With its Gothic spire rising against the backdrop of the Morvan hills, Autun is scarcely bigger than the circumference of its walls; most of the enclosure still consists of Roman fortifications that have been maintained through the centuries. The emperor Augustus founded the town in about 10 BC as part of a massive and, ultimately, highly successful campaign to pacify the brooding Celts of defeated Vercingétorix. The splendour of Augustodunum, as it was called, was designed to eclipse the memory of Bibracte, the neighbouring capital of the powerful tribe of the Aedui. Autun did indeed become one of the leading cities of Roman Gaul until it was sacked by the Arabs in 725 AD. Today, it is a picturesque provincial town, and an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside, particularly the Parc du Morvan.
This town’s past remains very tangible, and two of its four Roman gates survive: Porte St-André, spanning rue de la Croix-Blanche in the northeast, and Porte d’Arroux in the northwest. In a field just across the River Arroux stands a lofty section of wall known as the Temple of Janus, which was probably part of the sanctuary of an unknown deity. On the east side of town, on avenue du 2ème Dragons, you can see the remains of what was the largest Roman theatre in Gaul, with a capacity of fifteen thousand – in itself a measure of Autun’s importance at that time. The most enigmatic of the Gallo-Roman remains in the region is the Pierre de Couhard, off Faubourg St-Pancrace to the southeast of the town. It’s a 27m-tall stone pyramid situated on the site of one of the city’s necropolises, thought to date from the first century, and most probably a cenotaph.