If you were planning on including a bit of Roman heritage in your Summer travel plans, then it’s worth bearing in mind that you don’t have to make the trip all the way to Rome to see something as impressive as the Colosseum. South eastern France was annexed by the Romans as early as 125 BC and the region is rich with a wide variety of monuments dating from the empire that brought it aqueducts, villas, wine and roads more than 2,000 years ago. Here is a look at some of the main Roman heritage sites to discover in the region, most of them within a triangle formed by the three towns of Orange, Nmes and Arles, although the area of Lyon to the north is also rich in Roman culture.
Arles, in Bouche-du-Rhne dpartement, was founded by Greeks in the sixth century BC and became a Roman colony under Julius Caesar in 46 BC. It was also named the ‘second capital’ of the empire under Constantine I in 306 AD. Its Roman heritage therefore spans several centuries and includes the following UNESCO World Heritage monuments:
Thtre Antique this Roman theatre was built in the first century AD and is still an impressive site, although the top layer of stones are now missing. It was finished in the third century AD but during the Middle Ages much of the stone was removed and used in other buildings in the town, although enough of the theatre remains to be able to hold plays and concerts there during the summer.
Arnes – The amphitheatre also dates from the first century AD and is still largely intact it was once one of the largest amphitheatres in ancient Gaul.
Cryptoporticus This is an underground vaulted cloister that supported the esplanade around the Forum. It dates from 40 BC and, along with the amphitheatre and theatre, forms part of the Unesco sites of Arles.
Alyscamps This was an early Christian burial ground, also known as the Elysian Fields, and was the cemetery for the well-heeled of Arles and the surrounding area for 1,500 years. Van Gogh and Gauguin painted there in 1888.
Baths of Constantine These were built in the early fourth century and, although they were originally a large complex, just a few rooms remain.
Two museums are worth a visit from an archaeological and heritage point of view. They are Muse Dpartemental de lArles Antique, which holds a broad collection ranging from prehistory to late antiquity, including a display of local sarcophagi. It also displays a bust of Caesar, discovered in 2007 in the Rhne river, and the subject of an upcoming exhibition starting in October. An impressive collection of sarcophagi from the Alyscamps can also be seen in the Muse d’Art Chrtien (Museum of Christian Art).
The Roman Festival of Arles puts on free theatrical performances at the museum during the last week of August. Other Roman events will take place throughout Arles in the Summer months including Olympic games, gladiator fights and chariot races. This web site provides more information as well as some very bizarre video footage (can someone, maybe a French speaker, explain to me what on earth is going on with the Roman goat in the top clip??).
But heritage isn’t restricted just to the museums and monuments at Arles. Visit Htel dArlatan, which has several Roman structures incorporated into the 15th century building, including ancient baths, an Augustan statue pedestal and part of a Roman basilica.
There are also several Roman sites in the countryside surrounding Arles. One of them is 15 miles east of Arles to the south the small town of St-Rmy-de-Provence. This is the site of the Roman town of Glanum and the main visible features today are a triumphal arch and a well preserved 60-foot mausoleum built by the Julii family to their ancestors. Both monuments date from the early empire. St-Rmy-de-Provence is also the birthplace of Nostradamus. The Muse Archologique in the Htel de Sade is also well worth a visit.
Driving for 10 km west of St-Rmy-de-Provence, you’ll come to another site steeped in Roman heritage this time a winery. The Mas des Tourelles vineyard in Beaucaire is the archaeological site of a Roman villa and today produces three types of wine according to Roman recipes, as described in ancient texts by Pliny the Elder, Lucius Columelle and Palladius. One of these is Mulsum, which is made by adding honey and spices and herbs such as thyme, pepper and cinnamon to the fermenting process.
