Touring France always means touring Roman France, especially in the south. 

Some history: 

Long before the arrival of the Romans, around 600 BCE, Greeks established the city of Massilia (modern Marseilles). But over the centuries following the establishment of Massilia, Rome budded and grew in strength and ambition. Trade flourished between Massilia, the Gallic Celts to the north, and Rome. In the 2nd century BCE Rome intervened on the side of Massilia in its struggle against the Celts to the north. Its main aim was protecting the route from Italy to its new possessions in Spain. The result was the formation, in 121 BCE, of “the Province” (Provincia, whence Provence), an area spanning from the Mediterranean to Lake Geneva. From the name of its capital, Narbo (modern Narbonne), the region acquired its Roman name: Narbonensis. Today, the region contains many theaters, amphitheaters, aqueducts, roads, arches, monuments, mosaics and artifacts as reminders of its long Roman occupation. (sources: 1 2 )

The Gard is the department (like a county) that includes Nîmes and the Pont du Gard, and that just touches Arles. Perfect territory to dip into the Roman past with our friends Michael and Philippe from Paris.

The Amphitheater of Nîmes — Les Arènes de Nîmes

We chose to follow the self-guided audio tour. At various marked locations throughout the amphitheater, the four of us stood silently with glazed expressions, audio devices pressed to our ears. Animated British voices told stories of Roman culture and the construction of the amphitheater.

[The amphitheater] was built in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Augustus, using stone from local quarries and was located right up against the Roman walls, which passed just a few meters behind one side of it, the outline of which can be seen today marked on the pavement outside. If you visit in the evening, the lines of where the walls once lay are lit up in red, making it clear how close they were. The amphitheater may be central to Nîmes today, but back then it was right on the outskirts, a late addition to the city.

It was used to provide entertainment for the masses including gladiatorial combat, wild animal hunts and public executions. There were real life battles being fought at the borders of the Empire, but Nîmes was far removed from any of that, and it was a way of bringing controlled fighting to the people in the more central areas. (source)

Our disembodied British voices were particularly taken by the life and times of the gladiators.

Gladiator fights had started in the 3rd century BC in Rome, due to the Roman belief that when people died, their souls were transported by human blood. When an important Roman citizen died in the early 3rd century BC, his family arranged for three pairs of slaves to fight during the funeral, so that blood was spilt. This developed over the years as other families copied the idea and it soon became a massive public spectacle.

Gladiators trained in schools and many of them were professionals, they weren’t all slaves or prisoners. There was probably a gladiator school in Nîmes, as although the building hasn’t been found in excavations, gravestones of gladiators have been found in the area, implying there was one nearby. A fight often ended when a gladiator raised his hand to surrender, knowing that he was beaten. The person paying for the games would then decide whether they would be condemned, spared or retired: the well known gladiators were far more likely to be spared, protected by their reputations. (source)

More than you ever wanted to know about the types of gladiators:

Thracian The Thracian carried a small square shield, called a parma, two large greaves on his legs, a curved blade called sica supine, an helmet with wide brim, and a crest, sometimes embellished with a griffon’s head. It symbolized the very particular way in which this gladiator fought, his position when he was on guard, was like a big cat ready to pounce, while his method of attack at his opponent’s large shield was reminiscent of a predator, swooping onto his pray. The Thracian attacks were extremely rapid and violent, since his aim was to make a breach in his adversary defensive wall.

Hoplomachus Like the Thracian, the hoplomachus would be paired with a murmillo who was armed with a large shield. Although his defensive armour was similar to that of the Thracian, the hoplomachus’s fighting weapons were different: a spear and short dagger.

Retiarus The retiarius, armed with his trident, net and dagger, is certainly the most well-known gladiator and the most easily identifiable. This combatant, who appeared during the course of the 1st century B.C. was exceptional in every way. He was the only one to fight without a helmet, shield or shin pad. His sole protection was a manica, worn on his left arm, and prolonged by large flared shoulder piece called a galerus. This meagre defence gave him the great advantage of speed. Tactically, the retiarius would pretend to flee in order to make his opponent come after him, strike his helmet and shield with the trident attempting to produce a large shockwave and finally, trap his opponent in his net while running.

Scissor The scissor represents the final stage of evolution among the opponents of the retiarius, and he is typical of the way in which gladiatorial combat was able to adapt and evolve. His name means “the one who lacerates”. The scissor had an helmet with the hemispherical crest, a scaled brass plate which covered him completely from the neck down to the top of his thighs and two short ocreae. Finally, this atypical gladiator was equipped with a short sword and an unusual metal sleeve that finished with a half-moon which was sharpened on both sides. This weapon, used as a defense against the trident, also enabled the scissor gladiator to wield very dangerous blows and to cut the opponent’s net. A combat in which the retiarius opposed the secutor or the scissorwas the ultimate experience in armed duels. 

