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The Roman city of Nemausus was a favorite of Augustus Caesar. That’s possibly because he founded it as a Roman colonia in 31 BCE, along with a contingent of veterans from the campaign that conquered Egypt. Its residents thus had the privilege and wherewithal to build an opulent forum, an enormous amphitheater for the blood sports that were the Romans’ favorite entertainment, and elaborate fortifications. The Romans believed their emperors were gods, so perhaps it’s the intercession of Augustus that has left modern Nîmes with two of the best preserved of all Roman buildings.
The Amphitheater— les Arènes— is in the center of the city. It provides a pervasive backdrop to the cafés and shops along the streets that radiate from it. Place des Arènes, an open area on the amphitheater’s southeast side, is about the only place where you can get a wide view of the building’s full exterior, 133 meters long, 101 meters wide, and 21 meters high.
Built around the end of the first century CE, the Amphitheater was Nemausus’ venue for the violent spectacles that captivated Romans. Gladiatorial fights were the most popular attractions. But there was also a varied menu of Olympic-style sports, chariot races, staged hunts of exotic and common animals, fights between various combinations of barbarians and animals, and naumachia— mock naval battles, for which the Amphitheater’s performing area was flooded with water.
Occasionally, a public execution provided special lunchtime entertainment. No lethal injections here: The condemned were mauled by lions, tigers, or bears after being tied to posts or driven with whips toward the animals. (This form of execution was reserved for slaves and foreigners. Citizens condemned to death were entitled to a private beheading with a sword.)
You can get the best sense of the Amphitheater’s grandiose scale from the inside. It’s big enough to contain a small town, which it did between the 12th and 19th centuries.
The Amphitheater originally accommodated some 24,000 spectators— half the population of Nemausus— in 34 tiers. Seating was assigned and strictly segregated according to social class. Nobles and dignitaries sat in the imma cavea, the prime tiers closest to the sandy arena where the action took place. (Arena is the Latin word for sand.) Well-off property-owning commoners sat in the media cavea, the middle tiers, some in reserved seats. Ordinary citizens and slaves were relegated to the summa cavea, the “nosebleed” section. But everyone had a view of the entire stadium. A canvas awning (velarium) at the top of the amphitheater kept out the sun and rain.
An elaborate network of passageways and vomitoria— ramps leading directly to specific seating sections— provided rapid and efficient entry and egress for spectators. Various Web sites mention a modern experiment that evacuated the full Amphitheater in five minutes, but I haven’t been able to find any authoritative report of that experiment. Efficiency was probably not the main concern of the Roman architects. Enforcing the strictly-segregated social order was much more important. The vomitoria were designed to let spectators get directly to and from their proper places in the Amphitheater, without crossing paths or mixing with members of other classes.
Today’s Gallo-Romans retain at least some of their ancestors’ taste for blood sports. Although there are no more gladiators or executions, Spanish-style bullfights are presented at the Amphitheater three times a year at festivals called ferias. The Amphitheater was restored for that purpose in the 19th century. But it’s more often a venue for large-scale rock concerts.
The Maison Carrée (“Square House”) is one of the best preserved of all Roman temples. It was commissioned around 19 BCE by Marcus Agrippa, who also sponsored the well-preserved Pantheon in Rome. Agrippa was a close friend of Augustus Caesar, and had arranged for Augustus to adopt his two sons, Gaius and Lucius. That would have made them Augustus’ heirs, had they not both died prematurely.
Agrippa dedicated the Maison Carrée to Gaius and Lucius (“the princes of youth”) in an inscription above the temple entrance. But if you visit the Maison Carrée, you won’t see any inscription. It was made with bronze letters attached to the limestone facade, and was apparently removed some time in the Middle Ages when the building was used as a church. An 18th century scholar reconstructed the dedication from the holes in which the bronze letters had been attached.
Originally overlooking the Nemausus forum, the Maison Carrée was one of the earliest temples of the Imperial Cult. Augustus, as the first emperor, devised and promoted the concept that the emperor was simultaneously a human ruler and a god. Roman citizens would worship the genius— the divine attribute— of the emperor in temples, alongside those of Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and the rest of the Greco-Roman pantheon.
A Roman worshipper at the Maison Carrée would climb the stairs to the outer portico (or pronaos) of the temple, before entering the cella, the small windowless room containing the shrine. Inside the shrine was a statue of the emperor. (Later on, the statues in imperial temples would have detachable heads that could be quickly changed when a new emperor took over.) Today the cella is a cinema that shows tourists a 3D film about the history of Nîmes.
