Extract from the book ‘Travels through History : France” available here
Nimes is famous for its Roman sights including the Amphitheatre and the Maison Carree. There are others too in the Jardin de la Fontaine including The Temple of Diana and the symbol of Nimes, the Tour Magne.
The Amphitheatre, called Les Arenes, is the most visited sight in the city. Although there are larger Roman arenas in the world, the one in Nimes is the best preserved of them all and dates from roughly 70 AD. It is still heavily used for concerts and in Roman times could hold 24,000 spectators on 34 rows of seating, all with unrestricted views. Even when a large sound stage has been built, the structure is still dwarfed by the banks of stone seats surrounding the oval sandy area where gladiatorial contests took place 2,000 years ago. Strictly speaking this area is the Arena and the surrounding seating is the amphitheatre, but both terms are now in common use for the whole vast edifice.
When the Arena was built the Romans were very safety conscious and there is evidence that the whole audience could be evacuated within 5 minutes. There are certainly many stairs up and down to the various levels. If you are feeling fit, however, you can just climb up and down the various levels of seating. For some reason, a few travellers bring their dogs with them. These canines are mainly small breeds who have tremendous difficulty climbing the stones and so have to be carried around.
The class system of Roman society was preserved at the Arena. The lowest terraces, the “imma cavea”, were the best seats and were reserved for the town’s dignitaries and other important people. The town’s citizens were seated in the intermediary terraces, the “media cavea” and the ordinary people and slaves watched the combats from the upper terraces, the “summa cavea” – Latin for peanut gallery. This segregation ensured there was no risk of slaves and patricians bumping into each other. Inscriptions at the archaeological museum show the boatmen of the Rhone and the Saone had seats reserved for their corporation.
As the years passed, the gladiatorial combats became bloodier and bloodier, mirroring the break-up of the Roman Empire itself. Christians were promoting values that no longer included pagan pleasures and in 391 AD the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity a state religion. Former pagan temples were transformed into churches and the “entertainment” of the gladiatorial games was called into question. Gladiators were finally outlawed in 404 AD.
The Nimes Arena fell into disuse for 700 years, but in the 12th century it took on a new lease of life as a place to live. A château was built inside and a village, which still numbered more than 700 inhabitants in the 18th century, developed along with the churches of Saint-Pierre and Saint-Martin. This small district lasted until the beginning of the 19th century when the final houses were demolished and the architect Henri Revoil completed the restoration of the monument.
The Arena is not the best preserved Roman building in Nimes – that honour falls to the Maison Carree, the only Roman temple in the world to be perfectly preserved. The main reason for the preservation is that it has been in constant use as housing, a stables, and then as the headquarters of the Gard prefecture after the French Revolution. The temple is a short distance away from the Arena along the Boulevard Victor Hugo and sits opposite the Norman Foster designed Carre d’Art, an art collection with over 400 works ranging from 1960 to the modern day.
There are more Roman buildings in the Jardins de la Fontaine along the Quai de la Fontaine reached via Boulevard Alphonse-Daudet. In Roman times these gardens were the site of a spring, a theatre, and some baths. The Temple of Diane in the gardens may have been used as a brothel rather than a temple, but I suppose the local tourist board thought that Temple of Diane sounded nicer than Brothel of Diane. Also in these gardens is the Tour Magne, located on the highest point in Nimes, and a true symbol of the city. This tower pre-dated the Roman occupation and was incorporated into the Roman Walls by the engineers of Augustus Caesar. This tower is a favoured destination of parties of children from primary schools in Nimes.
The gardens are wonderful and it was lovely to hear the birds singing as I walked along the paths. Families come here to have picnics and feed the swans and ducks. On the edge of the park is a sandy area which is the place frequented by boules players, all men with occasional female spectators, who come here to practice their art and to discuss the affairs of their world.