The Gallo-Roman baths at Chassenon

On an ancient crossroads of huge strategic value…

…See the largest Roman baths in Europe outside Rome!

The Gallo-Roman Baths, Chassenon

Lets put these enormous baths into military / political context for you before describing the baths themselves. Chassenon (the old Roman garrison town of “Cassinomagus”) sits on top of a hill overlooking the River Vienne and what is now the N141 road.

The fact that a Roman thermal bath was placed on TOP of a hill, as opposed to forming in a thermal spring in a valley floor (e.g. like Bath Spa) tells us a lot. Of course it has implications on the design of the baths themselves, which we’ll get into later, but the fact it is on top of a hill is because of the strategic importance of retaining control over that river and the ancient version of the N141!

Remember that as far as this part of Roman France was concerned, its orientation was not “North South” as we now think of Europe, but right in the centre of the Gallo-Roman compass: Chassenon pointed North, South, East and West.

1820s map of Roman France
1820 Arrowsmith map of Roman Central France, with “Cassinomagus” (Chassenon) indicated by the arrow.

On the map, Rome itself lay well to the East, accessible via the Swiss Alps. The ancient version of the N141 was historically the ancient trade route between Geneva and Bordeaux. The trip would have taken about three weeks and so Chassenon (Cassinomagus) is about ten days in. About half-way. Chassenon is situated on the old “Agrippan Way” between Lyon and Saintes (Santones) and is second in importance on this route, only to Limoges (Lemovices) according to the Peutinger mediaeval map. (Section highlighted black on the map).

Recently discovered Roman Pont de Pilas

The othe point is the Vienne is the only river in France to flow NORTH. And it does this just after Chabanais (about 5km west of Chassenon) (see the blue line highlighted on the map). Recent digging work to put a hydroelectric station at Pilas (2km North-East of Chassenon) exposed the footings of an old Roman Bridge – possibly evidencing the much speculated direct route between Poitiers and Périgueux. Its natural roock river bed at this point certainly would have made an idea place for crossing.

I like to think therefore that Chassenon was therefore control point for any trade flowing north to Poitiers, whether by river or road, as much as for any trade coming South from it.

As I am a pilot, a direct line from Poitiers to Periguex also crosses within a few miles of Chassenon – being roughly ten days also into a North-South trip. Chassenon really is at the centre of Roman France. No surprise why the chateaux of the Route Richard Coeur de Lion bisect this region too. Weapons and tools from the Paleolithic period discovered around Chassenon during recent roadworks also attests to a continuity of importance far pre-dating the Romans.

So this may explain why it was worth the bother of putting a 300 hectare garrison town on a hill overlooking this veritable cross-roads. And a “Baths” complex was not only necessary hygienically or as an indulgence, it represents the insitutionalisation of a way of life as opposed to an imposition of one – being undoubtedly available both to Romans and Gauls alike. Think of the blood and tears the later Angevin Plantagenet kings (Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, John) had in trying to maintain influence with the counts of Chabanais and Limoges, and consider this “Bath” was in part a piece of Roman “Stakeholder Management”. So it was clearly worth the pain of sourcing the water and the heat for this thermal bath on the top of the hill. The “leisure complex” itself of Cassinomagus sits on about 25 hectares and as well as the thermal baths of 1.5 hectares possesses a temple site, a Roman amphitheatre and two smaller temples.

The recent discovery of a stone bearing the name of the God Mars, at the site (the remaining inscriptions of the stone as yet un-released), possibly further amplifies this cultural, political and stratgeic linkage. Mars was the God of War, as is popularly understood, but he was also a God of vitality, of healing and recuperation.

The link between Roman amphitheatres and temples is also very common in the Greco-Roman world. Temples would have been meeting places as much as places for worship and enshrined Roman and local cults of Gallic origin such as, therefore, Mithraism and Christianity. (I’m making a supposition based on the coincidence of Temples with theatres in Britain). It is possible gladiatorial combat and wild beast shows were put on at the amphitheatre and it would undoubtedly have been a place to see and be seen: where religion, politics, society and occupation merged: because in this ancient world, they were never really separate.

Hypocaust heating oven at Gallo-Roman Baths Chassenon

These massive baths were only found in 1958 and have been extensively excavated. Work is currently in-progress to excavate as well as modernise and improve the visitors centre, to bring this important Gallo-Roman bath onto a par with, for example, Singleton, by accommodating up to 50,000 visitors a year.

The exhibition hall in the forthcoming Vistors Centre at Chassenon will also hold a replica of the antique enamel vase known as the “Treasure of La Guierce”. La Guierce is 3 kilometres away from Pressignac and linked via ancient paths (some still in existence) to the old Agrippan way and thus to Chassenon. It clearly demonstrates (wealthy) Roman influence around the Pressignac area. See also Gallo-Roman Influence around Pressignac.

Publisher: La Croix Spa

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“The Gallo-Roman Thermal Baths, Chassenon” by Richard Martin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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The Gallo-Roman Baths at Chassenon is one of many attractions for people of all tastes. From visiting archaeologists to historians, or just those interested in historical monuments. Chassenon (Roman Cassinomagus) is, to our mind, at the very epicentre of ancient Gallo-Roman France, controlling as it did the trade route from East to West, as well as roads and the River Vienne flowing north. The Gallo Roman Baths at Chassenon would have been a cultural and political centre in which to see and be seen. We are lucky to have it on our doorstep. For this and many other activities, come and stay in our fascinating region of France.


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