AD 119 – The boatmen of the Rhône river erect a statue in honour of Hadrian (#Hadrian1900)

Between the 10th of December 118 and the 9th of December 119, the river boatmen of the Rhône, the nautae Rhodanici, made an offering to their indulgentissimus princeps Hadrian (CIL XII, 1797). They erected a statue of the emperor in the town of Tournus (Tournon-sur-Rhône) between Valencia (Valence) and Vienna (Vienne), at the confluence of the Rhône and the Doux. The base of this honorific monument is now preserved in the village of Saint-Jean-de-Muzols.

Pedestal with dedication for a statue of Hadrian (CIL XII, 1797). AD 119.

Imp[eratori] Caes[ari], diui
Traiani Parthici
fil[io], diui Neruae
nepoti, Traiano
Hadriano Aug[usto],
pontif[ici] max[imo], trib[unicia]
potest[ate] III, co[n]s[uli] III.
N[autae] Rhodanici,

“To the Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus, son of Divine Trajan Parthicus, grandson of Divine Nerva, pontifex maximus, in his third year of tribunician power, consul of the third time. The boatmen of the Rhône to the most generous emperor Hadrian.”

The nautae Rhodanici were part of a prominent corporation of fluvial transporters who traded on the Rhodanus river (Rhône) in southern Gaul. They were based in Lugdunum (Lyon), capital of the Three Gauls at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône, where they erected honorary monuments, elected patrons and took part in the local religious festivities. They were important players in the transportation of goods in an area where river commerce was central to the local economy. 

Now the whole of this country is watered by rivers: some of them flow down from the Alps, the others from the Cemmenus and the Pyrenees; and some of them are discharged into the ocean, the others into Our Sea. Further, the districts through which they flow are plains, for the most part, and hilly lands with navigable water-courses. Strabo, Geographica, IV, I, 2

Limestone funerary relief of a boat being hauled up the Durance river (a tributary of the Rhône), probably from a tombstone dedicated to a boat-owner.
Lapidary Museum, Avignon.

The dense network of navigable rivers played a capital role in the economic prosperity of the Gallic provinces and greatly stimulated the development of trade in the Roman empire. Ancient authors concur that Gaul prospered greatly because of the importance of the rivers. Pliny and Strabo attached great importance to river navigation and the development of local ravine communities (Campbell 2012). In his Geographica, Strabo tells us that goods were transported to Gaul mainly by rivers with the Rhône river basin being an important inland trade and transportation route, interconnected via the Rhine and therefore part of a larger transport network. Freight from all over the Mediterranean was transferred there to riverboats, then hauled up the Rhône, Saône and Rhine waterways to supply the northern reaches of the empire, including the legions along the German frontier.

[…] the voyage which the Rhodanus affords inland is a considerable one, even for vessels of great burden, and reaches numerous parts of the country, on account of the fact that the rivers which fall into it are navigable, and in their turns receive most of the traffic. Strabo, Geographica, IV, I, 14

The course of the Rhône.
NordNordWest / Wikipedia CC BY-SA

The Rhône originates in the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps and, flowing through Lake Geneva continues to the low shores of the Mediterranean over a distance of 800 kilometres. It is infamous for its strong and turbulent current, making it difficult to sail upstream. It is the fastest and most powerful river in France.

It dominated the province of Gallia Narbonensis flowing through Lugdunum (Lyon), Vienna (Vienne), Valentia (Valence), Acunum (Montélimar), Arausio (Orange), Avennio (Avignon), and Arelate (Arles) where the river divides into two large branches. These towns were established on the eastern side of the river’s bank, along with the road through the region, the via Agrippa. The valley of the Rhône on the west bank was narrow and bounded by high, bare, and rocky heights with some of the hill slopes planted with vines. To J.B. Campbell (Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome, 2012), the Rhône was the king among the rivers of Gaul. 

Part of the Tabula Peutingeriana showing the mouth of the Rhône and the regions surrounding the river in Southern France.
A small river boat (stlatta) on the Althiburus mosaic.

Sometimes hundreds of merchant ships operated on the rivers. They were special boats designed particularly for the haul up the river and took many different forms. The numerous representations of ancient ships on tombstones, mosaics and frescoes (see Althiburus mosaic), as well as the shipwrecks brought to light thanks to underwater archaeology, have revealed an extraordinary variety of types of ships. The rivers of France were used extensively to transport goods in the Roman period. Good evidence of a thriving trade along the river Rhône came to light in 2004 with the discovery at Arles of a barge known as Arles Rhône 3. The barge, dated to the middle of the 1st century AD, was a trading vessel, thirty-one metres long, of a boat type previously unknown. Its state of conservation is unique: 90% of its hull and equipment is conserved. It was carrying stones quarried some fifteen kilometres north of Arles when it sank in the Rhône during the Flavian era.

