IV. Oppida

Several questions come to mind in understanding oppida:

  • What were the oppida?
  • Who built them?
  • What was their purpose?
  • What happened to them?

What were the oppida?

  • Definition: An oppidum (oppida pl.) is a fortified settlement usually built on an elevated position like a hill. Caesar described oppida as large settlements like Roman towns. In fact, 'oppida' is the Latin word for 'town'. There is some debate about the extent of urbanisation of oppida. One definition of 'urban' is that the site was:
    • a centre of public or administrative life
    • occupied permanently by at least 1000 people
    • divided into zones with different functions (Hamilton 2003:23).

    Many oppida in Gaul did not fully meet the above criteria; therefore, some meeting a 'semi-urban' criteria.

  • Size: Oppida varied in size, form, origin, service provided and of course, political importance (Woolf 2003:107). Not all oppida were tribal capitals as the Helvetti tribe from eastern Alpine Gaul had 12 oppida and the Bituriges Cubi tribe from the Berry region of central Gaul had at least 20-30 sites (Woolf 2003:131).

    Bibracte oppidum: The size of oppida varied. A massive oppidum was built by the Aeduan tribe at Bibracte, Burgundy. Its internal wall of 5.2 kilometres encircled an area of 135 hectares. In 1986 some foresters stumbled upon an outer rampart wall of 7 kilometres. This extended the oppidum's area by another 200 hectares, a total of 335 hectares. It's said that Caesar stayed there when writing his Commentaries as it was the "largest and richest oppidum of the Aedui" (Cunliffe 1999:224).

    Dendrochronological evidence shows that the oppidum was founded about 120 B.C. Close by were other Aeduan secondary oppida at Mont Dardon and Mont Done.

A 1944 aerial photo of Mont Dardon in Burgundy (Aedui tribe) courtesy Steve Madry

A wooden palisade was built in late La Tène period at Mont Dardon. Recent excavations have found Gallic coins and a shrine to Celtic Matres perhaps Epona. Later, a Gallo-Roman 'fanum' (temple) was built on the citadel (Green, Berry and Tippitt 1987:59).

Manching oppidum: An even larger one was Manching in Lower Danube Valley: 380 hectares with a 7 kms wall. Less than 3% has been excavated. Huge finds have been unearthed especially iron-making, forging, coin and pottery production. Another oppidum in Germany was Kelheim with nearly a massive 600 hectares (Wells 2001:51-52).

See: http://www.dainst.org/index_37e3df1cbb1f14a192290017f0000011_en.html

Alesia oppidum: At Alesia (Mandubii, sub-tribe of Aedui tribe) where Caesar fought his decisive battle against Vercingtorix (52 B.C.). The oppidum consisted of some 97 hectares on a very prominent raised plateau. A Gallo-Roman town noted for its metallurgy later evolved on its summit.

Overlooking the Gallo-Roman temple/forum complex at Alesia

A panoramic view of Alesia from the top of the oppidum

Aerial view: http://www.alesia.com/phototheque_fr_18.html

To see oppida on map of Gaul see: http://dossierstorique.over-blog.com/ext/


Châteaumeillant oppidum: The oppidum at Mediolanum Biturigum (Bituriges Cubi tribe) at Châteaumeillant in the Cher region whose murus gallicus wall was built in 100 B.C. was only 24 hectares; yet, it has unearthed abundant pottery from the late La Tene period. Despite its small size, it was an important trade /production centre largely due to its strategic crossroads location to many other oppida.

Territory of the Bituriges Cubi Tribe in central France- Avaricum is now called Bourges

(Chateaumeillant Museum)

For a more extensive map of the region see: http://racf.revues.org/image.php?source=docannexe/image/632/img-2-small640.jpg&titlepos=up

A 40 metre wide ditch was probably built by the Bituriges tribe during Caesar's Gallic Wars. Notice how large Chateaumeillant's ditch (bottom coloured) is compared to the other oppida examples.

