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Oppidum is the Latin word for a defended site, often with urban characteristics, and so, by extension, simply a "town." The modern archaeological usage is based on Julius Caesar's De bello Gallico, in which he terms the native urban settlements, such as Genava (Geneva), Vesontio (Besançon), Lutetia (Paris), Bibracte (Mont Beuvray), and Gergovia (Gergovie), oppida, although he occasionally calls them urbs (city). German and British nomenclature thus uses this word for archaeological sites similar to these historical towns—defended Late Iron Age sites of the second to first centuries b.c. of at least 25–30 hectares, which are found from the Hungarian plain to western France as well as in central Spain. Caesar and other Latin authors also use the term to describe hillforts and small defended urban sites of 5–10 hectares; French nomenclature follows this usage for the towns of southern France, such as Entremont and Ensérune, and the sixth-century Hallstatt hillforts, such as Mont Lassois and the Heuneburg. In Britain the term is used mainly for very large lowland settlements of the first centuries b.c. and a.d., such as Camulodunum (Colchester), which can be as large as 2,000 hectares, defined by linear dikes. In this discussion the British and German nomenclature is used. This essay will discuss oppida in Gaul, central Europe, and Britain.


Because of their large size and no doubt large populations, the oppida must belong to a very different sort of political entity from that of the Mediterranean city-states, or what might be termed tribal states. They bear the name of a tribe rather than of a major town (e.g., the Aedui and the Arverni, compared with the Romans and Athenians). Where the territorial size of the state is known, they tend to be much larger than the city-states. Mont Beuvray near Autun in Burgundy is a good type site. First, Caesar names it as the ancient Bibracte, chief town of the Aedui, who were legal allies of the Romans from at least the second century b.c. Caesar, who spent the winter of 52–51 b.c. in the town writing De bello Gallico, tells a little about the state's oligarchic constitution. He mentions the annual election of the chief magistrate (the vergobret), the existence of an assembly (senatus), and the sources of the state's income (e.g., the annual auctioning of the right to collect tolls from traders).

Mont Beuvray lies in a good defensive position on a hilltop that dominates the Morvan mountain range, and it is visible from a considerable distance in all directions. Although the immediate area is agriculturally poor, there are raw resources, such as iron ore, and the oppidum controlled one of the
major routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, from the valley of the Saône into the Paris Basin via the River Yonne. Dendrochronological evidence shows that the oppidum was founded about 120 b.c. and initially was surrounded by a rampart low on the hill, enclosing some 200 hectares. This was a murus Gallicus, as described by Caesar, a wall revetted front and back by stone walls and with an internal timber lacing joined with iron spikes where the balks cross. In a murus Gallicus the space between the walls is filled with earth and stones, and there is an earthen ramp behind and a ditch (or, in the case of Mont Beuvray, a terrace) in front. Somewhat later the site was reduced in size to 135 hectares with a new murus Gallicus rampart, which was repaired regularly, and, finally, in the later first century b.c. by a Fécamp rampart—a massive bank of earth with a sloping glacis front (named by Mortimer Wheeler who dug the oppidum overlooking the modern-day town of Fécamp). The reason for this series of alterations may have been to make the ramparts more visible from a distance. Certainly, defense is not the only purpose of the "defenses"—the main gate, the Porte de Rebout, is much wider than would be needed for defense, and there is no elaborate gatehouse such as those known from many other sites.

The site was a major center for consumption—the annual influx of wine amphorae from western Italy must be numbered in the thousands, but the pre-conquest deposits at Mont Beuvray are poorly known, as they are overlain by masonry buildings of the Augustan period. The site saw a massive investment in public and private buildings in the two generations following the conquest, before the population moved to a less-exposed site 20 kilometers away at Augustodunum (Autun) c. 10 b.c. to a.d. 10.

Several major excavations of oppida reveal their internal organization and the range of buildings—Villeneuve–St. Germain near Soissons and Condésur-Suippe/Variscourt in France; Staré Hradisko, Hrazany, and Závist in the Czech Republic; and Manching on the Danube in Germany. All of them have produced large palisaded enclosures, which have the appearance of farmsteads, usually with a large timber house and ancillary barns, stables, granaries, workshops, and wells. The largest enclosures are up to 4,000 square meters, but more typically they are about 1,000 to 2,000 square meters. They seem to be elite residences, the equivalent of the courtyard house in the Mediterranean world. They also commonly have evidence of industrial activities, such as bronze casting, ironsmithing, and coin manufacture.

