This article appeared in the first issue of the Central Brittany Journal which appeared in April 2004.
People coming from the UK, where the Roman occupation is well-documented and relatively well-preserved, will be surprised to discover that cosiderable mystery surrounds the four hundred years of Roman occupation of Brittany, and that no authoritive record exists of what happened during its final years, and how it came to so abrupt an end.
One thing that is known about Roman Brittany, however, is that it is more or less the only time in recorded history that Central Brittany played a dominant economic role over the coastal regions: Vorgium, situated where the town of Carhaix is today, appears to have acted as the regional headquarters for the western part of the peninsula throughout the Roman occupation.
The first written accounts that we have of Brittany come from the notebooks of Julius Caesar. He describes a highly-organised and well-regulated society, that practised agriculture and conducted trade – most notably with Britain.
Brittany was occupied by the Gallic tribes of the Osismi, the Veneti, the Curiosolites, the Namnetes, and the Redones, none of whom had any direct interest in Italy and the long-standing conflict between the Gauls and the Romans south of the Alps. Caesar, however, had come to Gaul to crush the power of the Gallic people once and for all, and the fact that the north-western Armorican peninusla was prosperous and flourishing was a cause of concern to him.
He therefore launched a series of military campaigns into the region which eventually led the powerful and well-organised Veneti tribe of South Brittany to openly oppose him. The Veneti lived in well-defended forts built on peninsulas projecting into the sea around Quiberon, Vannes, and Lorient; they also possessed strong, ocean-going ships constructed out of oak.
Caesar besieged their forts and attempted to starve them into submission by damming up the sea around them, but the Veneti were always able to move their families and possessions from fort to fort with the aid of their ships. Caesar responded by constructing warships in the Loire estuary and recruiting crews for them in Provence.
In the account of the naval battle that he fought agains the Veneti, Caesar gives the impression that it was more by good fortune than superior seamanship that his forces triumphed; his ships were built to a Mediterranean design and were not suited to ocean conditions, but the sea was calm around the bay of Quiberon when the main battle was fought and, therefore, on that particular day the Roman ships had the advantage because they possessed oars as well as sails, while the ships of the
Veneti had only sails. The wind suddenly failed in the middle of the battle and the Roman ships were able to disable the Gallic ships one by one as they lay becalmed; this effectively ended all opposition to Roman administration in the region.
Over the course of his govenorship of Gaul Julius Caesar is believed to have killed several million people, to have effectively looted the accumulated wealth of the gallic civilisation and used it to fund his political ambitions in Rome, and to have physically demolished almost all of the architecture and buildings developed by the gallic people over hundreds of years. It is often asked how he could have achieved this with a relatively small army. In part, his success may have been due to the divided, tribal nature of the Gallic culture - Caesar was largely able to take on one tribe, or group of tribes, at a time, and people have often speculated as to what would have happened if the Gauls had managed to unite and oppose Ceasar as one single entity. When this did happen, however, in the uprising led by Vercingetorix in 52BC led to total defeat and opened the way to Ceasar doing whatever he wanted in Gaul before returning to Rome two years later. Brittany undoubtedlys suffered as much as everywhere else and there is no record of rebellion against Roman rule in Brittany from the time of Julius Caesar to the collapse of Roman power four hundred years later.
Brittany appears to have been a prosperous province, but one without an independent culture: all available records point towards the disappearence of a distinctive architecture, farming style, or social framework in the region. In all probability, the original inhabitants, and their descendents, were reduced to a slave status and everyone involved in government was drawn from the Roman system. This was to pose serious problems for the future: when the Romans left Brittany, in circumstances that are still unclear, the local population also virtually disappeared. According to various theories, they either migrated eastward looking for protection in places where remnants of the Roman empire survived; they were killed or taken into slavery by marauding bands of Franks and Allens who then carried them off to areas of France where they were establishing permanent settlements; the Armorican penninsua suffered a devasting climatic event due to an asteroid attack; people starved and died simply because they had lost basic survival skills.
In any event, various independent writers report that within fifty years of the Romans leaving Brittany, their towns and cities had been razed to the ground, their villas had disappeared, there was no sign of the their agricultural activities, trees and forests once more covered the country, and the only remaining sign of their presence were the Roman roads, which could still be marked, cutting through woods and forests.
Many aspects of the Roman occupation of France remain obscure. Matters are not helped by a trend towards revisionist history writing in France during the 1800s. At the time, it was not considered consistant with the glory of the French nation that France should have been subjugated by Rome for four hundred years - and the Roman empire was therefore dubbed the Gallo-Roman civilisation, and it became popular to pretend that Roman domination of Western Europe was actually a triumph for the ancient Gauls.
