Rhône-Alpes History

Starting in the 6th century BC, the Celts gradually populated Rhône-Alpes but could not stop Hannibal, the Carthagenian general who crossed the Alps in 218 BC, nor, a century later, the Romans. Those settlers erected cities on the banks of the Rhône and Saône rivers, built a network of roads and aqueducts to bring water from the mountains and ruled until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.

This prosperous era left its mark on most of the region’s cities, especially Lyon, where the Fourvière Roman Archeological Site was opened to the public in 1933. In fact, Roman structures were discovered as recently as October 2003, when construction crews digging to build a parking lot in the old district stumbled upon three Roman barges buried a mere 20 feet below the surface.

The Middle Ages saw the strengthening of royal authority over the Rhône Valley, while the Counts of Savoie became the guardians of the higher Alps and the “Dauphins” ruled over the Dauphiné area. At the same time, new abbeys and monasteries were founded throughout the region. In 1268, a dauphin married the daughter of a Count of Savoie, thereby creating a short-lived union of the two domains. In 1349, the last dauphin sold the land to the French King and the title of "Dauphin" was thereafter reserved for the heir of the French crown.

In the 15th century, Savoie was united with the Italian province of Piedmont to form the Dukedom of Savoie; the first firearms were manufactured in Saint-Etienne; and Lyon was granted a monopoly for the production and sale of silk in France. In 1481, King Louis XI inherited Savoie, ushering in a long period during which the area was alternately under the rule of France, Savoie and even Spain for eight years.

The conflicts of the 16th - century Wars of Religion were particularly bitter in the Dauphiné and Vivarais areas, where entire towns were destroyed. However, after losing its autonomy in 1628, Dauphiné recovered to enjoy a period of great economic expansion. Savoie was returned to the French crown in 1748, and a few decades later its chief city, Lyon, resisted the forces of the Revolution, facing reprisals as a result. In 1815, Savoie became the property of King Victor-Emmanuel I of Sardinia, but in an 1860 plebiscite gave overwhelming approval to the proposal of union with France.

Lyon became a crucial center for the Resistance during World War II, when Jean Moulin unified the movement and organized a secret army that operated in the south of France (Forces Françaises de L’Intérieur or FFI). Likewise, Dauphiné’s Vercors Mountains became a Resistance stronghold and the site of fierce battles near Thorens-Glières.

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