Ancient Vesontio was the principal town (oppidum) of the Gallic tribe of the Sequani. Their name refers to the Latin word for the Seine river (Sequana), but it seems rather unlikely that the tribesmen called themselves Sequani too. Modern Besançon is a nice city with a beautiful cathedral. In the streets we find a few remains from the Roman era and in the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie we learn a lot about this period and the eras the preceded and succeeded it. In this post I will mostly focus on the Roman era, but will certainly not skip the era that followed it.
The Sequani were rivals of the Aedui, who lived west of them on the other side of the Arar river (now the Saône). At the end of the 70s BCE, they had, together with the Arverni, hired the services of a large group of Germanic mercenaries led by a certain Ariovistus. The mercenaries confronted the Aedui, who suffered heavy casualties as they lost several battles. The decisive battle took place at the end of the 60s BCE – possibly in 63 or 61 BCE – at a place called Magetobriga. There the Sequani, Arverni and their Germanic allies inflicted a crushing defeat on the Aedui, and according to Julius Caesar the entire Aeduan aristocracy was killed in the fighting. Although there is no need to doubt the severity of the defeat, we may assume Caesar deliberately exaggerated the losses so as to justify his campaign against the Germans on behalf of the Aedui several years later. At the time of the defeat there was no Roman intervention though: the druid Diviciacus travelled to Rome to request aid, but was given short shrift.
The Sequani soon began to regret ever having hired the Germans, for Ariovistus settled in their territory and demanded a third of their land. He later claimed even more land to allow a new Germanic tribe, the Harudes, to settle as well. Caesar described the Germanic king as a stereotypical barbarian, but there cannot be any doubt that the Sequani were eager to see him leave. Fortunately an opportunity to get rid of the Germans soon presented itself. After Caesar’s victory over the migrating Helvetii in June of 58 BCE, Diviciacus asked the Roman general on behalf of all the gathered Gallic tribes to expel Ariovistus and his Germanic warriors. Caesar was more than happy to assist and, after receiving word that Ariovistus intended to seize the city, quickly advanced on Vesontio. Caesar wanted to prevent the city from falling into enemy hands as, in Caesar’s own words:
“in that town were stored huge amounts of everything that was useful for war. Moreover, its natural position protected it in such a way as to offer great opportunities for a campaign: the Dubis River practically surrounds the whole town in a circle that looks as if it had been drafted by a compass. The rest of the circumference, a length of only about sixteen hundred feet that the river does not cover, is occupied by a towering hill, shaped so that the lower slopes on either side touch the river. A wall surrounds this hill and joins it to the town, creating a citadel.”
This is an excellent and very striking description of Vesontio that also applies to present-day Besançon. Just take a look at this photo. The river Doubs (then called the Dubis) circles around the city like a horseshoe. The towering hill mentioned by Caesar, the Mont Saint-Étienne, is nowadays occupied by the Citadel of Besançon, which was built in the seventeenth century by the famous architect Vauban (1633-1707). Caesar quickly took Vesontio and from there advanced on Ariovistus. He defeated the Germanic king in September of 58 BCE somewhere in the Vosges Mountains. The Sequani were overjoyed, but their joy was probably short-lived. Instead of a Germanic occupation they were now faced with a Roman occupation. Rather unsurprisingly, they therefore participated in the Great Gallic Revolt of 52 BCE that was led by Vercingetorix. Caesar writes that they were required to send 12,000 soldiers. Unfortunately the rebels were crushed at Alesia, and now the Sequani and the other Gallic tribes were subjugated for good.
Besançon in the museum
In the local Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, finds like the hilt of a dagger from ca. 1600-1350 BCE prove that the Besançon area was inhabited since at least the Bronze Age. Other finds are evidence of contacts with the Greek world and Italy. Obviously the Greek world was not limited to what we now call Greece: in about 600 BCE the important Greek colony of Massilia (modern Marseille) had been founded in Southern Gaul. Massilia for its part was a loyal Roman ally. On several occasions, for instance in 154 BCE and 125 BCE, the Romans had protected the Greek city against attacks by Ligurian or Gallic tribes. These interventions ultimately led to the creation in about 121 BCE of the Roman province of Gallia Transalpina and to the founding of Roman colonies such as Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) and Narbo Martius (Narbonne). An important consequence of the Roman presence in Southern Gaul was a drastic increase of the import of wine from Italy. Apparently much wine was sold in Vesontio as well. The drink was very popular with both the aristocracy and the common people.
The museum has splendid Roman mosaics of Medusa and Neptune from the second half of the second century. The mosaic featuring Neptune’s triumph is truly spectacular. It was once part of a floor that measured 200 square metres. We see the god of the sea in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses. One might have expected seahorses, but like his Greek counterpart Poseidon, Neptune was also considered a god of horses. What is remarkable, is that the museum highly praises the way the fish and other sea creatures have been depicted, but is rather critical about the way Neptune himself has been laid: “[T]he image of the god seems to lack finesse”. According to the museum the workshop that made the mosaic may have lacked a specialist or pictor imaginarius who was especially proficient in laying portraits.
