Tour des Fouilles (14): Big City
Forget Lutetia. There is no discussion as to what was, by far, the largest and most important city in Roman Gaul, and that was Lugdunum, modern Lyon. Indeed, there are arguments to support the idea that, after Rome, Lugdunum was the most important city in the western, Latin-speaking half of the Roman empire - in some ways maybe even comparable to Alexandria in Egypt, though the latter was much bigger in size (and distinctly less Roman in character). Lugdunum was founded shortly after the death of Caesar, in 43 BC, and when Augustus rose to power, in 27 BC, he made Lugdunum the capital of the three Gaulish provinces, thus turning the city into a major political center. The city got a branch of the official mint in 15 BC, and was a major source of Roman coins for most of the imperial period. The imperial family also spent a lot of time in Lugdunum. Augustus visited the place three times; Drusus, his adopted son (and the brother of the later emperor Tiberius) lived in the city from 13BC until shortly before his death in 9BC. His son, the later emperor Claudius, was born in Lugdunum.
Why was this place so important? Probably, the Romans chose Lugdunum as capital of the Gauls because of the position of the site at the confluence of two major, partially navigable rivers. Lugdunum was one of the northernmost points that still could easily be reached by cargo ships from the Mediterranean, and was just north of the Massif Central, which made travelling westwards a lot easier. Yet, this does not explain the special attention of the imperial house in the Augustan period. This, in fact, cannot be seen apart from what was happening, right in this period, in northern Europe, where several legions were busy extending the Roman empire up to the Elbe - which would continue until the defeat of Varus in 9AD. The Romans used Lugdunum as a base for their activities in the lower Rhine area - and as a key node in the army supply system.
The political prominence of Lugdunum also had economic consequences. It may come as no surprise that when the Romans began to lay out the road network of the Gaulish provinces, they made Lugdunum its centre. Thus, direct roads went from Lugdunum all the way to Boulogne-sur-Mer on the English channel, to Cologne on the Rhine, to Saintes on the Atlantic, to the Alps and, of course, to the Mediterranean in the south. The city's political role thus made that Lugdunum also became geographically a very central place: it was very much the spider in the web that Paris is nowadays.
Thus, Lugdunum developed into the big pivot in the trade between the Mediterranean and Roman Europe, particularly Britain and the Rhine. The olive oil from Hispania Baetica, which was consumed by the legions on the Rhine on a large scale, often seems to have changed hands at Lugdunum. The same is true for the mediterranean wine. Indeed, the silver won in Northern Spain was turned in to coins in Lugdunum, and then paid to the soldiers in the camps along the Northern frontier.
Quite predictably, this political and economic prominence shaped the city, and caused considerable monumentalization. Lugdunum is one of the few cities in the Roman west to have both a theatre and an odeon (a covered theatre). They were directly next to each other, on Fourvières hill, where the original Roman colony was situated. Moreover, there was an amphitheatre (which is not remarkable in itself), but also a circus (which is highly unusual in Gaul). The city had four aqueducts, some of which have left spectacular remains - including the dramatic siphon system crossing the Izeron valley between Chaponost and Ste. Foy-les-Lyon.
In other words: Lugdunum does not often make it to the archaeological handbooks, and the question, really, is why this is the case. It is one of the key cities of Roman Europe - and it remained so until well into the third century, when it lost part of its prominence to Trier. This is the Roman city of France.