Augustodunum (Autun)

Posted on Jun 14, 2010 in category

Let's go back to the year 15 B.C. In that year the Aedui tribe moved from their oppidum at Bibracte on Mont Beuvray to Augustodunum (Autun) in the valley of the Arroux River some 20 minutes drive away. Scholars vary on the reason for this move whether it was voluntary on the part of Aeduan leaders (highly likely) or part of a general Gaul reorganisation of capitals or 'civitates' by Augustus. Whatever the reason, Autun is special. Why?

  • It is over 200 hectares in size with Graeco-Roman town planning into blocks (insulae)
  • Its stone rampart walls extended over 6 kms
  • Along the massive ramparts there were spaced 57 stone towers
  • Augustus gifted these ramparts to the Aedui tribe
  • There were 4 monumental gateways into the city
  • There is an incredible Australian Frenchman guide, Rob Urie!!!!!

Rob is an Australian who has been living in France for over 30 years. Rob has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Autun, the Romans, the Middle Ages, Arts Nouveau and Deco and Chablis wines. Rob is incredibly generous with his knowledge and time. His enthusiasm rubs off on you. One gets excited touring around Autun with Rob!

Coincidentally, Rob guided Bob Carr (my scholarship's founding patron) and his wife around Autun. When he showed Bob how the theatre's acoustics worked Bob was amazed (as we were) with the resonance from one spot. Bob proceeded to give a speech to the "Ladies and gentlemen of NSW..." with some Shakespeare thrown in too.

Autun boasts the largest theatre in Gaul and the Roman world: 148 metres in diameter with a height that went up to the present day tree tops. It accommodated 20,000 spectators. Most of the missing stone ended up in the present day military academy that was built at the end of the 17th century.

Rob started our tour by giving us a geographical overview of the city from a large wall model. The town planning was classic Roman with the town divided along a north-south/east-west axis; however, the planners struck a snag in the middle with the elevated topography so there's a zigzag section in the middle of Autun.

The 'Cardo maximus' (north/south arterial road) with wheel ruts evident

First stop- the 'Tower of Janus'. This structure is named incorrectly. No archaeological evidence exists to justify its name only a paddock called 'Genetoye' nearby. The size of this Celtic designed temple or 'fanum' is truly impressive. Rob explained how the building was constructed with purpose-built holes in the wall to allow timber scaffolding to be set up for its high construction and for later maintenance.

The cella or inner-sanctum of the temple must have been impressive with light coming in from high above from each wall's three lintelled windows. The niche for the deity's statue was 'grande' too.

The niche for the deity can be seen between the two lower arches

Rob suggested we walk to some of the next sites: the north gateway and nearby a special treat, an INRAP 'rescue' archaeology dig of an entire Gallo-Roman block or 'insula'.

The north gateway or 'Porte d'Arroux' was built to impress too. The two middle arches were for wheeled or animal traffic whilst pedestrians walked through the far two smaller archways. Soldiers would have lined the top with two semi-circular stone towers on either end. No one escaped paying their taxes here. Classic Graeco-Roman decoration exists on it architrave, frieze and cornice designs.

Now for the 'piece de resistance'- an INRAP archaeological dig. INRAP is a government archaeological service that employs professional archaeologists to excavate a site pronto. In this street block a developer is proposing to build apartments. INRAP's job is to excavate the site over a short 6 month period in order to 'rescue' archaeological information and artifacts.

This block is quite unique in that is was largely untouched as it was an orchard. The site is a hive of activity: a pottery furnace has been discovered along with white ceramic figurines with the name of 'Pistillus' on the moulds used to create them; hypocaust heating is evident; a lateral narrow access road divided the insula; several deep wells have been excavated and a substantial drainage system that was lined with terracotta tiles still in perfect condition.

The drainage channel The furnace of 'Pistillus'?

Evidence of floor heating (hypocaust)

Interestingly, in our visit to the local museum 'Musee Rolin' we saw examples of the moulds and statues of 'Pistillus'.

A figurine of Sucellus (a Celtic god)

A tour of Autun without seeing a section of the rampart walls would be an anti-climax. This 'honorary' rampart of over 6 kms is one of the best preserved walls of Roman Gaul. Prestige and practical town planning reasons combined to create a unique Augustan construction.

The rampart walls were higher than today

Rob's extraordinary tour has been without doubt one of the highlights of my study tour particularly as it relates to the Aedui tribe of Burgundy and in helping me to define their so called 'Romanisation'.

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