A HISTORY OF ANCIENT FRANCE
By Tim Lambert
During the last ice age humans called Cro-Magnons lived in France. They dwelt in caves and they hunted animals such as mammoths and reindeer. They must have been resourceful people to survive in such a harsh climate and they also created art. The Cro-Magnons are known for the paintings they made on the walls of caves. They also carved figurines from ivory.
After the end of the ice age the hunter-gatherer lifestyle came to an end in France. The agricultural revolution began in the Middle East but farming began in France about 6,000 BC. However the changed to farming from hunting and gathering food happened gradually. It took centuries. For a long time hunting was still an important source of food.
Nevertheless by about 4,500 BC the stone age farmers had created a sophisticated society. They built impressive stone tombs and they also erected menhirs (standing stones).
The early farmers in France used stone tools but about 2,000 BC bronze was introduced into France. Then about 900 BC a people called the Celts or Gauls migrated to France. They brought iron tools and weapons with them.
At the top of Celtic society were the aristocrats. Below them were the farmers and craftsmen. Celtic craftsmen were very skilled workers in iron, bronze and gold.
Furthermore trade flourished in Gaul and the Gauls built communities known as hill forts, which could be considered the first French towns. Then about 600 BC the Greeks founded Marseilles and Gaul increasingly came into contact with the Mediterranean world.
However the Gauls were hopelessly disunited. They were divided into about 60 tribes and that made it easy for the Romans to conquer them.
First, in 121 BC, the Romans took control of part of southern France. They called it the province (In Latin provinicia). Today it is called Provence. Then in 58 BC Julius Caesar began conquering the rest of Gaul. The Gauls failed to unite against him until 52 BC when a man called Vercingetorix led them. However the Gauls were crushed at the battle of Alesia and eventually they were forced to submit to Roman rule.
Afterwards the Romans built a network of roads across Gaul to enable their army to march quickly from one area to another. Then in 43 BC they made Lugdunum (Lyon) the capital of Gaul and under the Emperor Augustus many more towns were built.
Slowly the Gauls adopted the Roman way of life (at least to a certain extent). Latin became a common language. Moreover some Gauls were made Roman citizens. (Being a Roman citizen was a privilege and an advantage). Many Gauls came to fill government posts in Gaul and in 48 AD they were allowed to become Roman senators.
Christianity arrived in France as early as the first century. Christians suffered terrible persecution. In 250 AD a man named Denis was beheaded. He later became patron saint of France.
However from the mid-3rd century the Roman Empire was in decline. There was raging inflation and epidemics struck. Worse Rome imposed crushing taxes. To escape them some peasants abandoned their farms and became outlaws.
Meanwhile, in the late 3rd century some Germanic peoples raided France. The Emperor Diocletian (284-305) tried to deal with the situation by completely reforming the administration in Gaul. As a result Roman France lasted for another century.
However in December 406 AD a group of Germanic tribes entered France and settled there. The Romans were unable to stop them. Nevertheless at first the Germanic settlers accepted Roman rule. However as the Roman Empire broke down they gradually formed independent kingdoms.
A Timeline of France
A Brief History of Paris
Last revised 2016