Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, May 18, 2009

Vive la France

When you think of Ancient Rome you probably picture the Colosseum or perhaps the Pantheon, right? What about the Arc de triomphe d'Orange or the Théâtre antique d'Orange? Not ringing a bell? How about the Maison Carrée or the Arèna de Nîmes? Still nothing? When one has a desire to see the physical remains of the Roman Empire, the best place to go is not necessarily Italy. France, particularly South East France, has some of the best preserved Roman architecture you'll find anywhere. First, a little history. In the beginning, the Romans had a uneasy relationship with their Northern neighbors. Though mocked by the Romans, the Gauls were also respected for their bravery and hardiness in battle. The Romans always had a eye turned toward those "hairy Gauls," especially after the sack of Rome in 387 BCE. It wasn't until the late 2nd century BCE that Rome intervened in Gaul and set up it's first permanent provincial holding there. The following century saw Julius Caesar's bloody conquest of the rest of Gaul. Gaul then began the process of "Romanization," but was always a troublesome region for the Romans.

Today, France has some of the best preserved Roman architecture. Both Nîmes and Arles have amphitheaters that, though not as massive as the Colosseum in Rome, are certainly more complete (though both have been restored). The Roman theater in Orange is a wonderfully preserved example of that type of architecture, and like Roman theaters throughout the Mediterranean, it is still in use. The Maison Carrée in Nîmes started its life in 16 BCE as a temple dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar and today is the most complete Roman temple found anywhere. The more practical side of the Romans is also evident in France. There are no shortage of Roman bridges from Roman times, including the Pont de Sommières, the Pont Flavien and the Pont des Marchands, just to name a few. We can't forget aqueducts since France is home to one of the most famous examples, the Pont du Gard. The exact date of the Pont du Gard's construction is a matter of debate, but it probably was constructed sometime between the late 1st century BCE and the mid 1st century CE. The Pont du Gard has long been a symbol of Roman Gaul and is probably the most famous Roman ruin in France.

Northern France can't be neglected and many wonderful sites are still to be found there. Lillebonne, Sens and Grand are just a few of the cities that have Roman theaters or amphitheaters. Even Paris has the small remains of its amphitheater, the Arènes de Lutèce, which is now a public park. The sites listed above are just a sampling of the Roman sites in France and there are dozens if not hundreds more ruins scattered around the countryside, not to mention what is buried underneath modern cities. From England to the Euphrates you can find physical remains of Roman civilization and it's always important to remember that there is more to Ancient Rome that the Colosseum.


Eric Bateson said...

Umm... Vive LA France.

Good post!

Primvs Pilvs said...

Thanks. I don't claim to speak a word of French.