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G - 82 : Rhone - Gateway to Europe

Avignon on the Rhone with the famous Bridge and the Papal Palais to the right

The Rhone is not the longest river discharging into the Mediterranean but contributes the biggest volume of fresh water. Most people actually guess it is the Nile. The Nile's water gets consumed by irrigation though. The Rhone is volatile. Fed by contributories from the Alps, the Jura and the Massive Central, the Rhone is unpredictable and even savage during spring season when snow and ice melt. In Fall, the river bed almost dries out. It fills again with the onset of the winter rains. The Rhone is navigable though - just not at all times.

Discharge Volume of the bigger Rivers into the Mediterranean

The Rhone river has one unique characteristic. It is the only Mediterranean river that gives direct access to Central Europe. All others like the Po, the Piave or the Ebro end at the foot of mountains. On the Rhone one can get around the Alps by either travelling via Lake of Geneva or via Saône and the Belfort Gap to reach the Rhein Vally. It is a natural gateway to Western and Central Europe. Only the Danube provides the same access. But for that you need to travel via Black Sea. The Danube will be a topic for another blog.

Map of Europe's Waterways. Rhone, Saône and Moselle form a navigable North-South Axis

Described the importance of the Rhone river in my blogs on Béziers, the Greek wine capital, and Marseille, their main port on the Ligurian coast. We know from bronze vessels, weapons, jewellery and shards that the Rhone was an important north-south axis already in the 8th century BC. Remains of Greek goods were found in many Gallic towns and graves. It was unclear however, how bulky goods like wine and olive oil amphorae were shipped. Recent discoveries of river boats now opened the door to a previously unknown world of river transportation.

Roman Funerary Relief of a Boat hauled up the Durance River near Avignon

Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian who lived at the time of Emperor Augustus, described in his book Geographica the importance of the river system in Gallia.

"The whole of this country is watered by rivers; some of them flow down from the Alps; the others from the Cements and the Pyrenees; some of them are discharged into the oceans; the others into our sea (the Mediterranean). Further, the districts through which they flow are plains, ..., and hilly lands with navigable water courses. The riverbeds are by nature well situated with reference to each other; that there is transportation from either sea to the other; for the cargoes are transported only a short distance over land..."

This Memorial Stone dedicated to Emperor Hadrian

was erected by boatmen in Tournon-sur-Rhone between

Vienne and Valence in 119 AD

From the memorial stone to Emperor Hadrian we know that the French river system was widely travel and used by professional boatmen for moving bulky cargo. It must have been a thriving trade. All of today's France benefitted from this east-west oriented network based on the large rivers Seine, Loire and Garonne. These three rivers were linked to either the Rhone Valley or the Atlantic Coast which both provided a north-south axis. Of particular interest is the astonishingly intact, 31 meters long river barge "Arles 3" found in 2004. Built in the 1st century AD, it carried 25 tonnes of cargo. The Rhone River must have teamed which such boats.

The Rhone River Barge Arles 3 is on display in Arles' Departamental Museum of Antiquity

How well this transportation system must have worked is evidenced by the location of France's wine regions. All started in Roman time. Wine is a bulky commercial good and - at the time - could only be transported on water. Vineyards had to be close to the sea or a river. The Champagne became a wine producing region because it could ship amphorae on the river Marne. An inland region like the Chianti in Italy could only become a wine producer once railways arrived. Roman wine production in Chianti was purely local.

The Rhone river was indeed an Imperial Highway. One of the best ways to illustrate the strategic nature of this unique north-south axis is Caesar's conquest of Gallia in 58 BC. With his cunning strategic instinct he secured the Rhone-Saône valley first before moving into the rest of the country. His line of communication and supply lines were anchored on the Rhone.

Schematic View of Caesar's Campaign in 59 BC

As time progresses, new excavations bring more evidence on the Rhone's importance to light. Got recently hold of a research piece on the digging up of a large Roman Villa just south of the Lateran. There, archeologists found old oak beams in the large complex they were working on. Using modern technology and dendrochronology, they were able to trace the origins of the oak planks. They came all the way from the French Jura. We already knew that the Gallic provinces were timber exporter. But that they exported high quality oak all the way to Rome was new.

The well preserved Oak Planks from the large Roman Villa Complex south of the Lateran

To save time and to avoid the Mistral, we are not going to sail along the Rhone River Delta this summer. But we are going to visit Marseille, the large harbour that the Rhone river was not able to silt. Am pretty confident that the luxurious oaks from the Jura mountains were shipped via Marseille. Where else could it have been put on larger ships?

The Sea Currents prevent the Sediments of the Rhone River to silt Marseille Harbor

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