“Aren’t you getting off at the next stop?” This question was posed to me in a timid voice by a diminutive lady who had nudged me gently.
The subway car’s brakes squealed loudly and metallically. Get off here? Actually, yes, I will get off here. Île de la Cité is the ideal place to start: this island sits at the very heart of Paris and is its birthplace; appropriately enough, it has the shape of a cradle. “The head, the heart, the very marrow of Paris,” as Gui de Bazoches wrote in the twelfth century.
The Île de la Cité stop consists of a series of wells dug deep into the city’s entrails—almost fifty feet (some twenty meters) below the water level of the Seine, and, as in Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth, when you go down into it you have the feeling that time moves in reverse. No need of a volcano shaft to get down into the depths, or a Nautilus to dive leagues down below the surface. The Cité stop will do.
I vaulted up the metal circular stairs four at a time and headed toward the light, leaving the nice lady far behind. Once outside I ran smack into a scraggly cypress tree. I extricated myself only to find that now I was tangled up in the branches of an olive tree. Aha! I thought. An olive tree! A trace of the South, a faint echo of the Italian countryside. Actually, however, I was in the middle of the Cité’s flower market, which crowds right up to the edge of the subway entrance, as if both nature and history were trying to reclaim what once was rightfully theirs. Their success at this is illusory, for on one side the cars hum along in their endless descent down Boulevard Saint-Michel; on the other there is the same flood of cars heading in the other direction, climbing Rue Saint-Jacques.
After a few steps I reached the quays. A little farther along are the green boxes of the bouquinistes—the vendors of secondhand books and old prints. I can never resist plunging in and always resurface with something, on this occasion two dog-eared histories of Paris. I sometimes think that the city is my wife. It is most definitely a woman, as André Breton put it in Nadja, his Surrealist novel: the triangle formed by the Place Dauphine represents the delta of Venus from whose womb it all emerged. I wanted to go in, not out; I wanted to return to a time before cars and the gray façades of the buildings, back to when the banks of the Seine were verdant slopes presiding over a muddy bog and the island was forested.
* * *
It is the 701st year following the founding of Rome and fifty-two years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Île de la Cité is empty—there are no houses, no structures, nothing. There’s also as yet no sign of the Lutes of which Julius Caesar spoke in his History of the Gauls. “Lutetia, town [oppidum] of the Parisii, located on an island in the Seine.” Not very precise, of course, and indeed the proconsul had spent all of one day in the place, a day on which he was far more preoccupied with the gathering of the Gaul chiefs than he was with exploring the boundaries of this oppidum. In fact, when he came to write his history, Caesar knew it only through secondhand sources, relying on rumors and on hastily written military reports. He repeated what he had heard bruited about by his legionaries, whose descriptions were very sketchy.
Here’s the thing. Just where you might expect to find something there was … nothing. The future Île de la Cité—the very heart of Paris—consisted of six or seven little islands on which sat a small temple and several simple huts with reddish thatched roofs. It was no hive of activity. You might see a handful of fishermen casually casting their nets into the waters. On the Right Bank, stretching westward, were swamps and a dense forest. On the Left Bank, still more wetlands, and, farther along, a rocky promontory referred to as a “mountain,” which one day would be called “Montagne Sainte-Geneviève.”
To find the significant-sized Gallic town the Roman legionaries referred to as the great city of the Parisii, you had to go downriver, to the west. At the time, the river offered the only way of getting around. Roads would come later and be built by the Romans. To get anywhere you were forced to clamber down the bank at one of the launch sites favored by the Gauls, climb into a long, delicate craft made of tree limbs, and venture out into the water.
The boat was the ancestral mode of transportation for the Parisii. Predictably, the earliest remnants of settlements here, dating back to the Neolithic period (five thousand years before Christ) were dugout canoes. They were discovered in Bercy, the little suburb that was the protocrib of Paris. Today these primitive boats can be found in the Musée Carnavalet, the museum that conserves the city’s history.
