Each spring, the city of Nîmes, France, hosts Roman Games in the ancient arena. We couldn’t miss that!
People have lived in the Nîmes region since at least neolithic times. In 121 BC, the Romans conquered the Gaulish tribes of the area, and established Nemausus, Nîmes’ predecessor. Nemausus became the capital of the Roman province of Narbonne, and one of Gaul’s wealthiest cities. Thanks to its ancient importance and prosperity, it hosts remarkable monuments, including the Maison Carré temple, the Tour Magne, and the Nîmes Arena. Today, it is considered the most Roman city outside of Italy.
The Romans built the arena in about 70 AD. The arena, while smaller than Rome’s Coliseum, is the best-preserved Roman amphitheater in existence.
24,000 spectators can fill the 34 rows of seats. The elliptical central space is impressively large even today: 133 m long by 101 m wide. This space was the versatile canvas for the spectacle that we enjoyed.
Three performances filled the weekend Roman festival in the city (we went Friday evening). Roman history geeks (we are a mild version) came from all over Europe to perform in and enjoy the spectacle. Performers and visitors alike delighted in dressing up as Romans as well as barbarians. Peacefully, they wandered among the market tents where vendors offered leather belts and shields, swords and other armaments, antique-style jewelry, costumes for rent, and more up-to-date fare such as lavender soaps, snacks, books and crafts.
Nîmes enjoys a new good museum whose mission is to illuminate Roman Nîmes: le Musée de la Romanité. We spent a little time among its attractive and interactive exhibits. A highlight was watching Roman reenactors, in full costume, studying the displays — smartphones in hand.
But the highlight of our visit was sitting among thousands of other Romans-for-a-day in the arena.
The program included the arrival of Emperor Hadrian, no less; reenactments of chariot races and gladiator combat; and the telling of story of how Rome vanquished the northern barbarians during the time of the Roman Republic. The rest of this post is the narration from the program with our illustrations.
There are a few videos in this post which I think will not show up in the email; you will need to visit the blog site proper to see them. They are fun, so it is worth the extra click!
Let’s go! Or, Abeamus! as the Romans would have exclaimed!
The Entrance of the Emperor and His Military Guards
The games start with the entrance of Emperor Hadrian in the arena, surrounded by his pretorian guards.
Cheer the Emperor Caesar Trianaus Hadrianus, son of the divine Trajan!
He is followed by the Roman troops,…
…the auxiliary troops (Celts, in Roman uniforms, who fight with the emperor’s soldiers), the Gauls and the mercenaries.
Under the orders of Macrinus, the legionnaires demonstrate a battle maneuver called the Turtle.
Prayer to Jupiter
Before the start of the show, the Praeco asks the gods that the games proceed well. You are invited to stand and raise your hands toward the sky, and say with him:
Jovis Optimus, Jovis Maximus. Protect the Emperor and his family! Take from us our remaining days, and give them to the Emperor! May his life be long! May our city last forever and these games be magnificent! Send us a sign! If the gods favor us, they will send us a sign.
Let the games begin!
Demonstration of the Macedonian Phalange
For the first time, the Emperor Hadrian offers a demonstration of the Macedonian Phalange, the fearsome combat formation of the Macedonian infantry that was used from the IVth century BC. The Roman army defeated the Macedonians, despite the phalange, during the famous battle of Pydna in 168 BC.
In the Roman era, chariot races took place in the circuses. This year, the Emperor Hadrian offers you this spectacular demonstration in your Arena!
Support your favorite chariot during this fierce race around the arena; no holds are barred! The colored flag that you have in your hands represents the city district that you represent. All bets are on!
The Red Chariot: District of the Forum of the Maison Carrée
The Blue Chariot: District of the Magne Tower
The White Chariot: District of Neptune, near the Fountain
The winner will receive a victory palm from the hands of the Emperor.
The Munus of the Gladiators
To celebrate his visit to Nîmes, the Emperor offers you a munus, a show of gladiatorial combat. Often organized by politicians in order to gain the people’s approval, it is the highlight of Roman games. You must imagine the passion of the public for these fighters. Many of the gladiators were celebrities who had trained since their adolescence.
Spectators bet on their favorite gladiator. There were also groups of fans, ready to rumble in support of their favorites. Wave your colored flag to beg leniency or yell lugula to demand the gladiator’s execution!
First fight: One on one
Second fight: Teams: 2 rétiaires (gladiators with nets) against 3 secutors (gladiators with helmets)
The Emperor now offers this reenactment one of the most beautiful Roman victories against the Barbarian Kings!
Scene I: The attack of the Gallic Oppidum of Nîmes, 105 BC
[An oppidum was a settlement atop a steep-sided high hill. They were established by the pre-Roman Gauls, and then assimilated by the Romans.]
After having beaten the Roman army at Arausio (modern Orange, France), the Teutons, the Cimbres and the Ambrons, barbarian tribes from the North, pillaged and razed the Gallic oppidum of the Volques Arécomiques [a Celtic people who inhabited the region of Nîmes before the Romans].
Scene II: The Roman Senate
The barbarians have moved on toward Spain but will certainly come back. Rome has to do something because the barbarians will not stop until they invade Italy. But no senator is willing to volunteer to be Consul, who would lead the army against the barbarians. The Senate is deadlocked, so calls on the General Caius Marius to vanquish these barbarians and save Rome. Caius Marius was not a Senator; in fact, while an accomplished and popular general and politician, he did not come from an aristocratic family. The haughty Senators used the prospect of joining their ranks to convince Caius Marius to lead this dangerous mission.
Scene III: Greek Marseille
General Marius and his army arrive by sea at Massalia (today’s Marseille, and about 100 km from Nîmes). At the time, Massalia was a Greek city that was allied with Rome.
Scene IV: The Camp of the Legions
Marius orders the establishment of a camp near Arelate (Arles). To keep the soldiers busy, he orders them to dig the Mariennes Canal between Arles and the Mediterranean Sea. The canal allows the camp to be generously and efficiently reprovisioned from the sea. During two years, Marius and his troops wait for the return of the barbarians.
Scene V: The Attack on the Camp
The Teutons, led by King Teutobod, encircle the Roman camp. After three failed assaults, the barbarians are beaten back, and they flee. The Romans pursue them.
Scene VI: The Battle of Aix en Provence
Marius’s troops outflank the barbarians, and defeat them. Teutobod is captured. Marius is proclaimed imperator, or Roman Commander. Thanks to this victory, he will be re-elected as Consul for the fifth time.
PS. Just so you know that Nîmes is peaceful despite the carnage within the Arena!