We don’t generally think of France as being Roman, Italy of course has that claim wrapped up. But France was indeed Rome back in the days of empire. There’s even an arena smack in the middle of Paris, for Jupiter’s sake! France, particularly Provence, has excellent Roman remains. Not all are ruins, there’s a bridge (Pont Julien) that was still in use for car traffic until 2005. I’d once read that the best preserved, most intact examples of Roman engineering and architecture were found in Southern France. In your face, Italy!
Nîmes is probably my favorite Roman French town, and at just a half hour by train from Montpellier, it’s easy to go and hang out there for a few hours or the day. All the good stuff is easy walking from the train. I love how very ordinary it all is. Turn a corner, and there’s the arena, just hanging out in the center of town.
Bullfighting still takes place in the arena, the Spanish style which ends in the death of the bull. The Provence style is where ribbons are attached to the horns and young men try to grab them off and leap to safety, which, while more humane, is no doubt annoying as all get out if you’re a bull. Bullfighting is illegal in France, except when there is an unbroken tradition. Nîmes is one of those places, though I just read about the Animalist Party who is trying to put an end to it.
The Maison Carré is one of the most intact Roman temples anywhere in the former empire. If it looks familiar, it’s because Thomas Jefferson saw it on his tour de France and was inspired to make this the model for public buildings in the US.
The emblem of Nîmes is a crocodile chained to a palm tree and you see it everywhere. The common explanation is that the legionnaires of Octavius’ army were given this land as a reward for conquering Egypt by defeating Anthony and Cleopatra. The crocodile, symbolizing Egypt, is now chained. A colorful story, but probably false. Major Roman military events were publicized and celebrated by the minting of coins, and true, this was the symbol for this victory. The coins were struck on the reverse with an abbreviation for the colony of Nîmes and so the connection between the city and the conquest was made. However, Nîmes was simply where the mint was located, no legionnaires were given land here. These coins were frequently found anytime someone dug up the ground in Nîmes and that’s why the symbol was adopted for the city some time later.
But what drags us back to Nîmes again and again is the excellent park, the Jardins de la Fontaine. There you’ll find the ruins of a temple to Diane built on a spring which was already venerated in pre-Roman times.
There are paths winding up the hill, landscaped not in the classical, formal French style, but sauvage, meaning wild. There’s nothing wild about it. It’s still a garden, just a relaxed and informal one. At the top is the Magne Tower, built under the reign of Augustus on top of an Iron Age tower. Nothing is ever completely new.
Till next time! Look out for falling empires!