Notwithstanding all this, the Roman occupation of Brittany does represent a distinct and unusual period of its history: life revolved around major towns and the roads that connected them as is illustrated by the importance of Vorgium which is situated on the site of present-day Carhaix.
Whereas the Gauls of the region had derived their wealth from the sea, Roman power relied upon the strength of the army. Roman provinces were organised in such a way as to facilitate the movement of army detachments from one place to another in as short a time as possible. Administrative centres were therefore established in central locations. In Brittany, the selected site for such a centre was Vorgium – modern day Carhaix. There had been no significant Gallic settlement on the site, but its position on a promontory of rock overlooking the Hyères valley makes it an easily defensible position and its central location makes it an ideal meeting point for roads leading to all parts of the Breton coast.
It would seem that Vorgium was the principal Roman city of the region – bigger than Rennes (Condate), Vannes (Dariorotum), Quimper, or Brest.
In many ways this seems to be a reversal of the natural order of Breton life and even though Carhaix was probably a major city throughout the time of the Roman Empire, once Roman civilisation collapsed it was soon abandoned and all its fine Roman buildings were plundered for their stones by local people.
This means that there are fewer visible remains in Carhaix than in many Roman cities of comparable size, but foundations and evidence of Roman life are discovered almost every time a major building operation is undertaken. These provide evidence that in its heyday it must have been a magnificent city comprising a forum, law courts, villas, public baths, army headquarters, shops, and market places. Remains of a substantial Roman villa have been uncovered beside the hospital, and recent excavations in the centre of the town – in the car park beside the post office and in the market place – have uncovered parts of Roman buildings.
By far the most significant archaeological remains from Roman times – and the ones that give the clearest indication of the significance of Carhaix as a regional centre are those of the old Roman aqueduct.
Little of the overground parts of Carhaix’s aqueduct can now be traced, but extensive stretches of its underground portion, including a 900 metre long tunnel, still remain intact.
The aqueduct carried water from the area around Glomel by a route which followed the natural contours of the hills into the city of Carhaix. It is believed to have been 27 kilometres long and to have been capable of delivering 6000m3 of water to the town each day. The original route has been severed by the Nantes-Brest canal, but sections of the aqueduct can be seen at at least ten or eleven points along its route.
It was built in a trench approximately
2 m by 1.80 m and constructed out of local stones, lined with a mixture of lime and clay – to make it waterproof – and then covered over with slabs of stone and a layer of soil.
The final stretch of the aqueduct is believed to have been carried on a bridge, which also carried the road to Rennes, but no trace of this bridge remains; presumably its stones are distributed amongst local houses.
The water itself would have been the life-blood of the city. In all probability, there would have been a system of reservoirs in the town which would have been used to store the water, and control its flow to the various outlets, but no trace of these remain. Water would have been carried by underground pipes from here to fountains at street corners, which people could have used to collect water for drinking and cooking; public baths would have consumed large amounts of water; there would also have been public toilets that made use of water to carry away waste material. In addition, the villas of the wealthy citizens would have received sufficient water to operate fountains and running streams in their gardens.
It is interesting to reflect upon what life must have been like in Carhaix two thousand years ago. We know little about the living conditions of the ordinary people, but it does seem that everyone living in the town had access to an almost unlimited supply of pure, spring water , and that in those days the distinctive sound in the streets was the trickling or streams and fountains.
“The Gauls’ ships were built entirely of oak; the cross-beams, of timbers a foot thick, were fastened with iron bolts as thick as a man’s thumb; and the anchors were held firm with iron chains instead of ropes. They used sails made of hides or soft leather, either because flax was scarce, or, more probably, because they thought that cloth sails would not be able to withstand the force of violent Atlantic gales.
When we encountered these vessels, our only advantage lay in the speed and power of our oars; in every other respect their ships were better adapted to the storms and other conditions along the coast. They were so solidly built that our ships could not damage them with rams, and their height made it hard to use missiles against them or seize them with grappling irons. Not only that; when a gale blew up and they ran before it, they could weather the storm more easily and heave to more safely in shallow water, and if left aground by the tide, they had nothing to fear from rocks and reefs. To our ships, on the other hand, all these situations were a source of terror.”
Commentaries, Julius Caesar
The most accessible remains of the old Roman aqueduct are in Carhaix itself. This section of the aqueduct, which ran within the city, was actually constructed out of concrete rather than stone.
Directions: Park in the Market Place. Walk along Rue Raymond Poincarré, past Pressing des Arcades and the France Telecom (Orange) shop on your left. At the end of the road, at the T-junction, turn left onto Rue de l’Aqueduc Romain.
After a hundred yards you will pass the Radiology Centre on your left and a hundred yards further, on the left, is the Roman aqueduct.
Total walking time: 5 minutes.