French cities are Roman sites rather than by the sea

Here is the amazing fact: today, 16 of France’s 20 largest cities are located on or near a Roman town, while only 2 of Britain’s 20 largest are. This difference existed even back in the Middle Ages. So who cares? Well, Britain’s cities in the middle ages are two and a half times more likely to have coastal access than France’s cities, so that in 1700, when sea trade was hugely important, 56% of urban French lived in towns with sea access while 87% of urban Brits did. This is even though, in both countries, cities with sea access grew faster and huge sums of money were put into building artificial canals. Even at a very local level, the France/Britain distinction holds: when Roman cities were within 25km of the ocean or a navigable river, they tended not to move in France, while in Britain they tended to reappear nearer to the water. The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role.

These days, the French model is looking somewhat better, as Toulouse has held its ground more readily than has Liverpool.

That is from A Fine Theorem, discussing a recent paper by Guy Michaels and Ferdinand Rauch.


Read abit more about Police : drug dealers are now confident enough to use billboards to threaten the inhabitants to prevent them to talk to the police. The surrounding of "Canal du midi" is now basically a giant refugee camp. Since the Mayors made it a car-hostile city, firemen and policemen can now hardly reach quite a few places in the center town.

If you're looking for failed town management, Toulouse might be a perfect example. But of course it's business firendly : the twon now needs boatloads of money to get out of the situation it's now.

"These days, the French model is looking somewhat better, as Toulouse has held its ground more readily than has Liverpool."

Straussian reading?

And another amazing fact - Britain is an island.

The shortest and most accurate statement every made by prior.

A lot of the British settlement pattern came post-post-Roman. Roman sites were refilled much later. Many settlements and fortifications based not just on sea trade, but sea raiding.

The farthest point from the sea in England is 70 km while in France it's probably 450 km. It seems it's much easier to be far from the sea in France than in England. That would explain how it ended up that way.

Yes, seems more like a fact twisted than anything else. Romans after Hadrian stopped expanding in England, while in France with Cesar they were well established, and Roman roads last forever are the takeaways.

Bonus trivia: France before Louis XVII and the French Revolution had something like 40M people, about the same as today's 66M, amazing, while England had a mere fraction. France was close to the 'carrying capacity' of the environment even back then, with hand tools and renewable energy, that's to me amazing.

Solid comment, especially that bonus part.

It is striking how land-oriented Roman culture was despite emerging on the Italian peninsula where no place is very far from the sea, the land is mountainous, and the sea is relatively safe. In contrast, England has fairly mild terrain and the Atlantic ocean is more tumultuous than the Mediterranean sea.

Maybe the explanation is that British rivers were better for transport than Italian rivers south of the Po due to more rain and less severe slopes, so it was easier to get started with inland shipping and then continue out into the ocean as your technique improved. But Italian rivers tended to be short and steep and go dry now and then, so they weren't as good launching pads for eventual saltwater navigation.

When the British finally did get around to concentrating on land transportation in the 19th Century, their railways set the model for the world. But Paul Johnson complains that the early Victorians should have gone right to building roads for automobiles, but they didn't and wound up ceding most of the great industry of the 20th Century to the Americans, Germans, and Japanese.

The sea was still important to the Roman Empire. Rome shipped in a big part of its grain supply across the Mediterranean from North Africa. The advent of intercontinental transport by ship meant that those European countries with coasts on the Atlantic or the North Sea (England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands) had a major advantage over those that were isolated inside the Mediterranean.

"The sea was still important to the Roman Empire"


In the real world, England barely touches the Atlantic Ocean.

Steve, you are confusing Gaul with "Roman culture". Gaul was not a representative Roman province. From Spain to Anatolia to North Africa the Romans built their settlements facing the sea. Most Roman trade and transport was water-based. Gaul was land-oriented because the North Atlantic did not offer very much of trade value compared to agriculture. Moreover the Roman military conquest provided the Gauls the serendipitous benefit of an excellent road network to move their agricultural surplus and handicrafts easily down south.

Geography seems to be one of those fields that you can a lot of value by "noticing".

I'm pretty sure if Ellsworth Huntington was alive today, he's find the ideal climate around Stanford, not New Haven. So I'm not saying geography is the best tool.

But if you go the Ardennes, for example, and look at the steep roads, you can see why it was considered tank proof -- and even when tanks were involved those big Tigers in the Battle of the Bulge were not as effective as they could have been.

