Arles / Vers-Pont-du-Gard / Nîmes / Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France
June 13 – 14, 2019
The monuments of the Roman Empire had taken on the timelessness of the Eternal City. It took a family trip down Roman roads in the South of France for me to discover the fallen empire’s tangible and indelible heritage. Ruins of infrastructure and edifices from antiquity remained proudly standing and relatively well-preserved in several towns and cities across Languedoc and Provence, allowing us a peek into this marvelous colonial past.
My sister’s planned itinerary stripped bare my ignorance of European history. I was truly shocked to find ancient Italy and Greece in what I expected to be solely vast vineyards and opulent chateaux. For the price of a fridge magnet, I got a crash course on Provincia Romana, the colony established in the second century BCE, from a personable staff – his name was Florent, or so I thought – at Nîmes Tourism Office.
Before Florent, the road was my teacher and it led to the center of Arles, the erstwhile trading junction between Italy and Spain. My introduction to all things Roman came in the form of a needle-shaped monument, Obélisque d’Arles (Arles Obelisk), rising from Place de la République and set on a 19th-century fountain. The granite obelisk that marked the mid-point of the chariot racing circuit had become the starting point of the tourist trail.
It got me into a historical head space before I laid eyes on Théâtre Antique d’Arles (Roman Theater of Arles). In its heyday in the first century, the theater could seat an audience of 10,000. By the Middle Ages, it had fallen into oblivion, its original stones almost completely recycled as building materials. A mere portion of the stage up to a few seating rows remained along with some columns and lintel. Nevertheless, the town resurrected the theater in our time. What an honor for any artist to perform on this ancient stage and carry on the centuries-long tradition of the performing arts.
Though older than the theater by a century or so, Arènes d’Arles (Arles Amphitheater) was relatively more intact. Built in 90 CE, it was a scaled-down version of the Colosseum in Rome which preceded it by a few decades. Small wonder then that Arles was known as “the little Rome of Gaul.” Still, the arena’s annular terraces and arched galleries dwarfed us. The center oval was gleaming with sand as it had been in Roman times. It conjured up the gladiatorial games that drew 20,000 spectators. Back in the day, sand – arena in Latin – was laid over the wooden floor and trap doors as an effectively blood-absorbent material. I hoped gore for glory had fallen out of favor in modern times, but it called to mind Iberian bullrings and the barbaric goings-on therein.
The arena called for a 360 camera, but my sis and bro-in-law were bickering about a missing tripod. After our visit, I learned that, in the intervening centuries after the fall of the empire, the arena became a self-contained town of more than 200 houses and a central public square. I never saw that coming. I supposed it put the space to practical use, what with the standing fortification around it. It was only in the 19th century that the arena was cleared and declared a national historical monument.
At a seemingly random stop in the middle of Gard, my jaw dropped at the sight of the majestic Pont du Gard, a three-tiered aqueduct across the Gardon River that stood perfectly over the centuries. We walked through the rocky countryside until a bend in the river suddenly revealed the perfect arches. How could such infrastructure meant for the mundane business of conveying water from city to city also be a sublime work of art? UNESCO, no less, called it “a testament to human genius.”
Florent proclaimed Nîmes as the best place to see Roman ruins in France. The spectacularly well-preserved Les Arênes de Nîmes (Arena of Nîmes) built around 70 CE at the city center confirmed his claim. But how could a people that valued architectural sophistication and artistic expression also indulge in violent spectacle? Public executions and bloody combats took place in that same awe-inspiring amphitheater. Just like Arènes d’Arles, it had become a venue for bullfights and, more appropriately woke, an annual summer music fest. Alas, it was not open at the time of our visit. We would only admire its façade unevenly restored for character. It was the closest to seeing the Colosseum in this trip that left out Italy in the itinerary.
The city had more than an arena to show for its Roman heritage. At the downtown – forum in antiquity – stood a wonderful showcase of Corinthian architecture built in 2 CE. The Maison Carrée (French for “square house”) was a Roman temple belatedly dedicated to the adopted heirs of the first Roman emperor, both of whom had died at a young age. Up until then, I had no idea what religion was practiced in the empire. The structure faithfully followed the architecture of Tuscan originals: rectangular temple atop a podium. Its present-day hollow interior had been turned into a screening hall for a short historical documentary film shown every half an hour.
Saint-Rémy de Provence
Back in Provence, we visited the ruins of an entire town, not stand-alone amphitheaters or temples. Surrounded by the precipitous limestone peaks of the Alpilles, the valley of sacred springs that became present-day Saint-Rémy de Provence was once a Gaulish settlement known as Glanum as far back as the sixth century BCE. The ancient city had already had Hellenistic influences when the Romans came. Walking along the main road of Les Antiques, as locals called it, transported us back in time to a city long gone.
If we needed proof positive of urban planning in antiquity, this archaeological site served it. Standing across the first Roman road in Gaul, Via Domitia, were the triumphal arch of Glanum, the oldest in France, and the Mausoleum of the Julii, one of the best-preserved ancient tombs. Members of one of the distinguished local families, the Julii, were believed to have been interred there.
The rest of the city was reduced to slabs of stone, standing columns, crumbling arches, and paved holes in the ground. My nephew DJ and I gingerly balanced on the craggy pavement of residential blocks pockmarked with Roman baths, indicative of thermal springs this valley was known for. Nearby lay the ruins of the House of Atys, either a residence or a temple hall. The rubble offered clues to the physical and spiritual indulgence of the Romans.
Glanum would have been a spa resort if it were established in present times. The healing spring waters attracted settlements here through the centuries. One of the temples near the Forum, the Temple of Valetudo, was dedicated to the goddess of health. Religion, then, had already been used as a colonizing tool, arguably more effective than war. Temples that either Romanized Greek gods and goddesses or deified Roman emperors were built in colonized cities. Though only crumbling Corinthian columns remained, religious conversion as a colonial strategy had been adapted through succeeding empires throughout history.
In full circle fashion, the road led us back to Arles. Fittingly, the final Roman ruins we came to see was a poplar-lined necropolis, the Alyscamps, just outside the town walls where cemeteries were relegated in Roman tradition. For most, it was known for its association with Vincent van Gogh whose morbid sensibilities were not out of place in this “field of paradise.” It was where the affluent Arles citizens were buried in sophisticated sarcophagi and mausoleums for more than a thousand years. Jesus was even said to have attended a martyr’s burial here. If true, I had walked where Jesus walked before I even went to the Holy Land.
It was the end of the Roman road for us but not for the magnificent structures the Romans built across the Mediterranean. The empire may have lasted only half a millennium, but their edifices had endured through two millennia. Who could have thought that destructive dust that buried cities were also the building blocks of an empire?
Pozzolana – volcanic ash – was said to have been the secret to the durability of Roman concrete. It served the empire’s strategic cultural expansion plan very well. Roman architecture was built throughout the colonies and survived through the centuries. They left a heritage that was aere perennius – Latin for “more lasting than bronze.” The Romans had conquered even time.