Another very interesting object in the museum is the so-called Taureau d’Avrigney, a bronze bull that was found in 1756 in the town of Avrigney, northwest of Besançon. The Taureau is not an ordinary bull, as the animal has three horns (tricornu). We are almost certainly dealing with a statue of a deity in the shape of an animal that was worshipped by the Sequani. The state of maintenance of the statue appears to be quite satisfactory, but only the right hind leg of the bull has been preserved.
The museum also possesses half of an ivory diptych of the Roman consul Flavius Areobindus Dagalaiphus Areobindus. He was consul in 506 and his name clearly betrays non-Roman origins. Areobindus was a son of Flavius Dagalaiphus, the consul of 461, who in his turn was a son of the consul of 434, Flavius Areobindus. The family could boast of Gothic ancestry. Flavius Areobindus Dagalaiphus Areobindus was married to the daughter of the Western Roman emperor Olybrius, Anicia Juliana. During his consulate Areobindus had several consular diptychs made, of which five have been entirely or partially preserved. The piece of diptych in Besançon is a bit worn, but we can still see the consul holding a mappa in his right hand, a piece of linen which was used during the circus games. Once the consul had dropped the mappa, the games – visible at Areobindus’ feet – could begin. The games featured on the diptych also show one of the participants being crowned with a laurel. Many spectators are witnesses to the spectacle. Unfortunately we do not know how the diptych ended up in Vesontio. In 506 the city was no longer under Roman control: it had become part of the kingdom of the Burgundi (Burgundians).
At some point in the early third century Christianity arrived in Vesontio. The spread of the new religion was likely encouraged by the bishop of Lugdunum (modern Lyon). This Irenaeus (died 202) was the successor of Saint Pothinus, the first bishop of Lugdunum, who had been murdered in 177 during anti-Christian riots in this city. The conversion of the Sequani to Christianity is traditionally attributed to two missionaries named Ferreolus and Ferrutio, or Ferréol et Ferjeux in French. They were said to have been martyred in 212, but it is difficult to say how much of the stories that are told about the two men is true. What we do know is that Vesontio eventually got its own bishop, but the first known bishop, one Pancharius, does not enter the stage until 346. In the museum we find an epitaph for the deacon Auxilius, who presumably lived and died in the sixth century. According to the epitaph, which features a staurogram, poor Auxilius passed away at the tender age of thirty.
The museum furthermore has an exquisite collection of paintings. Of course these have no relation whatsoever with Roman Gaul, but many of the paintings were in fact made in Italy. We may admire portraits by Titian and Tintoretto, a painting of the drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini and a Christ painted by Filippino Lippi. Of excellent quality is a Deposition from the Cross by Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572), court painter of Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Tuscany. The museum also possesses a very special work by the female painter Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) that depicts the Penitent Mary Magdalene. Of course not all works were made by Italians. In the museum we also find works by Bernard van Orley (ca. 1487-1541), Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) and even a typical Dutch landscape by Albert Cuyp (1620-1691). As regards French painters, I would specifically like to mention Gustave Courbet, Gustave Courtois and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant.
Roman Besançon in the streets
Close to the cathedral of the city we find a triumphal arch that has been fairly well preserved. It is nowadays called the Porte Noire. The arch was erected during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), more specifically in the last quarter of the second century CE. It commemorated the victories won by Marcus’ co-emperor Lucius Verus over the Parthians. The arch may also have been erected in honour of Marcus’ own victories over the Marcomanni and Quadi, two Germanic tribes that had invaded the Roman Empire. Unfortunately the reliefs on the triumphal arch are too worn to establish what victories exactly are commemorated.
Just in front of the triumphal arch we can visit a small park called Square Castan, which was named after the archaeologist Auguste Castan (1833-1892), who started excavating here in 1870. A church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist had previously stood in the square, but it was demolished in 1797. Among other things, Castan dug up several Corinthian columns that had been part of a semi-circular building. According to Castan this building must have been the theatre of Roman Vesontio, but his claims have been met with considerable scepticism. On the other hand, as yet no more convincing theory regarding the function of the building has been proposed. The small archaeological park is nice, but our walk there in the summer of 2019 was ruined by the strong smell of urine. Not far from the park you will find the houses where the great writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and the Lumière brothers, the inventors of cinematography, were born.