To find the real Gallic Lutèce, which is what we French call Lutetia, you have to travel west down the Seine for twenty or so miles, to a spot where the river bends back upon itself so dramatically that it nearly forms a circle. Some Romans might understandably have confused it for an island. And in this enormous bend a city came to life, with streets and shops and neighborhoods and a port. Here was Lutèce, or, more exactly, in the Gallic tongue, Lucotecia, a name as fluid as its location. Caesar shortened Lucotecia to Lutetia, more closely approximating the Latin lutum, meaning “mud,” and the Gallic luto, meaning “swamp.” The city emerged from the swamp; name and place correlated perfectly.
Originally from the north, the tribe that settled on the banks of the river depended upon it. To the members of this tribe, the river was a goddess—Sequana—capable of curing disease, and she gave her name to the waters that ran along the length of Lutèce, the Seine. The river offered very tangible benefits to these people, for not only did it provide the fish that fed them and the water that helped them grow wheat, and which sustained the humans and animals, it served as their means of contact with the outside world. Their coins were among the most beautiful in all of Gaul, golden and bright, one side featuring Apollo and the other a horse in full gallop. Farther away, beyond the city, the fertile soil helped the Parisii—who were farmers, herders, metalsmiths, and woodcutters—prosper.
Where was the original Lutèce located?
Over the centuries, historians have repeatedly tried to claim that Lutèce was located on Île de la Cité. There was but one small and vexing problem with that. No matter how deeply they dug, and dug, and dug, none could find even the smallest trace of the legendary Gallic city.
“Big deal,” said some among them. “The Gauls built straw huts, and they simply disappeared during all the invasions and migrations.”
It certainly is the case that the island was frequently destroyed, rebuilt, and redestroyed, and that all trace of the original has disappeared. And when you consider the last great urban transformation of Paris, undertaken by Baron Haussmann in the nineteenth century, during which older buildings were either razed or modified nearly beyond recognition, there would be no way of uncovering a single trace of its past. The only positively identified remains would be the ones you would find if you went to the Place Vert-Galant (referring to Henri IV of Navarre, whom we’ll meet later). Dig down twenty or so feet and you would find yourself at the level where the Parisii once lived. That means that twenty feet of detritus have accumulated over two thousand years.
So it’s completely disappeared? Well, not quite. To help with traffic flow, city engineers designed the A86, a so-called super-périphérique. The idea was to create an even wider ring road around Paris. When they were digging at one of the construction sites in 2003, located beneath the city of Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, workers came across the remains of what clearly had been a large and prosperous settlement. It had everything—houses, streets, wells, a port, even some graves.
Archaeologists also identified a large field bordered by ditches and fences; in it they found a spit used for roasting and a caldron fork. This led them to think that it must have been set apart and used for community cookouts. Setting Lutèce in the fluvial bend of Gennevilliers—which was far more visible then than it is today—served two needs: the location meant that the river and Mont Valérien afforded them greater security; more importantly, it gave them two ways of accessing the water, which was the source of riches and the axis of exchange.
Painful though it might be for Parisians, they may have to accept the fact that the original Lutèce was located not in their city but in its suburbs.
The “Kwarisii,” the Celtic people of the quarries, became the Gallic “Parisii” sometime in the third century B.C. (The Celtic k was transformed into the Gallic p.) These people had done so much navigating in their boats before settling the area that later their origins would become mixed up with those of other peoples and other legends. To glorify their ancestors, and therefore themselves, the descendants of these rock breakers and humble fishermen would clothe their genealogical forebears in all kinds of bright costumes. The Parisii would become nothing less than the descendants of the Egyptian goddess Isis, or, better yet, the children of Paris, the prince of Troy and youngest son of King Priam. Paris, as we all know, had run off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, leading to a terrible and protracted war between the Greeks and the Trojans. He escaped death at the hands of the jealous husband thanks to Aphrodite, who hid her protégé in the protective fog of the heavens and whisked him out of Troy. Troy, however, was not spared. Helen was reunited with Menelaus. Paris fled to the banks of the Seine, where he would give rise to a new people.
It was a pretty tale, if one with absolutely no basis in fact, but it gave to succeeding generations of Parisii a gloriously divine heritage of which to be proud. Much later, in the thirteenth century, Saint Louis strongly encouraged belief in this myth, which thrived during the entirety of the Capetian reign. “Our civilization was not descended from a band of wandering Celts. We share a noble ancestry with the Romans.” That was also what most of the Frankish kings had thought.
