A weekly history podcast that will cover France from 3 million years ago to present. Presented by Gary Girod, with contributions by numerous scholars.
A weekly history podcast that will cover France from 3 million years ago to present. Presented by Gary Girod, with contributions by numerous scholars.
30 – God and the Gauls
Episode 30: God and the Gauls
Today’s episode is all about the history of Christianity in Gaul from 177 to the reign of Constantine. For a number of episodes Christianity has been an important segment of greater narratives, but now it is finally time that it got its own episode. It won’t be the last. Christianity will play a major role in French history from the late 3rd century into the 21st.
From the 1st century until the present Christianity rapidly went from a small collection of secretive devotees to being the largest religion in human history. In the 2nd century Christianity was widespread in the Eastern Roman Empire. By the 3rd century it was possibly the single largest religion, competing with Roman polytheism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism and a series of mystery cults. In Gaul, Christianity arrived relatively late. Our first record of it were the Lugdunum persecutions in 177. By the end of the 3rd century Christians were present in most major cities, but they couldn’t have been more than 10% of the population and were largely absent from the countryside. Even though Gallic Christians were a small minority until the late 4th or 5th centuries they had a pronounced impact on the development of their religion.
One quick note before we begin: much of our records come from church history. I intend on taking as neutral a position as possible; what you choose to believe is your own choice. I think that records of miracles and supernatural occurrences aren’t necessarily wrong but can be interpreted metaphorically. Much as the Bible has literal and metaphorical parts, so too does church history. I personally don’t think that Saint Denis picked up his own severed head and continued to preach the gospel around the Ile de France; I choose to interpret that to mean that his legacy and the words he spoke resonated with people beyond his death. If you want to believe that he literally preached the Gospel while holding his head around waist height like in his statues, that is entirely up to you.
We know very little about the earliest Christians in Gaul because in the 2nd to 3rd centuries Christianity was, at best, discouraged and at worst openly persecuted. Based on the fact that many early Gallic saints had Greek origins it is most likely that missionaries from Greater Greece, which included modern Greece and Western Anatolia, sailed to Massalia. From there they traveled along the southern coast or sailed up the Rhone river to the capital at Lugdunum, with some going all the way to Lutèce, or modern-day Paris.
The first Christian martyr in Gaul that we know of was a man named Pothinus. In the mid-2nd century Pothinus was living in Western Anatolia when Saint Polybius of Smyrna, Greece ordered him to go to Lugdunum to become their very first bishop. As the capital and by far largest city Lugdunum was the only city with a decently-sized Christian population, and other, smaller cities, such as Vienne, took their cue from it. At some point Pothinus arrived in Lugdunum and preached the Gospel. However, the Antonine Plague reached Gaul sometime in the late 160s or early 170s and killed off tens of thousands of Gauls living there within a few years. The local population was terrified, confused and angry about this unprecedented calamity and they blamed the Christians for angering the gods by refusing to sacrifice to them. Pothinus was taken to prison and beaten to death before he could be properly executed. According to church history forty-eight Christians were seized and when they refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods they were fed to wild beasts in the amphitheater. Of these forty-eight martyrs half were Greek while the other half were Gallo-Roman, further proving that enthusiastic Greek missionaries were travelling westward to spread their religion, though the Gauls were slow to adopt it.
Martyrs were incredibly importan
29 – Life in a Crumbling Empire
Episode 29: Life in a Crumbling Empire
In our last two episodes I talked about the high politics of Gallia and the Roman Empire. Today, we’re going to look at daily life for the people living in Gallia. The Gauls had been through a lot over the past two centuries. They were arguably the worst hit during the Crisis of the Third Century as constant invasions led to near-total societal collapse by the 280s when Diocletian sent Maximian to pacify the region. Then the following fifty-year period spanning the rules of Maximian, Constantius and his son Constantine was incredibly transformative. This half-century brought stability to Gallia, but not prosperity, as the Roman Empire developed into the Late Roman Empire.
The Late Roman Empire is an important concept among ancient historians, as the character of the empire shifted from a Classical system towards feudalism. At Rome’s height during the reign of Antoninus Pius, Rome was the world’s largest open society; a Roman citizen could travel from Britannia all the way to Syria, across northern Africa and all along the Mediterranean in peace, since Rome had hard borders that kept military threats far from civilian life. This hypothetical traveler would be able to visit enormous cities, unrivaled by anything outside of China and India during their travels as the Roman central state poured money into building projects such as aqueducts and public baths which spurred growth. While each province had their own regional language, Vulgar Latin was employed across the empire and one could cross thousands of miles without having to learn a new language.
