26 February, 2009

In Lugdunum's shadow.

Yes, Interpol--the crime fighting group not the rock group--is based in Lyon.
Lyon has the best soccer team in the country (sorry, Marseille fans, truth hurts sometimes).
The Lyonnais brothers Lumiere invented cinema there in 1865--thanks for that Auguste and Louis.
From the late 15th century, Lyon was truly the financial center of France. By the 19th century, Lyon also became an industrial powerhouse thanks to its significant silk trade.

And the food and wine are pretty good.

Scratch a bit at its surface, however, and you'll find that Lyon has quite the Roman past; you can get a good taste of it at the superb Musee de Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. The museum structure and exhibition layout are well-done and interesting in themselves, but you'll have to take my word for it: once inside the museum, which is built into the hill, I wasn't even allowed to take a picture of the very large, completely un-Roman, un-old skylight; grmph. The mosaics on display are extraordinary, there are some surprising testaments to Roman ingeniousness, and you get a multidimensional sense of what daily life was like. The sheer amount of Roman things that have been excavated or just plain found in Lyon is pretty eye-popping. A Lyonnais friend quipped that you can't scoop up two teaspoons of dirt without hitting something Roman. This is problematic as building projects or renovations can be delayed for years by the state as archeologists sift for treasure, but what they find as a result can be breath-taking.

It is well worth the hike up the Fourviere hill to get to the museum and amphitheatre (France's oldest--and still being used), though unless you are training for a very uphill marathon, take the funicular, which will bring you most of the way up there. In my own defense, I was wearing heels. Because that's just what you do when you come from la campagne, and you want to imbibe city life--you trade the sensible shoes for the neither sensible nor particularly comfortable (for 6 hours of walking anyway) ones. That way, you're a city person again. With lots of blisters.

I digress.
While there has been a presence in the area since the neolithic period, Lyon really came into its own under Roman rule. It became known as Lugdunum, which was a latinization of the Gaulish name Lugodunon--neither exactly rolls off the tongue. (Thank goodness "Lugdunum" evolved to "Lyon" by the Middle Ages). Founded in 43 BC, the city would remain one of the most important in Europe for three centuries.

Lugdunum was the intersecting point for four major Roman thoroughfares : south to Italy, north to the Rhine (hence a base for expansion into Germany), northwest to the English Channel, and west to the Aquitaine. It became the capital city and administrative center of Roman Gaul. Four principal (and very-well engineered) aqueducts fed the city's fountains, public baths, and wealthy homes. An impressive degree and range of trade made Lugdunum one of the most cosmopolitan cities of Gaul, with Italians, Greeks, and immigrants from the oriental provinces of Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine among its numbers.

Lugdunum began its decline in the second century, with an epic struggle for imperial succession. It was claimed by a contemporary that 300,000 men were involved in the battle, and the city was plundered or at least severely damaged by the battle. Even then, war wasn't good, nor particularly effective. Historical and archeological evidence indicates that Lugdunum never fully recovered from the devastation of this battle.
Needless to say, I didn't remember all this bird's eye view information from my three hour visit, by the end of which I was feeling pretty Roman-ed out (and footsore). What remained was the intimate detail revealed, the sense of pageantry, the codified ritual. Thank you for the rest, museum guide book and Wikipedia. (Now that's something the Romans didn't come up with).
You can find out more at Lyon's official website: http://www.lyon.fr/vdl/sections/en/

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