Around France

Discovering Roman Life in Gaul: Narbonne

Now that I live in Uzès,  I wish I knew more about Roman life in France. I should have paid more attention to Ms. Clegg, my Latin teacher in high school.

I hated going to Latin class. I struggled to learn the language. I didn’t work hard enough. Fortunately, Ms. Clegg had more faith in me than I did. She knew I had a translated copy of Commentaries on the Gallic War that I used to complete my homework assignments. She let me by with passing grades anyway.  Maybe now I know why.

Perhaps she knew that the teenage girl who sat in the front row was actually benefitting more from the class than learning the language. I was soaking up stories of Rome and Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of his military campaigns in Gaul. I loved the tales of Roman life and the conquest of Gaul.

I still do. Now that I think about being in France, Perhaps it wasn’t fate that brought me here. Maybe it was Ms. Clegg.

Narbonne (Narbo Martius 27 BC) – The First Roman Colony in Gaul

Who would have imagined I’d be living in Gaul, the first Roman province in France? Who would have guessed I’d visit the first capital city of Gaul, Narbonne, not once but twice.

I toured Narbonne as a guest on the Athos Du Midi, a luxury hotel/canal barge on the Canal du Midi. The tour guide from the Athos talked about the early history of Narbonne and the ancient Roman relics that remain.

On my second visit to Narbonne, I began to appreciate the depth of the Roman story.

The Roman Road – Via Domitia

Like most things the early Romans did right, they chose Narbonne as the capital of their colony in France. Narbonne had a natural harbor and, at that time, direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. The city’s proximity to the Pyrenees Mountains and the Iberian Peninsula made it a crucial point along the land routes connecting Italy to Spain.

Roman Map of Gaul

The Romans took advantage of Narbonne’s prime location and made it the hub of an extensive network of roads throughout the empire. The Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul, started in Narbonne; it facilitated trade, communication, and the movement of Roman troops throughout the empire.

via domitia through gaul

The Roman Seaport – Portus Narbo

Along with an impressive land route,  Narbonne was a seaport (“Portus Narbo) —  the second-largest port in the Western Roman Empire, following Rome. Discovering the exact location of the original port is an ongoing project. Time and the elements have caused the seascape to morph.

Ancient port of Narbonne

Before the Etang de Sigean silted up, the Narbo Bay could be entered between the isles of Sainte Lucie and Saint Martin, close to the present Grau de la Vieille Nouvelle (see Faïsse & Salel, 2014).
NW winds made this access to the ancient port of Narbo rather difficult. However, no shipwrecks have been found so far in that area.

Roman Artifacts in Narbonne

Via Domitia  Evidence of the ancient Roman road, Via Domitia is on view for all who visit Narbonne’s city center.

After the Romans

Between Roman times and the 12th century, Narbonne transitioned from a Roman colony to a  stronghold for the Visigoths and a Frankish possession. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Narbonne served as the capital of the Viscounty of Narbonne, a feudal territory under the control of local rulers. It was a rich cultural and intellectual center and a significant hub of religious activity with a powerful bishopric. Stately Gothic structures were built throughout the town.

One impressive example of Gothic architecture in Narbonne is the Cathedral of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur. It features beautiful stained glass windows, intricate stone carvings, and grand rose windows.


The Albigensian Crusade

As the political center of southern France during the 13th century, Narbonne was known for its political tolerance. The region had a history of following doctrines and practices the Catholic Church considered heretical. Specific segments of the population in Narbonne, including the nobility, urban bourgeoisie, and some clergy members, were receptive to the Cathar message.

Narbonne’s role in the Albigensian Crusades shaped the intellectual and religious influence of the region. Narbonne’s fall to the Crusades in 1229 weakened its social, political, and cultural fabric. When the Crusades ended, the area came under the control of the Kingdom of France, and Narbonne’s influence was upended.

“Must Sees” in Narbonne

  • The Via Domitia
  • The Robine Canal (city side)
  • The Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur Cathedral
  • The Palace of the Archbishops
  • Les Halles
  • Market days in Narbonne: weekly market: Sunday; seasonal demand: Tuesday & Thursday & Saturday & Monday

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Stay tuned for more on the Cathars in Narbonne

8 replies »

  1. While you were soaking up the history and stories, I was soaking up the stories and the architecture. I really enjoyed the Roman sites on our Memories Tour. If you haven’t seen the ruins and museum in Lyon, it’s well worth the train ride. Also a whole Roman city, Aquincum, just outside Budapest.❤️ the article.

    • Julie, I was just in Lyon! But I went for the food. Next time I’ll check out the Roman town. So glad there are still others around who remember Ms. Clegg. Thanks for reminding me.;-)

  2. You are like my wife, Deborah since she also has to sit in the first row-lol. -Sitting in the front row in school or church gives one automatically, a certain degree of of academic standing and or sainthood, despite ones actual effort or merit. As to Roman history in Gaul, that is what actually brought me to France in the first place. My love of everything Italian and especially Roman brought me to the knowledge that I must travel to Frances since the Roman antiquities in France were so much more preserved and pristine. What I actually discovered was that the French culture, cuisine, architecture and people were so amazing. This has brought us back many times. I loved this blog.

    • Glad you liked the blog and story. If you haven’t been to Narbonne, you would love it. There’s much more Roman history there than in this post. A whole museum full! Looking forward to seeing you back here soon.

  3. Thank you for this post. We spent a weekend visiting Narbonne a couple of years ago. A fascinating place and yes, what a wonderful cathedral! And the surrounding area is beautiful too – in quite a different way from the Uzès area.

    • Isn’t it wonderful and amazing how sites in France can be so multifaceted. You can keep going back. Hoping you’ll be back soon. Thank you so much for reading and following❤️

    • Narbonne is a beautiful, interesting city. After your visit, you’ll find more reasons to go back. Enjoy!

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