The city of Avignon was an overnight stop on the road between Paris and Nice in the heyday of the French Rivera. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda stayed there in L’hôtel de l'Europe on their way south. Earlier, when packet boat was the most comfortable way to travel, it was a convenient inland port. The indefatigable letter writer and traveler, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the marquise de Sévigné, stopped at Avignon in 1691 enroute to Marseille.
But then, Avignon has always been a city along the route to some place else.
It all started with the Rhône River
Nestled in a bend of the Rhône River which forms the western boundary of Provence in southeast France, Avignon has witnessed sweeping movements of various peoples since prehistoric times. The Rhône Valley was (and still is) the natural route between northern Europe and the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. The river was a trade route nearly as far back as 1000 B.C., when raw materials and finished goods of the Hallstatt culture (early Iron Age) were barged and floated up and down its length.
There was a rocky outcropping at the bend of the river where Avignon is now. It is still there, furnished with benches for those wishing to enjoy the river view. Prehistoric cave dwellers lived on this rocky dome as long ago as 3000 B.C. They were not alone in the area. In previous geological periods the Rhône had carved its bed deep into the limestone strata. Naturally-formed caves in the cliff faces became permanent settlements up and down the Rhône Valley.
Go 40 kilometers due north of Avignon, along the A-7 which follows the old north-south Roman road. At the Bollene exit you can leave the motorway and visit Barry, where the descendents of the early cave dwellers abandoned their homes (built as outward extensions of the original caves) only at the beginning of the last century.
The Avignon cave dwellers, though, were forced out of their homes more than 2,500 years before that. Around 750 B.C. one of the spreading Celtic tribes, the Cavares, claimed the Rocher des Doms as their own and built an oppedim there. Oppida were the first real cities. Generally small, as this one was, they were built of stone, often perched on a hillside, fortified and organized as a village. Despite their defendable position the Cavares, in turn, were ousted by the Romans at the very end of the B.C. period.
Avignon under the Romans
The period of Roman occupation, roughly spanning 70 B.C. through 250 A.D., was a peaceful time in Provence. Historically, it is known as the "Pax Romana". For the indigenous people there was the certitude that a cultivated field would be harvested, that the family would remain on its land with the assurance of passing that property on to the next generation. The Romans built roads, bridges and viaducts, extensively developed the agricultural base of the country, and regrouped the population into "cities" with administrative governments.
Avignon was an important outpost of the Roman Empire. The name itself, Avignon, is derived from the Roman name Avenio, meaning "strong winds". This may have been a reference to the mistral which blows from the north-northeast throughout the region.
The winds helped to move traffic on the river. During Roman times wines and fruits of the region were shipped first to Marseille and then further into the Mediterranean basin. Interestingly enough, the department of Vaucluse, of which modern-day Avignon is the prefecture or departmental seat, is considered the fruit basket of France. And Côtes du Rhône wines such as Chateauneuf du Pape are well-known today.
Avignon was a crossroad site for the Romans in Provence. The Rhône Valley was the major north-south route, both by land and by water, while the east-west corridor between Spain and Italy was just south of the city, near the citadel of Les Baux. Hannibal came through here in 218 B.C., just east of Avignon, with 38,000 men, 8,000 horses, and 37 elephants on his epic march to conquer northern Italy. Today the main north-south and east-west motorways follow the general layout of these ancient routes.
However, don’t look for Roman ruins in the Avignon of today. There are vestiges of Roman architecture under the present city walls. A bit of the Empire's water and sewer system still exists, albeit not in use. Which is a pity, as Avignon did not have a sewer system until late in the 1700's. Here and there is a section of old, old masonry, said to be Roman, incorporated into a garden wall. But not much else.
Avignon changed hands many times
This is because Avignon was always in the path of conquering armies. This is true even in modern times; it was occupied as recently as 1942-44 by German troops during World War II.
The decline of the Roman Empire was spread over a long period of time. For those in Provence, the first stirrings of Christianity began in the second half of the 3rd century A.D. Bishops were nominated in the early 300's in cities such as Arles and Narbonne. At the same time, beleaguered with troubles in Rome, the power of the Empire in its French outposts was diminished. For Avignon, the end came when the Romans were overrun by barbarian Visigoth hordes in 415 A.D. and the city was severely damaged.
The Middle Ages had begun, the first part of which is often called the Dark Ages. This time was marked by a series of invasions - Visigoths, Huns, Saxons and Francs arriving from the south, the north, and the east. Arab forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from the African continent in 709 and set out to conquer Spain, then moved on to what is now France. They reached as far north as Poitiers in 732, were defeated and turned back. Determined, they changed direction and moved eastward along the Mediterranean coast in an attempt to seize Nîmes and Arles, Marseille and Avignon.
In 737 A.D. Avignon backed the wrong army. It sided with the Muslim Arabs who were defeated by the Franks. The Frank leader, Charles Martel, destroyed Avignon in retaliation. The former glory of the Romans was gone. Finally, the Romans were Pagans and, as we shall see, some five hundred years later Avignon became very much of a Christian city. This doubtlessly lead to the destruction of any remaining Roman edifices.
If you want to see impressive Roman structures, go 21 kilometers north of Avignon to the city of Orange, where there is a Roman ampitheatre still in use today. Or go 20 kilometers south to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the summer hideaway of the titled famous. Saint-Rémy has a number of Roman bits and pieces, including a magnificent arc de triomphe and the Mausolée, a wedding-cake confection of arches and columns in the middle of an empty field. Go west to Nîmes in the Languedoc and visit the Maison Carrée, or go east to Vaison-la-Romaine with its Roman bridge spanning the Ouvèze River. Go anywhere in Provence, anywhere in the Midi, as the south of France is called, and you'll find a plethora of Roman ruins - except in Avignon.
The beginning of the feudal period
When we speak so glibly of the movement of armies through the Rhône Valley, of the shipment of goods across the Mediterranean to Italy and beyond, it is hard to remember that the average man of the same period never ventured more than ten or twelve miles from his birth place, if that. His entire world was his city, and cities were independent states.
Once the Muslim forces had been chased back toward Spain and North Africa, the French Empire began to form as a loose confederation of small kingdoms. By the year 1000 A.D., Avignon was a part of the kingdom of Provence which, itself, was under the protection of the kingdom of Bourgogne. And yet the average Avignonnais did not feel that he was a part of this. There was no central government to tax him or protect him, he felt no particular patriotism toward Bourgogne or Provence. His only loyalty, if it could be called that, was to the lord who owned him, who owned the land to which he belonged.
The feudal period began around the year 900 A.D. Kings came and went. Wars were won or lost. For the man in Avignon nothing changed. He and his children and his children’s children each lived out his individual span of 40-some years, each doing what his father and his father’s father had done before him. The world continued in this vein for another 400 years. And then something happened, something that changed Avignon forever.
continued in Avignon under the popes