Lutetia, the Gallo-Roman ancestor of Paris

Lutetia, the Gallo-Roman ancestor of Paris

G. Coulon, France

The Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia was the chief settlement of the Parisii (Gallic tribe). It stretched along the left bank of the River Seine, on what is now Sainte-Geneviève hill and the Île de la Cité (natural island in the Seine). A network of orthogonal roads divided the town into blocks (insulae) containing public spaces and dwellings. This street plan was organized around a major north-south thoroughfare, the present-day rue Saint-Jacques. At its apogee in the late 2nd century AD, Lutetia was home to almost 10 000 people, a modest population among the towns of Gaul. Lutetia boasted a forum with its basilica and probably a temple, places of entertainment (a theater and above all the amphitheater), and public baths, in the south, the east, and the north (those called Cluny). Its craftsmen and tradespeople generated the town’s wealth and its influential guild of boatmen controlled navigation on the River Seine and its tributaries. These boatmen, the nautae parisiaci, played a major role in town life, and in the early days of the Roman Empire even erected a monument to Emperor Tiberius, the famed Pillar of the Boatmen. In the 4th century, barbarian incursions, rural malcontents, and political upheaval prompted the inhabitants of Lutetia to abandon the left bank and withdraw to the Île de la Cité, around which they erected ramparts. Paradoxically, as the town’s fortunes waned, its military importance grew, and by the year 360 when Julian’s soldiers proclaimed him Emperor there, his beloved Lutetia was well on the way to becoming Paris.

Medicographia. 2012;34:250-261 (see French abstract on page 260)

Greek geographer Strabo, in the 1st century BC, wrote “On the banks of the river Sequanas (Seine) lived the Parisii who occupied an island in the river and had for a city Lucotocia (Lutetia).” Later the town grew and its people erected public monuments, but it was never more than a modest town of Roman Gaul. In short, its origins are commonplace, like many urban centers in Antiquity. Yet the town that was to emerge as the capital of France needed to take pride in glorious beginnings, so from the Middle Ages onwards all manner of legendary origins were dreamed up. One such outlandish story linked it to the fall of Troy, after which displaced Trojans were said to have settled on the banks of the Seine in a place that was “beautiful and delectable, plentiful and fertile and well placed for living.”*

As for the Parisii, it was claimed that their name came from Paris himself, the son of Priamand lover of Helen of Troy. Such a filiation, fanciful as it was, conferred on Lutetia a mythical origin comparable to that of Rome, which in one tradition was founded by the Trojan Aeneas. And to further extol its beginnings, it was even professed that Lutetia was founded well before the Eternal City, a view completely at odds with current archaeological opinion, which holds that the oldest traces of a Roman presence in the soil of Paris go no further back than 30 BC.

Lutetia: from Gallic to Roman

In his Commentaries on the Gallic War (Book VII, 57), Julius Caesar mentions Lutetia “town of the Parisii, situated on an island in the Seine,” but archaeological excavations have never uncovered significant Gallic remains on the Île de la Cité. To the point that researchers are beginning to wonder whether Lutetia was located elsewhere, at Nanterre, where a site has recently yielded substantial traces of Celtic occupation. All the more so since the Nanterre site was abandoned early in the reign of Emperor Augustus, just at the time of the first signs of a Roman presence in Paris. According to this hypothesis, Lutetia was transferred to the Sainte-Geneviève hill, where the Gallo-Roman town was founded and then grew during the 1st century AD.

Without falling prey to simplistic determinism, it is legitimate to underscore the advantages of the location of Paris. First there is the Seine, a major waterway extended by a whole series of navigable tributaries. Situated at the nexus of several complementary regions, the site was also favorable for water- land transfers. Swampy, dotted with small islands and channels, the alluvial plain is surrounded by heights and hills conducive to human settlement. Roman city planners little by little mastered this environment and laid out the pattern of the town.

Marble bust of Julius Caesar, dated 46 BC, claimed to be a true

The bust was discovered in 2007, during an archeological diving mission. Caesar
wrote extensively on Gaul in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries
on the Gallic War). © Chris Hellier/Corbis.

*Raoul de Presles, Description de Paris sous Charles V. 1371. In: Le
Roux de Lincy and L. M. Tisserand. Paris et ses Historiens aux XIVe et
XVe Siècles. Documents et Écrits Originaux
. Paris. 1867:103-104.

A town with a grid plan

At Timgad in Algeria, Cologne and Trier (formerly called Treves) in Germany, Avenches in Switzerland, Orange, Amiens, Limoges, and Autun in France, Roman planners laid out the town in a more or less regular grid plan. The streets cross at right angles and the two main thoroughfares intersect at the town center. The north-south road was the cardo maximus; the east-west road the decumanus maximus. Parallel to these were the secondary roads, which gave the town its orthogonal pattern, creating insulae, like apartment buildings, laid out as if on the squares of a chessboard.

The heart of Lutetia is no exception.The cardo maximus, which runs perpendicular to the Seine, was the town’s principal thoroughfare. Its course has remained unchanged over the centuries and today corresponds to the rue Saint-Jacques, the rue de la Cité, and the rue Saint-Martin. Using a theoretical layout, yet adapting with pragmatism to the local terrain, Roman planners built the town on the left bank of the river, on the heights and slopes of the Sainte-Geneviève hill, away from areas liable to flooding. In the whole of the center of Lutetia, the blocks or units defined by the decumanus and cardo corresponded to exactly 300 Roman feet, that is to squares close to 89 x 89 meters. In the center of this ur- ban network were public monuments and private housing, and the grid pattern was not immutable since the forum, for example, occupied two blocks. Lutetia, whichmust have covered an area of 60 to 70 hectares, extended also to the Île de la Cité and a small stretch of the right bank of the Seine. Despite this modest size—Nîmes occupied more than 220 hectares, Lyon 350, and Reims 600—Lutetia was chosen as the main town of the Parisii. This political and administrative function distinguished Lutetia from the other towns of Gaul and it was provided with the buildings and public spaces typical of all provincial capitals, which prided themselves on being in the image of Rome, the urbs par excellence.

3-D reconstruction of the Forum of Lutetia.

© Infographie M.-O. Agnès et A.-B. Pimpaud. With kind permission.

The town’s forum and monumental trappings

“Deep in the Seine valley, imagine the ancient monumental town at its apogee being laid down in stages, to the great pride of its worthies who thus gave expression to their membership of the Empire: above the forum and its thermal baths, halfway down the slope, the theater, the thermal baths of the Collège de France and the amphitheater, and lastly, down below, the Cluny baths forming the monumental façade.” This panorama of Lutetia, evoked by Didier Busson, archaeologist at the Department of the History of Architecture and Archaeology of the City of Paris,* gives a fair idea of how the town’s monuments and public spaces were laid out.

Generally rectangular, Gallo-Roman forums consisted of an esplanade surrounded by portico colonnades and organically linked to a basilica, curia (place of assembly), temple, and shops. The civil basilica served at the same time as the law courts, the trading exchange, a covered market, and a waiting hall used during inclement weather or heat waves. Contiguous with the basilica was the curia, the assembly room for the decurions (members of the city senate), who formed a sort of town council. The shops were run bymerchants, craftsmen, businessmen, and sometimes even teachers. As for the plaza itself, the statues of notables and their honorific inscriptions made this the symbolic repository of the town’s collective memory. This juxtaposition of buildings conferred on this public space legal, political, administrative, and religious functions, and to a lesser degree social and economic importance. In short, forums were the busiest and liveliest of places in which the town’s heart beat (See Box, right).

Established opposite the Luxembourg Gardens, between the present-day boulevard Saint-Michel and rue Saint-Jacques, aligned with the rue Soufflot, Lutetia’s forum covered an area greater than that of today’s Pantheon. On three sides, the central esplanade (118×43meters) was bordered by porticos raised by about 2 meters standing on an underlying U-shaped gallery. This vast semi-underground gallery (the cryptoportico), some 12 meters wide and 6 meters high, was divided into two bays, into which light filtered through openings giving onto the esplanade. By raising the monumental porticos, the cryptoportico displayed them to full effect and, because of the sloping terrain, ensured the stability of the artificial terrace constructed when laying out the forum. The presence of a curia remains controversial, but the basilica, comprising a nave and two aisles, closed the eastern end of the esplanade. Facing it stood a temple, probably devoted to the cult of the Emperor. A few vestiges of its podium and decoration have survived and suggest that it was of classical type with columns, capitals, and pediment.

