What Were The Romans Doing In Bordeaux?
Bordeaux has been a city integral to the success of many societies throughout history but where did it all begin? Much of its significance can be attributed to its geographical location, lying on the bend of the River Garonne and just a stone’s throw away from France’s Atlantic west coast. What’s more, the region known as Aquitaine is fortunate to have a climate and soil that is ideal for its prized wine industry. On a Bordeaux walking tour, the history comes alive as you pass architecture from the Roman occupation at the Palais Gallien through to post-modern artistic creations in the Bacalan. It then poses the question, why were the Romans in the region and what legacy have they left behind today?
The first known inhabitants of the Aquitaine region were in the 6th century B.C. The Bituriges Vivisci were a Celtic tribe that settled along a tributary of the River Garonne, among the swampy marshlands. It wasn’t until 60 B.C. that under the guise of assisting his Gaulish allies, Emperor Cesar ordered his Roman soldiers into the Gaulish territory. It was this event that prompted the Gallic Wars. After the Romans won, they returned the land to the Bituriges Vivisci although it remained a Roman territory. It is believed that it was the Celtic tribe that gave Bordeaux the name Burdigala, meaning “swamp shelter,” in the Basque language in reference to the area’s marsh environment. You wouldn’t realise it today while on a Bordeaux city tour but much of the region was once unusable swampland. Over time, this name evolved from Bordigala to Bordale, Bordèu, and finally into the familiar Bordeaux that we know today.
The settlement of the area quickly expanded from the time of the Roman occupation, with development reaching the banks of the River Garonne. This was achieved by draining much of the swamp region as well as planned urban development, which the city is built on today. As we arrive at Rue St. Catherine and Rue de la Porte Dijeaux, on our Bordeaux, France tours, our guides point out the plot that was established as a North-South and East-West axis. There are many often-missed details of Bordeaux city that provide a fascinating insight into the depth of the region’s history as well as the ingenuity of the Romans. We know it can be difficult to decide what to do in Bordeaux in a day, so we have a variety of tour options(opens in a new tab) to choose from, including Bordeaux wine tours(opens in a new tab), Bordeaux food tours(opens in a new tab), and Bordeaux city tours.(opens in a new tab)
The region became a significant trade hub for tin and lead for the Roman empire, thanks again to its geographic blessings. A grape variety was also discovered during the first century known as Biturica that could withstand the cold, harsh winters. This was during a time when Roman soldiers were being advised to drink 3 litres of wine a day for their health (we like to think it still works)! Take a look at our blog on the history of Bordeaux wine(opens in a new tab) for more insight.
Late in the second century, the city was quickly becoming a trade hub and wine was also becoming a very popular commodity. The prosperity of the region allowed impressive developments, such as Le Palais Gallien, whose ruins are still visible in the city today. The amphitheatre could hold up to 22,000 people, which is a good indicator of the significance of the city at the time. What currently remains today is just a small portion of the original facade. Archaeologists have determined that the amphitheatre would have been around 70 metres by 47 metres and the name is believed to be in reference to Emperor Gallienus who ruled from 253 until 268, however, artefacts have revealed that the arena was built prior to his reign.
The Capital of Roman Aquitaine
At the turn of the 3rd century, Burdigala was the capital of Roman Aquitaine. It was complete with paved streets, canals, bathhouses, aqueducts, and of course, vineyards. During the time of the Severan Dynasty, the population grew to around 20,000 people: the largest city in southern Gaul at the time. There are records that suggest the emperor himself was drinking wine from Aquitaine at this time.
Although, with its continued growth and success, the cosmopolitan town became a target. Ramparts, or fortified walls, were constructed around the city in 271 that were 9 metres high using the gravestones of various traders from not only the region but of far off places. The names and professions of the gravestones have allowed historians to build a better understanding of the magnitude and success of Burdigala at this time. Some of these gravestones can still be seen at the Musée d’Aquitaine. If you’re looking for tips on what else to do while here, your Bordeaux city guide will be happy to share their local knowledge and provide you with various tips and suggestions.
On the site of the old port that was within the Roman Castrum, Church St. Pierre was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. We stop at the church and retell its own brilliant history during our Wine, Water, and War tour(opens in a new tab). The construction of the castrum caused the city’s population to reduce to 15,000. The main motivation that it was built was due to the threat and attack of Germanic tribes known as the Vandals. They looted and burned the town in 276, returning again in 409.
The Fall of the Empire
The fall of the Roman empire began in 395. The causes of the decline are unclear, although most historians agree that it was as a result of the encroachment of various barbarian tribes throughout the empire’s territory. Other invasions on the city included the Visigoths in 414 and the Franks in 498. The immense destabilization of these invasions, lootings, and general destruction caused the once cosmopolitan metropolis to fall into obscurity.
The legacy of the Roman occupation of Bordeaux can be seen throughout the city and region. Without the development of the Roman empire, Bordeaux would likely not be what we know it is today. Sadly, a lot of the constructions were lost through time but the impact of the Roman civilization can be seen in much of the agricultural and urban success of the city today. Without the Romans, Bordeaux might never have become France’s largest wine producer or may not have produced wine at all.
For more information on the Roman history in Bordeaux, and if you want to do some Bordeaux sightseeing yourself and you’re curious to know more about the city, join us on one of our various tours(opens in a new tab). We provide history, tasting, and alternative walking tours throughout Bordeaux. See our offerings(opens in a new tab) or get in touch with us(opens in a new tab) today!