The oppidum boundary at Chateaumeillant mapped in white with the rivers in blue

Sophie Krausz, "The topography and Celtic fortifications of the Bituriges oppidum at Châteaumeillant-Mediolanum (Cher)", Tome 45-46, 2006-2007.

See : http://racf.revues.org/index632.html

Some of the 200 amphorae found in Celtic cellars (Chateaumeillant Museum) by Emile Hugoniot and Jacques Gouvest (1956-1984)

A bronze bracelet with six glass rings found near the rampart wall at nearby Levroux oppidum (Indre)

Evidence of many carbon deposits makes it likely that Chateaumeillant was a victim of Vercingetorix's scorched earth policy designed to deny Caesar's legions Celtic food supplies.

Villejoubert oppidum: Another example of an oppidum is the Limovices tribe's at Villejoubert (Durotincum) in central-west Gaul. It was a massive 300 hectares showing evidence of Neolithic settlement but occupied as an oppidum from the 2nd century B.C. The elongated plateau was some 4 kilometres long. The Limovices specialised in gold mining with some 250 mines revealed in field surveys. 10,000 of their warriors fought against Caesar at Alesia and along with their neighbours the Arverni their oppida were severely punished by Caesar. The famous crockery centre of Limoges with its white clay still carries the tribes' name.

Villejoubert oppidum (middle yellow arrow)

Development trends: There were 2 major trends of oppida (hillfort) building during the Iron Age reflecting tumultuous times:

  1. End of late Hallstatt late 6th/early 5th cent BC – "princely burials" were also a feature.
  2. In central and northern Gaul from Late Tene period 120 B.C. up to just before Gallic Wars (58 B.C.-50 B.C.). Most oppida date from 80-70 B.C. (Woolf 2003:110).

    Lezoux in central France presents the more normal sequence development where firstly an open settlement in the plain is abandoned in favour of a fortified hillfort. Lezoux was a 20 hectares site producing fine ceramics.

    Aulnat in Clermont-Ferrand (Arverni tribe) was another oppida that followed the same sequence development pattern as Lezoux (Cuncliffe 1999:228).

  • Southern Gaul: Oppida in southern Gaul saw an earlier and slower evolution due to their proximity to Greek and Roman influences. Le Pegue in Provence is dated at 530-520 B.C. and another oppidum at nearby Vaison La Romaine is also dated to the 6th – 5th centuries B.C. The Vocontii tribe settled at Vaison where the present medieval town is today.

Greek sherds displayed in Le Pégue Museum

Le Pégue oppidum was well placed to profit from trade coming from the Greek colony of Marseilles

Le Pégue potters tried unsuccessfully to copy Greek pottery

Entremont oppidum:

Entremont oppidum of the Salyii tribe in southern Gaul was begun at the beginning of the 2nd century B.C. Initially, it was only 1 hectare in size but evolved a few decades later into a 3.5 hectare site. Entremont's stone walls were 3.5 metres wide and 7 metres high interspersed at regular intervals by even higher, protruding round towers. Quite impressive for the time!

Link to the above website "The Gauls in Provence": http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/entremont/en/index2.html

  • As Paul-Albert Fevrier (1973) remarked in his study of 'cities' of southern Gaul which holds true for all Gaul there were huge differences among these hill-top settlements in size, appearance and the changes they experienced in pre-conquest Gaul (P-A Fevrier 1973:11). Populations in these oppida could vary regionally from mostly a few hundred people to several thousand in some of the larger oppida. Most sites that developed were small (1-5 hectares) providing shelter for a few hundred people.
  • Even in the few larger oppida in the south, public spaces like fora and religious structures were scarce. They were like the walled medieval Umbrian/Tuscan towns today overlooking their fertile plains (Woolf 2003:108-109).
  • In the south of Gaul there was an earlier evolutionary development of settlements (7th-6th centuries BC) with some planned urban aspects like stone and a developing monumentality in their buildings; in the north, inter-tribal crises led to 'sudden concentration' of people with no specialised, hierarchial quarters- it was mainly for defence! (Woolf 2003:111). According to Woolf, most people lived and worked in self-sufficient villages with additional large farms in some regions. In fact, "Gaul was a world of villages" (Woolf 2003:111).

