Lyon: Roman Lugdunum and the River Rhone

Lyon is France’s third largest city, and is held by many to be the country’s gastronomic capital. The food here is legendary, with renowned dishes such as Salad Lyonnais finding their origin in Lyon’s acclaimed restaurants. The city is built upon three separate shores: both the river Rhone and Saone run through the city, dividing it into three distinct districts. This remarkable division not only grants the city a remarkable amount of idyllic beauty (walking along the riverbanks at sunset was one of the most beautiful moments of this entire journey), but uniquely partitions the city, segmenting its historical, modern, and industrial districts as one moves across the banks. And on the west most bank, atop and around the towering Fourviere hill, lie the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Lugdunum. 

An American Hero in the midst of Lyon
An American Hero in the midst of Lyon

Lyon may be France’s third largest city today, but in antiquity it occupied an even more prominent position. Founded as a settlement by the Romans in 43 BC due to the strategic position provided by the towns steep Fourviere hill, the location was quickly singled out for its excellence: laying along two major rivers, as well as being highly defensible, it was targeted for development and became the chief communications hub for all of Roman Gaul. Lugdunum, as it was then called, rapidly developed into a major city, and came to be one of the most important centers in the entire Roman empire. Two emperors, Claudius and Caracalla, would be born in the city. For nearly 300 years, it retained its eminent status, until ultimately a struggle for succession in 197 AD would cause the city to be sacked by the victorious Septimus Severus, after the ill-fated Battle of Lyon. In spite of this however, Lyon would rise again in the middle ages as a mercantile city state that nearly rivaled its Italian counterparts, and for centuries would become the silk capital of all Europe- even today, there are hundreds of silk makers in Lyon who continue the craft, which became an integral part of the cities economy over the course of the first millennium.

Lyon's Fourviere Hill, the chief site of the ancient settlement
Lyon’s Fourviere Hill, the chief site of the ancient settlement

Today, Lyon is a city rich in heritage, but one that never becomes too nostalgic for its past. Its sights are exceptional and numerous, from its gorgeous hilltop basilica to its noteworthy collection of Roman ruins and artifacts, but are never forced on the visitor. Even its remarkable variety of museums, such as a fabulous collection of Roman antiquities in the Gallo-Roman museum which explores the city’s Roman past, are by and large hidden away, and must be sought out by the interested visitor. The river division helps to accentuate this; Lyon’s historic district, at the base of the Fourviere, is an old town that still bustles with life, where many of the city’s museums, sites, and history are concentrated. Across the Saone the city becomes gradually more modernized (in a very French sense of the word) almost immediately, full of bars, clothing stores, and restaurants. Despite this contrast, both sides of the Saone still feel firmly part of a congruent whole, retaining a great deal of bucolic architectural charm. Then, across the Rhone on the other side of that middle island, Lyon fully steps into the modern spotlight, with skyscrapers and other commercial centers towering throughout the city’s eastern section. This unique layout is one of Lyon’s most interesting features, and makes it a city well worth exploring.

Lyon's natural setting is almost picturesque
Lyon’s natural setting is almost picturesque

Despite how Lyon has thrived for so many centuries, in Hannibal’s day it wasn’t really a city. Archaeologists believe that the hilltop was probably an outpost for Gallic peoples of the time, but decidedly not the thriving center it would become in the centuries to follow, and therefore unlikely to be worthy of note for an army marching through the region. Nevertheless, it provides a base along the river Rhone, which had an extremely important purpose in Hannibal’s campaign. According to the ancient sources, Hannibal’s crossing of the Rhone was his most significant challenge in the passage of Gaul, because when he came to the river, he encountered an army of hostile local peoples waiting for him on the other side, refusing to let him cross their lands. Hannibal was faced with the dual challenge of crossing the Rhone, elephants in tow, while dealing with the army laying in wait for him. It was here that Hannibal would first fully demonstrate the genius that has made him one of the most iconic military commanders of all history. In debating how best to deal with the foe presented before him, Hannibal made use of the ambush-style tactics that would serve him so well in so many later battles, as well as employing the keen mastery of terrain and environment that would lead him to time and time again outwit his Roman foes. By night, he divided his force, and sent a squadron of several thousand north to cross the river at another point, whilst maintaining the size of the camp so that it would seem as though nothing were amiss. Then, seemingly foolishly, he began the crossing of the river the following day on rafts, carting his men across only a few hundred at a time, and luring the enemy into overconfidence. This apparent blunder drew them out of their camp down toward the river bank to engage the embarked forces. Meanwhile, the detached force swept in from behind, dismantling the enemy camp and hitting their army from the rear. In the chaos that ensued, the Gallic army broke almost immediately, and Hannibal was able to finish his crossing with minimal loss of either time or men.

The Rhone river is no mere trickle
The Rhone river is no mere trickle

The site at which this battle occurred is debated to this day, but the Rhone river flows through Lyon in much the fashion it does on its entire southward course to the Mediterranean, making visiting this storied city an opportunity well worth taking advantage of. Observing the river, which has both a sizable width and powerful current, one can see just how much of a logistical challenge it would have been to cross with an army with elephants in normal circumstances, let alone with an enemy force endeavoring to take advantage of your vulnerable position. To do so with so few casualties and with such alacrity is nothing short of extraordinary. Indeed, if the Romans had taken the opportunity to study their opponent’s tactical acuity here, and treated him with the respect a foe of such caliber deserved, the Second Punic War may not have been quite so dire for them. As fate would have it however, Hannibal would have to decimate Rome’s legions several times before that lesson would be driven home. 

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