previous next

AVARICUM (Bourges) Cher, France.

The chief city of the Bituriges Urbi at the time of the Gallic wars, Avaricum gets its name from the Avara river (modern Yèvre). The city stood on a hill 25 m high and covering 26 ha at the heart of a complicated network of waterways: five rivers, the Yèvre, Yévrette, Voiselle, Moulon, and Auron meet here. It was surrounded by wide stretches of marshlands, except to the SE, where a sort of isthmus, 2 to 500 m wide today and no doubt far narrower in antiquity, connected the hill with terra firma. Avaricum was reputed to be the finest city in Gaul, and its inhabitants refused to destroy it when Caesar invaded the region in March 52 B.C. They put their faith in their fortifications, a murus gallicus of mixed stones and beams similar to that found in the same tribe's territory at Chateaumeillant (Mediolanum Biturigum); this type of fortification seems to have become widespread at the beginning of the 1st c. B.C. Caesar set up camp on the isthmus, on the site of the modern Place Séraucourt, 300 m S of the rampart. Vercingetorix took up his first position 25.6 km NE of Avaricum, on the Sancerre road; later he moved closer to the besieged Gauls, easily communicating with them across the marshes. After 27 days of siege the city was taken and destroyed. No trace has been found of it and we know nothing about its monuments, only that there was a public square in the city center, which Caesar calls a forum.

The history of Avaricum in the Roman period may be traced stratigraphically thanks to excavations carried out in 1964-65 near the surrounding wall built in the Late Empire (see below) and around the site of the old church of Notre Dame de Sales. Inside the wall five superimposed building strata were uncovered, ranging from the Augustan period to the late 3d c. The buildings were probably private houses, some of which retain their painted walls.

During the Middle Empire the city was on the hill where the Gallic town stood. Even today this section of the city has extremely steep streets oriented more or less according to the points of the compass. The Rue Moyenne, probably the old cardo inaxiinus, has remained the principal artery; the Rue Porte Jaune runs parallel to it on the E, and these two cardines are intersected by three decumani, the farthest N of which corresponds to the present Rue Coursalon.

In the basements of buildings between the Rue Moyenne and the cathedral can be seen the remains of a large temple of the Antonine period, including fluted Tuscan columns, elements of the stylobates and podium, and fragments of the entablature (architraves, friezes, and cornices).

In the 1st c. the W side of the hill underwent some large-scale town planning at the point where the Argentomagus road, linking the Caesarodunuin-Cabillonuin route to that from Limonum to Lugdunum, entered the city. A N-S wall with a monumental gateway encircled the foot of the hill. The gate opened onto a paved vestibule from which steps and ramps led to the upper city.

In the 2d c. the same area was redesigned on an even more monumental scale. A series of alternately square and semicircular vaulted chambers was built to support the hillside; this complex, separated from the hill by a drainage ditch 0.6 m wide and 5 m deep, was erected in front of the 1st c. buildings, concealing them and making them unusable. The rooms are built of a core of mortared rubble faced with small stones and banded with brick. The facade consisted of arcades built of large blocks of stone, supported by piers with engaged Tuscan columns as well as fluted and cabled columns. This facade probably extended on either side of a monumental fountain cut in the rock, a rectangular basin set in the middle of a paved area with cippi standing on it. The arrangement follows the formulas for building on hills that had been perfected in the 2d c. B.C., notably at Praeneste, and used in Imperial times, for instance at Carthage.

These buildings were in turn ringed by the Late Empire rampart, and the whole complex served as a basis for the palace of Duke Jean de Berry. When the cellars of this palace, underneath some modern houses, were explored in 1860 the remains described above, which are still accessible today, were uncovered.

Avaricum's amphitheater stood NW of the city on the site of the present-day Place de la Nation, which has very nearly retained the elliptical plan. It was still sufficiently well preserved at the beginning of the 16th c. to be used for theatrical productions.

The course of an aqueduct has also been located: it came into the city from the E, N of the cathedral, and continued up to the city center.

Avaricum's prosperity in the 2d and 3d c. is attested by funerary monuments. An entablature fragment from a large circular mausoleum discovered near the Porte de Lyon is now in the museum; it had been reused in the lowest layers of the rampart, and has a frieze with carvings of tritons above a richly decorated cornice. A number of funerary cippi have been unearthed at various points in the city. The earliest ones are without sculptural decoration. From the second half of the 2d c. on, rectangular cippi appear, made in imitation of a mausoleum with a gabled roof with acroteria. On the front a niche framed by piers with carved foliage holds the image of the deceased; his epitaph is engraved on the archivolt. Some of these carved figures, either full- or half-length, are good portraits in the so-called realist style of the middle of the 3d c. Others give a very lively picture of the activities of the deceased; one of the most remarkable and most recently discovered shows a rich man sitting jealously on his coffers.

Ravaged by the invasions of 256 and 257, Avaricum, like most of the cities of Gaul, was forced to build a rampart; its course has been located with certainty and important fragments are still standing. The area it protected was more or less the same as in the Gallic city (26 ha), which makes it one of the largest castra in Gaul, surpassed only by Rheiins, Sens, Poitiers, and Bordeaux. The total length of the rampart is 1830 m, and it had 46 towers. The foundations are made of courses of large blocks, often taken from earlier buildings; the rampart itself has a core of mortared rubble faced with small stones and banded with brick. Two coins of Tetricus found beneath the foundation date the construction in the last quarter of the 3d c. The section best preserved today is to the SE, in the area of the old church NW of Sales. Another important portion constitutes the foundation for the palace of Jacques Coeur, to the NW.


C. Jullian, Histoire de la Gaule (1908-55) III, 441ff; A. Grenier, Manuel d'archéologie gallo-romaine I, 1 (1931) Travaux militaires, 415; H. P. Eydoux, Réalites et enigmes de l'archéologie, 271-304; C. Picard, Gallia 17, 2 (1959) 293; 19, 2 (1961) 311-14; J. Favière, La vie gallo-romaine au Musée de Bourges (1961); G. C. Picard, Gallia 24, 2 (1966) 242-47.


hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: