You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
The Grand Rhône, the larger of the two arms into which the river splits north of Arles, upstream (above) and downstream (below) of the town
Arles is a city of Provence in France situated on the east bank of the Rhone upon a very uneven ground and almost surrounded by a morass which renders the air unhealthful. (..) There is no city in France so remarkable for antiquities as Arles, insomuch that it is generally
called a second Rome.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
We are just returned from an excursion from Nimes to Arles, where the beauties of situation, and numerous remains of antiquity, made us ample amends for our fatigues. (..) We ferried over a branch of the Rhône into the island of the Camargue and then passed by a bridge of boats into Arles, which rises nobly from the water edge up a gentle acclivity.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 to which is added a Journey from Bayonne to Marseille - 1787 Edition
Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments: Arles is a good example of the adaptation of an ancient city to medieval European civilization. It has some impressive Roman monuments, of which the earliest - the arena, the Roman theatre and the cryptoporticus (subterranean galleries) - date back to the 1st century B.C. During the 4th century Arles experienced a second golden age, as attested by the baths of Constantine and the necropolis of Alyscamps. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Arles once again became one of the most attractive cities in the Mediterranean. Within the city walls, Saint-Trophime, with its cloister, is one of Provence's major Romanesque monuments.
From the UNESCO description of the town which was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 1981.
The appearance it now makes is widely different from what it was, when Constantine the Great, and after him his sons honoured it with their presence. Then theatres, palaces, and amphitheatres were raised on every side, to receive and entertain these mighty guests, and Arles became the center of government, the rival of Marseilles in the trade of Italy: thither the inhabitants of the northern districts came to purchase the gaudy superfluities of luxury, and from thence carried back into their forests, new wants and the vices of more refined nations. The urbanity which a splendid court is wont to diffuse around the place of its residence, polished the manners of the Arelatians to a superior degree above the citizens of other towns. Swinburne
A settlement existed on the hill on the left bank of the Grand Rhône as early as the VIth century BC. The opportunities it offered for trade attracted Greek merchants, similar to what occurred at Avignon. In ca 400 BC it became a possession of the Salyes or Salluvii, a powerful Gallic tribe. After the Roman conquest of the region Arles was initially a minor town under the hegemony of Marseille. During the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, Marseille stood with the former, whereas Arles provided Caesar with much needed ships (Naves longas Arelate numero XII facere instituit - I ordered the construction of 12 ships at Arelate - wrote Caesar in De Bello Gallico). The town was rewarded with the status of Roman colony. This status was confirmed by Octavian (Emperor Augustus) who most likely visited Arles in 40 BC and named it Colonia Julia Paterna Arelate Sextanorum, i.e. Colony of my Father Julius Arelate of the Sixth Legion (veterans).
The access to the town via a branch of Via Aurelia was marked by an imposing gate. It was closed during the Middle Ages and in the late XVIIIth century the level of the ground before it was lowered to make room for a new road, so that today it is more similar to a defensive bastion, than to a gate.
Site of the Forum: (left) plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836"; (right) today
In the herb-market two pillars, the remains of a portico, yet support the angle
stones of a Corinthian frieze much broken;
by the help of holes cut upon it, Monsieur
Seguier has discovered that the building
was erected in the time of the first Christian
The stranger who succeeds in threading its labyrinth of dirty narrow streets, more intricate than any other perhaps in France, will be duly rewarded if he takes an interest in antiquities. (..) Besides the more important Roman remains there are within the town in the Place du Forum two granite pillars and part of a Corinthian pediment let into the wall in front of the Hotel du Nord; they are supposed to have been moved from some building now destroyed into their present position.
John Murray III - Hand-book for Travellers in France - 1843
The Forum was first built at the time of Augustus, but the two columns and the lintel are dated between the rule of the Flavian Emperors and that of Hadrian. The inscription was added at a later time and today, although the interpretation by Jean-François Séguier, a French epigraphist (1703-1784), is no longer regarded as accurate, it is still thought to refer to Emperor Constantine or to his son Constantine II.
Cryptoporticus: (left) one of the galleries; (right) fragments of columns and lintels which were found during the excavations
a great vault going from hence to Nimes, which was
used by the Romans, when they had a colony in those
Other constructions which may have belonged to the forum are known to exist beneath the houses. Murray
The Forum was built on the slope of the hill and in order to obtain a level square its porticoes stood on galleries which were in part below ground and in part above. Their existence was known already in the XVIIIth century and this led to some imaginative theories about their purpose as that reported by Nugent, but their grid and dimensions were fully understood only after excavations were carried out in 1908-1940.
