France is weird.
Why is it the biggest sea country in the world? Why was it the most powerful? Why is it not even the most powerful in Europe anymore? Why is it the only country in the continent that belongs both to the north and the south? While most nations in the continent have formed in the last couple of centuries, France has been around for over a thousand years. Why so long?
If we understand this, we can understand France better, but also a lot of why the world is the way it is today.
This is what Europe looks like today:
And this is what Rome looked like in 62 BC1:
Rome basically controlled the Mediterranean and whatever land was close to it, because it could easily travel the seas with ships. It took centuries of consolidation and technical innovations — including the famous Roman roads — before they could control vast and populated swaths of inland regions.
Note that they did control what’s today southern France, but nothing beyond the mountains. That’s what limited the Romans to the greatest extent: the mountains.
All of Southern Europe is basically mountains. They form an impenetrable barrier for a seafaring civilization.
Except for two holes.
The Two Passes
One is the Rhône Valley, carved by one of only two long European rivers that crosses these southern European mountain ranges (the other being the Danube, which ends in the Black Sea). The other north-south pass through mountains in France is the small area between the Pyrenees and the Massif Central, overlooked by Carcassonne.