Secutor When the retiarius appeared in the 1st century BC, he was paired with the murmillo. But during the following century, the murmillo evolved into the retiarius. His equipment was very like that of the murmillo. The only striking difference was in the helmet. Whereas the crest on the murmillo’s helmet was tall, wide and angular, the crest of the secutor was slim, less tall and rounded. He wore a manica made of strips of leather on his right arm, a metal greave, a long shield and a short sword called pugio. The helmet and the large shield were the secutor’s main assets to put up an effective fight against the retiarius.

Murmillo The murmillo appeared in the 1st century B.C., and is distinctive mainly for his large shield, called a scutum, reminiscent of Roman legionary shields. His armor was made up of a wide brimmed helmet, with a very tall heavy crest, useful for striking his opponent, a manica made of strips of thick leather, a small ocrea and a short straight sword.

Provocator Of all the High Empire gladiators, the provocator was the one whose equipment was most like that of contemporary soldiers. His shield, for example, was curved, rounded at the ends, and fitted with one or two handles, making it very similar to the shields of certain legionaries. The defensive armor was completed by a grieve or shin protector, an arm protection, a breast plate  and a short sword known as a gladius. Technically, the athletic movements of the provocatores were based around a series of violent blows, made with the edge of the shield, enabled him to create gaps and openings in his opponents’ defense, which he could exploit in the combat.


After we had toured throughout the amphitheater, we sat awhile on some high-altitude stone steps. Far below, a couple of young men chatted while they set up folding chairs for some upcoming event. Their manner was casual, familiar. Amazing to contemplate 2000 years of spectacles and normal life right here, continuing today.

The Arena of Arles

Yet another Roman amphitheater! Somewhere along our travels, we read that there are something like 400 amphitheaters throughout what was the ancient Roman world (although Wikipedia says 230). While the amphitheaters in Nîmes and Arles are particularly well preserved, you can come across arena remains throughout Western Europe. Imagine being a Roman citizen back in the Roman day: arriving in a new city; there, reassuringly (or threateningly, depending on your reason for visiting) was the tangible expression of power and culture and reach of the empire. 

The town of Arles was a thriving city during the height of the Roman empire. In 90 AD, the town built this impressive amphitheater, which provided seating for over 20,000 good Roman citizens. Inspired by the famed Coliseum in Rome, the structure has over 120 arches, a series of galleries and staircases, and two levels of seating. For over four centuries the amphitheater provided a variety of entertainments, including gladiatorial battles, chariot races, and theatrical performances.

The philosopher Seneca described the brutal spectacle that probably greeted Arles spectators:

In the morning men are thrown to bears or lions, at midday to those who were previously watching them. The crowd cries for the killers to be paired with those who will kill them, and reserves the victor for yet another death. This is the only release the gladiators have. The whole business needs fire and steel to urge men on to fight…There was no escape for them. The slayer was kept fighting until he could be slain. ‘Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive!’ (the spectators roared) ‘Why is he such a coward? Why won’t he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won’t he die willingly? (source)

La Maison Carrée de Nîmes

I’ve always marveled at this gem. It holds court at the center a modern-day square in the heart of Nîmes. It’s a little extremely-well-preserved Greek-style temple. A proud anachronism.

Under the leadership of the Emperor Augustus, Nîmes became one of the most important cities of Gallia Narbonensis and had the honor of being named ‘Colonia Augusta Nemausensis’ by the Emperor himself. He equipped Nemausus with the public buildings required for the running of the city. [Including, in] 2 AD, the Maison Carrée […] intended to accommodate the imperial cult. The Maison Carrée was dedicated to the Emperor’s grandson. In Roman Times, it [sat at] at the heart of the forum. Access was reserved to priests alone. However, rituals, sacrifices and processions were carried out in the presence of the city’s inhabitants. (source)

Le Pont du Gard

Part of the fun of the Pont du Gard is approaching it. You park among the trees on either side of the Gardon River. Just a few minutes of strolling along the river before the arches start appearing through the tree branches. Gold or bronze, depending on the light, the 2000-year-old arches march across the sky.

The Pont du Gard is a part of a monumental Roman aqueduct built in the first century CE. The aqueduct brought water from a spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus (now Nîmes). The aqueduct was built with remarkable precision: its average slope is only 12 meter over its 50 km course through the mountains — that’s only 24 cm slope per kilometer (15 inch per mile).

The Pont du Gard allowed the aqueduct of Nîmes to cross the valley of the Gardon River. It was built entirely with dry materials, without the need of any masonry. The builders hoisted the stones, some of which weigh about 6 tons, as much as 40 meter high. It peaks at over 48 m and crosses the river over a length of 275 meters. Its top string of arches once supported the aqueduct’s canal, where the water flowed under a layer of stone slabs. (source)

You can hear the cicadas.

A highlight of our guided tour was the opportunity to climb to the top of the arches and cross the bridge just as the water once did. Some of the cover slabs remain today, but some sections are open to the sky. We thought the trek would feel claustrophobic, but it was mostly like a long hotel corridor — albeit solid stone, and two millennia old.

As your Roman friend would call out to you on the way to the amphitheater: “Potest imaginari quam in MM annis et cogitabo?” Can you imagine what they will think in 2000 years?

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