The Cluny thermal baths

Even the humblest towns of Gaul had at least one public bathhouse. Lutetia boasted three. Such a proliferation of thermal baths—the use of which was introduced by Rome—cannot be explained by concern for hygiene and bodily cleanliness alone. They appeared in the decades following Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, as the expression of a new art of living. A stroll there before the evening meal was not to be missed. An aimless wander through rooms, corridors, gardens, and porticos, chance meetings, relaxation, keeping in shape by exercising in the palaestra (a rectangular court surrounded by colonnades), improving the mind in libraries and conference rooms. People conversed, spread the latest tittle-tattle, listened to the improvised diatribes of orators, talked business. It was a place of encounters and sociability, all the more so because admission was free or the charge nominal.

*Paris Villa Antique, Guides Archéologiques de la France, Monum, Éditions du Patrimoine, 2001:39.

Thermes de Cluny, also called Thermes du Nord. Present-day aspect.

© Saintpeg. All rights reserved.

3-D reconstruction of the Thermes de Cluny, by Renou Laurent.

© Patrick Pierrain/Musée Carnavalet/Roger-Viollet.

Thermal baths were not the place for a man in a hurry. Rather, he tarried and enjoyed an unalloyed bathing ritual. After a few physical exercises in the palaestra, the visitor left his clothes in the apodyterium (changing room) and entered the tepidarium (warm bathroom), where a slave anointed him with olive oil and then scraped it off with a strigil (a curved metal tool designed for the purpose, see illustration in preceding article, page 243). The renowned 1st-century Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote that “He who has a weak head should stay there without undressing until he perspires slightly, and only then can he submit to high temperature without danger.” The next step was in the hot room (caldarium), where the temperature was about 55°C and the humidity 95%, and where, in his Satires, Juvenal warns of the dangers run by a lordly and gluttonous patron: “But you will soon pay for it, my friend, when you take off your clothes, and with distended stomach carry your peacock into the bath undigested! Hence a sudden death, and an intestate old age” (Satire I. Translated by G. G. Ramsay for the Loeb Classical Library [1918]). After intense sweating, and a relaxing massage, the bather returned to the tepidarium before plunging into a pool of cold water in the frigidarium. Thermal baths were identified in the 19th century at the site of the Collège de France and immediately south of the forum, at the corner of the rue Gay-Lussac and the rue Le Goff, but unquestionably the largest were those in the north, known as the Cluny thermal baths. They originally covered a little over one hectare, and their exceptional state of preservation—the full height of the frigidarium, for in- stance, is today part of the Musée National du Moyen Âge (National Museum of the Middle Ages)—allows us to imagine the grandiose proportions of the edifice and the richness of its decoration. Its ribbed vault, extended in three directions by barrel vaults, rose to 14.5 meters, making it one of the tallest still visible in the Roman West. The groins rest on consoles sculpted in the shape of the prows of ships, about which more later. And to appreciate fully the vastness of this bath complex, it should not be forgotten that there were two levels unseen by the bathers: beneath the bath complex were the lower level of the water conveyance, with its tanks and sewerage system, and the intermediate level for the staff and technical facilities.

Marble bathtub, 2nd century AD. Paris, Musée National du Moyen-Âge, Thermes de

© RMN/Jean-Claude Berizzi.

The Arènes de Lutèce

This amphitheater is the second largest monument of Gallo- Roman Paris that has survived to the present day. It was uncovered during Baron Haussmann’s vast urban renovation, which modernized Paris during the Second Empire (1852- 1870) and beyond. In 1867, the building of the rue Monge enabled Théodore Vacquer, the inspector of the capital’s archaeological sites, to identify and then excavate the amphitheater. Three years later, the building of a depot for the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus revealed a good half of the amphitheater. There followed a virulent campaign to save the archaeological treasure. “The destruction of such a historic monument would shame Paris in the eyes of all of scholarly Europe” the historian Henri Martin indignantly proclaimed in a letter to the newspaper Le Siècle.