Theatre: (left) the two standing columns behind the stage; (right) details of the decoration; another one can be seen in the image used as background for this page
The Roman Theatre more recently disinterred from the earth, than even the amphitheatre, has suffered equal if not greater dilapidations in the course of ages. It is said to have been demolished by order of the early Christian bishops who regarded it as the focus of idolatry and vice. Although reduced to a mere fragment, the costly marbles, the columns, the sculptured friezes, some preserved in the museum, and the statues found in it (..) attest its ancient magnificence. The portions remaining are two Corinthian columns surmounted by part of their entablature which stand isolated like those in the forum of Rome; they formed part of the scene, the rest of which is reduced to the pedestals of other pillars on a line with these, to truncated walls pierced by openings for doors by which the actors made their entrance and exit and furnished with niches for statues. Murray
The completion of the theatre is dated ca 12 BC; its construction might have been favoured by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus, who, when governor of Gaul, promoted many initiatives to embellish and economically develop the towns of the region, including the opening of new roads.
Theatre: (above) reconstructed "ima cavea", the lower tier of the seating section; (below) original rows of seats
Opposite to this wall is the semicircular space destined for the audience scooped out of the rock and still retaining some of its stone seats rising in steps one above the other. Murray
The excavations began in 1822 and continued for most of the XIXth century. In 2010 the theatre was provided with modern equipment so that it could be used for different types of shows, including a film festival of peplum movies.
Theatre: (left) Tour de Roland; (right) the same from Laborde's book
A small section of the outer ring of the theatre was incorporated into a tower of the medieval walls of Arles. Its height allows an assessment of the full size of the seating section: it had 33 rows and could house some 10,000 spectators. The tower was named after Roland, one of the twelve peers of Charlemagne's court, but the reference is a mere fantasy (similar to what occurred to a broken column in Rome).
Theatre: (above) relief on an arch adjoining Tour de Roland from Laborde's book; (below) the same today
The outer ring was decorated with finely carved reliefs based on metopes and triglyphs and acanthus scrolls. These classic motifs were made more lively by the addition of birds, horses and cupids in the scrolls (see an example in Rome) and by depicting bulls in different postures in the metopes. These details puzzled Laborde and still call the attention of art historians who are surprised to find such a rich and innovative decoration in a provincial town.
You may wish to see the Theatre of Orange, the best preserved Roman theatre of France.
Amphitheatre from Laborde's book
The amphitheatre is of an oval form, and a hundred and ninety-four fathoms in circumference; the longest diameter of the arena seventy one fathoms, and the shortest fifty-two. The porticos are three stories high, built with freestone of a prodigious size; every story contains sixty arches, which still remain. The walls are of a surprizing thickness, but very much battered and defaced. This fine building is situated in the highest part of the town, and is older and more magnificent than that of Nimes, but not so entire. The arena within has been filled with houses, and many of the arches demolished. These houses form several streets, so that the inside of the amphitheatre is almost entirely destroyed. Nugent
Amphitheatre today (see also its medieval towers)
Scarcely 12 years have elapsed since the amphitheatre was entirely filled within and choked up without by an accumulation of mean hovels, occupied by the poorest and worst part of the population of the town to the number of 2000, part of whom burrowed under the vaults, or nestled in its recesses, reminding one of the fungi and parasites springing up over the trunk of some venerable monarch of the forest. (..) The very scanty traces of inscriptions remaining on this building throw no light on its date, but it is supposed to be older than the arenes of Nismes and is attributed to the age of Titus. Murray
Amphitheatre: images of the outer "ambulacrum", circular corridor (see that at Thysdrus)
Today the construction of the amphitheatre is credited to Emperor Domitian. The design of the building follows the pattern established with Colosseo. The availability of a white stone which resembles travertine increases the similarity between the two buildings.
Through a strong attachment to
those sanguinary entertainments transmitted
from father to son since Provence belonged to
the Romans, or at least, since it was subject
to the kings of Aragon (in the XIIth century), the people of Arles
retained the taste for bull-feasts down to the
present age; wild bulls were frequently
driven from the Camargue, and combats exhibited in the ancient amphitheatre before
a vast concourse of spectators, who were
agitated by the same fierce emotions, and expressed them with the same frantic acclamations, that resounded in the shews of ancient Rome, and are still to be heard in the bull-feasts of Spain. The frequent loss of human
lives induced government to abolish these
savage sports at Arles. Swinburne
Bullfights were reintroduced at Arles in the late XIXth century. Today corridas are held in the Amphitheatre during the Holy Week and in September during Féria du Riz, the festival of the rice harvest, the main crop of Camargue, a once marshy region south of Arles.
