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Burdigala (Bordeaux)

  1. Simon Esmonde Cleary

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah16031

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Esmonde Cleary, S. 2012. Burdigala (Bordeaux). The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

Burdigala was one of the principal cities of Roman Gaul, a major port, and under the Late Empire a provincial capital, seat of a university, and native city of Ausonius. Occupation of the gravel terrace on the western side of the Gironde estuary and to the north of the River Dévèze goes back to the sixth century bce. Roman sources people the area with the Bituriges Vivisci, a Celtic people possibly installed in this corner of Aquitanian territory after the Caesarian conquest. A major expansion and reorganization of the existing settlement took place in the second half of the first century bce, associated with much imported material. The Roman-style city was laid out at the start of the first century ce, its street-grid eventually covering 150 ha, with excavated evidence for houses and artisan activity. Little is known of the monuments of the city, except for a major early-second-century structure represented by the twenty-four Corinthian columns of the “Piliers de Tutelle,” which survived until 1671, and the large Amphitheater, probably also of second-century ce date, represented by the surviving “Palais Gallien.” The city seems to have been granted Latin rights under Vespasian. Successive waterfronts, epigraphic evidence for merchants, and abundant evidence for long-distance goods attest to the importance of commerce to Burdigala, whose port probably centered on the estuary of the Dévèze on the south side of the city. It was this area that was defended ca. 260–80 ce by massive walls enclosing 32 ha, a large area for defenses of this date, the foundations of the walls containing large quantities of sculptures and inscriptions from the monuments and cemeteries of the Principate. The size of the defenses attests to the importance of Burdigala, the provincial capital of Aquitania II from the later third century. Excavation within the walls has shown large fourth-century ce houses with mosaics: what is less certain is whether the walled area was all there was of late Roman Bordeaux, or whether occupation of the former city center on the plateau to the north continued. By this time Bordeaux was home to one of the largest universities of Gaul, though its origins are unknown. Best-known of its professors was Decimus Magnus Ausonius, tutor to the future emperor Gratian and poet, who gives a sketch of the city in his Ordo Urbium Nobilium, and of its professors in his Commemoratio Professorum Burdigalensium. When Christianity came to the city is unknown. A bishop from Burdigala attended the Council of Arles in 314 and recent excavations north of the medieval cathedral uncovered what may be the apse of the late Roman episcopal church, and the church of St. Seurin lies near the amphitheater in a major Late Antique cemetery with many carved sarcophagi. In 333/4 ce, a pilgrim undertook the arduous journey from Bor-deaux to the Holy Land and back, as narrated in the Itinerarium Burdigalense. Despite political turmoil, the fifth century ce seems to have been a period of continuing prosperity for the city.

References and Suggested Readings

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  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Barraud, D., ed. (2005) “ Dossier: Bordeaux 25 siècles d'histoire.” Archéologia 424: 3179.
  • Etienne, R. (1962) Histoire de Bordeaux. 1, Bordeaux antique. Bordeaux.