The Mediterranean coast of France was a well-urbanised and prosperous area in the 2nd century BC. The main powers here were the various tribes of Gauls who inhabited the area and Greeks from the port city of Massalia (Marseille), who controlled much of the trade in the region. The Roman Republic, too, had its interests here, initially as a protector of Massalia, its trading partner, later as an independent entity.
In the second half of the 2nd century BC, the Romans conducted a series of military campaigns against various tribes that were present in Southern Gaul. The victory achieved by Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Quintus Fabius Maximus over the Allobroges and the Arverni in 121 BC placed the region under the Roman control. The former commissioned the construction of the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul. In 118 BC he established the Colonia Narbo Martius (Narbonne), which became the capital of the province.
It was the first Roman province beyond the Alps, initially known as Gallia Transalpina (to distinguish it from Gallia Cisalpina in Northern Italy), later known as Gallia Narbonensis (after its capital). The Romans also called it Provincia Nostra (‘Our Province’), from which is derived the name of the later region of Provence.
The province was important for the Romans for three main reasons: it allowed them to establish a land route between Italy and the Roman provinces in Hispania, it served as a buffer zone that protected Italy from the attacks of the Gauls, and it granted control over the trade routes on the Rhône.
The region benefited greatly from the Romanisation. The local populations gradually adopted the aspects of the Roman culture and assimilated. Several settlements that had been founded in the Gallic period developed into magnificent Roman cities.
In case of three cities in the Lower Rhône Valley – Arles (Arelate), Nîmes (Nemausus), and Orange (Arausio) –, this took place during the first decades of the Empire, after they had been formally established as Roman colonies. These cities were endowed with new fortifications, a new water distribution system, a new urban plan, and all the buildings that were indispensable in a Roman city, like triumphal arches, temples, theatres, amphitheatres, circuses, and baths. In case of Arles, which kept its importance until the last days of the Roman Empire, the urban transformation took place in several phases. In case of Nîmes and Orange, most known structures are from the early imperial period. In all these cities, several Roman buildings survive in a good condition even today, which makes them the most important cluster of Roman sites in France.
In this portfolio I will introduce all the major Roman sites (including the archaeological museums) in Arles, Nîmes, and Orange. The portfolio would be comprehensive if it also included the city of Glanum and the remains of the Roman roads and aqueducts across the countryside of the region.
I took the photos in August 2022.
You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below.
Part One: Arles (Arelate)
Arles was inhabited throughout the 1st millennium BC. Ligurians and Celts were in this area from early on, and its location near the Rhône delta also enticed Phoenician and Etruscan merchants. From the second half of the 6th century to the first half of the 4th century BC it was under the influence of Massalia, first as a trading post, then as a colony. The Greeks called it Theline, while its Gaulish name was Arelati, which means ‘in front of the marsh’ or ‘by the marsh’. The city had turbulent relations with Massalia over the subsequent centuries.
Like the rest of Provence, Arelate fell to the Romans in the late 120s BC. During the Civil War (49-45 BC), it supported Julius Caesar against Massalia and was granted the status of a Roman colony as a reward. The colony was founded for the veterans of the Legio VI Ferrata in 46 BC. Its full name was Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelate Sextanorum.
Over the following decades, Arelate underwent a thorough urban transformation. It was endowed with fortifications, a triumphal arch, a forum, and a theatre. The unstable terrain did not allow the city to expand further to the south and the east, but it could expand to the opposite bank of the Rhône, where a wealthy neighbourhood soon developed. Other waves of transformation, which gave the city an amphitheatre and a circus, took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.
Arelate was a city of considerable importance in Gallia Narbonensis. It was a major economic centre surrounded by a vast agricultural area. Monuments like the Barbegal watermill show that its people did not hesitate to use innovative technologies on an industrial scale to produce wealth. Arelate had a strategic location on the roads leading to the east (the Via Julia Augusta) and the north (the Via Agrippa). Its location on the Rhône provided further connections with the northern parts of the empire. The city had a port that allowed commercial exchange with Rome and the Orient.