Roman Theatre of Orange – Orange in the Rhne valley is famous for its Roman theatre, a Unesco World Heritage site. It was built during the reign of Augustus in the first century AD and has a faade 103m long. The theatre is the best preserved of its kind in the western world and still hosts Roman-themed festivals, as well as music concerts, films and other events. This 12-13 September, the theatre will be filled with gladiators, Roman citizens and legionaries in a weekend-long festival giving a glimpse of Roman culture and cuisine. The theatre is also home to France’s oldest festival, the Chorgies d’Orange, which has put on opera shows each July and August since 1860.
Triumphal Arch of Orange – A triumphal arch built between 10 and 25 AD is also part of the Unesco site at Orange. According to Unesco, it is one of the most beautiful and interesting surviving examples of a provincial triumphal arch from the reign of Augustus. The low-relief decorations commemorate the Pax Romana, the era of (relative) peace under Augustus and the policy of moderation.
Vaison-la-Romaine this small town of about 6,000 inhabitants near Orange is divided into the upper medieval town built on top of a rocky promontory, and the modern town on the opposite bank of the river Ouvze. It is in the middle of the modern town that the the ruins of a provincial Roman town can be found. Originally the capital of the Celtic Vocontii tribe, it became annexed to Rome in 125-118 BC and eventually became one of the richest cities in Gallia Narbonensis. The main Roman sites today are the first-century Roman bridge, a theatre, several Roman houses including the Peacock villa, as well as an archaeological museum.
The town is also an active cultural centre hosting numerous events for example this festival of Gallo-Roman crafts taking place throughout the summer months.
Nmes was a Roman colony by the time of Julius Caesar, who gave property in the town to some of his legionaries retiring from their service in Egypt. However, its origins go back much further to prehistory. It was built on the Domitian road, which connected Italy to Spain and is now famous for its arena and Roman temple both of which are extraordinarily well preserved.
The Amphithtre Romain this arena in Nmes is, apparently, the best-preserved of its kind and was built during the reign of Augustus in the first century AD. It’s a miniature version of Rome’s Colosseum, with two layers each with 60 arches. It is still used for modern events including concerts and the screening of a film showing Roman life and games. Bull fights are also staged in the arena, and in September it is host to a Grape Harvest Fair.
Maison Carre this temple stands at the heart of Nmes in the Place de la Comdie, and was modelled on the Temple of Apollo in Rome. It is one of the best-preserved Roman temples of this size in Europe and the interior is still used for exhibitions.
Pont du Gard– North east of Nmes the Pont du Gard aqueduct is still visible, with its three layers of arches which carried water from Uzs to Nmes. It is one of the most spectacular of the region’s Roman monuments all the more amazing because its enormous stones fit together without mortar. It was built in the first century AD and, according to Unesco, is considered a technical as well as an artistic masterpiece, using gravity to transport up to 20,000 cubic metres of water to Nmes each day.
Named Lugdunum by the Romans, and founded by one of Julius Caesar’s officers, Lucius Munatius Plancus, Lyon eventually became the administrative centre and capital of the three provinces of Gaul (Lugdunensis, Belgica, and Aquitania). Its historical monuments are designated Unesco sites and the Muse de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine also holds a wide collection of archaeological objects from the region. Its main sites are:
Amphithtre des Trois Gaules built in 19 BC and was the meeting point of Gallic tribes in pre-Roman times. Christian martyrs were thrown to the lions for the first time here in 177 AD and traditions holds that both lions and a bull refused to attack one martyr, Saint Blandine. Roman soldiers had less respect for the saintly woman and quickly finished the job that the wild animals refrained from doing.
Thtres Romains de Fourvire this is a complex in a park south of the basilica in Lyon, containing a France’s oldest Roman theatre, built during the rule of August in 17-15 BC. The site also includes an odeum, for musical concerts, and a temple built in 160 AD dedicated to Cybele. Both this site and the Amphitheatre are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Lyon.
Vienne – About 20 km south of Lyon, near the small town of Saint-Romain-en-Gal, there is another Roman site. Vienne has its own museum and is an live archaeological site where villas, streets, baths and potters’ kilns have all emerged. It was once a thriving Roman city, which prospered due to its trade position in the Rhne valley.