Model of Villa from Sévinac. Source: Guide-du-Gers/Eric Charles

The Countryside in Southern Gaul in the Late Antiquity

Between AD 410–506, the Visigothic Kingdom of Toulouse ruled over Southern Gaul and much of the Iberian Peninsula. The heartland, though, was Aquitaine between the Pyrenees to the south and the Garonne to the north, more or less present-day Gascony. What was life in the countryside like?

Mystery in Landes. By Camille Corot © Rijksmuseum. Source: Europeana
Mystery in Landes. By Camille Corot © Rijksmuseum. Source: Europeana

Present-day Gascony consists of three different types of landscape. To the south, we find the forested foothills of the Pyrenees, steeply rising into the mountainous region further south. To the west, we find the marshes and sandy plains of the Landes, though now extensively drained and forested; and to the east and north of this, a rolling countryside crisscrossed with rivers cascading down from the Pyrenees until they join the lower Garonne.

Together, these three types of landscapes provided ample possibilities for a diversified set of distinctive resources, each supplementing the other. To the south, the foothills provided timber, wood, and minerals including the treasured marble, which featured in the luxurious villas of the aristocrats. Also, the region would have acted as the summer-part of the traditional system of transhumance with sheep. To the north and east, we find the traditional cereal-growing landscape, which probably also produced young animals, which may later have been pastured out in the marshy moors of the Landes or up in the foothills to the south. Vine-growing would surely have been widespread. Careful studies of pollen-profiles, though, are still waiting to take place.

During the Roman optimum, the region constituted a fertile corner of the Empire, and numerous villas were planned and built during this period. After the economic crisis in the third century, these building-complexes reached new heights. Covering up to 10.000 m2, the living areas were opulently organised around courtyards with colonnades and magnificent living quarters embellished with marble columns and mosaics. Central to these complexes were the baths, which played a significant role in the life of the landed gentleman and his family. We know of the lifestyles, which were enacted in these surroundings from the writings of Ausonius (c. 310–395) and Sidonius (c. 430–489).

Unfortunately, excavations have focused on the often impressive and gaudy living quarters, and less on the agricultural system of exploitation of the landscape. At best, our knowledge of the organisation of the use of land and the resources is patchy. We do know, however, that such villas were located in landscapes filled with minor country estates, farms, and even village-like settlements. They were not “alone” in the landscape.

The 5th century

Pottery from 5th to 6th century at Bordeaux © Inrap
Pottery from 5th to 6th century at Bordeaux © Inrap

In AD 418, however, the Roman Emperor Honorius entered into an agreement with the Goths, who – after the sack of Rome in AD 410 – had wandered to southern Gaul, where they had found a living as mercenaries in the Roman army, campaigning against the Sueves in Iberia. Historians still dispute the character of the agreement, but in the mid 5th century the result was clear: the Goths had settled in the countryside, built a palace at Toulouse, and following this been recognised as a distinct polity (a kingdom) inside the Roman Empire. Aquitania covers 41.000 km2. Only part of this, however, was corralled to house the Goths and their hangers-on, numbering somewhere between 50-100.000. The army engaged in Iberia cannot have been much smaller than 20.000 warriors; multiply this with a factor 4.5 persons pr household, and a conservative estimate is that the newcomers may have constituted a third or a half of the resident population.

Archaeologists and historians alike have puzzled over the lack of archaeological finds witnessing to these people. At this point in history, however, these newcomers had been living for centuries on the borders of the Roman Empire, after which they had roamed the countryside for a couple of generations. The most likely explanation is that they had adopted an admixed material culture heavily influenced by Roman artefacts and styles. Of these, the Roman pottery seems to be the best indicator. Up until the mid-fifth-century, traditional Roman pottery dominated, the so-called DSP-wares (dérivées-de-sigillée). In the second half of the century, however, the styles and technical execution deteriorated and simplified. Rather, local copies began to dominate, indicating an implosion of the economic system of commerce. Circuits became local.

During this period, the grand villas were largely abandoned or transformed. Evidence of abandonment with widespread squatting is manifold. Also, more detailed studies have shown a shift from a cereal to a more pastoral economy. Nevertheless, the downturn was not ubiquitous. Pollen-studies have shown that although some locations experienced dramatic downturns in number of settlements, the Pyrenees witnessed a resurgence in agro-pastoral activities, with an increase in forest-activities and the presence of shepherd huts in high altitudes.

A fine example is Séviac, a villa 100 km north of Toulouse. Built as a modest farm in the 1st-century BC, it was turned into a proper villa in the 2nd century and further reconstructed in the 4thcentury. During the latter years of the 5th century, the villa was abandoned. Slight traces of timber structures indicate a period of squatters taking over the place. Soon after, an apsidal room at the south-east of the complex was fitted with yet another apsis and a baptismal basin. Later, additional rooms were fitted to the complex, as well as an oratory with proper alignment with the east-west orientation. This oratory became the centre of the churchyard, finally abandoned in the 8thcentury. Séviac appears to represent one spectacular example of how the transition of the villa-landscapes of the Roman Empire turned into the new “villages” or “hamlets” of the Early Middle Ages.

VISIT:

A visit to the Villa de Séviac should be complemented with a visit to the Elusa Interpreation Centre and the Domus de Cieutat, demonstrating the complex relations between a villa and the neighbouring small town. At the Archaeological Museum at Elusa, visitors can also enjoy the exhibition of the Trésor d’Eauze from the 2nd century.

SOURCES:

A history of long-term human-environment interactions in the French Pyrenees inferred from the pollen data
By Didier Galop, Damien Rius, Carole Cugny and Florence Mazier
In: Continuity and Change in Cultural Adaptation to Mountain Environments, Ed. by L.R. Lozny. In: Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation Vol 7
Springer Verlag 2013

Villas, Visigoths and Evangelisation: Rural Archaeology in Late Antique Novempopulana.
By Simon Esmonde Cleary.
In: Interpreting Transformations of People and Landscapes in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
Ed. by Pilar Diarte Blasco and Neil Christie. Oxbow 2018, pp. 53 – 66

The Countryside of Southern Gaul from the fourth to the Seventh Centuries AD. Settlement, Landscape, and Society.
By Claude Raynaud.
In: Interpreting Transformations of People and Landscapes in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.
Ed. by Pilar Diarte Blasco and Neil Christie. Oxbow 2018, pp. 43 – 52

 

 

 

Photos: Guide-du-Gers

 

 

 

 

Creator: Eric Charles

Copyright: © 2011 Eric Charles

 

Souvenir de Les Landes, by Camille Corot c. 1872. Source: Europeana (Rijksmuseum)