The political influence of Arelate grew considerably in the late Roman period. Constantine the Great favoured the city and resided here several times. He may have married to Fausta here, and he celebrated here the birth of this son – the future emperor Constantine II. He contributed to the transformation of the city by building a large bath complex as well as reconstructing an old bridge across the Rhône. Some successors of Constantine also used Arelate as an imperial residence. In 407, the seat of the Praetorian Prefecture of Gaul was moved here from Augusta Treverorum (Trier).
Arelate was also a key city in the Christianisation of Gaul. Saint Trophimus, the first bishop of the city, preached here in the mid-3rd century. Later, Arelate became the centre of the cult of Saint Genesius, a notary that had been martyred for not signing a decree that permitted the persecution of Christians. The city was also the site of two church councils in the 4th century: one convened by Constantine the Great to condemn Donatism (in 314), and the other called by Constantius II in support of Arianism (in 353). Its main necropolis, which was the burial site of most of its leading religious figures, came to be one of the most famous cemeteries in the Early Christian world.
Today, the Roman sites of Arles are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
1.-2. Fortifications: Tour des Mourgues & Porte d’Auguste
Boulevard Émile Combes & Montée Vauban
Late 1st century BC
Arelate was fortified during the reign of Augustus. The masonry indicates various construction phases. The medieval fortifications of Arles partly follow the trajectory of the Roman walls.
The remains of the Roman fortifications of Arles can be seen in the southeastern and eastern parts of the old city. The Tour des Mourgues is the best preserved of the Roman towers of Arles. Originally a circular tower, it got its polygonal shape most probably in the Middle Ages. Further north are the remains of the Porte d’Auguste, the gate that connected the city via an intermediate road to the Via Julia Augusta.
3.-5. Forum: Cryptoporticoes, Temple & Exedra
Plan de la Cour 4; Place du Forum 14; Rue de la République 29
c. 30-20 BC; 1st century AD; 4th century AD
The forum was, together with the fortifications, one of the first major constructions in Arelate. It was a square of c. 3,400 m2, surrounded by monumental porticoes. Just like in the other Roman cities, it was located near the intersection of the cardo maximus and the decumanus maximus. This corresponds to the area south of today’s Place du Forum.
In order to flatten the naturally sloping ground in this area and to provide a horizontal surface for the forum, galleries known as the cryptoporticoes were constructed. Three of these can be accessed today. The southern gallery was dug into the rock, while the northern gallery was fully above the ground. The both galleries are 89 m long and connected via a 59-meter gallery to the west. The galleries are about 10 m wide, and they are split in two parallel galleries, which communicate via low arches supported by piers.
The cryptoporticoes of Arelate were built by Greeks, as indicated by the mason’s marks on the stonework. In the northern gallery, there are some remains of walls from the pre-Roman period.
There is no clear agreement about the use of these galleries. Since access to them was limited, it can be deduced that they were not open to the public in the Roman era. Cryptoporticoes were often used as a storage space in the Roman world, but in Arles the air is too damp for that. These galleries may have served as a barracks for public slaves instead.
The northern gallery opened to the square to the north of the forum and was used by shops. In late antiquity, a new gallery was added here, as shown by the use of bricks in the walls and vaults. This indicates that the forum was thoroughly restructured at that time.
In the early 5th century, the forum was looted and the cryptoporticoes were partitioned off to serve as cellars for private individuals. There is evidence that parts of the galleries that are straight under today’s City Hall were used as a prison some time in the history.
Access to the galleries was entirely closed in the Middle Ages and their purpose remained a mystery for many centuries. In 1951, fragments of statues, inscriptions and architectural details in marble were discovered here. One of the inscriptions was dedicated to Augustus, which helped to identify these galleries as the cryptoporticoes of the forum of Arelate.
Apart from the cryptoporticoes, not much survives of the Roman forum of Arelate. In the northern wall of the Nord-Pinus Hotel, two columns in the Corinthian order together with a fragment of the entablature and the pediment are preserved. These, known as the Colonnes de Saint Lucien in French, were a part of a small temple that stood on the forum. This temple, possibly built in the 1st century AD, was probably enlarged in late antiquity, around the same time when the northern wing of the forum was restructured.
To the west of the forum was another public space, framed by exedrae in its northern and southern ends. It may have been added during the reign of Tiberius. There is no clarity about its function. It may have been dedicated to the imperial cult. The remains of the southern exedra are preserved in the courtyard of the Museon Arlaten.
