Rennes-le-Château and Rennes-les-Bains

Rennes-le-Château and Rennes-les-Bains

Roman Alet les Bains

  There are some
who believe the name of Alet came from the Roman name for the town, “Pagus Electensis,” meaning the chosen place, but it's more likely it was called "Aleth" by the Celtic people who were here before the Romans came and intermarried with them for many years to become the "Gallo-Romans."
    Archeological evidence of Roman occupation of Alet-les-Bains is quite scanty compared to many other villages in the region.  While amphores and addments have been found, I suspect Alet was little more than a “re-fuelling” stop up and down the River Aude between Carcassonne and Couiza.  (It was a challenge to prove it but I think I did.)  The Celts were the Ataxins, named after the River Atax - today's River Aude.
    Stories and legends about a Roman occupation are not scanty at all.  I read on a French web-site;  The testimony the most obvious of the Roman occupation is the ancient columbarium, which we can see at the base of the oppidum from the Cadène Gate. The columbarium faces south and is cut from a rock of sandy white limestone encrusted with numerous little white stones.  It is fifteen metres long and 3 metres high.
   Ha!  The oppidum was not Roman but Celtic.  The word columbarium has only recently entered the French language as a place for the dead.  Since 1979 the hygienic problem of disposing of the dead has come under scrutiny in France and the people are adapting to the idea of incineration.  Some Catholics tell me the body is just a body and it is the soul that goes to Heaven, so there is no problem with opting for cremation.  This is intriguing, in a part of the world that once believed Cathars must be burnt so that they had no chance of any promised literal resurrection of the body, as happened to Jesus.  Today many cemetaries include an area called a columbarium with marble containers, on which is carved an inscription, within which is placed an urn of ashes.

  Back to Roman times;  The niches destined to receive the urns are composed in two series, the greatest on the left, which could each contain two urns, separated by a metre of bare rock to the second series which are smaller.  Altogether 45 compartments are cut in the rock, and thus some of 40cm by 40cm and some of 25cm by 30 cm are the only testament today to a long-time past.  He then goes on to say;  Therefore it was a cemetery for graves and incinerations, such as was practised by the Romans. One can find Roman medallions in Alet and its surroundings.  (In fact, medallions have been found in the “surroundings,” notably at Rennes-les-Bains, but not at Alet.)
    At the foot of the columbarium is a field, beside which ran the Roman road passing from Couiza northwards to Limoux, so at first all seemed logical.  But I was intrigued.  Would the urns of ashes be placed in the niches, without any sort of doors, just open to the elements?  The columbarium had the look of a sort of giant display case. 

