Postcard from Bordeaux, France: Another place Romans trod

Above, detail of a mosaic floor from Roman times uncovered in a house in the historic center of Bordeaux, Musee d’Aquitaine

In an effort to boost his power within the Triumvirate ruling Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) tucked Gaul under his balteus amongst his growing collection of conquered lands in 56 BC. Burdigalia, later known as Bordeaux, soon emerged as a favored city in the territory called Gallia Aquitania. Grapes assisted immensely: To keep the Roman army in conquering mode, soldiers required copious amounts of wine to wash down their spelt and farro.

The city’s most prominent landmark from the days of Roman occupation is the remains of an amphitheater, Le Palais Gallien. It is thought the once-enormous venue was built to accommodate the multitudes, more than 17,000 spectators, summoned to celebrate a visit from Emperor Lucius Septimius Bassianus, self-ordained as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (188-217) and better known as Caracalla.

History tends to label Caracalla as amongst the most cruel emperors, but he did leave behind a rather impressive bath house in Rome and, more importantly for conquered lands, he granted Roman citizenship to all free men in the Roman Empire. Okay, Caracalla probably did arrange for his brother’s assassination (left to die in his mother’s arms), but, by then, that had proven a tried and true method for becoming a solo emperor.

Perhaps boredom with administrative responsibilities led Caracalla to take to the road to visit corners of the empire such as Burdegalia. Plus, he needed to wage campaigns for more territory, but life on the road left lots of time for enemies in Rome to conspire against him. The emperor was on a military mission in present-day Turkey when he felt the calling, an urge to stop for a pee en route. A wily assassin seized upon the opportunity to stab the preoccupied emperor, and Caracalla joined the swelling ranks of emperors felled by unnatural causes.

Back to Burdegalia, where the important part of Roman rule for locals was that the city prospered. Once the virtues of the region’s grapes for producing wine were realized, its future was secure.

Statues of Romanized versions of earlier Gallic divinities and Roman gods and funerary art all have been found in the Bordeaux area. The Musee d’Aquitaine has a substantial collection on display.

While the museum contains much more from other periods of history, that might be a heavy enough dose of this blogger’s fractured history tales for one post. Expect more about Bordeaux as time between sips of the region’s famous reds allows.

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