Rue du Cloître 1
c. 12 BC
The theatre of Arelate was completed in around 12 BC. It was one of the first permanent (stone) theatres in the Roman world. Although not as well preserved as the Theatre of Orange, it was originally equally large and impressive. Its cavea was made of 33 rows of seats that could accommodate up to 10,000 spectators.
The scaenae frons was decorated with columns in the Corinthian order on three levels. Only two of these survive today.
The scaenae frons also had niches with statues of Greek inspiration. From here, in 1651, the Venus of Arles was found. The statue, made of Hymettian marble, is probably a Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Thespiae by Praxiteles.
The theatre was used for spectacles until the beginning of the 5th century. Its stone was later used for the construction of nearby buildings. Parts of the theatre were integrated into the fortifications of the city, most probably between the late 6th and the early 8th century. The Tower of Rotland in the south is also from this period. Later in the Middle Ages, the territory of the theatre was divided into streets and houses. Religious orders, especially the Jesuits, were very active in this area.
The restoration of the theatre began in the 1820s. It now hosts various festivals.
Rond-point des Arènes
c. 80-90 AD
The amphitheatre of Arles was built under Emperor Domitian. It was located in the northeastern part of the Roman city, near the Augustan fortifications, which were modified for that purpose. It was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, which had been built only some years earlier. It is smaller and simpler than its Roman predecessor.
The amphitheatre of Arles is an oval structure that is, externally, 136 m long and 109 m wide. The central arena is surrounded by rows of seats, which could receive up to 25,000 spectators.
A two-storey gallery with staircases provided access to the seats.
The external façade, which has lost its attic, is 21 m high.
The amphitheatre was used for chariot races and gladiator fights until the 6th century. It was then transformed into a fortified town, with added towers, houses, chapels, and a public square. It remained in this state for a long time. An 18th-century engraving shows a poor and overpopulated, yet romantically charged space. The clearing of the amphitheatre started in the 1820s.
The amphitheatre has inspired various painters, most famously Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, both of whom worked in Arles. Today it is used for various spectacles, which also include bullfights.
8. Barbegal Aqueduct & Watermill
Route de l’Aqueduc & Route de Barbegal, Fontvieille
Late 1st or early 2nd century AD
The aqueduct of Arelate was built either under Augustus or Claudius. It collected water from several sources in the Alpilles mountain range. Its two main branches met some kilometres to the northeast of the city.
Here, in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, an impressive watermill was constructed on a steep hillside. It consisted of eight pairs of vertical wheels that used water from the aqueduct for flour production. The capacity of the Barbegal watermill has been estimated at 4.5 tons per day, which was enough to supply bread for a quarter or a third of the inhabitants of Arelate at that time. It has been called the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world. The mill functioned until the 3rd century.
9.-10. Circus & Obelisk
Avenue Jean Monnet; Place de la République
AD 149; AD 330s
The circus of Arles was located on the banks of the Rhône to the southwest of the city. Built on the clay soil, the terrain was stabilised by the use of tens of thousands of timber piles. The structure was used for horse and chariot races, sometimes also for cavalry fighting and venationes. It was 450 m long and 101 m wide and could accommodate up to 20,000 spectators.
The race track was divided into two by a central separation known as the spina. It was adorned with sculptures, pools and poles (metae) at its two extremities. The race track was surrounded by a wall that was high enough to protect the spectators. The seat division was similar to that of an amphitheatre.
The circus was substantially modified under Constantine II. The spina was partly rebuilt and its original decoration was replaced by new marble plates and an obelisk in its centre. The obelisk, made of red granite from Asia Minor, possibly from the Troad, was around 20 m high and did not feature any inscriptions.
The circus operated until the 6th century. Its stone was subsequently reused to reinforce the defensive walls and to construct new buildings in the city. The structure was then forgotten for many centuries. Today, some excavated ruins can be seen in front of the Museum of Ancient Arles. These include the remains of the cavea and the sphendone (cf. the hippodrome of Constantinople).
The obelisk was rediscovered in 1389. In 1676, it was reerected on Place Royale (now Place de la République) in honour of Louis XIV. The fountains and bronze lions of its pedestal were designed by Antoine Laurent Dantan in the 19th century.
11. Baths of Constantine
Rue du Grand Prieuré
Early 4th century AD
The baths of Constantine are one of the three Roman thermae known to have existed in Arelate. One bath complex stood near the forum, on the site of today’s Place de la République. Another one was located outside the walls to the south of the city.
The baths were constructed under Constantine the Great. They may have been built on an older structure. In the Middle Ages, the ruins were assumed to be of a palace erected by Constantine.
Only the northern sections of the baths have been excavated. These include the caldarium, or the hot room, and the adjacent service rooms. The caldarium was warmed by a hypocaust and contained three pools. Two of the pools were rectangular and one was located in a large semicircular apse. The apse of the caldarium is the most notable feature of the complex. It shows alternating bands of limestone and bricks, three large windows, and a massive semi-dome.
The caldarium communicated with the laconicum, or the dry sweating room, and the tepidarium, or the warm room. The frigidarium, or the cold room, was located to the south.
The baths of Constantine are among the best preserved Roman baths in France, together with the baths of Chassenon and Cluny.
Avenue des Alyscamps
Before 4th century AD
Roman cities usually forbade the burial of people within the city limits. Roads leading to Roman cities were often lined with mausoleums and tombs. In Arelate, there were cemeteries to the north and south of the city, near the circus, and in the Trinquetaille quarter on the opposite bank of the Rhône. The most important of the necropoleis of Arelate was the Alyscamps, located on the Via Julia Augusta to the southeast of the city.
The name of the cemetery comes from the Occitan word that is derived from the Latin Elisii Campi and corresponds to the French Champs Élysées (the Elysian Fields in English). It was a cemetery for wealthy Roman citizens, as shown by the number of elaborately decorated sarcophagi that have been discovered from here.
There were several thousand tombs at the Alyscamps in the early 4th century. The cemetery became increasingly important in the Early Christian period, after the burials of the first bishops of Arles, like Saint Trophimus, and after the martyrdom of Saint Genesius in 303 or 308, which inspired a wave of pilgrimages to Arles. Being buried at the Alyscamps soon became a question of prestige, and bodies from all over Europe were sent to Arles, allowing the Rhône boatmen make great profits. The Alyscamps became one of the best known cemeteries in the ancient world. Its fame continued until the Middle Ages and beyond, as indicated by the references by Dante and Ariosto.
There is a medieval church dedicated to Saint Honoratus at the Alyscamps. The road leading to it is flanked by the remains of sarcophagi, although none of these are sculpturally or culturally significant. From the Renaissance period on, the Alyscamps was systematically looted. The construction of a canal and a railway has thoroughly altered the area. In 1888, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin painted the Alyscamps side by side.
The better of the sarcophagi are now on display at the Museum of Ancient Arles.
13. Museum of Ancient Arles
Presqu’île du Cirque Romain
The Museum of Ancient Arles, located near the ruins of the city’s Roman circus, boasts with an exceptionally rich archaeological collection.
The largest of its exhibits is Arles Rhône 3, a 31 m long river trading boat from the 1st century AD. Famous, too, is the Head of Arles, a marble bust of Venus, which was discovered from the theatre of Arles and dates most probably from the Augustan period.
Some other sculptures displayed at the museum are described below.
Bust of Julius Caesar (?)
The Rhône, Arles
Mid-1st century BC
This bust, made of good-quality marble from Docimium in Phrygia, may date from the period of the Civil War. The features are reminiscent of those of Julius Caesar.
Statue of a captive
The Rhône, Arles
Last quarter of 1st century BC
This bronze statue is of exceptional quality. The man symbolises a nation that has been subjected to the Roman rule. It was probably a part of a trophy that decorated a public monument.
Altar of Apollo
Theatre of Arles
Late 1st century BC
This altar, made of Carrara marble, decorated the pulpitum of the theatre of Arles. It was dedicated to Apollo, who is depicted as sitting on a throne. The head of the statue was removable, to give the figure the look of the ruling emperor. The composition includes the lyre, the sacrificial tripod of the Delphic oracle, and two laurel trees. The lateral sides tell the story of Marsyas, the satyr who challenged Apollo in a contest of music and was flayed alive as a punishment.
