Paris gets its name from an Iron age Celtic tribe, the Parisii, whose chief city Lutèce, known by the Romans as Lutetia, is thought to have been in the area on and around the Ile de la Cité in the middle of the Seine.* They settled and occupied this land from the middle of the third century BC. The city has had many names – Lutece, Lutetia, Lutetia Parisii, Lutetia Parisiorum, Parisius – but was formally named Paris by the Roman emperor Julian in AD 360, more than 1,600 years ago.
There have been significant archaeological discoveries in Paris, revealing something of the early Celtic history of the city, and there is also an account of the Parisii and their settlements on the Seine written by the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. He wrote extensively about his experiences in Gaul in his monumental work de Bello Gallico, the earliest textual source about the region. He first mentions Lutetia as the place where an annual assembly was held between Caesar, commander of the Roman Legions, and local Gallic leaders around 53 BC.
I found some images of Parisii coins made of gold in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Strangely compelling with the head of a man on one side and a charioteer and horse on the other, they reveal to me a culture that was advanced and powerful; artistic and animated; sophisticated and creative.
In 52 BC, the Parisii broke an agreement they had made with the Romans and put their support behind the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, who attempted to combine the forces of all the Celtic tribes to defend Gaul against the Roman invaders. Their stronghold at Lutetia was left almost defenceless and was crushed by the Roman forces. The Romans soon established a new town called Lutetia on the hills of the Left Bank of the Seine, with the forum located about 1 km south of the river. Lutetia Parisiorum, as the city became known, received Christianity around AD 250, and was part of the Roman Empire until its collapse, when it came under the control of the Franks in AD 450.
There are some remains of the Roman city still able to be seen in today’s Paris, including a first century amphitheatre, Les Arènes de Lutèce, and the remains of public baths at the Musée de Cluny. Both are on my list of places to visit, where I can stand and consider remnants of the mighty Roman empire, and be attuned to the whispers of the past in the midst of a thriving contemporary city.
* There seems to be some contention about the location of the chief city, or oppidum, of the Parisii. Most of the sources I read placed it on the Ile de la Cité . However, there have been recent archaeological excavations at Nanterre (an outer suburb of Paris) which reveal signs of extensive urbanisation, including warrior tombs, plus several main streets and evidence of hundreds of houses, which now suggests that this may have been the largest settlement of the Parisii at the time of the arrival of the Romans in 53-52 BC.