Politics entered the fray and Napoleon III in person visited the site, but was unenthused. It’s true the Emperor had other things on his mind: three months later the Franco-Prussian War broke out! In the confused aftermath of the conflict, the amphitheater was at risk of being razed. In 1883, Victor Hugo, then 81 years of age, wrote an impassioned plea to the President of the City Council: “Paris, the city of the Future, cannot renounce the living proof that it was also the city of the Past. The Past brings about the Future. The Arènes are the ancient mark of the Great City. They are a unique monument. A city council that destroys them would so to speak destroy itself! Save the Arènes de Lutèce! You will be doing a valuable deed, and, what is still more worthwhile, you will be setting a great example.” The old man’s moral authority won the day and the monument was saved. And just before the GreatWar, the architect Jules Formigé restored it, or rather reconstructed it, given the liberties he took. This operation, conducted jointly with the laying out of a square, was carried out under the watchful scientific eye of Dr Louis Capitan (see Box, below).

Present-day aspect of the Arènes de Lutèce.

One of the hidden marvels of Paris: the entrance, 49 rue Monge in the 5th arrondissement, is easily overlooked. In the background, on the right, is the tower of the Faculté de Jussieu (Jussieu University): the university tradition of the “Quartier Latin” lives on! Photo courtesy of C. Donagh. All rights reserved.

3-D reconstruction of the Arènes de Lutèce by Cyrille Castellant/Riches Heures.

© Editions des Riches Heures.

Left: reconstitution of the Pilier des Nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen) at the Musée Carnavalet (1991).

© R. Briant et L. Degrâces/Musée Carnavalet/Roger-Viollet.

Right: one of the sculpted stones of the Pilier des Nautes, representing the Gallic god Esus (see inscription on the top of the stone). 14-17 AD.

Paris, Musée National du MoyenÂge, Thermes de Cluny. © RMN/Jean-Giles Berizzi/
Gérard Blot.

To take advantage of the natural slope of the south-east side of the Sainte-Geneviève hill, the Arènes were built outside the town. The plan combined an amphitheater and a theater, so scenes could alternate between gladiatorial combats and hunts, and theatrical productions, dances, and pantomimes. From the outside, the Arènes de Lutèce presented almost all the characteristics of a classical amphitheater, and measured 100×130.4 meters. The elliptical arena (52×46 meters) was encircled by tiers of seating, interrupted on the east side by the emplacement of a 41.2-meter long theater stage. The wall circling the arena was 2.2 meters high, suggesting that hunts and fights between big cats were staged there, an impression reinforced by the presence underneath the seating of five subterranean cells for wild animals.

Inland water transport and the Pillar of the Boatmen

Lutetia in the Gallo-Roman era may have been a small town, with an estimated population of just under 10 000*, but it was lively and prosperous and its craftsmen and tradespeople were quite able to meet the daily needs of its inhabitants. A few funerary stelae yield useful indications suggesting the presence of fishmongers, blacksmiths, tanners, and shopkeepers. We lack direct accounts, yet it is easy to imagine the caterers (bakers, butchers, wine merchants), medical professionals (see Box, left page), building tradesmen (masons, painters, mosaicists, carpenters), not forgetting shoemakers, weavers, basket makers, cabinet-makers and woodworkers, carters, and others. We have evidence of three workshops, which were located in the outlying neighborhoods to limit the coming and going of carts through the town’s streets and to minimize the risk of fire. One such workshop, in what is now the rue des Lombards, produced amphorae for the transport of wine in the 3rd century; the two others made crockery for the table and the kitchen.

Detail of the Gallo-Roman segment of the Peutinger Table, a facsimile on vellum of the 3rd-century original.

The magnified inset shows the word “Parisi,” ie, Paris. The map was discovered in 1494 in Worms (Palatinate) by Conrad Celtes and bequeathed in 1508 to Konrad Peutinger. It consists of 11 sheets of velum, forming a 6.82×0.34-strip, featuring 200 000 km of Roman roads (the cursus publicus), from Spain and the British Isles to India. It is conserved at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in the Hofburg, in Vienna. © Musée de la Poste, Paris France/Archives Charmet/Bridgeman Art Library.

