You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Canal de la Robine on the former riverbed of the Aude which crossed the town until 1316, seen from Donjon Gilles Aycelin, a tower of the Archbishop Palace
Narbonne is very ancient and a Colony of the Romans, ful of Markes
and monuments of Antiquity. The Aire of this Citty is
not very health full, in regard it is seated very low and
hath many Ponds about it.
Francis Mortoft's Journal of his travels in France and Italy in 1659
Narbonne is a city of France, in the province of Languedoc. This is a very ancient city, esteemed so much by the Romans, that they called it their bulwark against the Gauls, made it the capital of their first colony, from hence called Gallia Narbonensis, and the residence of their proconsul. It is situate in a bottom, almost surrounded with mountains, on a canal, which affords it a communication with the Canal Royal and the river Aude on the one side, and with the Mediterranean on the other, from whence it is but six miles distant.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
It is about 8 m from the sea and a branch of the Canal du Midi, called La Robine, runs through it to the Mediterranean.
John Murray III - Hand-book for Travellers in France - 1843
Fragments of Roman reliefs on the town walls of Narbonne in a plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836"
We entered this city through a gate built
with the fragments of Roman altars, mutilated statues, inscriptions and trophies. (..) The numerous fragments, that
occur in every part of the town, attest the grandeur and taste of its ancient decorations;
but time, and the fury of barbarians, have
left none of those edifices standing. (..) Several historians relate (..) that the inhabitants of Narbonne, in order to purchase peace and liberty, agreed to transport from their city to Cordova, all materials necessary for the construction of the mosque. (..) I should imagine it to be more probable, that they furnished columns and other monuments of antiquity, which Narbonne abounded with, which were undoubtedly employed in great quantities in the building of the mosque.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 to which is added a Journey from Bayonne to Marseille - 1787 Edition
Not one Roman building remains, and the chief traces of its former splendour are the numerous bas reliefs, friezes, inscriptions, etc., built into the town walls erected by Francis I who fortified the place with the ruins of Roman buildings. The ramparts may consequently be looked upon as a museum of antiquities. Murray
Chance excavations after WWII led to the discovery of some ancient underground halls. In 1976, after they were cleared from the rubble and their solidity was verified, they were open to the public. Similar to the Cryptoporticus of Arles, they supported a Roman monument, perhaps a marketplace, near the site where the ancient Forum stood. In 2016 they housed a number of archaeological exhibits, mainly related to trade.
Horreum: (left) fragments of jars found in other parts of the town; (right) cast of a funerary relief depicting a mercantile ship
The air of this city is very unwholesome
because of the adjacent lakes and pools, though
antiently when these were well drained, they
had a very good air. Nugent
Narbo was a prosperous town long before its colonization by the Romans in 118 B.C. It then lay amidst lakes, connected with the sea, a position making it one of the chief ports of the Mediterranean and a rival of Massilia. (..) In the XIVth century the harbour was silted up through the bursting of a dyke, by means of which the Romans had conducted into it a branch of the Aude.
Southern France, including Corsica: Handbook for Travellers by Karl Baedeker - 1914
The importance of Narbonne as a port is testified to by the presence of a statio (agency) of its shipowners at Ostia, the harbour of Rome.
The Romans beautified
this town and gave it large privileges. There are a vast number of ruins still extant of their
antient magnificence, which a traveller should
not omit seeing. Nugent
The abode of proconsuls and prefects, the masters of the world, or at least their deputies, Narbonne was sure to receive every embellishment, and mark of distinction, which those proud inhabitants could bestow: the pleasures of Rome were undoubtedly transplanted hither, and sumptuous buildings raised for the sake of enjoying them. Swinburne
Narbone retains surprisingly scanty vestiges of its ancient masters, compared with the importance and celebrity which it maintains in history. Murray
A local antiquarian society has recently collected together in its museum a number of fragments, and several antique tombs of the 3rd and 4th centuries, a bas relief of 2 Eagles supporting a Garland, etc. Murray
Farther on, in the Boul. de la Liberte, is the former Eglise de Lamourguier (13th- 14th cent.), with a crenellated apse. It now contains a Musee Lapidaire. Baedeker
It appears that the walls of the town were decorated with ancient reliefs to celebrate the entrance of King Francis I in 1533; this explains why they were displayed in such a way that Laborde was able to copy many of them in his book. The use of ancient reliefs and statues to embellish a fortification occurred also in other towns, e.g. at Nicaea and Ankara.