The lower classes lived in smaller timber buildings, typically with a single room, constructed on artificial terraces on hill slopes, or, in the case of Mont Beuvray and Manching, lined along the main thoroughfares. Many people of this class were engaged in manufacturing. Some were bronzesmiths, making such mass-produced items as safety-pin brooches and belt fittings. Others were ironworkers, producing such weapons as swords, iron scabbards, spears, and shield bosses; a wide range of tools for carpentry (drills, hammers, chisels, knives, axes); agricultural equipment (plowshares, sickles, scythes, pruning hooks); house fittings (latch lifters, keys, locks, cauldron hangers), or vehicle fittings for chariots and wagons. Glass was worked to produce multicolored beads, pendants, and bracelets or red glass as an overlay on decorative studs. Wool was spun and woven into textiles, and leather was worked, although little survives of the products themselves. A great range of pottery was made, from basic cooking pots and eating vessels to elaborate painted vessels with geometric and zoomorphic (based on animal forms) decorations. Individual pots, such as specialist cooking pots made of clay containing graphite, could be traded over several hundred kilometers. Thus, oppida were important centers of manufacture, linked together by extensive trade networks that saw trade not only in finished goods but also in raw materials, such as metals, salt (Hallstatt, Bad Nauheim), amber, or shale for bracelets and vessels. In some cases, such as Kelheim in Germany and Titelberg in Luxembourg, the oppidum encloses or sits on the raw material (in both these cases, iron ores).

Oppida were deliberate foundations, formed at a specific moment in time when the decision was made to found a town and for the population to move in. It implies preexisting knowledge of what a town is like and the necessary economic, social, and political superstructure to support it. Manching is a unique example of a settlement that gradually increased in size until it achieved urban proportions and was given defenses. Lezoux in central France presents the more normal sequence: an open settlement of about 8 hectares in the plain, which was abandoned at the end of the second century b.c. for a defended oppidum on a nearby hill. This site, in turn, was abandoned in the late first century b.c. for a Roman town at the foot of the hill.

There are considerable regional variations, however. Sometimes a series of oppida replace one another—Villeneuve–St. Germain and Pommiers at Soissons or Corent, Gondole, and Gergovie at Clermont-Ferrand. In many cases, no preceding major settlement is known, and the urban site may represent some sort of synoicism, or joining together into one community, of numerous small settlements. At Roanne and Feurs the early open settlements decreased in size when the nearby oppida of Jœvres, Crêt-Châtelard, and Palais d'Essalois were established, but neither site was abandoned and, unlike the local oppida, developed into flourishing Roman towns. In some areas, such as Clermont-Ferrand, virtually all the preceding settlements disappeared. In others, such as Champagne, there were many small farms and hamlets in the countryside; indeed, the distribution of rich burials suggests that in northern France this was where many of the elite resided. In still other areas, especially in southeastern France, oppida are rare or unknown, and open settlements, such as Saumeray, in the territory of the Carnutes could continue unaffected by the foundation of oppida not far away. Oppida also could be founded but never attract any permanent occupation.

In Gaul the main period for the foundation of the oppida (on the evidence of dendrochronology) is about 120 b.c. This was around the time of the Roman takeover of southern France (125–123 b.c.) and the defeat in 123 b.c. of the Arverni, who, according to the Greek ethnographer Posidonius, had controlled an area from the Atlantic to the Rhine. In central Europe (e.g., the Czech Republic) such sites as Hrazany, Závist, and Staré Hradisko go back a couple of generations earlier, to the early second century b.c., but there is no historical context for their foundation.