The nautae Parisiaci of Lutetia—the boat owners and river pilots—oversaw transshipments on the Seine and its tributaries. The junction of the Seine and Rhône river basins was a major strategic point in Gaul which Lutetia proclaimed as a mandatory port of call for merchandise shipped westwards and to the Atlantic. Locally too the Seine was vital for supplying those living on its banks with food (wine, olive oil, cereals) and materials (stones for building), and for shipping fresh supplies to the legions in the Lower Roman Empire. Controlled by the powerful guild of nautae Parisiaci, the river port of Lutetia had an elaborate infrastructure with wharfs, approach ramps, and landing stages. Such was the guild’s influence that it offered to the Emperor Tiberius (14-37) a pillar covered with bas-relief depictions of Greco-Roman and Celtic deities and “paid for out of our joint fund.” Several blocks of this Pillar of the Boatmen collected in 1711 from under the chancel of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris today have pride of place in the antiquities collection of the Musée National du Moyen Age (National Museum of the Middle Ages). This is the oldest sculpted monument dated by an imperial inscription discovered on French soil. This museum houses further evidence of the prosperity of Lutetia’s boatmen: the large room of the frigidarium of the thermal baths—to which we have already referred—is remarkably decorated by four stone consoles sculpted with the prows of ships, an allusion suggesting that the watermen probably helped pay for the bathhouse.

And Lutetia became Paris…

Lutetia reached its apogee in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries, after which came the first Barbarian incursions, political upheaval, and the uprisings of the bagaudae, peasant insurgents. After the fashion of numerous towns facing this climate of insecurity, the people of Lutetia erected ramparts around the Île de la Cité, abandoned the left bank of the Seine, and withdrew into this first enclosure of Paris, which extended over just 10 hectares. As was common practice in Antiquity, they used stones from demolished monuments and necropolises and abandoned buildings as foundations for the ramparts. The strategic value of the island in the Seine was thus turned to good account and this settlement became the new heart of the town.

At the same time Lutetia started to play an important part in the defenses of northern Gaul. In 357, Julian was appointed supreme commander of operations in Gaul and set up his headquarters there. Three years later, his soldiers and people acclaimed him emperor and he was clad in Tyrian purple. Julian, known as Julian the Apostate, loved Lutetia, as is clear from his writings: “I happened to be in winter quarters at my beloved Lutetia—for that is how the Celts call the capital of the Parisians. It is a small island lying in the river; a wall entirely surrounds it, and wooden bridges lead to it on both sides. The river seldom rises and falls, but usually is the same depth in the winter as in the summer season, and it provides water which is very clear to the eye and very pleasant for one who wishes to drink. For since the inhabitants live on an island they have to draw their water chiefly from the river. The winter too is rather mild there, […]. And a good kind of vine grows thereabouts, and some persons have even managed to make fig-trees grow by covering them in winter with a sort of garment of wheat straw and with things of that sort, such as are used to protect trees from the harm that is done them by the cold wind” (Misopogon, or Beard-Hater, a satirical essay. Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright for the Loeb Classical Library [1913]).

A basilica and a palace were erected and, in 365 and in 366, welcomed Emperor Valentinian I. These and other visits by influential figures augured well for the destiny of Lutetia, a town which in the early 4th century acquired a second name. On a milliary column (milestone) dated to 305-308, the town is referred to as civitas parisiorum, the city of Paris, a name which coexisted with that of Lutetia until the early Middles Ages when the latter fell into disuse. Lutetia had become Paris.

Further reading
– Busson D. Paris ville antique, Guides archéologiques de la France, Paris, Monum Editions du Patrimoine, 2001.
– Busson D, Robin S (dir.). Les grands monuments de Lutèce. Premier projet urbain de Paris, Catalogue d’exposition, Paris-Musées 2009.
– de Carbonnières P. Lutèce. Paris ville romaine, Paris, Gallimard, Découvertes 1997.
– Collectif. Construire à Lutèce, Catalogue d’exposition, Paris-Musées, 2007.
– Mousseaux RM, Robin S (dir.). Et Lutèce devint Paris. Métamorphoses d’une cité au IVe siècle, Catalogue d’exposition, Paris-Musées, 2011.
– Velay P. De Lutèce à Paris : l’île et les deux rives, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2009.