of the present city of Paris. Recent excavations reveal the primary Parisii settlement to have been along a curve of the Seine in what is now Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. In 52 AD, the Roman conquerors razed the Gallic settlement (oppidum) of half-timber homes with thatched roofs. Then they relocated the town to the present location of Paris and stamped it with their own version of a civilized city.

Only two significant Gallo-Roman structures survive: an amphitheatre and thermal baths, both mere shadows of their former structures.

Paris’ Roman amphitheatre: Les Arènes de Lutèce

Entrance to Les Arènes de Lutèce from Rue de Navarre

Modern steps climbing a berm that leads to the ancient Roman amphitheatre:

The Arènes de Lutèce, located east of Rue Monge, once entertained crowds of Romans and Gauls with theatre, wild animals, water jousting, and gladiatorial combat.

Les Arènes de Lutèce, 1st century AD

One survival from the northern or stage section: part of the actors’ dressing rooms.

Over time, the amphitheatre was filled in, and then pretty much forgotten. It was rediscovered in the 19th century during Haussmann’s excavations to create Rue Monge, and almost completely destroyed in the process. Below, the western section of the amphitheater’s seating was sliced off by the creation of Rue Monge, whose buildings can be seen behind remaining structures of the amphitheatre:

Now, the amphitheatre offers flat ground for players of pétanque (boules), a quiet place for students to relax, and a rendezvous (albeit a public one) for the ubiquitous Parisian lovers.

Below, a game of pétanque underway. The Romans introduced an earlier version of the game to Gaul.

The current tiered seating around the arena is not from the Gallo-Roman period.

In fact, not much remains of the original amphitheatre. It was reconstructed a few decades after its 19th-century rediscovery, doubtless for the benefit of students, pétanque players, and lovers.

A plaque near the entrance explains the role of the amphitheatre in the ancient Gallo-Roman city, as well as suggests its relation to the imagined future city of Paris:

Gift from the Syndicat d’Initiatives des Arènes de Lutèce on the occasion of the bi-millennium of Paris, 1951

It was here in the 2nd century AD that the municipal life of Paris was born. Ten thousand people could be seated comfortably in the Arènes de Lutèce, where water jousting, gladiator combat, wild animal fights, and a theatre of comedies and dramas took place.

As you pass through this first monument of Paris, consider that the city of the past is also the city of the future and that of your hopes.

Roman Forum in Underground Carpark

Last year in Paris, I was on the hunt for a tiny area of stone wall belonging to the Roman forum. I knew that it was tucked away in an underground parking garage. It started raining, and I ducked into a brasserie on Boulevard St-Michel for a bite to eat and a glass of wine to take the edge off a day’s urban hiking.

I was snapping pictures of passersby with their colourful umbrellas reflected on the wet street, when I glimpsed it across the boulevard — the pagan carpark!

The gate and door weren’t locked, so I walked down the stairs to a landing where a small patch of the two-thousand-year-old forum wall is on display, framed and illuminated.

I was prepared for viewing a pile of rubble under glass, so the experience wasn’t anticlimactic. In fact, I felt a frisson as my mental map of the Roman roads and landmarks of Lutetia came into focus.

The underground location of the forum wall viscerally underscores Paris’ topographical changes over two millennia. During Gallo-Roman times, ground level was several metres lower. Nonetheless, even then the Roman forum was perched strategically on a hill (Montagne Ste-Geneviève) with a fine view of the Seine.

Today, the once-bustling civic arena, buried under the rubbish of the ages, has a fine view of parked cars.

The Boatmen’s Pillar

The forum, baths, and amphitheatre were important architectural spaces for the Romanization of the conquered Gauls. Over time, the Gauls were assimilated into Roman laws, culture, mores, and municipal life. Such sophisticated amenities as spas, running water, central heating, gladiator entertainment, and pétanque must have been powerful incentives.

But how did the Romans get the Gauls to accept new gods and goddesses? A stone pillar carved in bas-relief during the 1st century AD offers a glimpse into the early stage of a syncretistic process of blending two polytheistic cultures.

The Boatmen’s Pillar (so-called because it was sponsored by a guild of boatmen) consists of four blocks, each carved on its four sides with images of deities: some Roman, some Celtic.

The Roman god Vulcan, with his hammer and tongs:

Some sides of the blocks are engraved with purely Celtic deities, such as this portrait of Cernunnos, whose horns sport torcs (metal rings worn around the necks of prominent persons).

Cernunnos was a god of . . . what? Perhaps wilderness, or perhaps fertility, or perhaps . . . who-knows-what. So why don’t we know more about these Gaulish gods?

We know all about the Greek and Roman gods, whose escapades were immortalized in writing by poets over hundreds of years. But pre-Roman Gauls used written language (Greek, interestingly) mainly for commerce. The Druid priestly caste placed a taboo on writing about the Celtic pantheon. Only highly trained Druid priests could serve as intermediaries between the divine and human worlds. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, the oral tradition of the Druidic religion atrophied.

Below, the enigmatic Gaulish god Tarvos Trigaranus (Bull with Three Cranes):

I’m struck by the similarity of “Tarvos” and “Tri-” to the Latin words for “bull” and “three.” Had the Romans translated the name of the Gaulish god into Latin?

Apparently not: Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots informed Celtic languages as well as Latin. The words for numbers and everyday things remain remarkably stable as a language evolves, so it’s not surprising that the PIE root “tréyes” (three) closely resembles its descendants in both Celtic (“treis”) and Latin (“trēs”). Same goes for the PIE root and derivatives of “bull.”

Strange to think of Romans hearing an echo of Latin in the language of the Celtic peoples they conquered.

The Gaulish Language

One needn’t go to a museum to experience Gallo-Roman cross-pollination. Modern French retains some loanwords words of Gallic origin:

bruyère (fog)
cloche (bell)
berceau (cradle)
jaillir (to gush)
mouton (sheep)
sillon (furrow)

Lovely Gallic words, stubborn survivals in the conquered people’s Vulgar Latin, which evolved into modern French.

Presumably, the Académie Française knows all about these Gallic impurities in the French language.

Next: Paris Wanderlust: Merovingian Architecture — Does It Even Exist in Paris?

Camille Martin

One response to “Paris Wanderlust: Romanizing the Parisii

  1. Pingback: Paris Wanderlust: A Museum of Memento Mori in Montparnasse Cemetery | Rogue Embryo

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