The cathedral of Besançon
The cathedral of Saint-Jean is definitely worth a visit. A curious element of the cathedral is that it has two choirs in two apses, one on either side of the building. The building furthermore lacks a proper façade and has no transept. After passing through the Porte Noire one arrives at a side entrance that doubles as the main entrance. Although a church may have stood at this location as early as the third century, the first genuine cathedral dates from the ninth century and the Carolingian era. It was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. In the eleventh century Hugh of Salins, archbishop of Besançon, first thoroughly remodelled the cathedral and then re-consecrated it in 1061. During his 35-year reign as archbishop, between 1031 and his death in 1066, Hugh also founded several chapters in his city. One of these was the chapter of Saint-Étienne, which administered the church of Saint-Étienne – built by Hugh – on the eponymous hill (for linguistic reasons that are hard to fathom Saint Stephen the Protomartyr is called Saint-Étienne in French). This church was granted the status of secondary cathedral of the city.
In the twelfth century the canons of Saint-Étienne claimed that their church was the one true cathedral of Besançon, not Saint-Jean. Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118) upheld their claim, but his decision was reversed by his successor Calixtus II (1119-1124) and Saint-Jean was restored as primary cathedral. Calixtus had been born Guy of Burgundy in Quingey, just south of Besançon. His positive decision vis-à-vis Saint-Jean probably kick-started a large remodelling of the cathedral, which basically amounted to a rebuilding. In 1148 the new cathedral was consecrated by Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153). A large fire in 1212 caused significant damage, but by 1246 the damage had been repaired and the cathedral had more or less reached its present appearance. Meanwhile, the conflict between the chapters of Saint-Jean and Saint-Étienne had still not been settled. In fact, it lingered on until 1254. In that year Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254) approved a merger of the two chapters. The church of Saint-Étienne is now long gone. The edifice was demolished to make space for Vauban’s famous citadel.
Although the building mostly dates from the twelfth and thirteenth century, the cathedral does have newer parts. In 1724 the campanile collapsed, necessitating a rebuilding of the entire eastern apse. The new apse dates from 1730 and is decorated with five paintings about the Passion of Christ. This part of the cathedral is considered the ‘counter-choir’ (contre-chœur); the liturgical choir is on the other side and therefore oriented towards the west (see the image above). To the right of the counter-choir we find the beautiful tomb of archdeacon Ferry Carondelet (1473-1528). The tomb was made in 1543 and is attributed to the sculptor Michel Scherrier from Bruges. What is special about the tomb is that it is a so-called cadaver monument. It is topped by an effigy of the deceased, a ‘gisant’, and below we see the naked body of that same deceased. The two decapitated figures on either side of the tomb are Ferreolus and Ferrutio.
Ferry Carondelet was a very important man, who for instance worked for Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Thanks to his efforts the cathedral possesses a work by the Italian painter Fra Bartolommeo (1473-1517). The panel painting dates from 1512. We see a Madonna and Child, carried by a cloud of angels and surrounded by saints. The saints on the left are Sebastian (pieced by arrows), Stephen the Protomartyr (i.e. Étienne) and John the Baptist. On the right we see Anthony the Abbot and Bernardus of Clairvaux. The kneeling man in the red robes with the black sleeves is Ferry Carondelet himself. Below the cloud of angels and Saint John the Baptist and Ferry Carondelet is a window that offers a view of naked people in an idyllic landscape. Fra Bartolommeo’s work is definitely one of the highlights of the cathedral, but it should be noted that it originally hung in the aforementioned and now lost church of Saint-Étienne.
To conclude this post I will mention three more highlights. In the chapel of Notre-Dame des Jacobins we can admire a small painting of the Virgin of Passignano. It was painted by Domenico Cresti (1559-1638), an Italian painter nicknamed Passignano. The next chapel has a beautiful Pietà by the sculptor Conrad Meit (died 1550 or 1551) from Worms. But the best of the three remaining highlights can be found in the chapel of the Rose de Saint-Jean. This Rose de Saint-Jean is a circular altar from the eleventh century. It originally stood in the church of Saint-Étienne and was consecrated by Pope Leo IX (1049-1054). On the altar we see a christogram with the Greek letters alpha and omega. At the foot of the christogram is a lamb and on the symbol sits an eagle (symbol of Saint John the Baptist) or perhaps a phoenix (symbol of the Resurrection). Along the edge of the altar we read the Latin text HOC SIGNVM PRAESTAT POPVLIS CAELESTIA REGNA, which translates as “This sign symbolises the heavenly kingdom for the peoples”. The Rose de Saint-Jean is almost a thousand years old and can be considered the oldest object in the cathedral. Apparently the Rose is also the only circular altar in all of France that has been preserved.
This post is based on information from the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie of Besançon and on a brochure provided by the cathedral. Additional sources are mentioned in the footnotes.
 Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico I.31 and VI.12.
 De Bello Gallico I.38 (translation: Kurt A. Raaflaub).
 De Bello Gallico VII.75.
 In 366 one of the consuls was also named Dagalaiphus. We do not know whether this consul was related to Flavius Areobindus Dagalaiphus Areobindus.