To research one of these southern Mediterranean oppida look at this very engaging website on the Celtic-Ligurian oppidum of Lattara:


View from Enserune oppidum in Languedoc-Roussillon region

Construction: Major late Iron Age settlements in Gaul used wattle, daub, thatch with massive earthen ramparts often criss-crossed with timber poles that are nailed together with iron nails in a frame-like structure called 'murus gallicus'. They were better planned and the walls strengthened.

'Murus gallicus' style walls, Bibracte's reconstructed gateway called 'La Porte du Rebout' (top above) and a model (Bibracte Museum). The gate is 19 metres wide!

Another type of defensive wall was the 'Kelheim' type where large upright poles set in post-holes 1-2 metres apart. The gaps were filled with drystone work and the tops of the poles tied back with horizontal timbers into ramps of soil and rubble. The 'Kelheim' was more common in eastern Germany (Cunliffe 1999:230).

'Kelheim' style wall

A third style of defensive wall was found in northern Gaul called 'Fecamp' style after that site's fortification. Here a huge rampart was built of earth and rubble without the timber construction reinforcing. It relied on huge, wide bottomed ditches to disadvantage an attacking enemy. These ditches could vary in design.

Video/3D animations on 'murus gallicus' construction. Click on pic!


Successive oppida: Sometimes an oppida would be replaced by another nearby for reasons unknown. For example:

  • In Soissons there were successive oppida- Villeneuve St. Germain and Pommiers
  • Clermont-Ferrand there were three successive oppida- Corent, Gondole, and Gergovie

Gergovie oppidum (top of picture) - a dual temple complex has been discovered recently (courtesy of Gergovie Museum)

Gergovie's basalt tableland is 1.5 kms long and .5 kilometre wide. It still dominates the Auzon River Valley with an altitude of 744 metres. The Arverni tribe made this an impregnable hillfort at the beginning of the 1st century BC by carving out the main section of the rampart from the hard basalt tableland. On top of this natural barrier they constructed a dry stone, buttressed wall.

A model of the basalt wall with dry basalt wall on top (above top, Gergovie Museum) and a view of the buttressing technique on site at Gergovie (above).

A blue glass bangle from Gergovie oppidum (Bargoin Museum, Clermont-Ferrand)

Glass beads from nearby Corent oppidum (above top) and Corent pottery (Bargoin Museum, Clermont-Ferrand)

A Gallo-Roman stopper or 'bouchon' for a wine amphora from Gergovie oppidum. Mercury is depicted on it along with an inscription 'CRESIMI-L-M-C' (Bargoin Museum, Clermont-Ferrand)

The Celts were exceptional weavers. This garment belonged to a rather large lady found in a grave at Les Martres de Veyre. It's dated end of 2nd century/beginning of 1st century BC.  It's in amazing condition (Bargoin Museum, Clermont-Ferrand)

Gongole oppidum (70 hectares) with rampart in foreground

"The Celtic Ghost cavalry" found in 2002 near Gondole (a 'brotherhood' suicide pact'?).

8 warriors and their horses were buried in this grave. Caesar related how 600 Arverni warriors or 'soldurii' would die for one another. More recent excavations have discovered 19 more graves with horse burials along with an ox, sheep or a dog.



