Saturday, February 14, 2009

What's in a Name? Paris & the Seine

Once upon a time, the city I now call “home” was not a city at all, but a settlement of rudimentary huts scattered across five small islands in the northern bend of a serpentine river that wound its circuitous way to the sea. The inhabitants of the islands were an iron-age tribe called the Parisii. They lived in the ancient land of Gaul at about the same time that Aristotle, in Greece, was working out the foundations of Western philosophy.

The Parisii built their huts and grew their crops and tended their livestock on their river islands. They fished from the river whose banks defended them against intruders; the river was their moat. For two centuries, from the 3rd century to 52 BC, the Parisii thrived on their island home. The Sicauna, which is argued to mean "sacred river", provided for their every need.

Then one day, a warrior came upon the quiet community. He was traveling from Rome to the place we now call England, conquering the Gauls along the way. He sent Roman citizens to colonize the settlement. His name was Julius Caesar and he called this colony Lutetia, meaning “mid-water dwelling”; the river's name was latinized to Sequana and would eventually come to be called the Seine.

Throughout the centuries of Roman rule, Lutetia grew. Bursting her island banks, she spilled across the south side of the river. A town emerged with a population of 8,000, served by an aqueduct, thermal baths, a Forum, an amphitheatre, and a gladiator arena. The largest of the five islands became home to a Roman Palace. A wide road, straight as an arrow, bisected the island, cutting a line from England to Rome to join the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. A portion of the road still exists today as the rue St. Jacques in Paris' Latin Quarter.

Four hundred years later, in the 4th century AD, Roman Emperor Julian visited Lutetia and it pleased him. He found winter there pleasantly mild and the water of the Siene sweet to drink. He stayed in Lutetia for three years. Shortly thereafter, the Roman Empire fell. The Franks, a Germanic people from Francia north of the Rhine, captured and Christianized Roman Lutetia. In 360 AD, the Franks renamed their new city Paris, in honor of the original inhabitants.

From a small Gallic settlement to a regional Roman town to the multicultural capital of a modern European state, Paris is today one the world's most visited cities and the city I now call “home”.

Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris: Portrain of a City. London: Pan Books, 2003.
Jones, Colin. Paris: Biography of a City. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

Paris Coat of Arms, is usually accompanyied by the motto: Fluctuat nec mergitur, which means in Latin, "She is tossed by the waves, but is not sunk". Both originate with the river Seine boatsman's corporation, a powerful guild that ruled the city's trade and commerce as early as the Roman era.

Bust of Julius Caesar. Remastered from Alfred von Domaszewski Geschichte der Romischen Kaiser Verlag von Quelle & Meyer in Leipzig 1914.

Section of a map of Roman Paris, after Crypte Archéologique 2005, Paris; MacKendrick 1972.

1 comment:

  1. Another reminder of how much I don't know! Thanks for filling in one of many, many gaps, so clearly and engagingly.