The Late Roman Empire was so different from the early Roman Empire that in some aspects it was almost a different country. First, troops were stationed inside cities, not the frontiers, meaning that the civilian and military spheres were in frequent contact. Moreover, soldiers acquired the right to requisition food, shelter and day labor from civilians so their daily lives were subject to the demands of the army. In the best of circumstances a civilian would be forced to carry a soldier’s pack a few miles or house them for a day. But if a soldier were corrupt they would go from civilian to civilian demanding food and money at the point of a sword.
Second, the borders were porous as Rome largely abandoned the frontiers. Whenever large groups of migrants tried to cross certain landmarks the army would rush to attack them, but smaller groups and individuals constantly moved from Germania into Gallia, bringing with them their culture, languages and even their own political system. These ‘barbarians’ diluted Gallia’s Romaness but by allowing them to settle within its borders it gained a new host of conscripts to fight against invaders. Thus, Late Roman Gallia was culturally somewhere between Classical Rome and Germania, with some areas such as Narbonensis on the southern coast looking much like it would have in the first century, while some areas in northeastern Gallia were populated by towns made up exclusively of Franks.
Third, the Late Roman Empire was gradually losing its linguistic cohesion. The city of Rome and Italy’s importance took a massive hit during the Antonine Plague and subsequent chaos while simultaneously migrating Germans and Goths settled across the frontiers. Meanwhile, the Greek-speaking East remained relatively prosperous and when Constantine founded the new city of Constantinople on the Bosporus it rapidly eclipsed the declining Rome.
Finally, our theoretical traveler would have one more obstacle since travel was legally restricted. Diocletian and then Constantine passed a number of laws tying poor agriculturalists to the land. Meanwhile there was a 2%-5% tax on exports between provinces which meant that fewer merchants moved across the empire.
These developments combined with the new political system that r
Black Venus: African Women in 19th Century France with Dr. Robin Mitchell
Gary Girod speaks with Dr. Robin Mitchell about her book Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France, about how three black women embodied and reflected France’s imperial anxieties in the 19th century.
Girod: Hello everyone. Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Robin Mitchell.
Robin Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of History at the California State University,
Channel Islands. She received her master’s degree in late modern European history from the
University of California, Santa Cruz and her doctorate in late modern European history from
the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation investigated the correlation between
representations of black women in France and the aftermath of the Haitian revolution. In this
interview we talk about her new book Venus Noire, Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in
19th century France. Venus Noire talks about three particular black women and their
experiences in 19th century France. Ourika, Sarah Baartman, and Jean Duvall. Ourika was a
young slave who became a pop culture icon. Sarah Baartman was a famous South African
woman who toured across Europe allowing Europeans to examine an African body in a circus
like atmosphere. Finally Jean Duvall was an actress and lover of Charles Baudelaire one of
the most acclaimed French poets of all time. Each of these women left behind an important
legacy which Dr Mitchell aims to uncover in her new work. Furthermore she argues that each
woman represented different anxieties experienced by France as it sought to understand and
at times control Africans. This became particularly important after the Haitian Revolution
during which black slaves with the help of some tropical diseases defeated the white French
forces and achieved their independence. Empire, prestige, French glory, and fear all come
together in the treatment of these black women. One final thing I want to note this was the
first digital interview I did. It is high quality in most parts though there are a couple small
scratches in it. Aside from the odd guest contributor the French History podcast has been a
one man show and I’ve had to write edit produce promote and host everything myself. So
thanks for being patient with me as I work out the technical stuff. Without further ado. Please
Girod: Thank you very much for being with me Professor Mitchell. I was very excited to
speak to you. You’ve been very active on Twitter sharing much needed perspectives on things
that I didn’t know too much about and I think this is one particular topic that perhaps not a lot
of people who are even interested in French history might know about which is black women
and France in the 19th century. Can you tell us how you got started studying this?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Actually I got started studying this because of my mother when I was a
child. It was an interesting upbringing for me. Didn’t get a lot of black history in my
elementary school and so my mother decided to start supplementing it. And so what she did
was she started reading Harlem Renaissance writers to us and every time she read a Harlem
Renaissance writer she said, “oh he went to France” or “she went to France.” And so from
about the time I was five years old my assumption was if you were black you were supposed
to go to France.
