What is remarkably true is that the apex of the Roman Empire represents one of the great lost opportunities of civilization. This item on Gaul makes that very clear and the fact that the failure centuries later did not cause a complete retreat either.
With hindsight and a sophisticated understanding our our own civilization it is easy to see what went wrong, or more correctly what failures of imagination took place. In fact just how did we invent a successful parliament in the first place? Add in fiat currency and we have modernism with a vengeance. But it was parliament that ended slavery and fiat currency that made it uneconomic.
The time was appropriate for a great genius such as Jesus to emerge provided he was actually listened to. It never happened and we got the fall back plan for two thousand years. I wonder if he understood the rule of twelve?
How did the Roman Empire change Gaul?
Joe Rigodanzo, host, "The Rhine" podcast
It's hard to exaggerate how much the Romans changed Gaul
The Conquest(s): The Romans conquered Southern Gaul, modern-day Provence, by 122 BCE because they needed to build a road to Spain. Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul lasted from 58- 49 BCE, though the crucial years of the war were 53 - 52 BCE. 500,000 Gauls dead. 500,000 Gauls sold into slavery. Many numbers in antiquity are inflated, but most historians agree that these are likely close to the mark. The conquest was out-and-out genocide.
Archaeological evidence shows that grain production dropped in specific areas during the conquest and for a few decades after (see: this book for more). The years 48 - 44 BCE were peaceful, but for years after Ceasar died, 44 - 28 BCE, there were a few minor rebellions, all of which are poorly documented since the big Civil Wars between Octavian and Antony were going on at the same time.
Provinces: In 28 BCE, just before Octavian became Augustus, the newly victorious proconsul came to Gaul and reorganized the province along "traditional" Gallic lines. You can find this map on google, but basically it was split along the main rivers of France. Before this, there had never been borders in Gaul - it was all overlapping tribal territories.
Agricultural change: In the decades immediately after the conquest, Roman veterans and engineers settled north of the Alps and upgraded the traditional Gallic homesteads. The Gallic farms became (for the most part) irrigated, multi-crop plantations. Before the fields were primarily single crop. New tools were used for planting and harvesting, and worked in tandem with more efficient draft animals. All of this amounted to a huge jump in food production, which allowed the population to start rebounding. It wasn't long before the population was much bigger than it had been before the Roman conquest.
Peace & Urban Life: Let's take an example, the city of Lugdunum. Before the Romans came, this was a walled fort on a hill, a good symbol for almost constant warfare that plagued tribal Gaul.
Augustus demolished the fort and the walls and replaced it with an open palace complex. The city below was built out over many centuries - today, it is Lyon, in France. From the beginning, it was a city that operated on the rule of law. For 250 years the city did not need walls, since Roman Gaul was very peaceful as long as you were far from the frontier.
Left: A Celtic fort recently excavated in Spain. Lugdunum meant "hill fort" in Gallic. Right: The Romans showed up and replaced Lugdunum's walled fortifications with an open palace complex. They also built out a big, sprawling city in the valley below, which would have been impossible before the conquest given frequent raiding.
The Frontier: The Rhine River became the central location for the Roman Army. The Romans posted between 5-8 legions along along the frontier, and these troops were only pulled off during the most extreme crises. This became not only an important military center, but an economic center; someone had to feed the troops.
The Economy Booms: Better agriculture, technology, urban life, and trade helped the economy take off. There are no measurements like GDP for the ancient world, but 100 years after the conquest, in the reign of Claudius, rich Gauls began to meet the wealth minimums to enter the Senate. By modern standards there were now multi-millionaires in Gaul. It's generally acknowledged that very few places in the ancient world grew as fast as Gaul in the century or two after the conquest.
Roads: By about 150 years after the conquest, the Romans had built between 8,000 and 13,000 miles of roads connecting the cities of Gaul. These roads were used all through the Middle Ages and contributed to Gaul being one economic unit even after the Roman Empire fell. The roads were spread out along two major highways, which developed alongside maritime trade routes (next section):
Roman roads and economy in Gaul developed primarily along the Rhine frontier and the road to Spain (red lines). The orange lines represent the primary maritime trade routes.
Maritime Trade: The Mediterranean maritime route was primarily from southern Gaul. The North Sea maritime trade triangle started to feed Roman armies in Britannia but had the long-term effect of securing trade across the English Channel at the shortest possible distance. Before the Romans, trade from Gaul to Britannia was inefficient (see the answer to this question for more on that: To what extent did the Romans employ the sea route around the Iberian peninsula to reach Britannia?)
"Decline" after the Pax Romana: We mentioned the city of Lugdunum earlier - let's come back to it, since it provides a useful example of what happened in Gaul as the Roman Golden Age passed. In 197 CE, the newly minted Roman Emperor Septimius Severus won a huge battle outside Lugdunum, perhaps the biggest battle in antiquity. This ended a 4-year Civil War. Severus could not control his troops, and in the end, the soldiers entered Lugdunum, raped the women, enslaved many of the good Roman citizens, and stole as much loot as they could find from the houses and temples.
Lugdunum was badly, badly beaten up by this Roman-on-Roman violence. It never again reached it’s wealth or population from the early Roman period.
But guess what: it never declined so much that it went back to being a cloistered hill fort supporting only a few hundred people. Lugdunum remained a vibrant and important city through the rest of the Roman Period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and today Lyon is obviously one of France's lovely cities. It’s still built on the general Roman plan.
This general trend holds for the rest of Gaul and Belgica. After about 235, civil wars and foreign invasion were far more common in Gaul. By 300, cities had built walls to protect them from predatory Roman armies and foreign invaders. The massive invasions of 406 changed Gaul forever, as a bunch of new political players arrived on what was (at least on the surface) Roman land. But the underlying Roman infrastructure, trade relationships, and in some cases, the Roman laws, were there to stay.
The decline of the Roman Empire brought it's own important changes. There was of course the arrival of Christianity in the Late Empire. And paradoxically, the Gauls only started to drop their native languages in favor of Latin, or the evolved Latin that became French, from 500-600 CE, which was decades after the "Romans" left.
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