Between the 1st century BC and the first decade AD, the area covered by present-day Switzerland was gradually incorporated into the Roman Empire. Roman rule ended in 401 AD, but Roman structures remained in parts of Switzerland until the early Middle Ages.

Pre-Roman period

The Helvetians, from whom the Latin name of Switzerland is derived, were a Celtic tribe and were first mentioned at the end of the 2nd century BC. In the 1st century BC they populated what is now known as the Swiss Mittelland as well as present-day south-western Germany. The eastern parts of present-day Switzerland were inhabited by the Rhaetians. There are theories to the effect that the Rhaetians were descended from the Etruscans.

The Romans in Switzerland

In the beginning of the 3rd century BC and after the defeat of Hannibal, the Romans conquered the area of present-day southern Ticino. Some 75 years later, the Romans also conquered the Rhone Valley (including Geneva) in order to control the route from Italy to Spain.
In 58 BC, Julius Caesar prevented the Helvetians from leaving the Swiss plateau when they wanted to avoid the Germanic incursion from the west by migrating to the south of France. They were stopped by Julius Caesar at Bibracte (Montmort near present-day Autun, Burgundy, F). He sent the Helvetians back and settled them as a "buffer people" under the control of the Roman army. After Caesar’s death, the Romans, now under Emperor Augustus, increased their influence over Swiss territory. The Rhaetians came under Roman rule in 15 BC.
However, the attempt by the Romans to penetrate further northwards - into what is present-day Germany - failed. Up to the 5th century AD, the Rhine formed the northern border of the Roman Empire.
"The Helvetians, because of their geographic situation, are hemmed in on all sides. This restricts them in waging war on their neighbours, which is a very painful situation for men who have a passion for fighting. They do not consider the extent of their territory sufficient either for their number, or for their military prowess, or for their reputation for courage." Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) The Gallic Wars, Book 1

Life under Roman rule

When it was under Roman domination, Switzerland was not a single political entity. The area was divided into five Roman provinces. Roman rule was not oppressive. When a new province was conquered, the local authorities retained their functions and their standing and the population was Romanised step by step. Although the official language was Latin, the vernacular remained a Celtic dialect.
The Romans built towns as administrative centres, where they also set up schools in which Latin was the language of instruction. It was only as the impact of this education spread into the countryside that Latin gradually replaced Celtic.
The area that is now Switzerland was an important transit route under the Romans, who improved and maintained the roads over several of the passes. Towns were built along the main transport routes. The three most important of these were Aventicum (Avenches, where two major trade routes crossed), Augusta Raurica (Augst, on the Rhine near Basel) and Colonia Julia Equestris (Nyon, on Lake Geneva).
Octodurum (Martigny) became an important administrative centre, while Genava (Geneva) gained great importance as a transit point for goods being transferred from water to road.

By 260 AD, Roman Switzerland had experienced an economic and cultural boom. The acculturation between the Celtic tradition and the new Mediterranean influences was free of conflict. Urbanisation and the construction of numerous roads led to new ideas and lifestyles becoming prevalent, such as the many public baths, which were built even in the small vici (villages). The vicus Lousonna (Lausanne), for example, owed its importance, not to its political rank, but solely to its economic prosperity. Other excavated vici were Aquae Helveticae (Baden AG) and Lenzburg, Bern-Enge peninsula, Turicum (Zurich) and Vitudurum (Winterthur). Vici known by name are Viviscus (Vevey), Uromagus (Oron-la-Ville), Pennelocus (Villeneuve) and Tasgetium (Eschenz).
In late antiquity, Switzerland once again became a border area. Emperor Diocletian’s reorganisation of the Roman provinces in the 3rd century resulted in northern Switzerland being assigned to the new province of Maxima Sequanorum, and a tight chain of fortified towns, forts and watchtowers being set up along the Rhine (Danube-Iller-Rhine limit). After the Goth invasion of the Western Roman Empire, all Roman troops were withdrawn from areas north of the Alps in 401 in order to protect Italy and thus they gave up control of Switzerland.

Related links

More about Swiss history