written by Jasmin Grace, High School Intern
Most of us know at least a little about French History. Perhaps you’ve heard about the French Revolution, its Reign of Terror, and the infamous guillotine. Or maybe you’re familiar with some famous French kings, and the conflict between France and Britain in the Middle Ages. But what about the more ancient history of France?
Humans and even Neanderthals have lived in what we now call France for ages. They left the world’s most famous prehistoric cave paintings here. In one cave, four teenagers and their dog discovered the Lascaux cave in September 1940. The dog had wandered into an entrance to the cavern, and when the teens followed it, the teens were amazed by what they found. There were 600 paintings and drawings and nearly 1,500 engravings on the walls of the cavern. These paintings were ancient, between 15,000 and 17,000 years old. There were also many mythical creatures and animals depicted, including deer, felines, and horses. Even the only human figure was portrayed with a bird head. The Lascaux caves were open to the public for a time, but eventually had to be closed because the artificial lights were fading into the vibrant colors of the paintings. However, a replica was constructed nearby and remains open to the public, drawing thousands of visitors every year.
The people of the ancient region called Gaul (modern France, parts of Belgium, North Italy, and West Germany) were mostly Celtic, and also included pre-Celtic Liguarians, Iberians, and Germanic immigrants. They lived as farmers, and knew the craft of metal-working. Some scholars believed aspects of their culture came from the Balkan region, including the knowledge of metal-working. Their society was divided into many different tribes that lived throughout Gaul. Although their language is different from modern French, many words spoken today have Gaulish origin. For example the verb aller (to go) comes from the Gaulish word allu.
In 390 BC, these Gauls invaded and plundered the city of Rome. This angered the Romans and inspired Julius Caesar to Conquer Gaul in the 1st century BC. His successor, Augustus, divided Gaul into four provinces to govern them more easily. In 48 AD, Gauls could become Senators in Rome, giving them a voice in their government. The Gauls began to mostly accept the Roman way of life, and enjoyed the 200-years of prosperity known as Pax Romana (Roman Peace) along with the rest of the Empire. After that, the Empire slowly declined, and in the 4th century, attacks from Germanic tribes and internal turmoil, along with a host of other factors, led to the fall of Rome. Gaul and most of Europe were plunged into the Dark Ages.
Although the Romans are long gone, their influence is still evident in France today. Aqueducts, used to bring fresh water to populated areas, that were built by Romans still stand. They are amazing feats of engineering for their period, and certainly stood the test of time — some still function today! One example of this is the aqueduct over Pont du Gard. Although it stopped bringing water and became a bridge during the 6th century, it has remained standing for two thousand years. Although earlier civilizations in Egypt and India also constructed aqueducts, Romans were famous for these creations. Gravity drew the water from its source to its destination in the city, and the route often included pipes, tunnels, canals, and bridges. Bridges were famous for their graceful arches, and commonly made of stone.
These ancient people were some original inhabitants of France, and they left traces of themselves and their culture across the region, laying the groundwork for modern French civilization, culture, and even language.