Saturday, July 11, 2015

Roman remains of ancient Gaul: Nimes (Nemausus)

An ancient history resource article by  © 2015
The Tour Magne is the remains of
one of the Roman tours built
during the reign of Augustus.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In May, 2013, I had the opportunity to travel to southern France to explore and photograph Roman remains there. I originally wrote this article six months later and saved it to draft.  I only now noticed that I hadn't finished it.  So I thought I better wrap it up and get it posted. Thankfully, it wasn't a time-dependent piece.  As time permits I hope to write other articles about some of the sites I visited in Roman Gaul.

The first Roman site I visited in southern France was the city of Nimes known as Nemausus in Roman times, after a local sacred spring located there.

Nimes became part of the Roman Empire sometime before 28 BCE.  It was colonized by veterans of the Roman legions who had served Julius Caesar in his Nile campaigns. By the reign of Augustus in the 1st century CE Nimes had reached a population of 60,000.

Augustus ordered the construction of
a ring of ramparts six kilometres (3.7 miles) long, reinforced by fourteen towers.  Although two gates remain today, the Porta Augusta and the Porte de France, as well as the remains of one tower dubbed the Tour Magne, we, unfortunately, did not have time to inspect them. 

Our first stop was the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple originally constructed in 16 BCE. Originally the temple was designed after the temples of Apollo and Mars Ultor in the Forum of Augustus in Rome.  The structure was rebuilt by the famous Roman admiral, Marcus Agrippa (victor of Actium), in approximately 2 - 4 CE.  The temple was dedicated to his two ill-fated sons, Gaius and Lucius, who had been adopted by his best friend Augustus so they would rule Rome one day.  However, both died tragically young (poisoned by Augustus' vile wife Livia if we believe Robert Graves' interpretation of events in "I, Claudius!") 

The Maison Carree, an example of Vitruvian architecture built
in 16 BCE now houses an information center and theater
in Nimes, France.
Photo by . © 2013
The structure is an example of architecture popularized by the famous Roman architect, Vitruvius.  It is almost twice as long as it is wide with its entry fronted by six Corinthian columns topped with ornately carved acanthus leaves.

A pidgeon nestles into the protective acanthus
leaves sculpted on the capital of a Corinithian
column of the Maison Carrée
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
The deep portico or proanos consumes 1/3 of the building's length and features a ceiling accented by a relief of ornamental rosettes.  The ceiling was restored in the early 19th century.  The big bronze doors were replaced in 1824.

Like the Pantheon in Rome, the temple survived the widespread destruction of pagan centers of worship after Rome adopted Christianity because it was converted to a church.  In the years that followed it was subsequently converted to a meeting hall for the city's consuls, a canon's house and even a stable for government-owned horses during the French Revolution.  It now houses an information center and theater.

Inside we bought a three day pass for all of the surrounding historical sites for only 11 Euros. It included admission to a short 3-D movie about the history of Nimes that was very well done even though Cecelia, a medieval reenactor, made fun of the less than authentic fencing in one of the segments.

I thought the segment on gladiatorial fights was quite authentic with a properly attired Roman referee and a retiarius (net man with trident) and a Secutor battling it out with little blood spilled. Each time one of the gladiators was in danger of a mortal wound the referee would step in and separate the combatants. 

Finally one of the men went down and the referee looked to the crowd for a verdict and declared the victor without any further harm coming to his opponent. In historical times that type of encounter was far more common than the blood bath seen on the Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand series. The only thing that was not quite authentic was that the men were relatively svelt. In Roman times gladiators ate an almost vegetarian diet of barley gruel to put on a protective layer of fat and often appeared rather barrel-chested.

This Roman relief  found along the Via Appia near the tomb of Cecilia Metella
illustrates the well fed contours of arena combatants in the 1st century BCE
Photogaphed at the Baths of Diocletian venue of the National Museum, Rome, Italy by  © 2009
After the movie ended we climbed down the rather steep stairs and walked several blocks to the Roman amphitheater. The amphitheater was constructed in approximately 70 CE.  It measures 133 meters long and 101 meters wide and in ancient times could seat 24,000 people.  The stone for its construction was quarried at Roquemaillère and Baruthel located near Nîmes.

s er
A Roman amphitheater now serves
as a venue for bullfights
in Nimes, France.
Photo by  © 2013
Although several tiers of the structure are now missing, what remains is in very good condition. It is significantly smaller than the Colloseum in Rome, though. 

Once fortified by the Visigoths, the Nimes amphitheater was a target of destruction
by Charles Martel in 737 CE so only the lower tiers of the structure remain.
Photographed in Nimes, France by  © 2013
With the upper tiers of the structure missing I could not see any remnants of the supports for the sun shades that were usually extended to shade the spectators on a hot day. I also did not see any numbers carved in to the stone above the various entry doors that matched tokens given to attendees to tell them which door to use so ingress and egress could be accomplished in a relatively short time.  The official website for the site pointed out the fore-body parts of two bulls with their legs folded on either side on one of the arches.  I wish I would have noticed that. 

It also said there was a relief of a she-wolf giving milk to two children, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, on one of the pilasters opposite the Palais du Justice. Unlike the Roman version, the Nîmes she-wolf is looking towards the children. If you visit the amphitheater, don't overlook them like I did.

The archaeology museum in Nimes,one of the largest in France, is presently housed in the 17th century Jesuits College at 13 Boulevard Amiral Courbet, 30000. Iron age and Gallo-Roman artifacts comprise most of the collection with a host of everyday objects, including sigillated ceramics, bronze tableware, lamps, toilet and dress accessories. There is also an exhibit of Greek ceramics that have been recovered from the area.

In 2018, the collection will be moved to the new Museum of Romanity that is being built facing the Roman amphitheater.
An artist's rendering of the new Museum of Romanity slated for completion in 2018.  Image courtesy of  Nimes Tourism.

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