Roman Sites in Arles, Nîmes & Orange


Part Two: Nîmes (Nemausus)


Nîmes was already inhabited in the Bronze Age. In the 3rd century BC it was the capital of the Gallic tribe of the Volcae Arecomici. The settlement developed around a spring at the foot of Mount Cavalier. That spring was dedicated to the god Nemausus, after whom the settlement was named. 

In 122-120 BC, Roman armies led by Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Quintus Fabius Maximus campaigned successfully against the Allobroges and the Arverni, the neighbouring tribes of the Volcae Arecomici. The latter subsequently offered themselves under the protection of the Romans. Soon the Romans gained control over most of the Mediterranean coast of Gaul, which allowed for them to establish a land connection between Italy and Hispania (the Via Domitia). Nemausus was located at a strategic point on that road, which granted it great benefits for the years to come. 

The colony of Nemausus was founded by Augustus in 27 BC. Its full name was Colonia Augusta Nemausus. The city stood under the patronage of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the closest advisor and friend of Augustus, who defended the interests of its population in the Senate in Rome. With the territory of 220 ha, it was one of the largest cities in Gaul. 

Nîmes has been called the most Roman city outside Italy because of a large number of Roman monuments that survive here until today. The most important of these are the temple known as the Maison Carrée and the amphitheatre of the city, both counting among the best preserved Roman structures in the world. The section of the Nîmes aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard is the most famous Roman building in all France and recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other sites, like the Spring Sanctuary and the Tour Magne are a testimony of the continuation of the Gallic traditions in a Roman city. 


1.-3. Fortifications: Tour Magne, Porte d’Auguste & Porte de France

Place Guillaume Apollinaire; Boulevard Amiral Courbet 25b; Rue Porte de France 31
16-15 BC

The first known defensive wall of Nemausus is from the 3rd century BC. It was a dry stone wall with watchtowers and a ditch along its lower sections. The territory that it surrounded was several times larger than the other settlements in the region at that time. 

Once Nemausus had become a Roman colony, it got new fortifications. These were 6,025 m long and were among the longest in Gaul. They were built in peacetime, around a territory that was only partly populated, which indicates that their purpose was not just to provide protection, but also to highlight the prestige of the city. 

The Roman fortifications of Nemausus consisted of a curtain wall (9 m high, 2.1 m thick), around 80 towers (mostly semicircular and rectangular), and around 10 gates. 

The best preserved of the towers is the Tour Magne. A dry stone tower in the shape of a truncated cone from the 3rd century BC, it was transformed and expanded in the Roman era and integrated into the Augustan fortifications. Located on Mount Cavalier on the highest spot of the city, it was omnipresent everywhere. In addition to a defensive role, it was probably used as a watchtower to monitor the surrounding landscape, including the Via Domitia. It is one of the most recognisable symbols of the Gallo-Roman world.

The Roman tower had an octagonal plan. It had a base and three storeys and was 36 m high. The exterior of the second storey was decorated with pilasters in the Tuscan order. There were engaged columns on the third-storey level. A staircase inside the tower led to the upper storeys and the terrace on the top. The base was connected to the walkway of the curtain wall. 



Of the gates of the fortifications of Nemausus, two survive in a relatively good condition: the Porte d’Auguste and the Porte de France. 

The Porte d’Auguste (the Porte d’Arles) was one of the main gates of the city, serving as the point of entrance from the Via Domitia. It is made of four arched passages: two big ones, which were meant for vehicles, and two small ones for pedestrians. The big arches are surmounted by the reliefs of a bull’s head. Above the small arches are niches for statues. Between the large arches is a column in the Ionic order, possibly used to measure the distances from Nemausus. The entablature, supported by pilasters in the Corinthian order, shows the remains of an inscription. 



The gate was flanked by two towers with a semicircular plan. In the garden behind the gate is a copy of a bronze statue of Augustus.


