The Rhone and the Saone come together in Lugdunum

Pull out that National Geographic Visual Atlas of the World, again. Look up the topographical map of Europe and the Mediterranean on pages 142-143. Now, let’s say you are an erstwhile ancient traveler looking to get from the Mediterranean Sea into central Europe. Unless you are interested in tromping over mountain passes, there are not too many choices. In fact, the Rhone River is just about as handy a highway as you can find. There are not any other major rivers that can get you past the Alps.

Rhone river cruise view of Lyon

Beautiful Lyon at night. By Alexmar983 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

And that’s just what happened around 600 BC. Greeks from ancient Phocaea on the western Turkish shore came looking for a trading post and settled Massalia, near modern-day Marseilles. Among their delightful imports, they brought wine and mustard seeds from their homeland. Our palates have never been the same.

The folks who lived upriver have been labeled “Celts” by the historical community. This is an inexact term that means something along the lines of “everyone living in central Europe whose origins are unknown, ranging from Gaul (France) to Dacia (Hungary/Romania)”. They are only mildly related to the Irish Celtics and not at all to the Boston Celtics. There were several groups of Celts in the regions connected to the Saone and the Rhone. They were not always hospitable neighbors and even sacked Rome around 387 BC. The Ancient Celts

The expansion of the Roman Empire started with the Italian peninsula, then Sicily, Carthage, Greece and into eastern Europe and beyond. Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of An Empire It wasn’t until 58 BC that up-and-coming consul Julius Caesar added TransAlpine (on the other side of the Alps) Gaul to his list of governorships. He had run up a fair sized personal debt and needed a new source of revenue. To a Roman consul this meant slaves and booty. He needed a little war. So, when the Gallic Celts and the Germanic Celts started bickering, in strode Caesar.

By this time, the strategic intersection at the confluence of the Saone and the Rhone was a significant Roman outpost call Lugdunum. It was at the center of the Celtic strife and Caesar acted, in theory, to secure the well-being of Roman citizens and his own fiscal and political future. The only historic account we have of this privateering escapade was written by the man himself: The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin Classics). Most history is written by the victors. In this case, he was probably the only literate observer for miles. His eventual victory secured mainland Gaul, from the Rhine River to the Atlantic Ocean, for the Empire, where it remained, relatively passively, until the Empire began to crumble.

Rhone Cruise by Pont du Gard

The incredible Pont du Gard aqueduct was built in the First Century. By Ad Meskens, via Wikimedia Commons

Lugdunum went on to become Lyons, and became a center of wealth, particularly related to the silk trade. Caesar’s debts were paid and he went on to subdue his political foes and consolidate his power and wealth, only to meet his infamous undoing on the Ides of March, 44 BC.  Julius Caesar, and Shakespeare’s classic, Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library). All along the Rhone, the Romans built towns, bridges, aqueducts, and forts, the remains of which will be attractions to visit on your cruise. See Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul, and The Roman Remains of Southern France: A Guide Book.

After the demise of the Roman Empire, a Germanic group called the Burgundians took control of the river valley and established Burgundy all the way to the Riviera. Amidst the power politics of the Holy Roman Empire, it was split into four pieces. It’s a confusing tale, with most of original Burgundy ultimately ending up as a part of France.

Rhone river cruise Burgundy

Bold, if not pretty, Philip challenged the French crown from the House of Burgundy in Dijon. via Wikimedia Commons

Up north, the Duchy of Burgundy set up shop in Dijon as the House of Burgundy. Thanks to the strategic economic position of Lyons, the Duke of Burgundy was always a bit of a threat to the French crown. Somewhere in the middle of this, the County of Burgundy, east of the Saone, was created as a gift from Mother to loving son. But when the House ran out of male heirs, Louis XI snatched the title for the French crown and the House, both Duchy (now the region of Burgundy) and County (now the region of Franche-Comte), faded from history. Historian Richard Vaughn has the corner on some of these influential political figures of the “Burgundian Century”, with his four-part series: the shrewd Philip the Bold: The Dukes Of Burgundy, the unscrupulous John the Fearless (History of Valois Burgundy), the ambitious Philip the Good (History of Valois Burgundy), and the not-so-bold Charles the Bold: The Last Valois Duke of Burgundy (History of Valois Burgundy).

The kingdoms of Upper and Lower Burgundy, from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean coast, combined into the Kingdom of Arles. But this was during the height of feudalism in Europe, when local nobles had as much, if not more, political clout as any minor king. The line of the King of Arles became progressively weaker and large parts of Provence and the other Rhone regions seceded and joined the French.

As your river boudoir cruises south from Lyons to Orange, you are in the French region of Rhone-Alpes. The eastern section of the region includes the departments of Savoie and Haute Savoie. This is the home of the House of Savoy, founded in 1033, as part of the Kingdom of Arles. Its strategic position on the main highway between France and Italy made it a pawn in European politics for a thousand years. For a look at the medieval Savoys, check out The eagles of Savoy;: The House of Savoy in thirteenth-century Europe.

Rhone river cruise Savoy

The last Savoy, King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy. By Verlag von Dr. Hottingers Volksblatt, via Wikimedia Commons

The House of Savoy ultimately became the ruling family for the Kingdom of Italy when Victor Emmanuel II assumed the Italian throne in 1861. When the Italian Republic was formed after WWII, the reign of the House of Savoy, the longest of any European nobility, came to an end.

As your floating chateau crosses into the region of Provence, the first major stop is the City of Orange. Here, we have our last royal footnote from Southern France. Orange was made a principality in 1163 as part of the Holy Roman Empire. That means it had a prince. This was of relatively little consequence until the French daughter of the Prince of Orange married a Dutchman, Henry III of Nassau-Breda. Their Dutch son, Rene, inherited the title of Prince of Orange upon the death of his French uncle. When Rene passed on, his Dutch cousin, William I, took the title of Prince of Orange-Nassau in 1544.

This Prince William helped launch the Eighty Years War between the Dutch and their Spanish overlords, eventually resulting in Dutch independence. The House of Orange-Nassau remains the Dutch royal monarchy to this very day. Though the Principality of Orange has disappeared, its princely heritage lives on in the gaudy neon jerseys of the Dutch national soccer team. Holland Home Football Shirt 2012/13 It is probable the current residents of Orange cheer for the French team. They have a better track record in competition.