Roman Sites in Arles, Nîmes & Orange


Part Three: Orange (Arausio)


Orange was founded in around 35 BC by the veterans of the Legio II Gallica. Its official name was Colonia Iulia Firma Secundanorum Arausio, and its short name was Arausio, after the local Celtic divinity or a river that flew nearby. 

The colony was established on the site of an earlier Gallic settlement. Near there, in 105 BC, two Roman armies, commanded by Quintus Servilius Caepio and Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, were defeated by the migratory tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutons. The Battle of Arausio is considered to be, in terms of the losses, one of the biggest defeats in Ancient Roman history, surpassing even the devastating Battle of Cannae, which had taken place in 216 BC. 

Arausio was a prosperous city in the Roman imperial period. It boasted with magnificent monuments, like the triumphal arch and the theatre, which, today, are among the best preserved structures of their kind and are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 


1. Fortifications

Rue Saint-Clément & Avenue des Thermes

In the Roman period, Orange covered an area of around 70 ha, which was surrounded by a belt of fortifications. The course of the Roman wall is hard to trace, since it was demolished later in the history, most probably in the 17th century, when the city was endowed with new fortifications. Some remains of the Roman wall together with a gate can be seen on Rue Saint-Clément, near the Old Cemetery of Orange. The gate may have been used as a foundation for a tower in the Middle Ages. 


2. Theatre

Rue Madeleine Roch
Late 1st century BC or early 1st century AD

The theatre of Orange was built during the reign of Augustus. It is special among Roman theatres for its exceptionally well-preserved scaenae frons – the architectural background of the stage. 


The scaenae frons of the theatre is 103-104 m long and 35-37 m high. It is pierced by three openings. The large central opening – the valva regia – was used only by the most important actors.

The scaenae frons was adorned with mosaics, columns, friezes, and niches with statues. The most important of the statues could be seen above the valva regia: the statue of Apollo, later that of the emperor. Although the statue looks like that of Augustus, it dates from a later period (2nd century AD). 




The scaenae frons is especially impressive when seen from the outside. It was preceded by a portico, of which some arches survive on the western side. 





The cavea of the theatre accommodated up to 9,000 people. It was divided in three zones: the twenty lowest rows of seats (the ima cavea) were reserved for the upper classes, the next nine (the media cavea) were meant for Roman citizens and merchants, and the upper five rows (the summa cavea) contained seats for foreigners, slaves, and prostitutes. The theatre was covered by a wooden roof. 




Access took place through the stairs and corridors.


The theatre was closed by an official edict in AD 391. It was subsequently abandoned and looted. Its renovation started in the 1820s. In the 1860s, it became the scene of a theatre festival. Now known as the Chorégies d’Orange, it is one of the world’s premier opera festivals.


3.-4. Forum: Western Wall & Temple

Rue Pontillac; ruins to the west of the theatre
2nd century AD (temple)

The forum was the economic, political and religious centre of Arausio. It was situated at the intersection of the city’s cardo maximus and decumanus maximus. On modern maps this corresponds to the area between the base of the Saint Eutrope Hill and the Place de la République in the north. 

In the centre of the forum was an open space surrounded by porticoes. It was accessed by a monumental entrance. The complex included various buildings. Unfortunately, only a few remains of the forum survive. 

On Rue Pontillac, a fragment of the western wall of the forum can be seen. This wall must have supported the galleries of the western portico on two levels. The wall was pierced in the Middle Ages. 


Other remains of the forum wall can be admired immediately to the west of the theatre. The rounded wall cut into the rock of the Saint Eutrope Hill was, in the past, thought to be a part of a gymnasium. In front of it stood a temple from the 2nd century on, most probably dedicated to the imperial cult. It was connected to the theatre and the other buildings of the forum.




5. Triumphal Arch

Avenue de l’Arc de Triomphe
c. 10 BC or AD 20-27

Outside the northern fortifications of Arausio stood a monumental arch. It was located on Via Agrippa, an important road built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, connecting Lugdunum (Lyon) with Arelate (Arles). 

The arch of Orange consists of a large central arch and two smaller arches on the sides. It is the oldest surviving triple-arched triumphal arch from the Roman period. Similar examples in Rome – the arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine I – date from the early 3rd and 4th centuries AD. 


The arch is 19.21 m high, 19.57 m long, and 8.40 m wide. It has a second attic, which served as a pedestal for monumental sculptures. There are engaged columns in the Corinthian order on all the sides of the monument.




The barrel vault of the central arch is covered with hexagonal coffers in a good condition. 


The are many figurative reliefs on the surfaces of the arch. 

The central panels of the upper attic show intense battle scenes between infantry and cavalry soldiers. The emblem of the Legio II Augusta – the Capricornus – can be seen on a shield on the northern façade of the arch. 


On the lower attic, above the small arches, there are panels with various naval motifs. This is a reference to the Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean in the aftermath of the Battle of Actium (31 BC). Under these are panels with shields, spears, helmets, etc.


On the lateral sides of the arch there are reliefs showing trophies and pairs of captives (cf. the arch of Carpentras).


The frieze, which runs on all the four sides of the arch, shows a series of duels between Roman and Gallic or Germanic soldiers. On two sides of the arch there was a dedicatory inscription made of bronze letters, which were attached to the stone by mortise and tenon joints. Remains of the mortises can be observed on the northern frieze. 

The decorative motifs seem to commemorate both the accomplishments of the Legio II Augusta and the campaigns of Germanicus. This complicates the dating of the monument. The problem is exacerbated by the various attempts to decipher the dedicatory inscription of the lower frieze. According to one interpretation, the arch was erected in the Augustan era (c. 10 BC), while another dates it to the Tiberian period (AD 20-27). It can also be that the original Augustan arch was modified under Tiberius.


6. Museum of Art and History

Rue Madeleine Roch

The Museum of Art and History of Orange exhibits several notable pieces from the Roman period. Among the most important of these are the fragments of the Cadaster of Orange, maps carved in marble showing the land allocation in Arausio and the surrounding areas around the time of the reign of Vespasian. These are the best preserved Roman cadasters in the world. 

Some works of art displayed in the museum are from the above-mentioned sites. 


Statue of a sphinx
Mausoleum in Fourches-Vieilles, Orange
Late 1st century BC

Mosaic of centaurs
Îlot Pontillac, Orange
1st century AD

The sphinx is one of the four sphinxes that decorated a mausoleum discovered from the Fourches-Vieilles neighbourhood of Orange. The mosaic with centaurs is from the area of the forum.



Frieze of centaurs
Above the valva regia of the scaenae frons of the theatre of Orange
Early 1st century AD