On this grey, misty, and miserable winter afternoon, I take the opportunity to settle down comfortably with a glass of wine and a stack of ancient history volumes to tell you a story about the Saintonge, our neighborhood. Although, in our day and age, it’s my computer rather than musty, fragile parchment that provides food for the inquisitive mind thus helping to undertake an imaginary trip into the olden days of this region, so very rich with historical events. But first, we have to lay the groundwork.
* Borrowed from Creative Commons, Author: Feitscherg, posted 15/01/2005
Roughly 2700 years ago, a Celtic tribe called the Santones established its territory at the central Atlantic coast of Europe. The Saintonge, this Celtic province, extended just a little bit further north and east than the modern French administrative department of the Charente-Maritime. Owing to its location bordering both the Atlantic ocean and the Gironde estuary, the chalky coastal region composed of protective limestone cliffs alternating with littoral tidal zones for salt harvests and alluvial marshes for rich grazing turned the Santones into affluent traders. They built a harbor at the estuary near the contemporary town of Barzan, which was considered to be Saintes’ harbor facility for ocean-going vessels throughout antiquity. Thus Barzan and with it Saintes became an important trading center along the tin trade route from Cornwall to the Mediterranean Sea during the late Bronze Age.
Coastal regions of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, plus major waterways have consistently driven economic fortunes in the Greco-Roman world. The Greeks knew this well when they settled Massilia, Marseille, at the juncture of the sea and the Rhône river, coincidentally like the Saintonge also in the seventh century BCE and developed a thriving harbor city servicing what is now called North Africa, the Near East, Turkey, the Balkans, Italy, France, and Spain. Back then, this was the core and the heart of the known Western World, where philosophy and science, poetry and statesman craft flourished among Egyptian, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, and Persian thinkers.
Meanwhile, the Roman Republic became stronger, eventually taking over from the Greek City-States and advanced their terrestrial expansion quite nicely through the Balkans and the Near East, as well as into the Iberian Peninsula. Massilia was incorporated into the Roman Republic during the 2nd Punic war. Around 120 BCE it became the trade center for the newly established Roman Province of Cisalpina which extended from the Mediterranean coast and Marseille all the way to modern-day Grenoble in Switzerland. The popular Provence region in the South of France still echoes the ancient name of this original, Roman “Province”.
Eventually, CAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR [100 – 44 BCE] of the House of Julia came along, changing the European power grid in favor of the Roman Republic for a long time to come. Let’s face it, that man had a knack for empire-building. Historians will tell you that he was possibly the most ingenious military tactician ever. He was also an inspired engineer in regard to pontoon bridges and siege implements and a superb administrator and demagogue. Good old Gaius Julius excelled equally in warfare logistics and smooth communications with Headquarters, aka the Roman Senate. Like Napoleon, Gaius Julius didn’t need much sleep. Both of these warmongering geniuses only slept three or four hours a night. Gaius Julius was the original multi-tasker. During the Gallic Wars, when the Roman army marched through Gaul at breakneck speed at his initiative and command, Julius was carried in a litter with as many as five scribes riding next to him. He dictated several letters, his personal diary, and, most importantly, reports to the Senat simultaneously while planning the siege tactics for the next battlefield stopover. If you haven’t read the “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”, Gaius Julius’ very own words about warfare and the building of a coherent society among alien nations, I can highly recommend it. You’ll be surprised about his insides!
To illustrate this claim, you only have to look at his intimate knowledge of “Gallic” tribes. Before Gaius Julius and his detailed and discerning classification of savages, meaning non-Romans, there were two distinctions attributed to the barbarians living north of the Alps. One was “Gaul Comata” meaning Celts with long hair, not to mention scraggly beards. The other was “Celts in Breeches”, raving lunatics wearing, imagine that, woolen pants as opposed to elegantly flowing Roman togas. It was also rumored in Rome that their womenfolk fought alongside the men. Scary indeed. Gaius Julius recognized that there were many peoples with as many cultural and legal and administrative distinctions as there were non-Latin languages. By the way, in case you wondered, there were about 12 million of these transalpine barbarians threatening the well-being of proper Roman citizens at the time.
Because he understood tribal relationships, Gaius Julius divided trans-alpine Gaul into three administrative regions, Gallia Aquitania, Gallia Celtica, and Gallia Belgica. Everything else was Germanica on the right bank of the Rhine river and beyond, as you can see on the map above. Since the Santones were Celts, the Saintonge fell squarely into Gallia Celtica.
At this point in our story, we’re still fifty plus years short of the Augustan redistribution of Gallic lands and the building of the Arc de Germanicus. Hold that thought ’til the next post.