In 1868 the walls were dismantled and some 2,000 sculptured stones were moved to a deconsecrated church, similar to what occurred in other French towns, e.g. Vienne and Avignon. In 2021 Narbo Via, a brand new museum was inaugurated to display in a single location the collections which were housed here, in the Horreum and in the Archbishop Palace. It is a pity because the Lapidary Museum is per se a monument deserving protection as a testimony to a phase of the history of archaeology.
Lapidary Museum: (above) relief depicting eagles supporting garlands and the lightning of Jupiter covered by a cloth; (below) entablature of a Roman monument with a decoration based on acanthus scrolls
The relief with the two eagles was already mentioned by Murray in 1843 before the walls were dismantled. No doubt it attracted the attention of the antiquarians of Narbonne because of its elaborate design and fine execution. The eagles and the lightning are well known symbols of Jupiter, but the god is referred to also by the lemnisci, the ribbon bands of his crown, which can be seen also in a famous relief at SS. Apostoli in Rome (see a wreath with lemnisci down in the page).
The gravestone of Marcia Donata was found in 1938 in a necropolis along Via Domitia, the road which linked Narbonne with Italy and Spain. In her gravestone she wanted to let us know that she came from Milan. Egnatius Lugius was a cocus (cook) and a large knife, perhaps more suited for a butcher, is thought to symbolize his trade, although it might represent a warning against violators of the tomb, similar to the axes which can be seen on sarcophagi at Arles. Statius Rufio, a freedman, was a tonsor (barber); the inscription specifies the space allotted to his tomb: P(edes) Q(uoqueversus) XII (twelve feet in all directions); Egnatius Lugius could afford to buy more space: P. Q. XV (see similar inscriptions in tombs at Rome).
Lapidary Museum: (above) frieze with military emblems; (below-left) Gorgon or theatrical mask; (below-right) funerary inscription mentioning Quintus Iulius Statius, a freedman of Quintus
The XIXth century curators of the Lapidary Museum endeavoured to reconstruct as much as possible the ancient friezes and more in general to place the most interesting exhibits in a position which made them more visible. Nine similar reliefs (two of them - 1619/1620 - are shown above) depicted military trophies, mainly in the form of shields; they might have belonged to the mausoleum of a military commander; they bring to mind reliefs on the Arch of Orange.
Lapidary Museum: two elements of a frieze based on Cupids, fruit and animals and one of four reliefs in the form of a funerary couch
Some reliefs, e.g. that of the two eagles, were sculpted in white marble and they might have come from Italy or Greece, but the majority of the exhibits at the Lapidary Museum were made using a local calcareous stone, which suggests that workshops of skilled sculptors were active at Narbonne. Some of their works, e.g. the portrait of the dead inserted in the round pillow of the funerary couch, show that they were able to develop new decorative patterns. See a page on the manufacture and trade of sarcophagi.
Roman mosaics in the Archbishop Palace
streets are narrow, and an air of poverty
reigns throughout. The church alone seems
to engross the wealth of the place; its archbishoprick is numbered among the richest
benefices in the kingdom. (..) Many fine remnants of
Roman sculpture, and literature, are preserved
in the courts, and there the Narbonese may
indulge their vanity in surmises concerning
the ancient magnificence of their city, whatever may be its appearance in its present reduced state. Swinburne
The Museum is installed in the old Archbishop Palace. It has ten rooms on the 2nd floor, and comprises antiquities, pictures, and a valuable ceramic collection. Baedeker
The collection of antiquities which Swinburne saw in the courtyards of the Archbishop Palace was the first element of the Archaeological Museum of Narbonne which was founded in the late 1840s.