But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. For in the time in question the Romans had the upper hand in this part of the world, imposing their language and culture and appropriating myths and legends that justified their having conquered the world. Of course, the Romans were themselves merely descendants of some Indo-European tribe that had settled in what would become Italy in the seventh century B.C. They chose to believe otherwise. “We are descended from gods and heroes,” their leaders declaimed.
This line of reasoning in turn followed from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which legitimated the supremacy of the Greeks in the Mediterranean. Then in the first century B.C., Virgil wrote the Aeneid, a tale that was a carbon copy of its illustrious Homeric predecessors, with the difference being that the heroes were now Roman rather than Greek. The Trojan Aeneas, a son of Aphrodite, fled Troy as it was being destroyed by the Greeks and founded Rome, taking with him his son Iulius, the ancestor of Caesar (“Julius” is the family name for anyone called “Caesar,” coming from “Julia,” as the Latin i and j are interchangeable). Caesar had the right to rule the world because he was descended from the gods.
* * *
In this year, 52 B.C., the Romans arrived to attack the humble Parisii and to occupy their lands along the banks of the Seine. This people had had, well, the gall, to be among the first to resist. They rallied behind a certain Arvernian chief named Vercingetorix, who was determined to unite the Gallic tribes and together repel the Roman invaders. Julius Caesar, keen to bring order to the distant borders of the empire, sent in his best general, Titus Labienus.
Titus Labienus came with four legions and a cavalry regiment, sending the Lutetians into a panic. How were they going to defend themselves? They sent an urgent message to the town of Mediolanum Aulercorum—today, Evreux—where lived an elderly chief whom the entire Gallic world respectfully referred to as Camulogenus, which means “son of Camulus,” who was himself the son of the god of war. With a name like that, the man had no choice but to come and defend the city from the Romans. The citizens placed their fate in his hands. Camulogenus would organize the counterattack and push back the enemy.
What could the poor old man do? He was placed at the head of a small and poorly trained army whose soldiers were more courageous than effective and who tended to fight naked to the waist, armed only with a few axes and some heavy swords made of poor-grade metal.
Labienus and his legionaries advanced inexorably. Camulogenus prepared his defense. He didn’t wait in the city for the Romans to arrive, however; he set up his camp in a swamp, in the heart of the moist zone that surrounds Lutèce.
Soon enough Labienus arrived and the war began. The impeccably disciplined Romans, with their bronze helmets and their steel chest plates, advanced in tight formations. The legionaries were used to fighting on solid ground, having trained on open plains; now they found themselves getting sucked into the shifting terrain between water and land, a place where even small boats went aground and men drowned. The cavalry was useless; the horses’ hooves stuck fast in the mud.
The Gauls, on the other hand, were right at home in this kind of wetland. They descended upon the enemy troops and slaughtered the proud soldiers of Rome, who were unable to defend themselves against this onslaught. By the time night had fallen, Roman blood reddened the stagnant water. Labienus faced reality and had the trumpets blast a long mournful note of retreat. Lutèce erupted in joy. The city was saved and the invaders pushed back!
Labienus, enraged, decided to wreak revenge on these stubborn Gauls and, pushing along the edges of the Seine, moved to attack Metlosedum—what is today Melun—another city built in the bend of the meandering Seine.
Metlosedum was defenseless, most of its men having joined Camulogenus at Lutèce, and was inhabited mainly by women and old men. They tried to push back the legionaries with their bare hands. What occurred wasn’t even a battle worthy of the name but a cold-blooded affair of throat-cutting and disembowelment. The Romans rammed their lances into the guts of anyone who looked as if they might oppose the new order, pillaging reserves of wheat and desecrating the altars of the divinities, sacking the wealthier houses. And then they left, leaving behind them a city in ruins.
It was on Lutèce that Labienus wanted to exact his revenge, however. He had no intention to return to Caesar and admit to the shame of his defeat. In the middle of the night, he gathered his officers together in his tent and gave them a speech worthy of a virile Roman general.