"The fundamental factor for the shift in both places was that developments in shipbuilding in the early middle ages made the sea much more suitable for trade and military transport than the famous Roman Roads which previously played that role."

Maybe this is analogous to the recent shift from landline telephone networks to wireless telephone networks. Landline networks, like Roman roads, required a lot of social organizational capital to build and maintain, as Americans had in the AT&T era, but many other countries did not. Lots of cultures, such as the 20th Century Italians, had a hard time maintaining a landline system.

In contrast, cell phone networks don't require a society to be good at cooperating, so even Somalia can have decent cell phone. You just have to have a few people who knew what they are doing.

Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn't require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired.

Some quibbles, FWIW.
The Romans were just as much at home on the sea as they were on land. You needn't look far at one's history to validate that.
Quote: "Similarly, medieval shipping networks required concentrations of technically advanced shipwrights here and there, but didn’t require a giant Roman-like state to keep the roads repaired." The use of the word "require" to define the state of road maintenance is inaccurate and misleading. They did not HAVE the knowledge or the expertise to maintain the road systems. It is not that they did not "require" it. If they had it, they almost certainly would have used it.

The major French cities are built on rivers, not the sea, as is London. Marseille is the exception, but then again as a Greek colony it predates even the Romans. Bordeaux as well.

That doesn't seem to have hurt their trading prowess. The influence of the Catholic Church and the stronger centralized state would be better explanations for differences in development. The fact Britain has poorer soil for agriculture also meant trading has always been more vital for its survival.

Perhaps part of the reason only 2 of the 20 biggest cities in Britain are not built on former Roman cities is that the Romans stayed well clear of lots of it.

After the departure of the Roman legions, Britain decomposed into local chieftaincies. The study of sub-Roman Britain is a branch of archaeology rather than history, because there is almost no written record. The account of one 6th century monk and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle about exhausts what there is. Gaul / Frankland may have reached it's economic nadir in the mid-7th century; however, its sovereigns never numbered more than about 4 and it retained a residual set of towns from the Roman era.

I wonder what the effect if any viking raiders had on city placement.

How about this: after the religious wars of the 1600's were settled, the confessional lines on the map Europe mirrored almost exactly the limes of the Roman Empire at it's maximum extent.

The exception was Britain. Roman Britain was a hybrid culture, Roman in form but Celtic in substance, while Anglican England at the end of the 1600's was Protestant in form but Catholic in substance.

If we were Americans we would of course boast that the comparison just shows that we have had the initiative to form new cities and the Frogs haven't. Because manifest destiny and exceptionalism and all that baloney.

The antics of one of your soulmates have hit the papers, I see:

Hypocritically non sequitur much, Art?

One big difference between Britain and France is that the current list of the 20 largest cities in Britain is radically different from the same list 250 years ago - cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds & Sheffield used to be insignificant, whereas cities like York, Norwich and Exeter were some of the largest cities in England are only mid-sized cities today. In France there wasn't such a turnover - most of the prominent cities today were prominent during the ancien regime.

The chief culprit seems to be the industrial revolution which affected Britain far more than it affected France, not anything to do with the Romans.

The farthest point from the sea in France is ~500 km while in England it is ~70 almost certainly has something to do with this. (As an aside, it isn't clear to me why navigable rivers aren't included in any competent transportation discussion.) It's also true that the ratio of perimeter to length goes up quadratically with a square (arguably, France is a nearly square rectangle shape, sides ~~650km, ratio 0.006/km) while it reaches a limit of 0.5 for a isosceles triangle (arguably England's crude shape, base ~370, ht ~550 km, ratio ~0.5/km ) that's 100 times less than England's. Perhaps the question should be why is the difference so small? I suspect war has something to do with that.

I should have stated ratio decreases with length of side (numerator/ denominator confusion). :p

Rome was centered on the med. Many of the more important cities in Gaul were on rivers, especially the Rhone. The garrone river was also important b/c the climate was good for Mediterranean style living & agriculture-i.e. Grapes. Produce could not be shipped economically more than about 20 miles by land, so the river & sea network was crucial- the Romans where a very maritime people after the foundation of the empire and engaged in extensive trade along the med.

Gaul was practically home turf: the Romans were there to stay (and gain, via looting and trade).

Britain was not important to the Empire and was garrisoned differently.

Perhaps these facts, coupled with geography (ie distances to the oceans) explains it?

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