  Some time ago I rang the Tourist board in Alet, and the spokesman cheerfully confirmed this place was a Roman columbarium (the word also means pigeon house) once containing urns with the ashes of Romans in them.  It’s known the Romans incinerated their dead, although sometimes great dignitaries had tombs and mausoleums.  It was only after the advent of Roman Christianity, in the 4th century, that people were buried in graves so they could be resurrected when the time was right.  
    So it was quite a surprise when my official archeology book of the region says simply that the columbarium was “probably a medieval site"!   Maybe it WAS a columbarium where pigeons were kept.  But again, pigeon houses generally have a large interior space, with perches for the birds to roost.  And it does say, very diplomatically perhaps, on the official plaque nearby, graced with the town’s coat of arms, This Porte Cadene of the 12th century did not resist the besiegers of the Wars of Religion of the 16th century.  These walls received more than 300 canonballs. . . opposite the hill, cut in the rock, a Roman Columbarium that Viguier transformed to a pigeon house in 1526.
    Viguier was an important dignitary at that time.  But one does not imagine important men keeping pigeons . . . I have often walked past the columbarium trying to solve this puzzle.
    Then I read in the French book by Nicholas Léon, well-known as a tour-guide in Alet, that some people have suggested Celtic tribes had the custom of displaying the skulls of their valiant enemies.
    I wrote about this myself in my book “The Sacred River of Rennes-les-Bains” (click here) where the Tectosages lived.  The Celts used to cut off the heads of those they had conquered, and kept the heads, pickled or mummified, as trophies of a successful war.  This played a religious role in Celtic everyday life.  The heads were set up in the sanctuaries of the Celts and offered up to the Gods.  The great stone shrine at Roquepertuse in the Bouches-du-Rhône had niches in the wall for the display of human heads, others, such as the one at Entremont, just north of Aix-en-Provence, had a carving showing heads arranged systematically in such niches.
   The great cheiftains never sat down at a feast without having a severed head before them on the table.  The head was the seat of the soul, the essence of being, that symbolised divinity itself.  It could remain alive apart from the body, it could avert evil, it could prophesy, it could speak and sing; it presided over feasts in the Otherworld.  Sometimes the heads were enbalmed in oil and regarded as priceless treasures which would protect their owners.
    The Roman Didorus Siculus wrote; They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses.  The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and carry off as booty, while singing a song of victory, and nail up those fruits of battle on their houses.  They embalm in oil the heads of their most distinguished enemies and preserve them in a chest and boast of the offers of money from those who want to buy them.  Some say they refused the weight of the head in gold; it is a sign of nobility to the refrain from selling the proofs of one’s valour.
    Maybe the mystery of the Columbarium at Alet-les-Bains will always remain; but there's a certain logic in the idea that the Celts, at the foot of their oppidum, displayed the heads of their enemies, as they did at Roquepertuse in their gateway.
 Back to Roman roads  The French reference book, Carte Archeologique de Gaul, Vol 11/2, says no traces of Roman roads have been found at Alet, especially through the narrow Gorge de Cascabel just to the north, yet another French site told me; 500 metres further along the valley of Alet, one can see the important ruins of the bridge built by the Romans.  To move their troops and their chariots, the Romans had to build a solid bridge to cross the river Atax, thus replacing the existing bridge of wood with a magnificent stone bridge, destroyed in time immemorial, of which one can still admire the stanchions that are apparently indestructible.
    There are two legends concerning this bridge, one based on historical facts, the other on the superstitious ideas of the Middle ages. The Commentaries of Caesar make a mention of the bridge over the River Atax, today the Aude, which was built in a day. Some simple spirits could not believe that it as only the hand of man that built this gigantic work in 24 hours and found it easier to invent a wicked hand to explain this miraculous feat. And so the Roman Bridge at Alet became known as the Bridge of the Devil.  It was classified as an historic monument in 1948.
    The remains of this bridge can be seen from the main road entering Alet from the north, some 50 metres before the the swimming pool visible on the other side. It is marked as a ruined bridge of the IGN map, and it is said that it was swept away by floods around 1232.   (NB  These ruins can only be seen in the winter because of the tree foliage.)

Remains of bridge.jpg  FromtheNorth.jpg 

As seen from the main road today and a picture postcard of 1910, looking south towards Alet.
  But why would people have wanted to cross the river at this point?  There are no remains of roads opposite it and the Roman road to Limoux (read on) went along the eastern side of the river, following the contours of the mountainside.  Meanwhile the archeologists say there are no traces of Roman roads in Alet whatsoever!
    My research indicates a Roman road totally on the eastern side of the river and so in fact, the Romans would never have even built a bridge.  However, one site tells us there was a Roman road to Chalabre via the Col St. André, Borde Longue and Roquetaillade, very tough terrain indeed.  However, on the map is marked an ancient mine, behind today's railway station.  Could this bridge have been simply to carry the products of the mine over the river to meet the road going north to Limoux?   Especially as it apparently had a watch-tower on it? 
       There is yet another false legend pointed out by my archeology book concerning the ancient altar apparently found in Alet-les-Bains.  It has been reproduced many times as a sign that the worship of the mother Goddess took place in Alet in Roman times.  This is a small altar, probably a domestic one, with a depression on the top for a small offering.  The words say;  Matre Deum, Cn Pompeius Probus, curator templi, votum solvit libens merito - “to the Mother of God, C P P, guardian of the temple, is fulfilled of his wish by the good grace of this title.”
   This altar was not found in Alet, but in Rennes-les-Bains.   It was given to the bishop, who lived in Alet (the diocese of Alet was huge) by the people of Rennes-les-Bains village.  It resided in the ruins of the cathedral for a while but it is now among the collections of the Museum St. Raymond in Toulouse.
    So we cannot say that the Mother of God was worshipped in Alet-les-Bains.  Sorry!