“We cannot expect reinforcements. It’s up to our legions to crush the Gauls and take their city. You will conquer these barbarians for the glory of the empire and Rome will crown you with the laurels of victory.”
The Roman camp sprang to life. The troops massed themselves along the right bank of the Seine, swung around the swampy region and headed north of the bend in the Seine that protected Lutèce, then spiked southward toward the city. Meanwhile a small Roman flotilla, consisting of fifty ships, managed to make their way to the level of the capital of the Parisii.
Before the arrival of the Romans, those who had managed to survive the massacre at Metlosedum, disheveled and traumatized, had come to warn Camulogenus.
“The Romans are heading toward Lutèce!” they cried.
To avoid being surrounded, Camulogenus decided to burn the city and move upriver along the left bank.
“Burn the two bridges across the Seine, and burn your houses! The goddess Sequana will protect us!” he decreed.
By the early hours of the morning, Lutèce was little more than an empty field of ashes. All that remained were the ruins of the homes that but a day earlier had risen over the banks of the Seine; the network of streets that divided the modest hovels of wattle and daub walls; and the storehouses of wheat and wine that had stretched along the heights.
In this fateful dawn, everyone prepared for the final battle—over a city that effectively no longer existed. The Gaul chief and his cohort moved up along the Seine, invoking Camulus, the god armed with a spear and a shield, a mighty master of war and violent death. Dying for one’s country was a glorious fate, and the Gauls approached combat determined to sacrifice themselves to the bloody appetite of the terrible Camulus. The Roman legions were close behind them, invoking Mars, their god of war. But they had no intention of sacrificing themselves to him. They would fight to the best of their abilities, defeat the Gauls, and gain the spoils of victory.
The Romans met the Gauls on the plain of Garanella, located on the banks of the Seine. Garanella, or “little garenne”—meaning “rabbit warren”—was so called because in happier times it had been a place to hunt. Called today the field of Grenelle, it would witness an entirely different kind of hunt on this day, a horrific clash of arms.
The whistle of arrows and javelins cut the air. The Roman infantry threw their deadly spears and the horsemen used their superior height to decimate the Gauls’ ranks. Every arrow seemed to find its target; warriors perished in the hail of deadly projectiles. The arrows seemed endless; dense clouds of them temporarily stalled the advance of the Parisii. Wounded or not, these men yearning for death got up and pressed on, seemingly indifferent. Hundreds more collapsed as death rained down upon them.
His sword in his hand, old Camulogenus rallied his troops, calling upon them to die for Camulus. For a moment, the Gauls succeeded in breaking through the Roman lines. Protected by their large shields they penetrated the armored squares of Romans, who seemed to hesitate and then began to retreat.
At that moment a Roman legion, its standards unfurled, approached from the back of the plain. Four thousand mercenaries held in reserve attacked the Gauls from behind. Retreat was impossible. The carnage can scarcely be described. The poor-quality Gallic sabers were broken by the Roman swords, which were both lighter and stronger. Blood soaked the ground. The groan of the wounded rose from the plain of Garanella.
Both sides fought furiously—the Parisii seeking death and the Romans their spoils. The Gauls didn’t surrender. Survival wasn’t contemplated. By the time the sun had set, the plain of Garanella was littered with the bodies of thousands of Gauls. Camulogenus, also, was killed in this last stand. All in defense of a Lutèce that was no longer even there.
Where lie the remains of the Gallic warriors?
The plain of Garanella became the village of Grenelle, which in turn became part of the city of Paris during the Second Empire in the nineteenth century. The Romans, impressed by the valiant defense mounted by the Gauls, called it “Champs de Mars,” the name it carries to this day.
Much, much later, at the same spot where the Gallic chief and his men perished, would rise the Eiffel Tower, as if in towering memorial. Here is where Parisians come to spend their Sunday afternoons, either ignorant of or indifferent to the fact that they are walking on ground on which thousands of Parisii made the supreme sacrifice to their people.
Several months following the burning of the first Lutèce, a decisive battle was fought between the troops led by Julius Caesar and those led by the Vercingetorix. In the height of summer, the proconsul came up north with his six legions to join them with those of the triumphant Labienus. Vercingertorix’s cavalry attacked the Romans but German mercenaries, who were used to bolster the ranks of the legionaries, repelled them.
