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G - 145 : Beziers - Ancient Celtic Wine Capital?

Until recently, Beziers was a place on the map I only knew from passing by. It was where I had to exit the A7 motorway and turn north to visit Alain, the creator of Le Botaniste, or continue south on my way to Carcassonne where Kevin produces his Chateau Maris. Never stopped. Never visited. For a while Beziers made headlines in the French press for its high rate of burglaries but on closer look, it is not worse than the Côte d’ Azur or Paris. With almost 80’000 inhabitants it is a small, rather sleepy town in southern France.

Beziers' Old Town is built over the Ancient Greek Settlement of Rhodes

Turns out that Beziers is France’s oldest town. It is 25 years older than Marseille and was called Rhodes. Its name is mentioned in several ancient Greek texts. In the 19th century, it was France’s “wine capital”. The surrounding Langue d’Oc was the country's largest wine producing area. Recent digs found remains of an ancient Greek city below Beziers’ old town. The remains follow the classical Greek street grid. Archeologists also found several ancient vineyards around Beziers from the same time. It made me wonder. Why would Greek settlers come from Greece to produce wine in the South of France when they had plenty already in Magna Graecia (Sicily, Calabria and Apulia)?

Greek Rhodes (Beziers) and its Chora. Many of the Latifundia were Vineyards

Interestingly though, there were no amphorae from Beziers found anywhere – despite the fact that several kilns were excavated. Clearly, the ancient Greeks here knew how to make pottery. Wine estates are built for scaled-up wine making not for local consumption. So where did the wine go? It was exported. Amphorae from Marseille were found all over Europe. The Celtic nobles loved drinking wine. Wine from Marseille was imported in large quantities. We know this from the many amphorae found in burial sites. Marseille did not produce any wine though – it was just a trading port in a hot and arid place. Was Marseille buying wine from Beziers and re-exported it? Was its position so dominant that it could force the Greek colonist in Beziers to use amphorae made in Marseille?

Trading Networks in the Mediterranean 7th to 4th Century BC

We know that Marseille traded extensively with the Celts from the La Tène Culture (7th – 5th century BC). The Celtic tribes imported bronze to make weapons and tools, gold for the nobles, coins to store wealth, glass beads for decoration and olive oil for personal hygiene. They paid in leathers, furs, timber, hemp and large quantities of grain. Most of the goods the merchants from Marseille sold came from far away. Gold from Nubia, glass beads from Phoenicia (today’s Lebanon) and bronze from Cyprus and Anatolia. Only olive oil was of local origin. Would it not make sense to produce wine locally as well to pay for the raw materials the merchants wanted from the Celtic tribes? The traders in Marseille knew what their Celtic customers desired and could reduce their own cost.

Location of Celtic Oppida - fortified Places - in the 5th Century BC

Trading between Marseille and the European Celts started sometimes in the 7th century and continued throughout the 6th century BC. But after 500 BC, trade declined to a trickle. The Greeks in Beziers had to give up their Rhodes on the l’Orb River and moved south to Rosas in Catalunya where they founded New Rhodes. Nobody really knows why. What we do know is that the import of bronze to Western Europe sharply declined at the same time. The Celts and the Germanic tribes in Scandinavia had to learn to make tools and weapons from iron – a metal more easily available. The techniques to melting and forging iron was developed centuries earlier (11th century BC) in the Middle East but only adopted when bronze became rare if not unavailable at all.

A typical fortified Celtic Place - Hüneburg by Watenstedt (Hanover) - 1'000 BC

Wonder whether the sharp drop in the availability of bronze and other materials was caused by the Persian Wars. The Persian Empire controlled not only Persia and Mesopotamia but also Anatolia, Phoenicia and Egypt. These were the places where the goods the traders from Marseille sourced came from. Was there an embargo, imposed by the Persian Empire?

The Persian Empire in 500 BC at the Outset of the War with the Greek City States

Another explanation could be the expansion of the Celts into the Po Valley, the northern Apennines and the Balkans. This brought them in direct contact with the Etruscans, Greek and Romans. They did not need an intermediary any longer but could trade directly. It was during that time that the Gallic tribe of the Senones sacked Rome (387 BC). The Senones were not the only tribe on the move. Other Celts migrated into southern France and replaced the indigenous Ligures. Did climate change push the Celts south because they could not make a living in their original homeland any more or did the population outgrow their land as in Greece where land scarcity led to waves of Greek colonization? Could not find anything in the literature available thus have to leave the question open.

Gallic Tribes which migrated into the area previously inhabited by Ligures

In any case, we are going to visit Beziers in our second week whilst anchoring at Adge (Agathe), another ancient Greek city. Find it amazing that the ancient Greek had figured out that the area of Beziers was an excellent place to grow wine. The Langue d’Oc is actually coming back as a producer of first-class wines. Just get a bottle of Pic Saint Loup, a Clos des Fees or a Chateau Maris. They are as good as super Tuscans.

Wines of Langue d'Oc. Mass Production was ditched by a new Generation of Wine Makers

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