The 18th century Jardins de la Fontaine (“Fountain Gardens”) would seem to offer a respite from Roman monuments. The entrance, at the gardens’ south end, offers walkways and stairways with distinctive balustrades, surrounding a colonnaded basin. Ducks swim placidly in the adjacent reflecting pool. Beyond that entrance, heading north, is a delightful garden with terraces, lawns, and groves of pines and cedars, all providing a very pleasant place to spend a morning or afternoon.
But like so many things in Nîmes, these gardens have Roman connections. The “fountain” that provides the water for the basin and pools at the gardens’ entrance was originally a sacred spring, around which the Arecomici tribe of Gaulish Celts built an oppidum, a pre-Roman town. The spring was associated with a local deity, for which the town was named: Nemausus. When the Romans arrived, they kept the Celtic name for their colonia (a first-class Roman city) and added the deity to their pantheon. This 18th century garden commemorates the place where Nîmes was founded.
The sacred spring of Nemausus gets its water from an aquifer that flows only after winter rains seep into the ground to fill it. The Romans built the colonnaded basin at the garden entrance as a reservoir, to make the sacred water available year-round.
Also at the entrance to the gardens, near the basin and reflecting pool, is an enigmatic ruined building called the Temple of Diana. Not much is known about it, except that it’s part of a larger, yet-to-be-excavated Roman complex that surrounded the sacred spring. Historians aren’t even sure when it was built, but they guess it was probably somewhere between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.
Speculations about what the building was have ranged from a brothel to a temple of one of the numerous “mystery cults” popular during the Imperial period. The current consensus is that it was a library connected with the sanctuary of Nemausus.
After Rome fell, the complex became the Benedictine convent and Church of the Holy Savior. The Benedictines carefully preserved their church until the 16th century Wars of Religion, when Protestant Huguenot rebels against the Catholic monarchy gained control of Nîmes. Fearful that the Huguenot troops would use the church as a stronghold for their rebellion, Catholic troops preemptively destroyed it.
The only certainty about the complex is that it was not a temple of Diana, the Roman goddess of wild animals and hunting. In the 17th century, an excavator digging around the ruins for building material uncovered a statue of a woman. Local scholars decided it was Diana, and concluded that the mysterious building must have been a temple to her.
If you walk north through the gardens, you’ll climb Mont Cavalier, a steep hill that’s the highest point in Nîmes. At the top of the hill is the Tour Magne, the “great tower” that’s the only remnant of Nemausus’ extensive Roman fortifications. The tower was originally built by the Gaulish founders of Nemausus. Around 15 BCE, the Romans added an octagonal extension to its height, joined it to the city wall, and built some 30 similar towers. Today the tower is 30 meters high, but it was originally much higher. For a fee you can climb the 140 steps to the top and get a fine view.
A 17th-century gardener and wannabee archaeologist named Traucat became convinced that one of the vaguely-worded verses in Nostradamus’ (in)famous book of prophecies described a huge Roman treasure hidden inside the Tour Magne. He got permission from King Henri IV to excavate the tower. (The king would be entitled to the majority of whatever was found.) Of course, Traucat didn’t find any treasure. But he did destroy the original Gaulish section of the tower, and seriously undermined the structure. Only the installation of a large pillar inside the tower prevented it from collapsing.
A reliable water supply— for baths, fountains, toilets, the private houses of the wealthy, and the naumachia at the Amphitheater— was an essential requirement for any Roman city. To serve Nemausus, engineers built a gravity-fed aqueduct from a spring near Ucetia (now Uzès), 50 kilometers to the north. Where the aqueduct’s route spanned the Gardon River, the engineers built the Pont du Gard, a three-tier bridge 49 meters high, the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges. 23 kilometers from Nîmes, it’s an essential side trip.
Completed in the middle of the first century CE, the bridge delivered an estimated 200 million liters a day to Nemausus. After Rome fell, the bridge escaped dismantling for building materials because it also accommodated road traffic. The tolls collected by local nobles provided an incentive to maintain the bridge. The bridge suffered significant damage when Huguenot troops used it to transport artillery in the 16th-century Wars of Religion. It underwent a series of restorations in the 19th century, as the French government recognized its historical and touristic value.
While the Pont du Gard is an impressive sight at any time, its reddish limestone takes on a particularly beautiful glow at dawn. If the weather forecast calls for a clear day, it’s worth getting up early enough to arrive in time for sunrise.