In the year 43 BC, what is now Lyon was founded as the Roman city of Lugdunum. 2,062 years later Jonathan from The Royal Tour visited the city, now a proper modern metropolis. As the great Rabbi Hillel would have said, “That is the whole history of Lyon. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”
In all seriousness, Lyon’s history is fascinating, and its importance as the Roman capital of the three Gauls and as France’s second largest metropolitan area and gastronomical mecca is incredible to explore. Ruins of Lugdunum’s theatre complex can be viewed alongside a 15th century cathedral and remarkably beautiful 19th century elaborately-facaded buildings. Each of these periods is interesting in its own right.
To thoroughly understand the history of Lyon, we begin in Vieux Lyon – the old city – on the western bank of the Saône. Here is where Lugdunum began, on the hill now called Fourvière, and it here that the incredible Gallo-Roman Museum stands, a circuitous many-leveled modern building housing a collection of Roman artifacts recovered in the area. Normally Roman museums contain pot shards, broken columns, and other such “junk.” While certainly there are things like that here, the collection is so much more.
As Lugdunum grew, so too did its strategic importance, and the value of its citizens. Two emperors were born here, and it was the first of those, Claudius, who gave a speech to the Senate justifying the addition of Gallic senators. It was recorded on a tablet that was mounted in Lugdunum to commemorate the acceptance of his idea, and that tablet is here in the museum.
The Lyon Tablet, as it is called.
Along with unique icons like that, one of the highlights is an extensive set of preserved mosaic floors.
The mosaic floors are in incredible condition!
The museum is mainly in French; however, well-placed signage about the general history of the period and concepts in the varying exhibits include English translations. But the highlight of a visit here is the Lugdunum theatre complex adjacent (and free to visit – the museum itself is also free the first Sunday of the month). Two amphitheaters still stand here. The larger, which can be best seen from strategic windows in the museum, held more than 10,000 visitors during the Roman period.
The larger of two Lugdunum theatres located here. There is also another small amphitheater in another part of town.
After the fall of Rome, Lyon served as the capital of Burgundy, then was given to the Holy Roman Empire in 843. Finally under French control in the 14th century, the city began to regain importance, first as a treasury center and then as home of the silk trade.
To see this portion of Lyon’s history, we venture down the Fourvière hill to the Musee Gadagne, and the Lyon History Museum housed there. Ostensibly an old mansion, little remains of that noble past, other than the architecture of the place as seen from the courtyard.
The Musee Gadagne from the courtyard.
The museum’s artifacts are average at best, though there are some cool things, like the keys to the city presented to Napoléon. However, the admission fee gets you an audio guide which has detailed descriptions of each room (there are roughly 30 rooms) and little historic tidbits relating to it. Each recording is a minute or two long, and all are worth a listen.
Keys to Lyon presented to Napoléon.
Lyon grew during the Renaissance by being the center of the silk trade in France. Factories and worker housing were centered in the Croix-Rousse, a hill on the northern end of the city. In the 1830s, silk workers – a still huge portion of the population – undertook two violent uprisings for better conditions and wages.
An antique silk weaving machine.
As the city grew it expanded beyond the banks of the Saône and Rhône, and the swamp where the two converge was drained and repurposed. Today, Lyon boasts the third largest population in France, though it is the second largest metro area. So, too, did industry expand from the silk trade. Always known as one of the culinary hubs of France due to figures like Paul Bocuse, Lyon has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris. It is also a tech center, and the headquarters of Interpol, among other European enterprises.
This hill is the Croix-Rousse, where the silk industry was centered.
The best way to get a feel for the history of Lyon is just to walk, as cliche as it sounds. The architecture of the Presqu’ile – the area between the rivers – is stunning, from the 17th century city hall to the 19th century buildings with their intricate stone facades lining the streets. And don’t forget the doors! The cobblestones of the old city stand in contrast to the grand boulevards of the newer construction.
City hall. There is a scale model in the Lyon History Museum.
You will also find a mural, the Fresque des Lyonnais, which features many of the city’s most famous inhabitants, as well as caricatures of various local professions. Monsieur le Chef, Paul Bocuse, can be found at the bottom.
Chef Paul is hard to make out, but he is standing in the door of the restaurant at the bottom.
Lyon is a wonderful city, and its history is fascinating to learn, and to see up close, even if no monument to my visit is currently planned.
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