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History of Switzerland: Introduction / Sitemap A Short History of Switzerland History of Switzerland: Detailed Timeline  Early Swiss History
Prehistory: Lake-dwellings in Switzerland Swiss History: Celtic Helvetians Switzerland during the Age of Romans, Aventicum Aventicum, Swiss Capital in the Age of Romans Switzerland during the Middle Ages  Old Swiss History
The Old Swiss Confederacy (1291-1515) William Tell (Switzerland's National Hero) The Swiss Reformation (Calvin, Zwingli)  A Modern Constitution
Swiss Revolution and Helvetic Republic (1798) Switzerland's Federal Constitution (1848) History of Switzerland's Flag Switzerland's Political System The Long Way to Women's Right to Vote  Industrialisation
Industrialisation in Switzerland Johanna Spyri: Heidi, the girl from the alps - A bestseller about times of change  World War II
World War II: General Timeline Switzerland's Role in World War II Spiritual Defense against Nazism Switzerland's Economic Dependence and Rationing Jewish Refugees Looted Assets Switzerland's Neutrality Switzerland's National Public Radio Station Beromünster  Country & People
Basic information about Switzerland - country profile Switzerland's Population and Languages Important Swiss monuments: pictures and meaning  Links
Links: History Swiss Museums Links: Switzerland

History of Switzerland

The Age of Romans

When the Celtic Helvetians attempted to move south from Switzerland to Southern France they were stopped by the Roman commander and subsequent emperor C. Julius Cesar in 58 B.C. They were forced to return to Switzerland. The Romans controlled Switzerland's territory until about A.D. 400. Roman military camps and forts were erected at the northern Rhine frontier towards Germany. Under Emperor Augustus (27 B.C. - A.D. 14) the Romans conquered Western Germany and Austria. Now Switzerland was no longer at the border, a Roman fortification (Limes) was built in Germany and in A.D. 101 the military camp of Vindonissa in northern Switzerland was given up because it was no longer needed. Switzerland saw 150 peaceful years under Roman administration.

The urban structures created by the Romans are still important to modern Switzerland after 2000 years: Out of five Swiss cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants today, the four economically important ones (Zurich = Turicum, Basel = Basilia, Geneva = Geneva and Lausanne = Lousonna) were founded either by the Celtic Helvetians or by the Romans, only one (the federal capital Bern, founded in 1191) does not have roots in the Age of the Romans. Dozens of other cities, towns and villages in Switzerland have Roman origins:

Roman Cities and Military Camps in Switzerland

Roman name Translation / Remarks Today's name
Ad Fines at the border Pfyn
Ad Rhenum on river Rhine Rheineck
Agaunum christian martyr St. Maurice was a roman officer refusing to take part in religious veneration of the emperor Saint-Maurice
Aquae Helveticae Waters in Helvetia (natural thermal baths) Baden
Arbor Felix fortunate tree Arbon
Augusta Raurica city in honor of Roman emperor Augustus on the territory of the Rauracs (a fraction of the Helvetians) Augst
Aventicum Switzerland's capital in the age of Romans Avenches
Basilia royal city (from greek basileus = king) Basel
Bilitio   Bellinzona
Confluentes at the confluence of rivers Rhine and Aare Koblenz
Curia city hall Chur
Cunus Aureaus Golden Pass Splügen
Eburodunum -dunum = fence (of Celtic origin) Yverdon
Genava   Genève (Geneva)
Iulia Equestris (Noviodunum) (original Celtic name survived Iulius Cesar's ...) Nyon
Iuliomagus Field of Iulius (-magus = field, Celtic) Schleitheim
Lapidaria quarry Andeer
Lousonna   Lausanne
Magia   Maienfeld
Minnodunum   Moudon
Octodurus   Martigny
Penneloci   Villeneuve
Petinesca   Studenberg
Sedunum   Sion (Sitten)
Salodurum   Solothurn
Summus Poeninus (highest point of road over poenine alps) Grand St. Bernhard pass
Tarnaiae   Massongex
Tasgaetium   Eschenz
Tenedo   Zurzach
Tinnetio   Tinzen
Turicum tus = incense Zurich
Urba city Orbe
Uromagus field of the bear Oron-la-Ville
Vindonissa important military camp Windisch
Vitodurum   Oberwinterthur
Viviscus   Vevey

As a rule of thumb, Swiss village names ending in -wil can be traced back to Roman villae (big farms), while others are of celtic origin: -dunum (= fence), -magus (field) and -briga (hill). Examples for celtic names include Minnodunum = Moudon, Eburodunum = Yverdon, Uromagus = Oron-la-Ville and Brig.

This table, though not complete, shows that the Roman cities and military camps were concentrated along the northern border (Rhine, Lake of Constance) separating territory controlled by the Romans from territory controlled by Germanic tribes and along transit roads crossing the alps in Western Switzerland (Summus Poeninus = Grand St. Bernhard pass) and in Eastern Switzerland (Cunus Aureaus = Splügen pass or Maloja pass / Julier pass). St. Gotthard pass in Central Switzerland had no significance in the Age of Romans.

The western, more important route led from Lake Geneva (southwestern edge of Switzerland) to the Lake of Constance (northeastern edge of Switzerland). Needless to say that this is basically Switzerland's interstate 1 and Switzerland's main high-speed railway line connecting the major cities of Zurich, Bern, Lausanne and Geneva ... A branch of this Roman road went to and to Basel (northwestern edge of Switzerland) - basically the northern part of interstate 2.

The roman military bureaucracy was established at Aventicum (Avenches, western Switzerland), which is today but a small village. Neither the Celtic Helvetians nor the Romans colonized Switzerland completely, they just settled were it was convenient for them, where the soil was easy to cultivate and the climate not to cold (especially in winter), preferably in the Mittelland region and in a few major alpine valleys.

Retired Roman military officers stayed in the country and built some 100 big farms that were operated by dozens of slaves. The places where the Romans erected cities were either specifically useful for merchants (on lakeshores, where freight had to be shifted from ships to road transport on carts: Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne, Vevey, Yverdon) or of strategic importance (access to pass routes, bridges, frontier: Basel, Chur, Bellinzona, Martigny). The total population amounted to only about 100,000 to 200,000 inhabitants (today 7 million). A majority of the Swiss territory, in particular most alpine side valleys remained just wilderness.

From the early 3rd century on Germanic tribes began to attack the Romans and in 260 the Romans were forced to abandon the Limes. The Germanic raid was carried through Switzerland and came as far as Milan (northern Italy). The Roman cities of Augusta Raurica and the old Swiss capital Aventicum were deleted. Germany was lost to the Romans, but they could reestablish the Rhine border. Vindonissa was reactivated as a military camp.

Until A.D. 400 a balance of power between the Romans and the Germanic tribes was kept up. Then the Roman soldiers were withdrawn to Italy which could not prevent, however, that the western part of the Roman empire collapsed under the Germanic attacks.

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