  • Check out these multimedia links on Gergovie oppidum:

Gergovie video link: http://www.arafa.fr/SPIP/spip.php?article7

Animations Gergovie gate http://www.photos.arafa.fr/displayimage.php?album=lastup&cat=-6&pos=1

Defences(wall) http://www.photos.arafa.fr/displayimage.php?album=lastup&cat=-6&pos=4

Video of oppidum at Pons showing defensive walls:


South-western oppida: An interesting smaller oppidum at Le Yaudet is situated on a granite promontory guarding the estuary of the river Léguer on the north coast of Brittany called the Armorican peninsula. It has been excavated by a team of archaeologists from Oxford and Brittany Universities from 1991-2002 revealing that it was in use from Neolithic times and that is played a key role in the Atlantic trade in late La Tène era.

Le Yaudet derived from Map Gallia Tribes Towns.png on Commons

Le Yaudet link: http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/excavation.html


Who built the oppida?

Oppida were the creation of the Gallic aristocrats. They became symbols of success and power for oligarchic groups of Gallic elite warriors and their many clients/followers. Since they were unable to become sole rulers among their many tribal aristocratic peers, they tried to out-do them by building an oppidum by pooling resources with a trusted faction of oligarchs. Caesar talked of councils and senates and only an elected single ruler in times of crises (M. Coleman 2009:6).

In an oligarchic, consuming, 'prestige consumer' economy oppida became impressive commodities in themselves (M. Coleman 2009:10)

The fact that some oppida were so large that their long walls were virtually indefensible supports the view that they were built to impress.

One side-effect was that aristocratic Gauls created many market economies. Craftsmen would be attracted to it and workshops created. Feasts would reward the elite warriors' clients and pacify the gods to boot.

Some of the notable Gallic warriors who built the oppida that we know about are:

  • Bituitus, Arverni noble warrior

The coin was struck in 110 B.C. by a moneyer by the name of Scaurus to commemorate a Roman victory over the Allobroges-Arverni tribes. It shows Bituitus, noble warrior of the Averni, with a spear and a typical carynx or war trumpet with an animal-shaped bell. The proconsul of Rome Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus tricked Bituitus into returning to Rome for peace talks only to make him a prisoner. Bituitus' captive role was to decorate the proconsul's triumph through the streets of Rome.

  • Louernius, Arverni noble warrior

Louernius, the father of Bituitus, threw a huge party or 'potlatch' (a process of exaggerated consumption and giving sometimes in a destructive, throw-away manner) in order to raise more support for his faction and family and to enhance his 'generous' reputation. The feast was so huge that expensive jars of drink and plentiful food were spread out over a Roman mile. It lasted for days and to top it off Louernius distributed high quality gold and silver coins to his clients reportedly out of the back of his chariot. The bards or poets who picked up the coins would no doubt spread the word throughout the territory (Coleman 2009:12).

What was the purpose of the oppida?

  • Coleman(2009) believes that oppida were centralised economic centres designed to increase the prestige-based power of the aristocratic Gauls.
  • Cunliffe (1999) agrees that the control of the economic route nodes - the movement of goods and services- was an important function of oppida. Aspiring leaders used them as a means of controlling goods and raw materials in order to manipulate them to gain luxury exotics like Spanish and Italian wine for their feasts or 'potlatches'. Raiding opportunities were becoming limited so a great show or potlatch would substitute to bolster their reputations (Cunliffe 1999:216-217). Oppida were service centres for their hinterland in many ways: politically, economically, socially and religiously. In many ways, they functioned like towns (Cunliffe 1997:224-231)
  • Wells (2001) suggests political and ideological factors like the Roman threat itself along with the development more complex communities. Caesar referred to them as capitals as if political centres (Wells 2001:52-53)
  • On the other hand, Elizabeth Hamilton (2009:24) of the University of Pennsylvania believes that the main purpose of oppida was for defence in a time of inter-tribal warfare. Hamilton calls them 'artificial constructs' that were built in mostly high inconvenient places and whose function as massive defensive sites became redundant with the Augustan 'pax Romana' (Roman peace). Read her article here: http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/45-1/The%20Celts%20and%20Urbanization.pdf
  • Fichtl (2005) gives importance to many functions like ostentation by oligarchy and defence but he puts most value on oppida as symbolic gestures of a new urban way of life whose ramparts marked more than just defensive lines. Like the Roman pomerium, ritualistic rules and regulations applied for those inside the perimeter.