Girod: that’s really fascinating especially because, and I can’t believe I’m going to plug
another episode that we did. But I interviewed Taylor Morrow who, he did an episode on
black men serving in France in World War One and World War Two and how those
experiences of black men living in a desegregated society when they came back to the United
States, they wanted to change America. And so at least for that generation they had a special
connection to France. So I wonder if that was part of it.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well,
Episode 28: In This Sign You Shall Conquer
Episode 28: In This Sign You Shall Conquer
The year is 305. Galerius has ascended to the position of Augustus and two of his cronies have become the new Caesars. For the time being his only rival in the Roman world was Constantius who ruled the West from Trier. But Constantius was helpless because his 33-year old son Constantine was still a hostage in Galerius’ court. That summer Constantius formally asked Galerius to send his son to Gaul, ostensibly to help him put down a rebellion in Britannia, though his ploy was obvious to everyone. According to Constantine, he was with Galerius at court and after a long night of drinking the Eastern Augustus granted him permission to leave. Constantine left that instant without packing or saying goodbye to friends and comrades. He rode each horse to exhaustion, picking up fresh horses along each waypoint as he fled to the west in case Galerius’ sent assassins after him. That summer Constantine met his father in Bolougne in northern Gaul. He was safe for now, but his future looked bleak.
Constantine had spent over a decade with the retired emperor Diocletian where he learned the art of war and high politics. He was clearly a man of talents, which is why Galerius wanted him dead. But legally he could only climb so high up the Roman political ladder. While his father was the Augustus of the West, Galerius was still the most powerful man in the empire, and even if his Caesars were killed he would just pick new lackies to fill the roles. Furthermore, Diocletian set a precedent that emperors should receive their position through elevation, not inheritance since he believed that hereditary monarchy led to corruption. Constantine wasn’t the only man pushed aside because of Diocletian’s opposition to nepotism. The retired Augustus of the West Maximian tried to elevate his son Maxentius to the role of Caesar but Diocletian vetoed his decision. Even though Constantine was in Gaul, surrounded by his father’s loyalists, his future was still uncertain.
After a brief reunion father and son departed Gaul for Britannia to fight the Picts, which they did for a year. But Constantius fell ill at Eboracum, modern-day York. On 25th July 306 Constantius died, at which point the Roman legions and allied Germans acclaimed his son the new Augustus. As is always the case when the soldiers proclaim a leader it is difficult to say how much of this was planned out by Constantius, Constantine and their loyal officers and how much was a genuine outpouring of love from the legions. Perhaps both occurred; Constantius knew that without an army behind him his son would always be in danger. Meanwhile Constantine had just spent a year valiantly fighting alongside his men while brilliantly commanding them, impressing soldiers and leaders alike. Whether this public show of support was premeditated or not, Constantine clearly deserved his role.
But Constantine knew he couldn’t claim the role of Augustus; to do so was an affront to Galerius’ authority and an act of war. Instead, Constantine sent a message to Galerius asking for his council. He claimed that his soldiers had forced him to become an Augustus and he just couldn’t say, “no;” that would be a total buzzkill, and Constantine was a people-pleaser. When Galerius heard the news he flew into a rage because of the outright insubordination but also because he knew Constantine put him in a delicate position. Constantine showed deference to Galerius so if the Eastern Emperor launched a war he would be seen as the aggressor and a tyrant. If only Constantine had claimed the role then Galerius could have declared war to defend the empire, but the young man had learned high politics from the best.
Furthermore, while Constantine was one emperor out of four his position was far more secure than that implies. Even though his territories were relatively poor and
Episode 27: The Empire Strikes Back
We’re back! I hope everyone had a good holiday break. It was a much-needed vacation for me. Before I jump into today’s episode I want to lay out the next few, because there is a lot to cover and I think the best way to do it is to split the episodes thematically. This episode and the next will cover the high politics of Gaul and the revitalized Roman Empire from the rise of Diocletian to the death of Constantine. The following episode will cover this same period while examining the daily lives of the Gauls and those Franks and other Germans who entered Gaul. Then we’ll turn to the rise of Christianity. For a long time Christianity has been in the background of our story, but by the beginning of the 4th century it emerges as one of the most important features of the Roman Empire and, to a lesser extent, Gaul.
Now, some of you may be wondering why I am using the word ‘Gaul’ to describe this land, rather than ‘Gallia’ which was the name of the Roman province for almost three centuries. From here on out I’m going to use the term ‘Gaul’ because within ten years of Diocletian coming to power he divided the Roman world into numerous provinces and dioceses, effectively eliminating the old province of ‘Gallia.’
Alright, enough background, onto the narrative. Where did we leave off last time? Oh yes, the world was on fire. In 274 Roman Emperor Aurelian smashed the breakaway Gallic Empire’s armies and the land of Gaul was back in the Roman Empire…for a year. In 275 Aurelian was assassinated and upstarts and usurpers vied for power in Italy and the East. As bad as this might sound for Rome, Gaul was in an even worse position. Rome had just decimated its local armies and now the claimants to power in the East needed as many soldiers as they could. This left Gaul completely open to invasion by Germanic tribes crossing over the Rhine. Between 276-282 Franks, Vandals and Burgundians sacked 60 towns, including Lutetia, what we now call Paris. These Germans pillaged cities, razed towns and ravaged the countryside, dealing a devastating blow to an already beleaguered country. Many Franks and Burgundians even settled within Gaul, creating their own communities with their own leaders and political structures. For so long the ‘barbarians’ were across Rome’s borders; now they were within Rome and brought with them their languages, way of life and a separate political system.
