Nimes and Roman Gaul

In the ancient sources, little is said about Hannibal’s passage through Gaul, now modern day France. Though he had to deal with many hostile tribes throughout the Pyrenees, the mountain range that marks the border between Spain and France, the route from the Pyrenees to the river Rhone (which lies only a few short kilometers from the Alps) seems to have been largely uneventful. The peoples he encountered were mostly willing to let his forces pass through without harassment, and the trip is described as almost leisurely in comparison to the grueling challenges that would be posed by the immense Alps. This lack of noteworthy encounters poses a considerable deal of difficulty in pinning down a route through the French countryside that would correspond precisely with the campaign trail of the Carthaginian army. While historians uses locations such as Narbonne and Nimes as probable benchmarks based on what evidence still lingers, the fact of the matter remains that tracking Hannibal’s journey from the Pyrenees to the Rhone requires a good deal of speculation. However, though Hannibal may be difficult to trace through Gaul, the region is not any less worthy of attention; simply getting a feel for the countryside provides an illuminating window into how this terrain must have felt thousands of years ago, and its easy, leisurely rolling hills and wide fertile expanses will doubtlessly provide the same contrast for us as as it would have with the Carthaginian army upon reaching the soaring Alps.

Nimes' Amphitheater is the most well preserved in the entire Roman world, due to its centuries of use as a fortress after the fall of Rome.
Nimes’ Amphitheater is the most well preserved in the entire Roman world, due to its centuries of use as a fortress after the fall of Rome.

Furthermore, though Hannibal’s activity in the region may not be particularly well documented, Rome’s impact and influence on Gaul thankfully does not suffer from any such ambiguity. Gaul, after its conquest by Julius Caesar, would become one of the most important provinces in the empire, and many of its tribes and natives would undergo exceptional ‘Romanisation’; a process in which groups, over decades of Roman control, saw the potential gain in adapting to the Roman way of life, and discarded their traditions and cultures by choice to do so. This process of organic cultural evolution, that transpired over the many centuries of stability Rome would provide to its provinces, is one of the chief reasons the Roman Empire to this day remains one of the most significant empires in human history: few states would control so wide a swathe of land, and fewer still would maintain sovereignty in those regions over the centuries it takes for its culture to supplant that of the local populace.

The ancient Roman watchtower of Nimes to this day provides fabulous views over the city.
The ancient Roman watchtower of Nimes to this day provides fabulous views over the city.

As far as Romanisation goes, there is perhaps no better example of the process than the modern day city of Nimes. Nimes, known as Nemausus in Roman times, was home to a sacred spring which the nearby Gallic tribes venerated. Vassals of the Roman empire from a relatively early stage, these tribes sent men to assist Caesar during his conquest of Gaul, and as such was quicker than most to recognize the advantages in cooperating with the Romans. Under Augustus the location was granted imperial recognition, and funds were sent to develop the town into a full fledged Roman settlement. Nimes would become one of the most important cities in Roman Gaul, and the modern day city likes to make sure no one forgets that proud Roman past. Throughout the city, from its incredibly preserved amphitheater to its refurbished Roman watchtower, one finds countless landmarks and structures reminding the onlooker of Nimes’ bygone Roman days. Referring to its culture as ‘Gallo-Roman’ the city reflects on its Roman heritage with considerably more pride and nostalgia than its Celtic (or French) roots. In fact, the city’s temple to Augustus, which has been restored to such an extent that the marble gleams white, today stands in one of Nimes’ central squares, and every 30 minutes plays a live action short film commissioned by the town celebrating its position as ‘a jewel of the Roman Empire’ and going over the towns Roman History with a little more bravado than is altogether merited.

The Pont du Gard is jaw-dropping in its scale.
The Pont du Gard is jaw-dropping in its scale.

Nimes would be worth visiting solely for the example it provides of the sweeping impact of Romanisation, and the comparison to be made between it and the other Roman settlements we’ve traveled through thus far on Hannibal’s trail, but the town still provides one other major draw: its proximity to the World Heritage listed Pont du Gard. Considered to be the most impressive Roman sight in France, the Pont du Gard is a towering aqueduct bridge, once part of the same system that provided the thousands of inhabitants of Nimes with fresh water. Today, what’s left of it is still an awesome feat of engineering, made all the more incredible due to its millennia of age. The Pont du Gard bridges the Garon river, no small stream, soars to height of nearly 50 meters with three different levels, and is as emphatic a symbol of Rome’s engineering acuity and mastery of nature as one is likely to find standing in any part of the former empire. It may not be Hannibalic, but it is something that any student of antiquity should strive to see; an impossible, imposing reminder of just what Rome, as an empire of development and construction, limited by the technology of the day, was able to achieve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *