previous next

GESORIACUM BONONIA (Boulogne) Nord, France.

In the Belgica province of Gaul. The history of the city that grew up around the two sites is characterized by the alternation of the names Bononia and Gesoriacum, as the city's center of gravity shifted from one place to the other. The name Bononia was probably used to designate the Celtic oppidum and was still used by Tiberius, who stayed there in A.D. 4. But the name Gesoriacum, first mentioned in the text of Florus (2.30; between 12 and 9 B.C.), had already appeared by this time, and the city had probably also begun to take on the function of a harbor, as Caesar had foreseen (Portus Itius). For over three centuries only Gesoriacum was important—the lower city that developed around an expanding port. Gesoriacum acquired a famous lighthouse under Caligula, who came here in A.D. 40 to stage a simulated embarkation for Britain; and it was from here in 43 that the fleet actually sailed. From that time on, Gesoriacum, home of the Classis Britannica, was the port linking the continent with Roman Britain.

At the end of the 3d c. the name Gesoriacum was replaced by Bononia; after the catastrophes of the mid 3d c. the city withdrew to the high fortified ground to the NE and a large part of the Empire city was abandoned. The construction of the city walls and founding of the upper city may probably be attributed to Carausius, commander of the fleet responsible for protecting the litus Saxonicum against pirates. In 293 Carausius' forces, revolting against the authority of the Tetrarchy, were besieged by Constantius Chlorus; after the transfer of power, he named the upper city Bononia, thereby acknowledging himself to be the usurper.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 4th c. the military port was in full operation (bricks stamped Classis Britannica, from the Constantinian period). The end of Bononia oceanensis, as it is called on coins, dates from the beginning of the 5th c.; the city is mentioned one last time as the base of the usurper Constantine III, who disembarked there with troops being recalled from Britain. The abandonment of that province was fatal for Boulogne, which is not included in the Notitia Dignitatum and was not to come to life again until Charlemagne's time. All that can be seen on the site are a few remains of a barbarian settlement and some Merovingian tombs.

Systematic excavation is recent and has produced no spectacular results. The site and area of expansion of the Empire city, Gesoriacum, are roughly marked by its necropoleis: three cemeteries—to the NW (between the Vallon des Tintelleries and the hill on which the upper city stands), E (N of the modern Rue du Viell-Atre) and S (at the gates to the suburb of Brequerecque)—bound an urban area of 40-50 ha. Thus Gesoriacum spread out along the shore; in antiquity it was a cove but it silted up in the Middle Ages and was drained in the 17th c. This so-called Anse de Brequerecque was the site of the Roman port, S of the upper city, not NW in the Vallon des Tintelleries where the mediaeval port developed. This location is confirmed by the discovery of traces of buildings belonging to the naval base near the Rue de la Port Gayole and the Rue Saint-Marc, and of a large quantity of tiles and bricks stamped with the fleet's seal in the same sector. The residential areas grew up around the harbor installations, the wealthiest houses probably occupying the higher ground to the NE, away from the marshes.

The upper city, which was to become the essential city center in the 4th c., was occupied at least from the Flavian period on; this is attested by the recent discovery of a series of basins and by a 19th c. reference to some remains under the church large enough to have belonged to an important building (still not properly identified). But the city was still sparsely settled; the center of activity was farther down, near the right bank of the river. The orientation of certain mediaeval and modern streets suggests a grid plan, but it is not certain that the grid covered the whole city, especially around the ancient port. As to Caligula's lighthouse, it was partially preserved up to the 18th c. (the Tour d'Ordre) and stood outside the city, to the NW. According to ancient descriptions, it was built of alternating courses of stone and bands of brick. Finally, the Empire city does not appear to have had a surrounding wall, judging both from the lack of archaeological evidence and from the vulnerability of the city and the various installations of the classis which were burnt down, probably in the 3d c. invasions.

In the Late Empire, on the other hand, a system of ramparts was erected; the upper city was ringed with a wall which can still be detected at certain points. The mediaeval rampart (c. 1231), which is still visible, rested on Roman substructures on the NW and NE, as proved by excavation; on the SW and SE the mediaeval wall was apparently some distance behind the line of the Roman wall, whose plan is incompletely known. Essentially the upper city rampart formed a rectangle ca. 450 x 300 m, enclosing a citadel of ca. 13 ha. The towers and gates cannot be precisely located. This system of fortification was completed when two parallel ramparts were built in the Late Empire. Starting from the SW Bononia wall, the ramparts probably extended from the upper city down to the shore, ensuring protection of an area of ca. 20 ha. This second system of defenses, built to protect old sections of the Empire city, indicates that this part of the lower city (its boundaries are marked by a few late cemeteries) was still active as a city and harbor in the 4th c. The archaeological finds are housed in the Boulogne municipal museum.


J. Heurgon, “Les problèmes de Boulogne,” REA 50 (1948) 101; 51 (1949) 324; id., “De Gesoriacum à Bononia, Hommages Bidez-Cumont,” Coll. Latomus II (1949) 127; E. Will, “Les remparts romains de Boulognes-sur-mer,” Revue du Nord 42 (1960) 363; id., “Recherches sur le développement urbain sous l'empire romain dans le nord de la France,” Gallia 20 (1962) 79; id., “Boulogne et la fin de l'Empire . . . ,” Mél. Renard, II (1969) 820.


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