The Porte de France was a gate of secondary importance. It consists of a large semicircular arch, originally with a portcullis, surmounted by four pilasters and a cornice.



The fortifications of Nemausus remained in a relatively good condition for several centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. They suffered damage in the 8th century, during the attacks by Charles Martel. All the later fortifications of Nîmes had much more modest dimensions compared to the Roman walls. 


4.-5. Spring Sanctuary & Temple of Diana

Jardins de la Fontaine
Late 1st century BC or early 1st century AD; Temple of Diana (façade) – 2nd century AD

Nîmes is located in an arid area. The first human settlement here must have developed around a spring to the northwest of today’s city centre. That spring was a sacred place for the settlement’s first inhabitants. It was dedicated to the cult of god Nemausus. 

The sacred role of the spring continued in the Roman era. During the reign of Augustus, an altar was set up near it, and a sanctuary dedicated to the imperial cult was built here. The sanctuary was probably not ordered by Augustus himself, but built by the local population to express gratitude to the emperor for the favours he had granted to the city. 

The complex included a nymphaeum, a theatre, and a triple portico with a monumental entrance. The source is accessed by two semicircular staircases.



A building known as the Temple of Diana was attached to the west wing of the portico. Despite being called a temple, its floor plan suggests another purpose. There is also no archaeological or literary evidence about it having been dedicated to Diana. It may have been a library instead. 


The building is from the Augustan period, but its façade was reconstructed in the 2nd century. The main hall was covered by a large barrel vault. There is a series of rectangular niches with triangular and segmental pediments in its north wall. Between the niches were columns in the composite order. There are small compartments in the western part of the hall. The space may have been lit by a large window on the main façade. 




The main hall is flanked by small side rooms. The building also had an upper floor. Staircases led to the annexes of the building. The ruins have yielded remains of coffered ceilings and opus sectile floors.


In 1745-1755, Jacques Philippe Mareschal turned the whole sanctuary complex into a French formal garden. The plan of the garden respects, in general, that of the ancient sanctuary. 


6. Forum & Maison Carrée

Place de la Maison Carrée
10 BC – AD 4

The forum of Nemausus was located to the southeast of the Spring Sanctuary. It was an oblong square with the length of 80 m flanked by two porticoes. Its northern side was closed by a rectangular building which is identified as the curia. A temple, dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons and adopted heirs of Augustus, stands near its southern side. Now known as the Maison Carrée, it is one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world.


The temple is 26.42 m long and 13.54 m wide. It is a hexastyle pseudoperipteral temple, with free-standing columns in the pronaos, six on the narrow side, and engaged columns around the cella. The pronaos is deep, almost a third of the temple’s whole length. The temple is raised on a podium that is 2.85 m high and is accessed by a staircase of 15 steps. Typically for a Roman temple, the emphasis is on the front.





The columns are 9 m high and in the Corinthian order. They support an architrave that is divided into three bands with the ratio of 1:2:3. The frieze is decorated with acanthus leaves and rosettes on three sides. The front side of the architrave and the frieze carried a bronze inscription with a dedication, as indicated by the pegholes. Modillions, meanders and mascarons are the main ornaments of the cornice. Fine egg-and-dart mouldings and dentils separate the different bands of the entablature. The tympanum did not feature any sculptural decoration, but acroteria were mounted on the pediment. 



A number of Roman temples served as an example for the architects of the Maison Carrée: the Temple of Apollo Sosianus and the Temple of Apollo Palatinus (for the pseudoperipteral plan) and the Temple of Mars Ultor (the model of the Corinthian order). The plan of the temple is similar to that of the Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, which was constructed around the same time.

Later in the history, the Maison Carrée was used for diverse purposes: as a town hall, a residential building, a stable, a church, and a museum. The name ‘Maison Carrée’ (‘square house’) comes from the 16th century, when each quadrangular shape was described by the word ‘carré’ in French. The pronaos was restored in the early 19th century, when a new ceiling was provided. No decorative elements survive in the cella.




7.-8. Aqueduct: Pont du Gard & Castellum Divisorium

Vers-Pont-du-Gard; Rue de la Lampeze 14
c. 40-60 AD

The main source of water for the people of Nemausus was originally its spring. With the increase of the population, however, this water resource became insufficient. 

The aqueduct of Nemausus was built in the mid-1st century, most probably under Claudius. It brought water from the springs of the Fontaine d’Eure (Fontes Urae) near Uzès (Ucetia). These are around 20 km away from Nîmes, but because the terrain between the sources and the city is difficult from the point of view of engineering, the aqueduct makes a long detour on its way. Its total length is 52 km. 

The aqueduct brought to Nemausus on average around 40,000 m3 of water per day. In order to enable the water flow, it was built with a descent throughout its length. The descent is, however, very small – only 17 m for 52 km –, which makes it a real engineering masterpiece. 

Around 35 km of the aqueduct was underground. In the other places, the water had to be carried on walls or arched bridges. Several remains of the latter survive, the Pont du Gard being by far the best example.

The Pont du Gard carried the water across the River Gard. It is an aqueduct bridge made of three levels of arches. This makes the Pont du Gard unique, since most Roman aqueduct bridges had only one or two levels of arches. The water conduit is located on the top of the bridge at the height of 48.8 m. It is one of the tallest of all the Roman aqueduct bridges. 





The Pont du Gard is a massive structure made of 50,400 tons of shelly limestone. Most of the stone was extracted from the quarry that is located around 700 m downstream. The blocks were precisely cut to fit perfectly together by friction and gravity, eliminating the need for mortar. The stone blocks contain inscriptions left by the builders to indicate their required locations.


The water conduit was carefully constructed to ensure that the water flows without disruptions. Its walls were built of dressed stones, while the floor was made of concrete. The surfaces were covered with a stucco that incorporated shards of pottery and tiles. The water conduit was finished with various materials that guaranteed that its surface was smooth and durable.


The water arrived to Nemausus through a rectangular canal and was received in the castellum divisorium (castellum aquae) of the city. The latter was a circular basin with the diameter of 5.9 m and the depth of 1.4 m, probably covered by some sort of a pavilion. Excavations here have yielded fragments of columns in the Corinthian order, a fresco with the motifs of fish and dolphins, and a tiled roof.

Ten distribution canals departed from the castellum divisorium, each with the diameter of 40 cm, bringing water to the different quarters of the city. Water was provided for public edifices like the baths, the fountains, and the amphitheatre (for the staging of naumachiae). The domus of the upper classes and the workshops of certain craftsmen may have also had direct access to the water. The used water was removed via a network of collectors and sewers. 




The aqueduct of Nemausus operated until around the 6th century. It was neglected during the successive waves of invasions in the Migration Period, but some of its parts may have been used up until the Middle Ages. 

Today, of the entire aqueduct, only the Pont du Gard survives largely intact. This is thanks to its use as a toll bridge, and the regular repairs that went with it, since the 13th century. In the 18th century, a new bridge for traffic was constructed immediately next to its lowest level of arches. The Pont du Gard attracted growing attention from that time on, and it became a mandatory stop for travellers on the Grand Tour. It is now one the most recognisable symbols of Roman France. 


9. Amphitheatre

Boulevard des Arènes
c. 90-120 AD

The amphitheatre of Nîmes is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. Just like the amphitheatre of Arles, it was inspired by the Colosseum in Rome. It was predominantly used for gladiator fights and venationes, and it could receive up to 24,000 spectators. 

The façade of the amphitheatre consists of two levels of arches, 60 on each. On the ground floor, the arches are separated by pilasters in the Tuscan order, while on the first-floor level, engaged columns in the same order can be seen. The amphitheatre has a well-preserved attic. It even retains the corbels that were used to fix the velarium, to protect the audience from the sun. 






The structure is in the shape of an ellipse. Its size is 133 x 101 m, while the measurements of the central arena are 69 x 38 m. The amphitheatre of Nîmes is more oblong than the Colosseum.


The cavea was divided into 60 sectors, each corresponding to an arch on the façade. Horizontally, it was made of 34 rows of seats, which were divided between four maeniana. Each maenianum was reserved for a separate social class: the lower the row of seat, the higher the class.



Each maenianum was accessed by a gallery known as the vomitorium. The staircases and the vomitoria were planned in a way that the amphitheatre could be filled and emptied quickly. The circulation system of the amphitheatre guaranteed that people from different social classes did not mix.




Under the arena there are subterranean galleries. These provided direct access to the arena during the spectacles. Inscriptions mentioning the name of the architect or the investor of the amphitheatre – Titus Crispius Reburrus – have been found from here.

After the capture of Nîmes by the Visigoths, the amphitheatre was turned into a fortress. It was for centuries an important element in the city’s defence system. Just like in case of the amphitheatre of Arles, it was a town in a town, with its own streets, houses, shops, churches, and a little castle. For the construction of these buildings, stones were often taken from the cavea of the theatre.

The structure was restored in the 19th century. It is now used for bullfights, concerts, and various other events.

The amphitheatre of Nîmes is home to a special species of snails (leucostigma candidescens). It is thought that this species, endemic in the Apennines, was brought here during the construction of the amphitheatre and that, in France, it is only present here. These snails live in the damp interstices of the limestone rocks in a limited part of the amphitheatre.


10. Museum of Romanity

Boulevard des Arènes 16

The Museum of Romanity is the new archaeological museum of Nîmes. Some of its exhibits are from the above-mentioned sites, like the amphitheatre, in front of which the museum is situated, and the Via Domitia. 


Protome of a bull
A pediment support of the amphitheatre of Nîmes
AD 90-120



Relief of the Capitoline Wolf
A pilaster of the amphitheatre of Nîmes
AD 90-120

Relief of gladiators
A parapet of the first-floor gallery of the amphitheatre of Nîmes
AD 90-120



Milestone of Augustus
Via Domitia, Milhaud
3 BC

Milestone of Antoninus Pius
Via Domitia, Saint-Cézaire
144-145 AD




The museum has some nice funerary monuments in its collection.


Funerary monument of Julia Privata and her family
Behind the railway station, Nîmes
Late 1st century AD



Stele and epitaph of Licinia Flavilla and Sextus Adgennius Macrinus
House near the amphitheatre of Nîmes
Late 1st or early 2nd century AD



Epitaph of Marcus Attius Paternus
Late 1st or 2nd century AD



Epitaph of Annia Paterna
Chemin de Camplanier, Nîmes
2nd century AD



The Museum of Romanity also has some well-preserved mosaics on display. These include geometric and figurative mosaics from the Late Republican and Early Imperial periods.


Geometric mosaic
Serre de Brienne, Brignon
Second half of 1st century BC

This floor mosaic is from a cubiculum of a domus in Brignon. 



Geometric mosaic
Rue Pasteur, Nîmes
Second half of 1st or early 2nd century AD



Mosaic of a Nereid on a sea bull
Rue Sainte-Marguerite, Nîmes
Late 1st or early 2nd century AD



Geometric mosaic
Enclos du Gouverneur, Nîmes
1st half of 2nd century AD



Mosaic of Pentheus
Avenue Jean Jaurès, Nîmes
2nd century AD

This mosaic comes from the reception room of the domus of a wealthy family. Its central scene illustrates the legend of Pentheus, as described by Euripides in The Bacchae. The surrounding panels show the Bacchantes, theatrical masks, birds, and the personifications of the seasons. 




The museum also displays a fresco from the site of Villa Roma, a district of well-preserved Roman houses near the Spring Sanctuary, which flourished from the end of the 1st century BC to the mid-2th century AD. 


Fresco of a resting hero
Villa Roma, Quai Georges Clemenceau, Nîmes
AD 30-40