Lutetia, Roman Paris

Written in homage to the city and people of Paris the day after the destructive fire at Notre Dame de Paris cathedral on 15 April 2019. (Reconstruction donation details at the end)


The Roman city of Lutetia (also Lutetia Parisiorum or Lutèce in French) was the predecessor of present-day Paris, but nobody’s entirely sure where that name came from. Perhaps from Celtic *luco-t-, which means “mouse” and -ek(t)ia, meaning “the mice” or from  luto- or luteuo-, which means “marsh” or “swamp”. Well, it was built on the banks of the Sequana and even today there’s a district in Paris called the Marais, French for marsh…

Before the Romans came, a large area around present-day Nanterre, northwest of the centre of Paris housed several main streets and hundreds of houses over 15 hectares. But then Caesar and his generals (in particular Titus Labienus) arrived and trounced the Celtic Parisii forces near the Mons Lutetius in 52 BC.

The Roman city was centred on the hill on the south bank of the river (currently Montagne Sainte-Geneviève), as the low-lying plain next to the river was easily flooded. But of course, it spread out.

In their usual methodical way, the Romans laid out Lutetia in a grid pattern, with the cardo maximus crossing the decumanus maximus, temples, forum, baths, blocks or insulae, a basilica for civic functions and a square portico with covered shops. The north-south axis was possibly dictated by the need to cross the marshy riverbanks in the shortest possible distance. Two main routes converged at the bridgehead over the Seine: one road coming from Spain and the other (of course) from Rome (via Lyon).

Model of forum of Lutetia, Musée Carnavalet

Model of forum of Lutetia, Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Model of the "pilier des nautes" 1st c AD, Musee Cluny

Model of the “pilier des nautes” 1st c AD, Musee Cluny

Major development of the city began under Augustus and was well advanced in the early 1st century AD when the elaborate Pilier des Nautes (pillar of the boatmen) was erected by a corporation of local river merchants and sailors (nautes) and dedicated to Tiberius and to several gods, showing that there was an important port on the river.

Lutetia expanded with a population estimated at around 8,000 by the second century AD but wasn’t politically important, not even the capital of its province, Lugdunensis Senona; Agedincum (modern Sens) held that honour.

As everywhere else in the empire, the Romans of Lutetia required fresh water so an aqueduct 26 km in length with an estimated flow rate of 2000 cubic metres a day provided the city with spring water collected from several points.

Tradition has it that before Christianity came to France, a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter stood on the site of Notre-Dame. This building was replaced by an early Christian basilica dedicated to Saint Stephen, possibly built in the late 4th century and remodelled later, or built in the 7th century from an older church, possibly the cathedral of Childebert I. Records were not kept very well at the time!

In the 3rd century St Denis became the city’s first bishop and in about 250 AD he and two companions were arrested and decapitated on the hill of Mons Mercurius thereafter known as Mons Martyrum (which became Montmartre) where Roman foundations have been found.

But the crisis of the third century was upon the Roman Empire. The Franks and Alemanni attacked Lutetia in 275 AD and destroyed much of the south bank parts of the city. As a consequence, the population moved to the island in the middle of the Sequana (currently the  Île de la Cité) and built a surrounding defensive wall using large stones from damaged structures on the south bank. From then on, the remains of the old city, including the main public buildings, were gradually abandoned.

Crypt under the square in front of Notre Dame

Crypt under the square in front of Notre Dame

A new basilica and baths were built on the island; their ruins were found beneath the square in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Beginning in 305 AD, the name ‘Lutetia’ was replaced on milestones by ‘Civitas Parisiorum’ (City of the Parisii). By the period of the Late Roman Empire (the 3rd-5th centuries AD), it was known simply as ‘Parisius’.

In 357-8 AD Julian the Philosopher, as Caesar of the Western empire and general of the Gallic legions, moved the Roman capital of Gaul from Trier to Paris which, after defeating the Franks in a major battle at Strasbourg in 357 AD, he defended against Germanic invaders coming from the north. He was proclaimed emperor (Augustus) by his troops in 360 in Lutetia.

Two other emperors spent winters in the city near the end of the Roman Empire while trying to halt the tide of barbarian invasions: Valentinian I (365-367) and Gratian in 383 AD.

The gradual collapse of the Roman rule in Gaul due to the increasing Germanic invasions of the 5th century, sent the city into a period of decline. In 451 AD, the city was threatened by the army of Attila the Hun and St Genevieve played a heroic part but that’s another story…


If you wish to donate to the reconstruction of Notre Dame de Paris, you can do so here, the French government’s official site:


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, will be out on 12 September 2019.

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