Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Where Rome never Fell

Where Rome never Fell

If you studied the subject at all back in school your concept of how the Roman Empire fell probably runs something like this:

Too many civil wars. Emperors who were ninnies or sadists, sometimes both. An economy ruined by bad farming techniques, lead in the pipes and assorted cheap metal in the coins. Finally in the cold winter of 406 AD the Rhine river freezes over and a shaggy collection of barbaric Vandals, Suebi, and Alans charge across. With nothing to stop them they march through Germany, France, Spain and into North Africa.

Roman authority, which had been pretty shaky anyway, simply collapses. The last Roman troops bailed out of Britain in 410 AD. The pathetic plea for help from the Britons to the Emperor Honorius was returned saying pretty much Adios, you’re on your own. And in a couple of generations nobody there could read, or make pottery, or take a hot bath, or obtain any goods except by barter or by conking their neighbors on the head.

Eeeshh, all pretty bleak stuff. But maybe not so true. Our impressions of the times rest on too few surviving texts, all liberally interpreted by the like of Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was probably in part written as a cautionary tale for Imperial England.

And in at least one area, Rome never actually fell. It just sort of glided to a soft landing.

Welcome to Provence.

The name literally means “The Province” and indeed it was among the first real estate outside of Italy that Rome acquired (circa 120 BC). It was also one of the last places to remain under control of Rome, gradually slipping away in the mid 450s.

The barbarian Visigoths who took over you see, were fairly Romanized by that point. It was just a matter of swapping a Governor for a Rex. And the barbarians were no fools, they knew what all travelers to Provence know, folks there have an excellent thing going. Who wants to pillage? Just sit back, enjoy the balmy climate, great food and lots of wine.

I will be wandering about Provence in upcoming posts, showing what remains from Roman and even Greek times. There is a lot. Take a quick look at the persistence of place names from Roman to modern times, generally a good indication that places had continuity of occupation and a semblance of literacy:

Carcasso becomes Carcassone Colonia Nemausa shortens to Nimes The Greek colony of Massala goes Roman to Masilla and then goes mod to Marseilles In like fashion Nikea to Nicea to Nice It takes a little more to get from Arausio to Orange.

And some names have come down to us from antiquity with more than a few scratches and dents, like classical statues with parts knocked off.

The great Roman city of Lugdunum ends up as Lyon and does Aquae Sextiae only get to keep a few letters in its evolution to Aix-en-Provence?