France has a deep, rich history forged over centuries by many influences. Few were more searing than the Romans who held sway over five centuries, dominating and shaping the Gaulish kingdoms into what we broadly know as France today. Two thousand or so years later the Roman legacy lives on in many ways, none more striking than the physical structures that remain.
Visit certain areas of France, and you’ll come across Roman remains, some remarkably intact, that cast a light on this not-so-distant empire and demonstrate just how sophisticated the Romans were.
The Romans ruled what we know today as France for some 500 years. Crossing from north Italy, they controlled Provence from 121 BC. Even the name Provence has Roman origins, being the first province of the fledgling Roman Empire.
Julius Caesar began his campaign by crushing one Gaulish tribe after another, inexorably moving northwards before finally conquering the Gauls in around 50 BC with the defeat of Vercingetorix. Historians believe that this was Caesar’s greatest military legacy, a victory of 55,000 battle-hardened, disciplined Romans over 250,000 Celts. Caesar’s account, ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’, is regarded as a masterpiece for aspiring students of military strategy.
The Roman hotspots
France has a wealth of Roman remains. You can imagine the legions tramping along sections of well-engineered, beautifully laid roads. You can hear the audience applause in the theatres, the acoustics impeccable thanks to the stone structures and carefully designed angles. You can imagine Romans relaxing in the baths, scrubbing off the dust of everyday empire life in luxury unknown to most subjects. And you can sense the thrill of the baying crowds, cheering on gladiators and athletes at the games in the arena.
But where will you find the remains of these vestiges of empire? Here is our summary of the finest Roman remains in France.
Bordering Languedoc and Provence, Nîmes is today associated with modern architects like Sir Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck. But its original heyday was under the Romans who built the extraordinary Les Arènes. This amphitheatre features tiers of stone seating, surrounded by imposing arcades of the exterior. Gladiators of Roman times have long since been replaced by bullfighters.
Perhaps even more famously, is the Maison Carrée, the great temple and probably the best preserved anywhere in the world. Dating from 5 AD its symmetry and elegance were admired by Napoleon who instructed the designs of the Madeleine church in Paris to be drawn up along similar lines.
The Jardins de la Fontaine are a pleasant place in summer, built in the mid-18th century on a Roman site. Remains of the Roman Temple de Diane still stand, and you can stroll up to the Tour Magne which once formed part of the Roman walls for wonderful views.
Elsewhere in Nîmes are two city gates the Porte Auguste and Porte de France, not to mention the fascinating Castellum. This tank held water brought from Uzès, 30 miles away), via an aqueduct, before being delivered through lead pipes to public fountains and wealthy households.
Near Nîmes, at Remoulins about 12 miles away, is the Pont du Gard. A UNESCO World Heritage site and perhaps one of the most readily identifiable Roman monuments of them all. It was an incredible feat of engineering, part of a 30-mile aqueduct, with the bridge spanning 275 metres at a height of 49 metres. Built without the use of mortar, its design is both immensely strong and beautifully delicate with its series of three repeated arches, becoming smaller with each level.
On the banks of the Rhône, Arles is one of Europe’s Roman gems. Its location was key, being an important strategic junction for the burgeoning empire as well as a centre of industry and wealth. Most notable today is the 20,000 capacity amphitheatre, similar to Rome’s Colosseum with underground machinery to open trapdoors and winch up wild animals to the ‘performance area’. Les Arènes is still used today for cultural events.
Nearby is the theatre, or Théâtre Antique, built in 25 BC. An audience of 12,000 could be accommodated to watch plays for all levels of society. The remains are still sufficient to provide an evocative ambience of times past, and concerts and festivals are still staged here.
Just north of Avignon, itself a city with a deep-rooted and venerable history is Orange. The extraordinary Roman theatre here still stands (of course, renovated and with restored stone seating) with its huge amphitheatre. Built in the reign of Augustus, the stage wall is mostly still standing, 103 metres wide by 36 metres high; it is an imposing backdrop to any performance. It was built in 25 BC, one of the finest in the Roman Empire, and today it enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. The annual opera festival is held here to great acclaim.
The Arc de Triomphe in Orange is also important, a triple arch built in 20 BC. It was on the Via Agrippa, the key Roman road linking the strategic centres of Lyon and Arles. Up close you can still see the detailed carvings showing the battles of the Second Legion and the naval encounter with Antony and Cleopatra.
Lyon may be renowned for its gastronomy but its Roman heritage is also celebrated. It was originally a useful spot for the Roman legions en route to Gaul and gradually became a pivotal centre within the burgeoning empire. The theatre was constructed in 15 BC overlooking the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers. Seating 10,000 it also had a smaller theatre adjacent, the Odéon, and both are still used today, especially for music and film.
The Temple d’Auguste et de Livie is a beautifully restored, compact and solid temple with its elegant, fluted columns still standing in classical style. Not far away, the theatre in Vienne was built in 40 AD and was once one of the biggest and most prestigious buildings in the Roman Empire, seating 13,000. The Vienne Jazz Festival is held here each summer.
In Poitou-Charentes, Saintes is the site of a Roman city, notably an arena (the oldest in France). Unlike others, the tiered seating has grassed over with time, but this adds to the authenticity, and it is still used today for summer concerts
In Burgundy, Autun has two Roman gates: the Porte d’Arroux, and the Porte Sainte-André. Both weathered but still standing proud, they date from the 1st century AD and traffic still passes through the Porte d’Arroux. The Autun theatre is huge, with seating for 20,000 it dates from 70 AD and was once perhaps the largest in the empire. Outside the town, the Temple of Janus is a ruin, albeit one with sense of dignity about it.
Best of the rest
Of course, there are plenty more fine examples. Frejus has a 12,000-seater amphitheatre (no stranger to performers from the classical world to Bowie, Queen and Rod Stewart). Narbonne was a wealthy colony with the Via Domitia and the horreum, the world’s only Roman granary. And finally, Paris, which is perhaps surprisingly under-represented by Roman remains. Those still visible are well worth a peek, most notably the fragments of Roman baths that can be visited besides the Musée du Moyen Age near the Latin Quarter’s Boulevard St Germain.
Editor - Alan Rogers Guides
Rob is the General Manager at Alan Rogers Travel Group, he is responsible for the ongoing development of the Alan Rogers website and publication of the Alan Rogers Guides.
He has been involved in the leisure industry since completing a BTEC in Travel & Tourism in 1993. Previous roles have included the promotion of tourism in Yorkshire and running a motorcycle touring company in the Australian Outback.
Sometimes on holiday, you reach a moment where you need a change. You’ve relaxed and devoured that book, and just fancy a fresh diversion to pique your interest before diving into the next blockbuster.
There are some impressive places on the list in France, as you can well imagine, such as Chatres Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles and the fortified city of Carcassone. So why not plan your next trip across the Channel to visit some of these sites, they’ve been given this status for a reason, so you know you’re in for a treat!