  Some ordinary Roman remains were found to the east of the village in people’s vegetable gardens, dolia or vast terracotta storage jars were found. But the east of the town is the oppidum; the only space they could be referring to is the open space behind the 13th century old village.   Why would they build there?  Because it was beside the Roman road and the ground there was a little higher than down by the river which could flood.
    This habitation was not near the natural spring which is to the north, next door to today’s modern swimming pool, whose water is completely furnished from this spring.  The local people tell me the back wall of this, now a lavoir, is Roman. 

  The book continues; at “one of the two sources an oven or hypocauste was found” which is very vague.  We know about hypocaustes and thermal baths from studies done at the Clos de la Lombarde in Narbonne.  I suspect this is the spring which is now part of a private house in the village and so one cannot see it.  Similarly, the archeology book does acknowledge the remains of a four (or brick oven) on the island in the river near to the archbishop’s palace.  This must be today’s picnic spot, opposite the Angel Gallery.  I couldn’t find any remains but the rocks there told me the island was there in Roman times; islands in rivers can make themselves and destroy themselves over many years of droughts and floods.    
    So here is my idea of Alet and it's roads in Roman times; French author Nicholas Léon calls this the Via Corbensis, which is also mentioned on the official Tourist map.  Imagine yourself travelling northwards on the map below.  The Roman Via Corbensis was once where is now today’s D 118 coming from Couiza to the south; by the Casino is a slip road going to the centre of the town - this was the Roman road.   If you imagine Alet today but without any buildings, you can see that the river makes a slow curve within which was an area of flat land about 400 metres from west to east.  The Romans did not build on marshy land so they skirted this to pass on the east side of today’s village,  where there would have been habitation if not a Roman villa, and then along the foot of the Celtic oppidum - which is where the municipality marks its passage.

AletMap copy.jpg
    Was this area of flat land, where is now the Bishop's Hotel by the river, a port?  Even a Celtic trading place as we find in Couiza?  (For more details of Couiza, click here.)  Remember there was no conflict between the Ataxins or the Tectosages with the Romans, they had been trading together for many years.
    The river Aude has always been navigable along its entire length, people used it as a means of travel (which could explain the lack of a road) and they would have also carried goods.  So I went with friends and found the way through the grounds of the Hôtel de l’évêche, which are open to the public, to the river.  We walked in the direction of the camping and just about where the camping began, my friend discovered stones in the ground that could have been exactly the top of a modest quayside.  And we saw huge blocks under the surface of the water.  

FoundByJaap.JPG  BlocksUnderwater.JPG 

  And we found what the French call a "galet" and part of a tegula or roof tile.  Sorry to say the coin is just a modern one cent piece!


  Back to the route of the Roman road, go back to the Cadène gate and continue behind the Angel Gallery.  Then you come to a junction where a road goes right to a private house, but there is a footpath marked as a hiker’s path in red on the map. 

TurnOff.JPG   StonesPath.JPG 

You can just see the path opening under the far trees.  Second picture;  it is steep and stony.
  This path continues to the swimming baths, after which the track widens and goes all the way to Limoux, beside the railway, through mountains 750 metres high.  This is the Roman road from Alet to the Cité of Carcassonne, once an oppidum where the Celts lived and then the Romans.
    You can also drive; there is a road made presumably to serve the maintenance of the railway.  Go behind the lavoir and find the road behind the swimming pool, marked “Deliveries only.”  Drive up there.
    Meanwhile, the bridge at the northern entrance to modern Alet, from today’s D118, (picture above) was built in 1662, apparently to replace the one swept away in 1232 - we don’t know how the people managed the 400 years in the interim without a bridge!  Maybe the mine was no longer productive, or it could have been about this time that today’s road on the western bank of the river came into use.

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