Relief of the Victory
The Rhône, Arles
Late 1st century BC or first quarter of 1st century AD
This low relief is a work of gilded bronze of exceptional quality. It was discovered from the Rhône near of the sculptures of Asclepius and Bacchus. It must have been a part of a decoration of a public building that served to express the supremacy of Rome over the territories of Gaul.
Frieze with Cupids as charioteers
Near the theatre of Arles
1st century AD
The winged Cupids drive chariots, which may be either a reference to the circus of the city, or a symbol of the journey of the soul to the otherworld. In case the latter hypothesis is true, these low reliefs were a part of a frieze of a funerary monument. They were later integrated into the city walls of Arles.
Relief of a female dancer
Walls of Arles
1st century AD
This relief was probably a part of a funerary monument. It reminds one of the statues of female dancers discovered from the theatre of Arles.
Oil lamp reflector with the head of Medusa
Second half of 1st or 2nd century AD
The mosaics displayed at the museum are predominantly from the Trinquetaille quarter, where numerous houses of wealthy Roman families have been excavated. The below mosaics were all made in the opus tessellatum technique.
Mosaic of Aion
Verrerie de Trinquetaille, Arles
Late 2nd century AD
This mosaic is from the triclinium, or the dining room, of a domus. It is composed of figures or scenes in various rectangles. In the central rectangle is the figure of Aion, the god associated with the zodiac and the cycles of time. On the threshold we can see Bacchus with his entourage, inviting the guests to enter the room. Cupids personifying the seasons can be seen in the small corner rectangles. The remaining rectangles show mythological couples of marine inspiration. The large U-shaped space decorated with geometric patterns indicates the location of the couches of the diners.
Mosaic of the Abduction of Europa
Avenue de la Camargue, Arles
Late 2nd or early 3rd century AD
This mosaic is from a Roman house that has also yielded another mosaic for the collection of the museum. It shows the abduction of Europa by Jupiter, who has transformed himself into a bull.
Mosaic of the zodiac
Cemetery of Trinquetaille, Arles
3rd or 4th century AD
This mosaic is made of five octagons. The central octagon shows Aion as a young man. The other octagons show the personifications of the seasons. The surrounding knots are very beautiful.
Mosaic of Orpheus
Clos Saint-Jean, Arles
4th century AD
This mosaic is from the floor of a cubiculum, or the sleeping room, of a domus. It is made of two parts. The smaller part is fully geometric and indicates the location of the bed. The larger part is partly geometric, partly figurative. In its centre is the figure of Orpheus under a tree. He plays the lyre and is surrounded by wild animals. It is my favourite mosaic in the museum. In the neighbouring room of the same house was a mosaic that depicted the quest of the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece.
The museum has the richest collection of Late Roman and Early Christian sarcophagi in the world, after that of the Vatican Museums.
Sarcophagus of Phaedra and Hippolytus
Station of Camarque, Trinquetaille, Arles
Mid-3rd century AD
This sarcophagus, made of Pentelic marble, was imported from Greece. It was transported in an incomplete state and was finished in Arles, probably by a local sculptor. The cover showed a person resting on an elbow, while on the tub there are various scenes from the story of Phaedra and Hyppolitus.
Sarcophagus of Prometheus
c. 240 AD; mid-5th century AD
This sarcophagus is made of two distinct parts, which date from different periods. The tub of the sarcophagus is from around 240 AD. It is richly decorated, showing themes like the creation of man by Prometheus and the human destiny, as well as various divinities and philosophers. The cover is from the mid-5th century. It was at that time that the sarcophagus was reused as the resting place of Saint Hilary, bishop of Arles. It shows that the early Christians did not hesitate to use a pagan monument for the burial of a church leader.
Sarcophagus of a married couple
Route des Saintes Maries de la Mer, Arles
Second quarter of 4th century
This sarcophagus belonged to the mausoleum of a family of the senatorial rank. When it was discovered, it contained the skeletons of the married couple who are depicted in the seashell on its front side. The rest of the decorations are scenes from the Old and New Testament.
Sarcophagus with a hunting scene
Mid-4th century AD
This sarcophagus, probably made of Carrara marble, shows various hunting scenes. Hunting was a common theme in the funerary art, since it evokes both the pastime of the aristocracy and the fight of the man to ensure his place in the otherworld.