Unexpected Roman History Lesson While Traveling in France

I recently spent a couple of weeks in France. I was there to visit my son and grandson who are living there while my son is on sabbatical. Most of my travel in the past decade has been genealogy related (both in the US and Europe). Pre-trip I checked out where I would be and there were no nearby genealogy connections so I had to be content with general history-touristy stuff. Even my interest in Celtic Tribes—I was too far removed from the ones of most interest. The interest in Celtic tribes comes from my work with the YDNA group R1b> U152> L2> FGC22501. Back in the day when my husband’s YDNA was one of the early tests at Full Genomes Corporation there were about 50 previously unnamed YSNPS found in his sample. Today we have about 145 men in our R-U152-FGC22501 project at FTDNA that are positive for the YSNP found in my husband’s YDNA. The earliest instance of this YSNP currently discovered is from about 4,000 years ago in Prague, Czech Republic. You can read more about that in my blog post here.

When you get back looking at Celtic tribes in central Europe and later spreading broadly you will run into the Roman Empire which ruled over Gaul (France) from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD. Only 600 years but their mark endures. My first stop in France was a few nights in the charming village of Saint Gervais les Bains or St Gervais Mont Blanc. Les Bain of the Baths named for its mineral hot springs. Unlike many current ski areas in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, St Gervais began as a market town and thus retains an identity apart from a purpose built ski resort. It sits in between the much better known Chamonix and Megève rimmed by Mont Blanc. If you happen to be a Tour de France fan (like I am) you will recognize much of the area. We arrived on a drizzly night and it rained most of the next day. We drove up to the end of the road at Les Contamines-Montjoie where you can visit the lovely Notre Dame de la Gorge.

If you turn around from this exact spot and cross the bridge you will be on your way up the trail to the Roman Pont aka Roman Bridge. That rainy day we headed up a short ways before turning around and heading back. The trail follows the old Roman road and it is steep and occasionally slippery when wet. What a difference a day makes. the stream Bont Nant has risen considerably.

Detail of sign explaining the Ceutron path

You can’t help but pause as you hike this steep road and wonder at how they travelled from what is now Italy, across the alps and into Gaul (France). The hike to the bridge is about .88 miles which doesn’t sound like much but it is a good trek and took me longer than the estimated 45 minutes! But I liked the history of it. If you had plenty of time and were up to a strenuous hike you could keep going and end up in Augusta Praetoria, near the present day Aosta in Italy. It is known as “the most Roman town after Rome,”because, long ago, it hosted 3,000 praetorian soldiers on a military outpost at the then edges of the Empire.

The Roman Pont

Not Roman history but I can’t help showing you the gorgeous Ancient Mont Joly Hotel now converted into apartments. The oldest hotel establishment in Saint-Gervais it has three styles of architecture: neo-classic for the southern part built in first half of the 19th century, neo-industrial for the central part, and Art Nouveau for the northern part built in 1910-11.  The Northern part is where we stayed. You can see the stone balustrade (at front) and the two additional terraces (side) of the apartment in the far left 4th floor (5th for Americans). Stunning views of the alps in every direction. (Find it on AirB&B).

Mont Joly (Jolie) Hotel in Saint Gervais Mount Blanc les Bains

After several days in the alps we drove back to my son’s digs in Lyon, France. And on my second day wandering about, I learned about Lugdunum. Lugdunum (now Lyon) and its sister city Vienne would have been where you ended up if you followed the Roman road from Augusta Praetoria, across the alps across the Roman bridge and then westward to the twin cities of Lugdunum and Vienne. I only had time to explore the Roman parts of Lugdunum founded as a Roman outpost in 43 AD. (although I heard that Vienne has some lovely Roman architecture of its own). Lugdunum later became the capital of Gaul. It is now the second largest urban area in France and third largest city after Paris and Marseille. I only knew it as the “The Gastronomic Capital of the World.” (A well earned reputation I might add). My first view of the Roman Theatres is approaching from below (from the east so the bottom of this image). Please note this is a UNESCO World Heritage site. THe shaded area on the far right is the Musée et Theatres Romains (museum).

Map of the Roman Theatres

Now I suppose if you had been to Rome or any number of other places with extensive Roman Ruins you might not be so impressed. For me I had seen the Roman site under York Cathedral in York England, and parts of Roman roads and foundations but this was my first good look at something they had built. This was my first view. About mid frame on right you will see the roadway headed up to the two theatres.

Lugdunum sits near the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône Rivers and is dominated by two hills: Fourvière to the west (where the theatres are located) and Croix-Rousse to the east. One can imagine that this area was a built upon an earlier Celtic settlements, probably of the Segusiavi tribe, dating back to the La Tène period 450 BCE forward.

Dated 1300 to 700 BC excavated at Lyon 9 showing some similarity with the earlier Bell Beaker
from the Roman Museum Lyon

There is evidence of a “oppidum” or hillfort on which the Romans built their city known as Lugdunum. Lugdunum is a latinization of the Gaulish Lugudunon, meaning Lug’s fortress (celtic hillfort). Lug was a Celtic God and later seems to be associated with Mercury. Below is the Roman road heading to the two theatre’s.

Roman Road to Odeon and Theatre

The two Theatres the one on the left (south) the Odeon would have been covered, is about 220 feet in diameter and seated 3,000 and the one on the right (north) about 325 feet in diameter and seated 10,000 people. Lugdunum from 70–192 AD, may have numbered between 50,000 to 200,000 inhabitants. Today’s population of Lyon is about 515,000.

When I visited in early October you can see there were just a handful of visitors. A distinct advantage over some of its more well known Roman theatres.

Seating in the Odeon
The Larger Theatre

And a model of what it may have looked like in its hey-day.

Model of the Theatre

The Museum’s internal architecture is both pleasing and the collection artfully displayed.

Note how the inside architecture echoes the outside

I am always impressed with cultures that preceded us and their level of sophistication like architecture, art , sculpture etc.

Note the glass fish echoed in the mosaic behind.
Roman Mosaic Floor

And while I know of no Roman ancestry I do know that many English families have origins back in Celtic Europe and much migration with the Roman conquest of Britain brought their gene pools to land there.

The symbols on this silver cup are familiar dated c 50-100 AD
Flowers in Mosaic Floor
Two Amethyst Roman Necklaces

Thanks for letting me indulge my little Roman reverie. No matter where we tread we are likely to find a connected history all around us. If you happen to land in either Lyon or Saint-Gervais take a closer look. Visiting off season and not to the most famous of destinations can pay unexpected dividends. Happy travels!

Kelly Wheaton ©2022 – All Rights Reserved

2 Comments on “Unexpected Roman History Lesson While Traveling in France”

  1. As always. Wonderful photos – that Roman road! – and such interesting information…..a really great WHEATON WOOD.

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