Friday, August 15, 2008

Lyon (Lugdunum) and its rivers - History

Lyon, France's second largest metropolitan area with 1.2 million inhabitants, was founded in 43 BC on the Fourvière hill as a Roman colony. The strategic position of the site on the natural highway from northern to south-eastern France, half way between the sea and the mountains, made it the starting point for regional Roman roads. The numerous connections, which served the transit of armies and trade of goods, together with the convergence of two navigable rivers made of Lugdunum (Latin name of Lyon) the capital of Gaul.

Sorce: Ben Martinez at

For 300 years after its foundation, Lugdunum was the most important city in north-western Europe. Apparently Lugdunum had a population of several thousand at the time of its founding. The earliest Roman buildings were located on the Fourvière heights above the Saône river: a Forum, a theater, the Odeum, the sanctuary of Cybele and public baths. Lugdunum's territory extended to Croix-Rousse Hill, where there was an amphitheater. The Cannabae island, that later on became part of the peninsula, had its southern part occupied by luxury homes, while the north was reserved for pottery workshops, warehouses and commercial buildings. The city's water supply arrived via four aqueducts, ruins of which can still be seen in the region.

The city of Lugdunum. Own sketch.

Lugdunum did not survive the downfall of the Roman Empire. A long period of upheaval possessed the city until the church, in the 11th century, gave it new impetus by declaring Lyon the seat of the Primate of Gaul.

Early Ludgunum and Lyon. Parts of an old Amphitheater. Source:

By the 15th century, Lyon had entered its golden age, benefiting from the attention and favours of successive French kings. From that time, prosperity grew, reaching its peak in the Renaissance. Lyon became a center of trade which attracted commerciants from all over Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries the prosperity of the silk industry generated wealth and the city grew, which was reflected in the construction of hospitals, public squares and impressive edifices. Today Lyon's silk trade is still the greatest in Europe.

Old Lyon became the seat of the economic, intellectual and artistic elite. Rich notables such as the Gadagnes and the Médicis built fashionable and luxury buildings upon the foundations of Old Lyon (Lyon Vieux). Lyon was the gateway to Renascent Italy. A southern pace of life can be felt there through the italian influence in style and architecture.

Narrow passageways, the traboules are an exceptional feature of the local urban architectural heritage. The first traboules of Vieux Lyon date back to the 4th century, when the inhabitants of Lugdunum, in search of easier access to water, moved down Fourvière hill, settling alongside the Saône river. In the Croix-Rousse neighborhood, the traboules were integrated in the construction of buildings. Silk workers used them as short cuts to transport their goods. These streets served later as the backbone to the French resistance movement during the Second World War. Untill today, from Croix Rousse it is possible to reach the Presqu'île peninsula in a straight path through these passages.

The place Bellecour turned out to be the center of the city's Renaissance.

Place Bellecour with the statue of Louis XIV (1702). Source: Delfante, C., Pelletier, J. 1350-2015 Plans de Lyon, Portraits d'une Ville. Lyon, 2006.

Lyon in the 18th century with the Fourvière Hill . Source:

In 1789 the French Revolution resulted in a brutal interruption of Lyon's development. Under Napoleon's Empire the city started growing again and became an industrial center. The Haussmann principles were predominantly pursued at the time.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the livelihood of half of the city's population was dependent on the silk weaving industry. The value of silk, as of any luxury product, was highly dependent on the economic climate. In 1831, the economic outlook was grim and drastically reduced the demand for silk goods. The silk workers (canuts) that already lived and worked in infamous conditions had their salaries continually reduced. This culminated in two revolts of the Canuts in 1831 and 1834, that were severely repressed.

The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought about huge advances not only in the silk trade but in the garment industry. Lyon became a base for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. The economic situation got better and Lyon enjoyed undeniable power that was carried into the 20th century.

Urban development continued to take place and the face of the city was changed. The city was the center of the French Resistance during the World War II. Although it was bombed in 1944, much of the old city escaped the destruction. In the post-war years, like all other French cities, Lyon boomed and ensured an important position due to its transportation system, hotels, cultural establishments and tourist facilities.

In the 1980's there were many efforts to improve the city's infrastructure. Significant town planning projects have been launched in strategic locations. Recognizing the potential of Old Lyon, this part of the city that suggested a slum in the 1970's has been completely transformed and was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

These different phases of Lyon's history are engraved in the urban landscape. Today, the city continues to dominate the banking and chemical sectors. Though, in recent years the service sector has been playing an equally important role.

The colors of Vieux Lyon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this article about Lyon. It's so hard to find extensive information and period images of the city! Best wishes!