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Bill Thayer

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Ch. 8
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Romans
on the Riviera and the Rhone

by W. H. Hall

originally published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Ch. 10

 p90  Chapter IX
Campaigns to the North of the Durance

Although Fulvius Flaccus failed in the year of his Consulship B.C. 125 to earn a triumph over the Salluvii, against whom he was primarily sent, his name is found recorded in the Fasti Capitolini as triumphing over the "Ligurian Vocontii" two years later: viz., B.C. 123. Beyond this bare record we know nothing of this the first campaign undertaken by the Romans north of the Durance, except that, when vanquished, the Vocontii were treated with the same leniency as the Volcae Arecomici and were not made subject to the Governor of the Roman Province like their neighbours, the Allobroges and Salluvii. For it is expressly stated by Strabo that the Vocontii were left in the enjoyment of their own laws.1

Their territory lay along the spurs of the Alps, including the Mont Ventoux. It was separated from the Rhone by the vast plain of the Cavares, whose capital was Arausio — the modern Orange. Being of Ligurian blood, the Vocontii, with the instinct of their race, clung to the mountainous region at the foot of the Alps, extending from the Durance on the South-East to the Isère on the North, comprising the Upper Valley of the Drôme and the tremendous and inaccessible precipices about its source. The southern capital of the Vocontii was Vasio — the modern Vaison — situate about 18 miles to the East of Orange and commanding a  p91 picturesque gorge of the river Uvezes, there spanned by a single-arched Roman bridge. Lucus (Luc) and Dea (Die), both in the valley of the Drôme, were the chief towns in the northern half of the Vocontian territory. All three places are rich in historical associations, and have furnished many interesting specimens of early so‑called Gallo-Roman sculpture and inscriptions to French Museums, and especially to that of Avignon.2

Adopted by Julius Caesar, at the outset of the Gallic war, as the shortest cut from his Cisalpine into his Transalpine province, the valley of the Drôme served as a convenient thoroughfare intermediate between the Valleys of the Durance (Mont Genèvre) and of the Isère (Little St Bernard and Mt Cenis).

When Pompey 20 years earlier crossed the Mont Genèvre or Cottian Alps on his way to put down Sertorius in Spain, he would naturally have followed the Durance valley for its entire length south-westwards, whereas Julius Caesar, having crossed the Alps by the same pass — in order to reach the country of the Vocontii from Ocelum,​3 would have diverged from the Durance valley near Gap (Vapincum) and struck across the pass of the Mt Gaura into the Drôme valley. This is precisely the course adopted by the little known modern railway line from Briançon in the Durance valley, to Livron in the Rhone valley, cutting the strikingly beautiful Marseilles-Grenoble line at a right angle, at the junction of Aspres-Veynes.​4 As the Vocontii were left to govern themselves internally, being only liable to furnish a contingent of socii to the armies of Rome, no garrison was left in their country, so that Aquae Sextiae to the South of the Durance still remained  p92 the most advanced Roman post in Transalpine Liguria, when the war with the Allobroges and Arverni broke out.

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Roman arch at Susa, erected by King Cottius in honour of Augustus.

For the campaigns against the Salluvii and Vocontii were immediately followed by a war with the Allobroges, brought on by their refusal to give up to the Romans Teutomalius, King of the Salluvii, who had fled to their country for refuge. That Teutomalius a Ligurian should have confided in the loyalty of the Celtic Allobroges, is a proof of the fusion of Ligurians and Celts in a common league of resistance to the Romans. About this time, too, the Allobroges had further incurred the displeasure of the Romans by violating the territory of the Aedui, who even at this early period of Roman intervention in Gaul had been declared the allies and brothers of the Romans. But war with the Allobroges 'the Clients' implied also war with the Arverni, their Patrons, then by far the most powerful of all the Gallic confederations. For, according to Strabo,​5 the Arverni, on this the first occasion of their coming into hostile contact with the Romans, put 200,000 fighting men into the field.

But before the Arverni could move this unwieldy force down the Rhone the Proconsul Domitius Ahenobarbus attacked and defeated the Allobroges single-handed at Vindalium at the junction of the Sorgue and the Rhone, in the territory of the Cavari. What induced the Allobroges to advance so far south beyond their own frontier, is nowhere satisfactorily explained.

Falling back, after their defeat, to the line of the Isère, the Allobroges, secure from further attack in the angle formed by that river with the Rhone — the island of Polybius — quietly awaited the arrival of their powerful patrons, the Arverni.