    See http://racf.revues.org/index515.html

What happened to them?

One hundred years after Caesar's conquest of Gaul the oppida of Celtic Gaul were abandoned. Over more than a 30 year period from the end of the 1st century B.C. through to the end of the Augustan principate the new aristocratic elite of Gaul mostly rebuilt their urban settlements in more economically viable positions. Plains and valleys located on road junctions or near favourable river positions were favoured. A 'New Order' demanded new rules!

Settlement 'transformation': The oppida in the Aisne Valley in Picardy reveal one successive pattern of settlement or 'transformation' from oppida to a new Roman inspired settlement:

  • Pommiers oppidum on a hill top overlooking the Aisne River was occupied up to Caesar's conquest followed by
  • A post-Caesarian move to Villeneuve-Saint-Germain oppidum some 3 kms away closer to the river but protected by the river on three sides. There is some evidence of Roman influence such as buildings carefully laid out in a rough grid-like pattern.
  • However, this site was short-lived when people moved to the new Augustan town at Soissons that was built on the river plain and flats.

Mont Beuvray, Bibracte:

Another example of resettlement was Mont Beuvray oppidum called Bibracte. It was the largest and most prestigious oppidum of the Aedui tribe. Built on the western slope of the Haut-Morvan uplands in Burgundy its most outer defensive wall was more than 7 kilometres in length. Including this second external fortification wall, Bibracte totalled some 335 hectares. Caesar greatly admired its proportions and appreciated its strategic and economic significance. It controlled the watershed between the rivers Saone, Rhone and Yonne.

Roman-influenced construction occurred at Bibracte over the next 20 years but then a decision was made to resettle the population of Bibracte some 29 kilometres from the oppidum at Autun. Evidence supports a voluntary resettlement for the Aedui were 'model subjects'. What was their city's new name? Augustodunum! (Woolf 2000:119)

A recent excavation at Bibracte oppidum has discovered a forum believed to be dated before Caesar's conquest of Gaul.

Woolf (2003) believes that the new Gallic elite (such as the Aedui at Bibracte), who had served in Caesar's armies as auxiliaries during the long inter-tribal Gallic Wars, generally accepted the new regime in order to bolster their newly gained 'privileged' positions. They 'enthusiastically' adopted and adapted Roman cultural beliefs to increase their status including living in towns.

New status symbol for the elite arrives: Becoming Roman for the Gallic elite was merely a 'status marker' in a traditional Celtic sense not a political, ethnic statement (Woolf 2003:240-241). Therefore, for the elite in most cases, oppida were out; Roman towns and country villae were fashionably in!

A few oppida sites remained to be built over like Paris and Bourges. In southern Gaul, Enserune continued to be lived in well into the 1st century A.D. Also in the south, Ambrusson continued because of its closeness to the Via Domitia road but expansion pressures saw its closure and a resettlement on the lowlands. In the north, Alesia also continued with the building of a Roman town.

This transition of urbanisation in Gaul from oppida to Roman towns existed from 20 B.C. to A.D. 50 in what Greg Woolf calls the 'formative years' (Woolf 2003:113-116). In these 'formative years' the new elite of Gaul showed a commitment to change that was to create a new 'Gallo-Roman' culture (Woolf 2003:116).

Autun's 7 kilometres Augustan rampart wall with its 57 towers. The Aedui tribe moved to this 'greenfield site' voluntarily from Bibracte oppidum in 15 BC

The monumental southern gateway of Autun. It has been suggested by some scholars that Autun was designed to rival the impressive Celtic monumentality of Bibracte (Woolf 2000:118)

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