Archaeological Museum: (left-above) dedicatory inscription to Emperor Trajan on a small monument built by a "sevir", a local magistrate; (left-below) dedicatory inscription to Emperor Antoninus Pius who rebuilt the baths and the theatre after a fire; (right) one side of a very long inscription found in 1566 and dealing with the construction of an altar to "Numen Augusti" in 11 AD to thank the Emperor for laws which granted the locals easier access to the administration of the town
Martial, in 95 A.D., speaks of it as a beautiful town, and Sidonius
Apollinaris (d. 488) praises its theatre, temple, capitol, baths, and triumphal
arches. Of these nothing remains but fragments. Baedeker
A number of finely carved inscriptions were found which confirm the accounts of the ancient writers about the monuments of Roman Narbonne and shed some light on its administration. The college in charge of the celebrations in honour of Rome and of the Emperor was composed by seviri (six men), three of whom were chosen among the Roman veterans and three among the Gallic population. A similar college is recorded at Lyon and in many other provincial towns.
Archaeological Museum: (left) Silenus (early IInd century AD); (right) small sarcophagus, a relief showing a griffin on its short size is shown in the image used as background for this page (early IIIrd century AD)
The wealthiest citizens of Narbonne could afford to pay large amounts to embellish their homes with fine sculptures or to lay the body of a child in a marble sarcophagus which was decorated in the fashion prevailing in Rome and in other large cities of the Empire. The statue of Silenus, tutor and companion of Dionysus/Bacchus, was found in 1856 near the railway station and it is an extremely fine copy of an Hellenistic original. The depictions of scenes of grape harvesting by Cupids were a very popular pagan subject (see a floor mosaic in Algeria), but eventually they were given a Christian meaning, as at S. Costanza in Rome.
This fine altar resembles those found at Glanum and Arles. It is not dedicated to a god, but to Pax Augusta, the beneficial effects of peace to which Augustus dedicated an imposing altar in Rome. Many historians have pointed out that the period of his rule was marked by many military campaigns, however the Emperor must be credited with having put an end to the civil wars which characterized most of the Ist century BC. The inscription was reported already by XVIIIth century historians as an indication of the support Augustus enjoyed in Gaul. In addition they noted that Titus Domitius Romulus, a former slave, had acquired the status of Roman citizen for himself and his son and enough wealth to pay for an expensive altar, and they cited the fact as an example of social mobility in the Roman Empire.
In the 1970s excavation in the outskirts of the modern town led to the discovery of an ancient urban development which was populated from the Ist century BC to the IIIrd century AD. In particular the excavations of a house with a portico led to the discovery of fine mosaics and wall paintings.
Archaeological Museum: frescoes from Clos de la Lombarde
A complex and painstaking process of analysis of the minute fragments of frescoes which were found during the excavations allowed the reconstruction of parts of the paintings. Those of a dining room were decorated with candelabra (sort of chandeliers) and fake balconies and are dated Ist century AD; they actually have many points in common with the frescoes of Pompeii and of Herculaneum, the towns which were buried by ashes and lava in 79 AD and also with those of Casa di Augusto on the Palatine Hill.
Archaeological Museum: other frescoes from Clos de la Lombarde: (left) detail of a ceiling showing a dancing maenad, a follower of Dionysus/Bacchus; (right) a man making offerings to a winged figure, perhaps a Victory
Another room had a decoration with fake architectures framing scenes with figures, similar to that of some rooms at Villa di Poppea at Oplontis near Pompeii.