|Other ancient amphitheatres in this web site:|
The Colosseo of Rome
The Amphitheatre of Albano
The Amphitheatre of Capua
The Amphitheatre of Catania
The Amphitheatre of Pompeii
The Amphitheatre of Syracuse
The Amphitheatre of Sutri
The Amphitheatre of Urbs Salvia (Urbisaglia)
The Amphitheatre of Pola in Istria
The Amphitheatre of Salona in Dalmatia
The Amphitheatre of Nîmes in France
The Amphitheatre of Trier in Germany
The Amphitheatre of Italica in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Merida in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Tarragona in Spain
The Amphitheatre of Caesarea Maritima in Israel
The Amphitheatre of Mactaris (Makhtar) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Thysdrus (El Djem) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Uthina (Oudna) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Leptis Magna in Libya
Obelisk from the Circus in Place de la République near the Hotel de Ville and Saint-Trophime
Many inscriptions are also preserved at
the archbishop's palace, and before his gate stand an Egyptian obelisk
of grey granite, without hieroglyphics; it
is forty-seven French feet high, on a base
raised seven feet from the ground, and is supposed to have been brought from Egypt
about the year 354, when Constantius celebrated the Circensian games at Arles with
great magnificence. It lay buried in rubbish
many ages, till a reviving taste for the arts
brought it out of its obscurity in the sixteenth century, but it was not raised till the
year 1676, when it was placed upon a pedestal
with great ceremony, and loaded with a most
flattering inscription in honour of the king. Swinburne
In the midst of the Place Royale (..) rises an Obelisk of a single shaft of grey granite antique, but not Egyptian since it is ascertained to have been brought from a quarry in the Esterelle mountains, near Frejus, and it differs in shape from those of Egypt, tapering more rapidly from its base to its summit. (..) It is supposed to have stood upon the spina in an ancient circus, all traces of which are gone. Murray
Site of the Circus near the Museum of Ancient Arles in the background
In 1974-1989 excavations near the river bank for the construction of a highway unearthed the site of the Circus of Arles which was built in 150 AD during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius. Only a limited part of the foundations are visible. Archaeologists identified the location of twelve carceres, the starting boxes of the chariots. This means that the circus could house a certamen ternarum, a race with three chariots per each of the four competing factions, similar to what occurred at the Circus Maximus of Rome. Reliefs at the museum depict chariot races and a horse for races, but you may wish to see also a beautiful mosaic at Lyon which shows an actual race and the carceres.
Baths of Constantine: apse which brings to mind that of Basilica di Massenzio
Hard by the archiepiscopal palace there are also some remains of
the ancient Therma; or hot-baths; these are large
square stones, which are seen under an ancient
arch, opposite the wall of the palace. Nugent
With the establishment of the Tetrarchy by Diocletian Rome ceased to be the residence of the emperors. Constantius Chlorus, Tetrarch in charge of Britain, Gaul, Germany and Iberia, set his residence at Trier, near the Rhine border. His son Constantine, in the troubled period which followed Diocletian's abdication, moved the treasury and part of his court from Trier to Arles in 308 and, when not leading his army, he resided there until 312.
Baths of Constantine: (left) one of the halls with its "hypocaust", heating system; (right) a large vaulted structure which was incorporated into a medieval tower
Archaeologists have identified two other bath establishments in addition to the Baths of Constantine. The construction technique which was employed in this building is known as opus listatum; it alternates layers of bricks and of stones with a decorative effect which had an influence on many later buildings, both Christian (e.g. the Cathedral of Orvieto) and Islamic ones (e.g. Hadith Medrese at Edirne). The Walls of Constantinople and the Aqueduct of Los Milagros at Merida are characterized by opus listatum.
Arles: Les Alyscamps (Elysian Fields), a Roman necropolis
The burying place of the Elysian Fields (the meadows where according to the Greeks the righteous lived after death), where
the heathens buried their dead, is situated on a
very agreeable hill without the town. (..) Those of the Pagans are known by
the two letters D. M. which signify Diis Manibus; whereas those of the Christians are marked
with a small cross. There was formerly a much
greater number of these tomb-stones, but some of
them have been used in building country-houses
in the neighbourhood, and others broke for the
sake of the medals, which have been often found
within them, as also urns, lachrymatories, and
Beyond the walls to the E of the town is situated the ancient Cemetery of Arles still called Aliscamps, a slight variation from the original name Elisii Campi by which it was known 18 centuries ago. It was of vast extent; a complete Necropolis and the dead were brought hither from other cities as far distant as Lyons for interment. (..) In the neighbouring farms the cattle drink out of stone troughs which are nothing but empty coffins and with their lids the ditches are bridged. (..) Dante mentions it in the Inferno IX. Murray
Si come ad Arli, dove Rodano stagna
Sì com' a Pola, presso del Carnaro
(..) Fanno i sepulcri tutt' il loco varo,
Dante - Hell - Canto IX
|As at Arles, where stagnant grows the Rhone|
As at Pola near to the Quarnaro
(..) The sepulchres make all the place uneven;
Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Sarcophagi at the Alyscamps; (above-left) sarcophagus decorated with a small axe, a warning not to damage the tomb and with a plumb bob, perhaps a symbol of equality in death; (above-right) fresco at Pompeii with a plumb bob; (below-left) sarcophagus with inscription in a typical Roman frame and the letters D. M.; (below-right) Chi-ro, one of the earliest forms of Christ's monogram, combined with Alpha and Omega in a circle
The ground teems with gravestones, sepulchral memorials and sarcophagi, but the most curious have been removed to the museums. Murray
You may wish to see some medieval churches and chapels at Alyscamps.
Plan of this section:
Environs of Arles: Saint-Gilles, Aigues-Mortes and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Carpentras (Carpentaracte), Cavaillon (Cabellio) and Pernes-les-Fontaines
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Le Thor
Narbonne (Narbo Martius)
Pont-du-Gard and Uzès