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History of Switzerland During Ancient Times

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Switzerland before the Roman conquest

Since ancient times, the Swiss Plateau – a region surrounded by the Alps from the south and east, Lake Geneva and the River Rhone from the west and the Rhine from the north – was inhabited by Celtic tribes. The west of Switzerland was inhabited by the Helvets, the east probably by a tribe related to the Etruscans.

The Helvets, the most numerous tribe, were farmers and cattle breeders; they lived in villages and cities and were divided into many tribes that formed a kind of aristocratic republic. They already had a script brought from Greece; of metals they knew iron and gold, from which they minted coins. Their religion was close to the religion of other Celts.

Conquest by Rome

The first territory of modern Switzerland, conquered by the Romans, was in the south of Ticino and was annexed by the Romans after the victory over the Celtic Insubra tribe in 222 BC. The territory of the Allobrogi around Geneva was ruled by Rome in 121 BC. and retired to the province of Narbonne Gaul.

The first important contact of the Swiss Helvetes with the Romans took place in 107 BC.  when the Tigurin tribe joined the Cimbri and Teutons and made a raid on Southern Gaul, where the Romans suffered a heavy defeat on the shores of the Garonne.

The fate of Gaul and the West Celtic peoples as a whole radically changed the Roman conquest, associated with the name of Gaius Julius Caesar, consul of 59 BC. and then the proconsul of the South Bull region of Narbonne. The success of the invasion of the Romans was largely predetermined by the lack of unity among the Gallic tribes, many of whom, for political, economic and military reasons, sought the support of Rome. The reason for the invasion was the intent of the Helvets in full force, which had been carried out in 58 year in full, to leave their territories at the source of the Rhone and move to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The reason for this was the increasing pressure on them from a Germanic tribe, which has repeatedly forced them to migrate. The intervention of Rome was explained both by the danger of passing through the recently pacified northern areas of the Narbonne province of the huge armed masses and by the unwillingness to allow the Germans to territories from which they could directly threaten the North Italian areas.

The number of immigrants was determined to be 265,000 souls, joined by 95,000 people from other tribes. All this mass, consisting of men and women, old people and children, free men and slaves, with cattle, with supplies of provisions, having destroyed cities and villages behind them, gathered at Lake Geneva. Caesar prevented them from crossing the Rhine, then inflicted a cruel defeat on them at the city of Bibracte and forced them to return to Helvetia. Fearing more Germans than Helvets, the Romans looked at the latter as a buffer against the former, and therefore Caesar recognized them as allies ( federates ) of Rome and retained their independence.

Attempts by Caesar to establish control over the pass, Art. Bernard in 57 BC. faced strong resistance from the local Celtic tribe of Veragri. More concerted and successful actions to conquer transport routes across the Alps were carried out by Caesar’s successor, Augustus. In 15 BC. the Roman army, under the command of Decimus Claudius Nero, passes the Alps, takes control of eastern and central Switzerland and crosses the Rhine.

Roman Switzerland

History of Switzerland in the period from Augustus Octavian to 260 AD – This is the era of peace and exceptional welfare of the region. Pax Romana guaranteed reliable protection of distant borders and peaceful integration of the population into the empire. The Romanian urbanization of Switzerland left behind many settlements and a network of beautiful roads, providing quick communication within the country and the empire, which allowed Helvetia to integrate securely into the imperial economy. In addition to the trade development of the country and cities, the Romans introduced a highly developed culture and along with it, the Latin language and the Roman religion spread.

Despite the strong presence of the Romans in the Alpine regions, where control over the safe south-north connection played a critical role, the real romanization of the Swiss plateau was delayed for several decades after the dominance of Rome. Aventicum was the capital of Helvetia from the time of its founding until the first century AD. Thanks to trade routes laid by Claudius and passing through the Senkt-Bernard Pass, the city developed rapidly and in 72 received the official status of the capital of the colony. The likely elevation of the city is also associated with the participation of Vespasian, who lived for some time in this city and wanted to improve control over the region by accommodating a veteran settlement (events of 69 years) in this area.

Even during the rule of the Romans, Christianity began to penetrate into Helvetia. Monasteries arose in some places, and a whole church organization appeared with its own (local) bishops. Since the III century A.D. Roman supremacy in Helvetia began to lean toward decay under the onslaught of the Germans.

In the year 264, Alemanni invaded Helvetius; they destroyed the Aventicum, which thereafter could no longer rise and lost all meaning. In the 4th century, due to the loss of land on the right bank of the Rhine, Helvetius acquired a special significance for Rome; it began to build new fortresses and camps, but all was in vain. In 406–407, Alemanni conquered eastern Switzerland; in 470, western Switzerland fell under the power of the Burgundians. The Alamanni managed to almost completely destroy the traces of Roman influence (including Christianity) and the already romanized regions completely Germanized. It is they who most of all can be considered the ancestors of the present inhabitants of German Switzerland; the admixture of Celtic and Romance elements is relatively weak there. And in later times, when a significant part of Europe, including Germany, was reciprocating Roman law, the law of German Switzerland was subjected to Roman influence only to a very weak degree and is still of a much more pure German character than the law of Germany itself.

The Burgundians, to a much lesser extent, succeeded in subordinating the part of Helvetia they had conquered to their influence, and therefore western Switzerland remained Romanced. Similarly, the southeast, which fell under the power of the Ostrogoths, retained its Romanesque language and partly Roman culture, as did Ticino, who in the subsequent Lombard era got even more subordinated to Roman influences. Thus, in the ethnic or rather linguistic sense, Switzerland already in the V century was divided into the same three or four groups as now, and even the boundaries between them, defined by mountains and rivers, were almost the same as now. These groups maintained their cultural ties with neighboring political units; the development of their Celtic-Romance adverbs proceeded in parallel with the development of the languages ​​of French and Italian.


Encyclopedic Dictionary of Brockhaus and Efron

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