In 276 Aurelian’s lieutenant Probus seized power and between 280-282 he fought across Gaul. His campaigns were incredibly successful: he defeated all invaders, then went deep into Germania on a punitive expedition. He established forts along the Rhine and prohibited German tribes on the Eastern bank from having large armies. Finally, he took many German hostages in order to ensure their loyalty. But in 282 Probus met the same fate as his old commander when he was assassinated. Through a series of events a Dalmatian military officer named Diocletian had his armies declare him emperor in November 284. But he still had to contend with another claimant to the throne. During this struggle Constantius, the governor of Dalmatia, sided with Diocletian and by 285 he was the clear ruler of the Roman Empire. Diocletian’s reign is generally considered the end of the Crisis of the Third Century as he brought stability and prosperity back to the empire while reforming it so that it could meet its economic and military challenges.
After Diocletian’s armies declared him emperor he made a point not to be ratified in Rome as he did away with even the pretense of Roman senatorial rule, and excluded the senatorial class from his administration. In fact, Diocletian only visited Rome in 304 for his 20-year anniversary when he abdicated *spoiler alert*. Diocletian understood that the Senatorial class and its power base in Rome was a threat to emperors. Senators
Ep. 26 The Gallic Empire
It is hard to describe the state of the Roman Empire in the year 235. On the one hand, it had everything it needed to prosper. The Mediterranean Sea was an incredible highway for the transportation of goods and people and it was entirely controlled by Rome. The empire’s vastness meant it didn’t lack any necessary resources, and its large population meant it had enough people to harvest, work and defend the empire. Its infrastructure was among the world’s best and its technological innovation exceeded all of its rivals. If we looked at Rome from a God’s eye view in 235 we would probably expect it to prosper. Yet, there was a rot at the heart of the Roman world. The death of Alexander Severus meant the end of civilian rule. His execution by his own soldiers began the Crisis of the Third Century, wherein Rome had on average a new emperor every three years from 235 to 284.
During this period Rome was dominated by Barracks Emperors. Before the Crisis, the central Roman government was a constructive force that spent resources to grow the empire. Under the Barracks Emperors the central government was a massive drain on the empire as it requisitioned money, taxes, labor and other resources from its struggling provinces in order to pay the army. As economic conditions worsened the legions demanded pay increases and privileges…which worsened economic conditions as the provinces were overtaxed. When emperors tried to rein in the army for the benefit of the provinces the army deposed them, leading to civil war…which further damaged the economy. This in turn led to the legions demanding more pay so they could care for themselves in the face of rising inflation and you see where this is going. Emperors could only come to power by bribing the legions with massive bonuses, but once in power emperors had to come to grips with the unsustainability of their policies. The same organization that put emperors in power was economically ravaging the empire while simultaneously making the normal functioning of government administration impossible.
The central government ran massive deficits, leading to hyperinflation, which crippled internal trade. From Nero to Alexander Severus the silver content of denarius decreased from 100% to 50%. As historian Mary Boatwright notes, “By the late third-century, some denarii were simply silver-plated copper coins.” Between the reign of Antoninus Pius and the end of the third century, one modius of wheat, or roughly two gallons, increased from two sesterces to 400. This 200-fold increase is astounding even for modern times, but in ancient and medieval societies inflation was usually negligible except in times of crisis.
As usurper general after usurper general rose and became emperor the military became more preoccupied with civil insurrection than guarding the frontiers. This was especially problematic because Rome faced three major threats. The Sassanid Persians ravaged Syria and the far east. Goths poured across the Danube into Dacia and the Balkans. Meanwhile large German tribes with experienced armies threatened the Rhine. Increasingly localities had to protect themselves by building city walls and raising local militia. This meant that localities increasingly viewed the central government as negligent or even a threat to their security.
Culturally, the empire rapidly decentralized. The central government spent far less on construction projects, festivals and games. The cult worship of the emperor and the city of Rome was perennially underfunded. But perhaps the most important shift occurred within the legions themselves. Keep in mind, the legions were the primary force for Romanization across the world, through conquest but also because they brought with them Latin and Italian customs wherever they went. During Trajan’s reign in the early 2nd century the majority of legionaries were not pri