At present Narbonne is the see of an archbishop, who by virtue of his office, is president of the States of
Languedoc. (..) His palace deserves to be seen, being a
kind of fortress, encompassed with large square
The palace of the prelate resembles the gloomy fortress of an ancient feudatory prince, rather than the residence of a French archbishop in these days of peace and elegance. Swinburne
The old Archbishop Palace (13th- 14th cent.) was once a fortress, to which belonged the towers of the facade. (..) Between the first two towers is the Hotel de Ville or Palais Neuf built by Viollet-le-Duc (1845). Baedeker
The Visigoths settled here in 413 and
held the town till 720, when it was taken by the Saracens after a two
years' siege. So strongly did the latter fortify it that Charles Martel
failed to take it, and Pepin captured it only through treason, in 759, after
a seven years' siege. In 817 the town became the capital of the duchy
of Septimania (a march of the Carolingian Empire). (..) It afterwards passed to the Counts of Auvergne, then
to those of Toulouse, with whose dominions it was finally united to
France in 1507. Baedeker
In the late VIIIth century the Bishop of Narbonne, an advisor to Charlemagne, was raised to the status of Archbishop. In the turbulent centuries which followed, the power and prestige of the Archbishops of Narbonne increased. They owned large fiefdoms which they protected with castles. In 890 Archbishop Theodard built a tall tower at the side of the existing Cathedral and in 1290-1311 Archbishop Gilles Aycelin built the donjon which is named after him. In the conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair, he stood on the King's side and he was rewarded by being appointed Grand Chancellor of France, the officer of state responsible for the judiciary.
Cathedral seen from Donjon Gilles Aycelin
The Cathedral of St Just is a fine Gothic edifice of which the choir only is finished. It was founded in 1272; the height of the roof is 40 metres, 131 ft. The side chapels were added during the 14th century and some of the windows having flamboyant tracery are of the 15th. Murray
The superb choir was built in 1272-1332 in the bold style of the great churches of N. France, but the church remained unfinished. The work was resumed in the 18th and the 19th cent., but was again interrupted. The two towers of the transept date from the 15th cent.; the buttresses terminate in the form of turrets. Baedeker
Interior. The choir, with its slender pillars, is 130 ft. high. (..) The treasury contains manuscripts, missals, ivories, portable altars, etc. (7th-10th cent.). Baedeker
A very interesting ivory relief is dated IXth century and is thought to come from Aachen, where Charlemagne set his residence. It was bequeathed to the Cathedral in 1850 by M. de Sieure, a local antiquarian. The circumstances in which he acquired it are not known. You may wish to see two panels of the Harrach Dyptych, an ivory work from Aachen, now in the Schnutgen Museum in Cologne.
(left) A Romanesque window in the Archbishop Palace; (right) statues of Sts. Paul and Peter which were not destroyed during the French Revolution owing to their high location on one of the towers of the Cathedral
The Archdiocese of Narbonne was suppressed during the French Revolution and this decision was confirmed by the 1801 Concordat between Pope Pius VII and France. Its territory was assigned to the Diocese of Carcassonne.
Apse of Basilique Saint-Paul-Serge and details of its capitals
The church of St Paul founded 1229 may interest the architect. The carved capitals of the columns are most singular, and many representing devils & c. are as unsuitable as possible to a church. Murray
The church is dedicated to St. Paul of Narbonne, the assumed first Bishop of the town in 251. According to tradition he was sent to Gaul by the Pope to foster the evangelization of the country, together with St. Trophimus of Arles and other priests. The addition of Serge occurred at the end of the XIth century when the Archbishops of Narbonne claimed that their first bishop was Lucius Sergius Paulus, a Roman proconsul of Cyprus who was converted to Christianity by St. Paul. They did so in a failed attempt to retain control over the Diocese of Tarragona by enhancing the religious importance of Narbonne.
Pont des Marchands
The canal, called La Roubine divides it into two parts, the town and the city; from the city you pass to the town over a bridge, which has houses built on it on both sides, inhabited by principal merchants. Nugent
Maison des Trois Nourrices (Wet nurses), a rare Renaissance building of the town
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
Saint-Bertrand-des-Comminges (Lugdunum Convenarum)