The oppida played a major role in the events of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, of which the sieges of Avaricum (Bourges), Gergovia, Alesia (Alise–Ste. Reine), and Uxellodunum (Puy-d'Issolud) are the most spectacular. In contrast, when the Romans reached the Danube in 15–14 b.c. many sites, such as Manching, seem to have been abandoned. The gates of Hrazany and Závist, outside the area conquered by the Romans, were hastily blocked just before they were burned down. This event traditionally has been associated with the rise of the Germanic chieftain Maroboduus and the Marcomanni c. 10 b.c., but the archaeological dating now suggests an earlier date for their destruction. In contrast, many of the sites in Gaul, even in areas hostile to Rome, continued in occupation for at least a couple of generations (Gergovie, Mont Beuvray), if not throughout the Roman period (Alise–Ste. Reine). Indeed, many sites can claim continuity of occupation to the present day, among them Besançon (Vesontio), Reims (Durocortorum), Paris, Chartres (Autricum), and Orléans (Aurelianum Cenabum).

The sites in central Spain are less well known and studied; they contrast with the generally smaller Iberian towns of the east and south and the hillforts of the western and northern Iberian Peninsula. Their histories are longer than those of temperate Europe, with sites such as Las Cogotas and La Mesa de Miranda (Ávila) starting as early as the fifth century b.c. A small number of sites figure in the Carthaginian and Roman conflicts: Salamanca (Salamantica) was captured by the Carthaginian general Hannibal in 220 b.c., and Numantia near Soria was the scene of a siege by the Roman general Scipio Africanus in 133 b.c. Typically, these sites consist of two or three defended enclosures with elaborate entrances and large enclosure areas (e.g., La Mesa de Miranda, at 30 hectares; Las Cogotas, at 14.5 hectares; and Ulaca, at 80 hectares). The latter site contains many small stone and double houses, usually with a single room but occasionally with three or four rooms, but there are also ceremonial and religious structures. The associated cemeteries contain some rich burials with weapons and fine bronze jewelry, but the very rich aristocratic burials found in northern Gaul generally are absent, suggesting a less hierarchical society.


The oppida of Britain date to the late first century b.c. and early first century a.d. and are confined to the south and east of the country. Generally, they are in low-lying areas enclosing valleys or low ridges between rivers, suggesting that their role was not primarily defensive. In fact, their huge size (300 to 2,000 hectares or more) would have been impossible to man. The linear earthworks, or dikes, even avoid commanding strategic positions, and although they are often massive, with sometimes double or triple lines of ramparts, their function seems rather to impress. They may mark royal properties, and only parts of them were occupied. The richest Late Iron Age burials are associated with them—Lexden at Colchester and Folly Lane at St. Albans. Historical sources and coinage allow researchers to identify up to three generations of dynastic kings, whose names appear on the coins along with the names of the cities, Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans), and Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester). Classical sources call Colchester the "capital" of Cunobelin (Cunobelinus, or Cymbeline), "king of the Britons." All the sites produce evidence of extensive trade with the Roman world, with wine and fish paste (garum) from Italy and Spain and fine pottery from Gaul and northern Italy. Several developed into major Roman towns.

See alsoGermans (vol. 2, part 6); Manching (vol. 2, part6); Hillforts (vol. 2, part 6); Gergovia (vol. 2, part 6); Kelheim (vol. 2, part 6); The Heuneburg (vol. 2, part 6); Agriculture (vol. 2, part 7).


Collis, John R. Oppida: Earliest Towns North of the Alps. Sheffield, U.K.: University of Sheffield, 1984.

Cunliffe, Barry W. Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland, and Wales from the Seventh Centurybcuntil the Roman Conquest. 3d ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1991.

Cunliffe, Barry W., and Simon Keay. Social Complexity and the Development of Towns in Iberia, from the Copper Age to the Second Centuryad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Fichtl, S. La ville celtique: Les oppida de 150 av. J.-C. à 15 ap. J.-C. Paris: Éditions Errance, 2000.

Hodges, Richard. Dark Age Economics: The Origins of Towns and Tradea.d. 600–1000. 2d ed. London: Duckworth, 1989.

Guichard, Vincent, and Franck Perrin, eds. L'aristocratie celte à la fin de l'Âge du Fer. Bibracte 4. Glux-en-Glenne, France: Centre archéologique européenne du Mont Beuvray, 2001.

Guichard, Vincent, S. Sievers, and O. H. Urban, eds. Les processus d'urbanisation à l'âge du Fer: Eisenzeitliche Urbanisationsprozesse. Bibracte 5. Glux-en-Glenne, France: Centre archéologique européenne du Mont Beuvray, 2000.

Wells, Peter S. The Barbarians Speak. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

John Collis

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