Athena Review : Sites and Museums in Roman Gaul: Arles

Arles (Arelate) was the first town to be built in Gaul after the 49 BC defeat of Pompey’s forces at Marseille (Massilia) by Caesar during the Civil War. Caesar had also constructed his fleet there. A colony for veterans of the Sixth Legion was founded in 46 BC as Colonia Julia Paterna Arelate Sextanorum by Tiberius Claudius Nero, father of the future Tiberius.

[Fig.1: Mouth of the Rhone, showing Gallo-Roman towns and roads ( ).]

According to Avenius, a 4th century AD writer, Arelate occupied the site of the Greek town Theline. Arelate is shown in the 2nd-3rd century AD  Antonine Itinerary and early 3rd century AD Peutinger Table located at the southernmost crossing of the Rhône along two major Roman roadways (fig.1), the north-south route linking Colonia Agrippina (Cologne) to Massilia and Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence), and the Via Domitia along the coast of France which connected Spain and northern Italy.  A number of Roman structures are still standing in the city. These include the amphitheater and the Théatre Antique, remains of a circus, baths, a necropolis, and, beneath the Jesuit College and the Hôtel de Ville, a large cryptoporticus or subterranean passageway with storage vaults.

The Roman amphitheater, measuring 136  by 107 m in diameter and the largest of its kind north of Italy, could hold up to 25,000 spectators, most packed into tiny spaces about 16 inches (40 cm) wide, with feather-like symbols marking blocks of five seats. Reserved seats were held by various religious organizations, including sects of the Roman forest god Silvanus and the Egyptian Isis. The two levels of the amphitheater (fig.2) each contain 60 arches, with Doric half-columns on the lower level, and Corinthian half-columns on the upper. The similar amphitheater at Nîmes is only slightly smaller, measuring 133 by 101 m.

[Fig.2: Roman amphitheater in Arles (photo: Athena Review).]

While the earliest amphitheater at Arelate was made of wood, reconstruction in stone began by 16 BC, when part of the circuit wall was demolished. The central arena floor, however, always remained a wooden platform, raised 2 m above the underlying rock surface. A Gallic rebellion led by C. Julius Vindex at the end of Nero’s reign (AD 54 to 68), which precipitated his downfall in favor of Galba (68 to 69 AD), probably interrupted the final phases of the amphitheater’s stone reconstruction. In the Middle Ages the amphitheater was used as a fortress, with two towers surviving this period. Today,  the arena is used for bullfights in summer.

The Théatre Antique dates to the Augustan era of 27 BC to AD 14, making it one of the earliest free-standing theaters to radiating walls and galleries. Restoration, completed in the 1900’s by J. Formigé, showed the original to be 102 m, similar to the theater at Orange. Up to10,000 could be seated amid elegant decorations. The orchestra section was paved in green marble trimmed with red, with numerous adorning the building, including a bust of Aphrodite (fig.3), a of Augustus, and an altar to Apollo, his patron god, on the stage. The façade held reliefs of bull’s heads (bucrania), of the Sixth Legion, whose veterans had colonized Arles.

The Roman circus, used for chariot races, lay outside the ancient city along the Rhône river in the La Roquette quarter, near the new archaeological . Originally identified by Formigé, the surviving foundations have sunk 1.5 m into the soft ground.  Excavations in recent years have revealed thousands of oak and pine posts which underlay the foundation of the circus to support it .These have been dated to AD 148/9 in the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (138 to 161 AD). An obelisk of Egyptian granite which originally stood in the spina, or center of the circus, was removed in the 17th century to the Place de la République. The circus at Arelate measured about 400 by 100 m. The Circus Maximus in Rome, by comparison, was 550 by 106 m in the late Republic and early , and could hold about 150,000 spectators; later expansion increased this to 385,000.

[Fig.3: Bust of Aphrodite from Théatre Antique (Musée de l’Arles Antique; photo: Athena Review).]

The 4th century Baths of Constantine are located along the rue Hotel de Ville, near the Quai Mark Dormoy. Surviving walls show typical layered stone construction separated by rows of tiles. M.J. Formigé speculated that this would have been the largest bath complex in Provence. Complete excavation, however, has not been possible due to placement of modern buildings.

The cryptoporticus, a subterranean Roman structure, was built to provide a solid foundation for the overlying Forum. It is now found under the Chapel of the Jesuit College and part of the City Hall. Three double, parallel tunnels arranged in the form of a U are supported by fifty piers. Masons’ marks on the stonework show that it was built by Greeks, probably from Marseille. Similar tunnels are known from Narbonne, Reims, and Bavay where they were used as grain warehouses, as well as the famous examples from Pompeii. The cryptoporticus at Arles is, however, too damp for prolonged storage and may have served as a barracks for public slaves.

