THE ROMAN ORATOR AND rhetorician Eumenius delivered a speech to the Roman governor of Gallia Lugdunensis in a.d. 298 advocating for the restoration of the famous schools called the Maeniana in the city of Augustodunum, at the center of the province. At the time of Eumenius’ speech, the once-thriving city had fallen on hard times. In a.d. 269, its residents had taken sides against Victorinus, the emperor of the ill-fated breakaway state now known as the Gallic Empire (ca. 269–271 a.d.), and the city was besieged for seven months. Access to the high level of culture and education that had been central to Augustodunum’s identity fell victim to a combination of circumstances, perhaps including damage to the Maeniana, funding diverted to the conflict, or a diminished student population.
Augustodunum (modern Autun) had been founded around 13 b.c. by the emperor Augustus (r. 27 b.c.–a.d. 14) as a new capital for the Aedui, a Celtic tribe that was—mostly—allied with the Romans. By 121 b.c., the tribe had been awarded the title of “brothers and kinsmen of Rome.” The Aedui largely supported Julius Caesar in his campaigns in Gaul, with the exception of a brief defection in 52 b.c. when they joined an unsuccessful rebellion led by Vercingetorix, the doomed chief of the Arverni tribe. The capital of the Aedui had been located at the settlement of Bibracte, but when the tribe became a civitas foederata, or allied community, of Rome, it was moved 15 miles east to its new location. It was given a name that combined its Roman and Gallic identities: Augusto- for Augustus, and -dunum, the Celtic word for “hill,” “fort,” or “walled town.”
From the start, Augustodunum was a city with a status and appearance befitting the prestige of the Aedui and their Roman governors. The provincial capital city of Lugdunum (modern Lyon), a little over 100 miles south, was its only superior in architectural splendor, economic prominence, and population in the region. “Augustodunum was one of the most important cities in Gaul,” says archaeologist Carole Fossurier of France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP). For most of the nearly three centuries preceding Eumenius’ oration, it was a thriving university town and one of the most Romanized in Gaul. It was encircled by a stout 4.5- mile city wall that enclosed an area of about 500 acres, with straight Roman streets laid out on a grid plan. It was also home to Gaul’s largest theater, an amphitheater, shops, manufacturing quarters, public baths, luxuriously decorated residences, a forum, numerous temples, and, eventually, places for Christian worship. The city was traversed by a major Roman road built by Augustus’ son-in-law Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa for military use and to encourage trade by connecting the province to the English Channel. Under the emperor Claudius (r. a.d. 41–54), who was born in Lugdunum, the Aedui became the first Gallic tribe whose members were allowed to serve as senators in Rome. In Augustodunum, writes the first- and second-century a.d. Roman historian Tacitus, “the noblest youth of Gaul devoted themselves to a liberal education.”
AFTER THE SIEGE BY Victorinus that damaged the city, the emperor Constantius I (r. a.d. 293–306) became Augustodunum’s benefactor. He promised to restore the city to its former status and appearance, an effort that was continued by his son, the emperor Constantine I (r. a.d. 306–337). “Augustodunum wanted to be a provincial capital,” says University of Kent archaeologist Luke Lavan, “and to become one, it competed with other provincial centers in Gaul for the emperor’s patronage.”
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