Vercingetorix drew back to the heights of Alésia, in what is today Burgundy. He had an impressively large army that included eight thousand Parisii fighters. A dozen Roman legions lay siege to Alésia but the besieging army was smaller than the one being besieged, and the Romans for the moment had to give up the offensive. Instead, they tried to starve the Gauls out by encircling the oppidum with a double line of fortifications.
When the summer wound down, a Gallic army arrived as reinforcements. In the darkness of night this new contingent launched an assault, and though they fought valiantly they couldn’t break through the Roman lines. Another Gallic army attacked the larger camp of Romans, while Vercingetorix left the city with his men. The fierceness of the assault forced the Romans to fall back. Caesar sent in fresh troops. Eventually he succeeded in halting the advance of the Gallic troops. This turned into a full retreat. Those not fortunate enough to die on the field of battle tried to flee. The Roman cavalry cut off their retreat, prelude to a horrific massacre. Hope was extinguished. The next day Vercingetorix emerged from his camp on horse and came to place his arms at Caesar’s feet. Three years later the proud chief of the Arverni tribe was strangled deep within his Roman prison.
* * *
In this Gaul that was now “Gallo-Roman,” the Romans rapidly undertook the construction of what they henceforth called Lutetia. A new location was chosen, one that was more defensible than the original setting in the bend in the river. What could be more ideal than a real island? And indeed a stone’s throw from the Champs de Mars where Labienus had achieved his victory was a group of small river islands. In the largest of them sat a small temple built to the Gallic gods: Cernunnos, the master of abundance; Smertios, the protector of herds; and Esus, the spirit of the forests. Flocks of seagulls flew above the humble structure, swarming and squabbling over the crumbs of the offerings left by the believers.
The remaining Gauls of Lutèce regrouped around this place of faith and devotion. The small islands, soon to be connected by bridges, already contained the outlines of a new town. And thus it was that the Gallo-Roman city of Lutetia emerged from this spit of land that would one day become Île de la Cité.
As in the past, the Parisii made their living near and by the river, which continued to confer prosperity. The new Lutetians exacted tribute from voyagers who wanted to use the bridges or get their boats through. Lutetia thus became a city-bridge, a tollbooth on the Seine. Later, the city’s motto, Fluctuat nec mergitur—“It floats but runs not”—reflected the heritage of this early and crucial bond with the river.
In the first century A.D., the little islands were already oriented around the symbols of terrestrial authority and heavenly power: to the west was built a fortified palace, seat of Roman power; to the east, the places of worship of the Parisii. The temple was enlarged and embellished, and opened as well to worshipping the Roman pantheon of gods, thereby mixing the two religious cultures. It was here that the future city’s first significant monument was built. The boatmen, the brotherhood of mariners who navigated the Seine, showed their gratitude by driving in a support column of a building, a pillar that was fifteen feet high and made of cubic blocks sculpted to represent the Gallic divinities Cernunnos, Smertios, and Esus, as well as the Roman Vulcan and Jupiter. The pillar was in fact dedicated to these Roman gods and to the Emperor Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14 to 37: “To Tiberius Caesar Augustus and to Jupiter, both so good and so great, the mariners of the territory of Parisii, with funds from their community treasury, have erected this monument.” Henceforth the Gallo-Roman civilization was set in stone.
What happened to the Pillar of the Boatmen?
In 1711, while digging under the choir of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in order to excavate a tomb for the archbishops of Paris, workers found the pillar, which was brought to light and integrated into the masonry of two walls. Restored between 1999 and 2003, it is today on exhibit at the Musée de Cluny.
The sacred places remain, however much the divinities chanted. It was no coincidence that this monument was discovered deep in the foundations of Notre-Dame, and it was no coincidence that the cathedral remains the primary symbol of French Catholicism: on this very spot on Île de la Cité rose the first temple votives of the Gauls, which became Gallo-Roman and then, ultimately, Christian.
Lutetia was established, and the history of Paris begun.
Copyright © 2009 by Éditions Michel Lafon
Translation copyright © 2013 by Timothy Bent