The army of the Proconsul Domitius had been in the meanwhile joined by that of the Consul of the year 122, Quintus Fabius Maximus, the Senate having  p93 foreseen the necessity of doubling the Roman forces to enable them to cope with the Allobroges and Arverni combined. But the two Roman armies together made such a poor show compared with the masses of Celts opposed to them, that Bituitus, the king of the Arverni, declared they would hardly suffice to make a meal for his pack of war-hounds.

Considering that the battle, which ensued, decided once for all the fate of the Rhone valley, it is surprising how little attention it has received at the hands of students of Roman history. For the victory won on this occasion by Fabius and Domitius at the junction of the Rhone and the Isère was the first decisive blow dealt by the Romans to the confederation of the Arverni, then, as 70 years later at the period of Caesar's Gallic War, the mainspring of Gallic resistance.

Planted in impregnable positions in the mountains of the Auvergne — the central boss of the shield of France — the Arverni alone proved themselves capable of awakening national enthusiasm and of binding temporarily together for a common purpose the incoherent elements of which Gaul was made up.

The aspect of the symmetrical Cupola of the Puy de Dôme rising above an undulating foreground of lower ranges like St Peter's as seen from the Roman Campagna​6 is in itself sufficient to strike the modern traveller with admiration. How much more must the rude Celtic worshipper have been impressed by such imposing surroundings, when the massive temple and colossal statue of the Arverne Mercury still stood erect.​7 The Puy de Dôme was the Delphi of Gaul.

 p94  If Celtic blood is still pure anywhere in France, it must surely be in the mountains of the Auvergne, where the spirit of Vercingetorix seems still to hover over the Puy de Dôme and the plateau of Gergovia. For there alone did the Romans, when led by Julius Caesar in person, meet with defeat at the hands of Gauls.8

Conspicuous in his gorgeous apparel and golden helmet and drawn along the front of his army in his silver chariot Bituitus, the ancestor of Vercingetorix, and over­lord of all Gallia, regarded the Romans as doomed to certain destruction.

According to Orosius​9 the battle was long and obstinate, and only decided late in the day in favour of the Romans, by a panic which set in amongst the Gauls. In his Bellum Allobrogicum Epitome XXXVII, Florus attributes the Gallic defeat to the terror inspired by the elephants, remarking that it was "a barbarous method of beating barbarians."

To reach the position selected by their allies the Allobroges in the angle of the Rhone and the Isère, the Arverni had to cross to the left bank of the Rhone. Finding the permanent bridge insufficient, Bituitus hastily constructed a temporary one, by the aid of which his huge army was got safely over.

To fight with a river at your back is, I believe, a violation of one of the most elementary principles of war, for which the Arverni paid dearly on the present occasion. For when the panic ensued, a frantic rush was made for the bridges, resulting in the breakdown of the temporary structure. Many thousands of the Arverni  p95 were drowned, and the greater part of the remainder getting jammed on the permanent bridge or the approaches to it were put to the sword.

Like Napoleon in his flight from Waterloo, Bituitus escaped capture on the field by the sacrifice of his chariot and rich trappings, which fell into the hands of the Romans.

Soon after, however, tempted by an offer of favourable terms, Bituitus was induced to repair to the Camp of Domitius, whose imperium as Proconsul of Provincia was prolonged after the departure of the Consul Fabius for Rome. Treacherously seized as soon as he had set foot within the Praetorium, the Arverne monarch was loaded with chains and sent prisoner to Rome, whither his son Congenatus was compelled to follow shortly after, to share his father's captivity. In the triumph of Fabius Maximus, in which Domitius Ahenobarbus was permitted to share on the strength of his capture of Bituitus, the Arverne monarch, brilliantly arrayed and mounted in his silver chariot, formed the most conspicuous figure in the show. In addition to the honour of a triumph the title of Allobrogicus was conferred on Quintus Fabius Maximus, the war in spite of the fact that the Arverni played the chief part in it having been officially styled Bellum Allobrogicum.

For the Roman quarrel lay with the Allobroges for harbouring Teutomalius, the fugitive king of the Salluvii, and the Arverni were only incidentally drawn into it. Neither did it as yet suit the purpose of the Senate to annex any of the proper territory of the Arverni. It was sufficient for Roman policy that the Arverni should give up all claim to patronage in the Rhone valley, which was to become the Provincia Romana. Over the territory of the Volcae Arecomici, around Narbonne, which the Romans had long coveted, the Arverni had hitherto thrown the shield of their protection. It was now practically open to Roman occupation, as the Volcae offered no opposition to the Roman project of planting  p96 a colony of Roman traders at Narbonne. For at the outset Narbonne was a civil and not a military colony.

