Tour des Fouilles (6): St. Gabriel at the Crossroads

I had not really planned ths, but it seems the medieval, stand-alone place of catholic worship is going to be a recurring theme throughout this series about the Tour de France and  Roman Gaul. Today, our sanctuary of service actually is a small chapel, standing in the middle of the olive yards on the west end of the Alpilles, close to Tarascon, where the race is crossing the Rhone. The twelfth-century Chapel of St. Gabriel de Tarascon will be passed at 96.5km before the finish - it is even in the official race schedule, so there will be a shot, perhaps also of the two medieval towers up on the hill behind it. Again, it stands on top of some Roman settlement - which went under the name Ernaginum. It probably was not really a city, but a village. It was, however, an extremely important location in southern Roman Gaul: this was the place where the long distance roads that ran through the region met. All of them.

Ernaginum: Stone Altar - Stone votive altar without inscription, found on-site at Ernaginum. [source]

From the southeast came the Via Aurelia from Aquae Sextiae (Aix-les-Bains, where this stage started) and Cemenelum. In fact, this is the very same Via Aurelia that still starts in Trastevere in Rome. It ran all the way along the Italian coast to Gaul. The original road was constructed from 241 BC (!) onwards, but the part through Gaul was constructed from 106 BC onwards. At Ernaginum, the Via Aurelia bended southward to the big harbour city of Arles. 

From the northeast came the Via Domitia, which was also constructed from the late second century BC onwards, and connected what the Romans called Cisalpine Gaul - basically the Po Valley - with what they called Transalpine Gaul - Gaul proper, we would say. It crossed the Alps at the Col de Montgenèvre, and followed the Durance Valley - we will come there in two weeks time - to cross the Rhone at Tarascon, and then continuing along the southern French coast to the Spanish border. 

Finally, there was the Via Agrippa, which started at Arles, and continued to Lyon, where it split into three branches - one leading to Saintes, in the west, one to Boulogne-sur-Mer (where the Channel could be crossed), and one all the way up to Cologne. Ernaginum - however small it was - thus was one of the key hotspots of the Roman network in Europe.

Ernaginum: Via Aurelia - Small section of the road with wheelruts. [source]

There is not a lot that remains visible in the area around the Chapel of St. Gabriel de Tarascon nowadays, but if you look carefully, you may see remains of sculpted stone (see above), and at several places, traces of the roads are still visible - with the characteristical wheelruts. These have all been documented very carefully in recent years. Some small (rescue-)excavations have been taking place, but nothing really impressive has happened (yet). Yet the case of Ernaginum makes clear that a place that looks unimpressive may actually be hugely significant, historically (and this is also true the other way around). 


Allinne, C. and F. Verdin (2002). ‘Le vicus d'Ernaginum (Saint-Gabriel, Tarascon, Bouches-du-Rhône)’. RevArchNar 35: 137–156.