The Arles Rhône 3 is on display in the Musée de l’Arles antique.
1:10 model of a flat-bottomed ship with ramp-like sloping ends of the Zwammerdam type. These ships have often been recorded north of the Alps and could measure up to 40 m long. They were used for transporting heavy loads on rivers.
Museum of Ancient Seafaring (German: Museum für Antike Schifffahrt), Mainz (Germany).

The boatmen of these rivers made a significant contribution to the wealth and economy of the Gallic provinces. They were specialised in a particular river or basin where they were responsible for the transport of supplies in addition to ensuring the land transfer between rivers (CIL XIII, 5489). The nautae were present on all the main Gallic rivers, on the Saône (nautae Ararici), Ardèche and Ouvèze (nautae Atricae et Ovidis), Loire (nautae Ligerici), and Moselle (nautae Mosallici). The nautae were also active on Lake Geneva (AE 1939, 207). The nautae Lacus Lemanni had their base in the basilica of Lousonna (Lausanne) and ensured the movement of goods on the Rhône between Lugdunum and Genava (Geneva). Today, the most famous are the nautae Parisiaci, the Seine boatmen, for the spectacular Tiberian monument they erected in Lutetia on the Île de la Cité (Paris) in honour of Jupiter and which is now displayed in the frigidarium of the Thermes de Cluny (Cluny Museum).

In some towns such as Nemausus (Nimes) and Arelate (Arles), special seats in the amphitheatre and theatre were reserved for the Nautes nautae. An inscription (CIL XII, 3316) from the podium wall of the amphitheatre of Nimes reads “To the sailors of the Ardèche and Ouvèze were given 25 places / the sailors of the Rhône and the Saône 40 places by decree of the council of Nemausus” (see here). The important role of these boatmen and the status of their corporation is evidenced by the extent of epigraphic —— (see J.B. Campbell & K. Verboven). Some of the inscriptions also attest to their direct involvement in imperial activities. The nautae were dedicated to the imperial cult and joined other local collegia and cities in celebrating the emperor (CIL XIII, 5096 & AE, 1939, 207), as in the case of our inscription of Hadrian from Tournon-sur-Rhône.

Pedestal with dedication for a statue of Hadrian (CIL XII, 1797). AD 119.

From the inscription, we learn that during the third tribunician power of Hadrian (AD 119), the boatmen of the Rhône erected an honorary monument in gratitude to their reigning emperor, praising his generosity. But what was the reason that prompted the boatmen of the Rhône to salute Hadrian’s indulgentia in a town as small as Tournon-sur-Rhône? Their dedication testifies to the relationship that these boatmen had with the imperial state but does not let us determine what form Hadrian’s largesse took, or even if actual benefactions were given (Boatwright 2000).

First ascribed to Trajan, the virtue indulgentia was used in connection with imperial favours, especially those related to the Institutio alimentaria, a policy of Trajan (perhaps initiated by Nerva), which was designed to offer financial subsidies to the children of poor Italian families (CIL IX, 1455 & CIL VI, 1492). A grant of citizenship, a permission to a town to build some building, legal privileges or an imperial change of city status could also be represented an expression of the emperor’s indulgentia (see Cotton 1984 & Noreña 2011). However, it was not before the reign of Hadrian that the personification of indulgentia appeared on the imperial coinage towards AD 128.

Denarius of Hadrian with the personification of Indulgentia on the reverse depicted with her right hand extended in a gesture of generosity. AD 128-138
© The Trustees of the British Museum

In any case, the term indulgentissimus princeps employed in the boatmen’s dedication was unusual in Gaul. It only later appeared in two other Gallic inscriptions in honour of emperors Caracalla (CIL XII, 1851) and Aurelian (CIL XII, 2673). Although no secure identification of the benefactions bestowed by the emperor can be made, Hadrian’s indulgentia praised by the nautae Rhodanici had no doubt some connection with commercial navigation. In his study of inscriptions related to the Roman professional associations (collegia), N. Tran  provides some interpretations. He mentions the possibility that the boatmen of the Rhône received some kind of fiscal privilege from Hadrian, perhaps corresponding to an exemption of a toll. Tournus was located at the confluence of the Rhône and the Doux, at the limit of two cities, Valencia and Vienna, which, according to Tran, made the site suitable for taxation. The nautae Rhodanici could have benefited from a tax relief or an exemption of customs duty.

The Rhône with its confluent, the Doux, in Tournon-sur-Rhône where the inscription was found.

This important axis of circulation through the Rhône Valley, which linked the Mediterranean to the interior provinces, was of particular interest to the Roman state; first through the tax revenues generated by the high volume of goods passing through it and second for the supply of the armies on the northern frontier. N. Tran goes even further by linking this dedication to the cancellation of all unpaid debts granted to the people in AD 118 and which would also have benefited provincials (see here).

The inscription from Tournon-sur-Rhône is a rare example of the relationship between the Roman state and the key players of the fluvial trade of the 2nd century AD.

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