Portions of the city walls can be seen near the amphitheater by the ruins of the eastern gate, la Redoute. The city’s aqueduct carried water from the Alpilles to the city walls. From there, two channels passed underground to the town center and to a castellum, or distribution tank, by the amphitheater. South of the Theater and the amphitheater, over the Canal de Craponne, is the entrance to the Alyscamps (Elysii Campi or Champs Elysées), the necropolis of Arelate. Once lined with marble tombs, it marked the entrance to the city via the Aurelian Way.

The Musée de l’Arles Antique: The first museum in Arles opened in 1574. The latest is  housed in a strikingly modern triangular building covered with plates of blue enamel and glass, completed in 1995 on a Rhône peninsula near the Roman circus. Exhibits in the museum are arranged by period and subject matter, with the first sections devoted to the prehistory and protohistory of Arles. Another section covers the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of the city, with displays of urban and rural life and economic activity under the Empire.The third wing of the museum contains funerary art and religion, including an outstanding array of Gallo-Roman sculptures and inscriptions.

Sculpture: Among the best known of the museum’s stone carvings is the 1st century BC Lion of Arcoule (fig.4). Fashioned from local limestone, this seated , which today welcomes visitors to the museum, was discovered in the 19th century near the fountain, or Arcoule, along with four funerary cippi (stone memorials or grave-markers). A number of sculptures are displayed from the Théatre Antique, including a colossal marble statue of the emperor Augustus dating from 12 to10 BC, originally set in a wall niche. Also from the theater is the marble bust of Aphrodite, a fine 1st century BC Roman copy of a Greek original from ca. 390 BC (fig.3); and a marble bust known as “The Young Prince” (ca. AD 160), possibly a portrait of Annius Verus, a son of the emperor Marcus Aurelius who died at a young age.  Near the Roman circus, a marble statue of the Near Eastern fertility god Mithras was found at the end of the16th century. Entwined around Mithras, whose cult flourished in the 2nd-4th centuries AD, is a serpent representing forces of evil,  with signs of the zodiac visible through the snake’s coils.

[Fig.4: Lion of Arcoule, 1st century BC (Musée de l’Arles Antique; photo: Athena Review).]

Inscriptions: The museum contains a wealth of inscribed monuments including the largest collection of marble sarcophagi in Western Europe outside of Rome. This reflects an abundance of wealthy households in Roman Arelate, which the the 4th century writer Ausonius called “the little Rome of Gaul.” Many sarcophagi display high relief carvings, at times combining both pagan and early elements. One 1st century cippus showing two women is dedicated to Tyrrannia Philematio, a former slave freed by a person named Sextus (fig.5) Another 3rd century cippus imported from Greece portrays the tragic of Phaedra’s incestuous love for her stepson Hippolytus. An early 4th century AD marble sarcophagus, known as “The Married Couple,” shows scenes in deep relief along with a shell-shaped medallion containing portraits of the aristocratic pair whose remains lie within. Another 3rd century marble sarcophagus, dedicated to Chrysogone, combines an early Christian invocation of Peace (Pax) with the pagan representations of two gorgon heads. Nearby, an inscribed sarcophagus to Concordius (AD 380-390) includes an early Christian Chi-Rho monograph flanked by doves, in the midst of a relief carving showing the Council of the Apostles.

[Fig.5: Funerary cippus of Tyrrannia Philematio (Musée de l’Arles Antique; photo: Athena Review).]

Inscriptions related to daily life include molded lead ingots (fig.6) bearing the name of Lucius Flavius Verucla, an imperial bureaucrat in charge of lead production. The inscriptions include the provenience, Plumb. Germ. (“lead from Germany”), and the stamp Imp. Caes. (“Imperial Caesar”), indicating that the lead was earmarked for the emperor. Alongside is a pile of crude disk-shaped copper ingots which are also stamped. Other typical trademarks used during the Roman empire include the seal of a maker, and painted inventory labels on an amphora containing garum, a favored Roman fish sauce.

Mosaics include several unique examples from the 1st to 4th centuries. Among these, the Aion Mosaic, a U-shaped pavement from the triclinium of a large house in the suburbs of Arles, shows the central seated figure of Aion, or Time, holding a zodiac wheel in his right hand, and a scepter in his left. Border panels include four Tritons, Nereids, and Cupids representing the four seasons, plus an inebriated Dionysus with his followers. The mosaic, repaired several times in antiquity, withs traces of fire on its surface, dates to the end of the 2nd century AD.

[Fig.6: Lead bars from Roman Germany (Musée de l’Arles Antique; photo: Athena Review).]

The museum displays eleven models of the monuments of ancient Arles, including the amphitheater, Théatre Antique, bridge, forum, circus, necropolis, and the Barbegal mill. There are also models of the entire city as it would have appeared in the 4th century AD, as well as a representation of the pre-Roman Celtic settlement from the 4th century BC, and another of the Hypogée de la Montagne des Cordes, the most important megalithic tomb in Provence.

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