The victory of the Romans over the Allobroges and Arverni combined was so crushing that the Arverni are not heard of again in arms, till we read in Caesar's Commentary of their gallant but fruitless struggle under Vercingetorix, three generations later, to maintain Gallic independence.

While Strabo puts the number of the slain at 200,000, Livy's estimate is 120,000. Strabo adds that Fabius Max. Aemilianus erected a white stone trophy and two temples (to Mars and Hercules) at the junction of the rivers to commemorate the victory.​10 His presence being required at Rome, the Consul L. Fabius Maximus withdrew from the Rhone valley, leaving behind him Domitius Ahenobarbus as Proconsul.

The 'Via Domitia' — the first Roman road constructed in Gaul — is undoubtedly to be set down to the credit of the Proconsul Domitius at this period. That at its origin the Via Domitia was designed to put Forum Julii the Roman base and 'porte d'entrée' into Gaul into direct communication with Narbonne, the future centre of government of Provincia, seems the most reasonable conclusion about the disputed course of that road.

The definite formation of a Roman Province out of a big slice cut off from Gallia Transalpina, was the important outcome of the four years' fighting, which began in the valley of the Argens and ended with the decisive victory over the combined hosts of the Allobroges and the Arverni at the junction of the Isère and the Rhone. As Narbonne which was destined to give its name to the Province and to become the seat of Roman government was not yet ready to receive its Roman colony, Aquae Sextiae seems to have remained for several years longer the residence of the Provincial Governor. But it  p97 can only have been out of consideration for Marseilles that Arles from its central and commanding position at the apex of the Delta of the Rhone was not at once selected as the Roman capital.

It was a piece of very bad luck for Rome and civilization that the Romans instead of finding themselves isolated at Narbonne at the western extremity of Provincia were not already firmly planted on the Rhone, when a few years later the Rhone valley was exposed to the terrible and disastrous invasion of the Cimbri and Teutones. Had the Romans been settled at Arles B.C. 104‑103, when Marius was employing his soldiers on the distasteful work of cutting a new channel for the Rhone, that undertaking, which proved so profitable to the Massiliots, would never have passed out of Roman hands. Nor would it probably have been necessary for Pompey practically to reconquer Provence, when the Provincials associated themselves with the rebellion of Sertorius in Spain, twenty years later.

As a city of the Salyes, who were treated with great severity by the Romans, thousands of them having been sold into slavery by Sextius Calvinus, Arles must have been half emptied of its native Ligurian inhabitants. Lying right across the Roman road into Spain, it is hard to understand why a colony of Roman citizens was not sent there at once to fill up the gap. The only possible explanation seems to be that Arles was considered to lie within the Greek "sphere of influence," to use a modern phrase, and consequently handed over to Marseilles.

The conquest of Provincia being now complete, it became necessary to accommodate it with that first necessity of civilization, a substantially constructed high-road.

Although communications between Rome and Spain were mainly kept up, and military expeditions almost invariably sent, by sea, there had existed some kind of a beaten track, by which the earliest Phoenician and  p98 Greek traders passed between Italy and Spain, along the coast of Gaul, except where they were compelled to turn inland as far up the Rhone as Tarascon — the "Trajectus Rhodani" of the Itineraries — to avoid its 50‑mile wide and always impassable Delta. This beaten track is sometimes dignified by the name of "Via Heraclea." The earliest mention of this track is to be found in Polybius, who had probably passed over it on his journey to or from Spain, on the occasion of the siege and capture of Numantia by his friend Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, B.C. 134. Polybius informs us that from Emporiae (the Massiliot trading station on the borders of Spain) the distance to the Passage of the Rhone (Trajectus Rhodani) was 1600 stades or 200 Roman miles, adding that "all these distances have now been carefully measured by the Romans and marked with milestones at every eight stades."11

This measured track became subsequently the Via Domitia, undoubtedly the work of the Domitius Ahenobarbus who shared with Q. Fabius Allobrogicus the honours of the conquest of Provincia. But although there is no doubt as to the author­ship of the Via Domitia (for Suetonius informs us in his life of Nero, the Emperor,​a that so proud was our Domitius, one of the ancestors of Nero, of his work, that he paraded over it, riding on an elephant), we are left quite in the dark as to its original starting point.

