Lyon was founded on the Fourvière hill as a Roman colony in 43 BC by Munatius Plancus, a lieutenant of Caesar, on the site of a Gaulish hill-fort settlement called Lug[o]dunon, from the Celtic god Lugus (‘Light’, cognate with Old Irish Lugh, Modern Irish Lú) and dúnon (hill-fort). Lyon was first named Lugdunum meaning the “hill of lights” or “the hill of crows”. Lug was equated by the Romans to Mercury.
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa recognized that Lugdunum’s position on the natural highway from northern to south-eastern France made it a natural communications hub, and he made Lyon the starting point of the principal Roman roads throughout Gaul. It then became the capital of Gaul, partly thanks to its convenient location at the convergence of two navigable rivers, and quickly became the main city of Gaul. Two emperors were born in this city: Claudius and Caracalla. Today, the archbishop of Lyon is still referred to as “Primat des Gaules” and the city often referred to as the “capitale des Gaules”.
The Christians in Lyon were martyred for their religion under the reigns of the various Roman emperors, most notably Marcus Aurelius and Septimus Severus. Local saints from this period include saints such as Blandina (Blandine), Pothinus (Pothin), and Epipodius (Épipode), among others.
The great Christian bishop of Lyon in the 2nd century was the Easterner Irenaeus.
Burgundian refugees from the destruction of Worms by Huns in 437 were resettled by the military commander of the west, Aëtius, at Lugdunum, which was formally the capital of the new Burgundian kingdom by 461.
In 843, by the Treaty of Verdun, Lyon, with the country beyond the Saône, went to Lothair I, and later became a part of the Kingdom of Arles. Lyon only came under French control in the 14th century.
Fernand Braudel remarked, Historians of Lyon are not sufficiently aware of the bi-polarity between Paris and Lyon, which is a constant structure in French development from the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution (Braudel 1984 p. 327). The fairs in Lyon, the invention of Italian merchants, made it the economic countinghouse of France in the late 15th century. When international banking moved to Genoa, then Amsterdam, Lyon simply became the banking centre of France; its new Bourse (treasury), built in 1749, still resembled a public bazaar where accounts were settled in the open air. During the Renaissance, the city developed with the silk trade, especially with Italy; the Italian influence on Lyon’s architecture can still be seen.
Lyon was a scene of mass violence against Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres in 1572.
During the French Revolution, Lyon rose up against the National Convention and supported the Girondins. In 1793, the city was under siege for over two months, assaulted by the Revolutionary armies, before eventually surrendering. Several buildings were destroyed, especially around the Place Bellecour, and Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois with Joseph Fouché administered the execution of more than 2,000 people. A decade later, Napoleon himself ordered the reconstruction of all the buildings demolished during this period.
Thanks to the silk trade, the city became an important industrial town during the 19th century but in 1831 and 1834, the silk workers of Lyon, known as canuts, staged two major uprisings. The 1831 uprising saw one of the first recorded uses of the black flag as an emblem of protest. The world’s first funicular railway was built between Lyon and La Croix-Rousse in 1862.
Lyon was a centre for the occupying German forces and also a stronghold of resistance during World War II, and the city is now home to a resistance museum. (See also Klaus Barbie.) The traboules, or secret passages, through the houses enabled the local people to escape Gestapo raids.