As Domitius Ahenobarbus completed the conquest of the first province sliced out of Gaul, finishing the work begun only four years before by Fulvius Flaccus, it seems most reasonable to assume that the Via Domitia began at Forum Julii, where the expedition of Flaccus landed at the beginning of the campaign.

There is a reference to the Via Domitia in the oration of Cicero Pro Fonteio, one of the most serious charges brought against his client having been to the effect that, during his proconsul­ship of Provincia, Fonteius had  p99 appropriated to his own use moneys locally raised for the repair of this same Via Domitia.

As no other name but that of Domitius Ahenobarbus is connected by any classical writer with road-making in Provincia, we may confidently follow the authority of Kiepert,​12 who gives the name "Domitia" to that section of the subsequent "Via Aurelia" which extends from Forum Julii to Narbonne.

Although the countries of the Vocontii and Allobroges were included in the recent conquest of Provincia, there is a consensus of evidence to shew that the Romans made no serious attempt at this early stage to plant garrisons or make a road north of the Durance, where some writers erroneously locate the Via Domitia.

It is certain that the first object of the Romans at this juncture was to secure a land thoroughfare to Narbonne and Spain. As the direct road from Rome to Narbonne would naturally leave the coast at Forum Julii in order to mount the valley of the Argens to reach Aquae Sextiae by the shortest cut, it seems tolerably certain that the first Roman road — the Via Domitia — originally followed this course.

We must always bear in mind that, as the result of the conquest of the country between the Var and Forum Julii by Opimius, thirty years earlier, a strip of land, varying from a Roman mile to a mile and a half in width, had been handed over to the Massiliots subject to the condition of providing the Romans with a right of way over the road to be constructed by them.

There was then already in existence a Greek or Massiliot road, which was bound to follow the coast all the way from the Var to Marseilles. But this road could only now have been useful to the Romans as far as Forum Julii (Frejus). To follow the coast by St Tropez, Hyères and Toulon to get to Aix-en‑Provence would never have suited the Romans, inasmuch as it  p100 would have nearly doubled the distance and passed through Greek territory all the way.

As I have already observed, Aquae Sextiae appears to have remained the seat of Roman government, from which convenient centre Domitius could have directed his road-making operations East and West.

Having dealt so far with the Transalpine sections of the coast road (subsequently styled Via Aurelia by the Antonine Itinerary), the consideration of which comes appropriately after the narrative of the four years' Campaign in Provincia, I will leave the subject of the construction of the Italian or Cisalpine sections till the date of the completion of the road by Augustus, B.C. 12.

The Author's Notes:

1 Strabo, p203.

2 Some of the specimens of so‑called Gallo-Roman sculpture from Vaison resemble the bas-reliefs of Entremont in their rude features, i.e. they may be of Ligurian origin.

3 Caesar, de Bello Gallico, I.10.

4 An excellent dinner is provided at the Railway refreshment room and fair accommodation for the night at the Hotel.

5 Strabo, p190.

6 As I saw it from the plateau of Gergovia, I was reminded of Mrs. Browning's lines:

"Over the dumb Campagna-sea,

Out in the offing through mist and rain,

Saint Peter's Church heaves silently

Like a mighty ship in pain."

Thayer's Note: It will surprise some, but seen from far enough away, St. Peter's does appear to rise up out of the landscape unsurrounded by its city — as will any very large building in a city, especially if in a slightly depressed basin. It's been fifty years now, but I still have the most vivid memory, from the rear windshield of my parents' car, of watching Chartres cathedral slowly rise out of the wheat fields as we traveled away from the town, with not a trace of other human constructions. At any rate, this photo of St. Peter's from the Via Appia illustrates the phenomenon, if not as strikingly.

7 De Bello Gallico, VI.17, "Deum maxime Mercurium colunt."

8 When passing through the country recently, I made the acquaintance of a native 'antiquaire,' who spoke with the utmost contempt of the traitors to the Gallic cause, who sold themselves to the Romans, as if their treachery had happened yesterday. Espasnactus the Arverne, who betrayed and handed over Lucterius, the associate of Drappes, to the Romans, was the object of his special aversion. But I did not observe that in selling a coin stamped with the forgery of a traitor that he asked less for it than for that of a patriot.

9 Historiae adversus paganos.

10 p184. Livy, Epit. LXI.

11 Polybius, III.39.

12 Tabula XI. Atlas Antiquus. Berlin.

Thayer's Note:

a Suetonius (Life of Nero, 2) records the elephantine progress, but gives no reason for it, and says not a word about the road.

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