You may wish to see an introductory page to this section first.
Symbols of modern Nîmes based on a Roman coin: (left) a crocodile; (right) a palm tree
Nismes is a very Ancient Citty and Colony of the
Romans. The houses are faire in many places, and
streetes very large.
Francis Mortoft's Journal of his travels in France and Italy in 1659
A colony was settled here by Marcus Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus: succeeding emperors took a delight in embellishing Nimes with both sacred and civil edifices; no place on our side of the Alps retains so many, or such perfect monuments of ancient taste and magnificence, besides innumerable fragments, which have been made use of in building walls and gates in ages of barbarism. As the coin struck in this colony exhibits a crocodile tied to a palm-tree, and the heads of Caius and Lucius Caesar, sons of Agrippa, it is probable that the veterans who formed this settlement, were drawn from legions that had served in Egypt and Syria, under the command of Agrippa, or his sons.
Henry Swinburne - Travels through Spain in the Years 1775 and 1776 to which is added a Journey from Bayonne to Marseille - 1787 Edition
(left) Porte d'Auguste; (right) Porte de France
Nismes is the ancient city of Nemausus which, though passed over in oblivion by classic authors so that its origin is unknown and barely mentioned in the geographical catalogues of Strabo and Ptolemy, yet affords more palpable testimony of its ancient extent and splendour, than most cities celebrated in classic page. While the renowned cities of Marseilles and Narbonne have few relics and no existing edifices of the ancient masters of the world, the obscure Nismes is richer in well preserved antiquities than any town in France or Northern Europe. (..) It retains two of its Roman gates: the Porte d'Auguste founded in the reign of that Emperor bc 16, consisting of a double arch with two side doors for foot passengers flanked by 2 towers and the Porte de France.
John Murray III - Hand-book for Travellers in France - 1843
(above) Porte d'Auguste (another image can be seen in the introductory page); (below) detail of the inscription
I no sooner alighted at the inn, than I was presented with a pamphlet, containing an account of Nismes and its antiquities, which every stranger buys. There are persons too who attend in order to shew the town, and you will always be accosted by some shabby antiquarian, who presents you with medals for sale, assuring you they are genuine antiques, and were dug out of the ruins of the Roman temple and baths. All those fellows are cheats; and they have often laid under contribution raw English travellers, who had more money than discretion. To such they sell the vilest and most common trash: but when they meet with a connoisseur, they produce some medals which are really valuable and curious.
Tobias Smollett - Travels through France and Italy - 1766
The pamphlet Smollett was presented with did not mention Porte d'Auguste because it was discovered in the 1790s when a small fortification on the walls of the town was demolished. The inscription was accidentally removed, but later on enough of its stones were recovered and it was possible to reconstruct it as follows: IMP CAESAR DIVI F AVGVSTVS COS XI TRIBV POTEST VIII / PORTAS MUROS COL DAT. The gate marked the eastern entrance to the town of Via Domitia, the main Roman road of the region. It was decorated with two almost completely erased heads of bulls. It might have had an upper storey, similar to what can be noticed in the gates of Autun (Augustodunum).
Maison Carrée (see it also in a 1789 painting by Hubert Robert showing the most important Roman monuments of France, when it did not have the very new aspect brought about by a 2010 restoration)
The many antiquities of the city of Nismes render it, in some measure, a second Rome. (..) See the Square House, an admirable piece of Corinthian architecture, which may be justly compared to the Rotunda at Rome. (..) It was filled afterwards with
tradesmen's habitations in the same manner
as the amphitheatre, and disfigured with other
paltry buildings; but Lewis XIV. made a grant
of it to the Augustinian friars, who cleared it of
all its rubbish, decorated the inner part, and
converted it into a Christian church in 1685.
Thomas Nugent - The Grand Tour - 1749
The Maison Carree enchants you with the most exquisite beauties of architecture and sculpture. (..) The proportions of the building are so happily united, as to give it an air of majesty and grandeur, which the most indifferent spectator cannot behold without emotion. A man needs not be a connoisseur in architecture, to enjoy these beauties. They are indeed so exquisite that you may return to them every day with a fresh appetite for seven years together. What renders them the more curious, they are still entire, and very little affected, either by the ravages of time, or the havoc of war. (..) An Italian painter, perceiving a small part of the roof repaired by modern French masonry, tore his hair, and exclaimed in a rage, "Zounds! what do I see? Harlequin's hat on the head of Augustus!" Smollett
The glory of Nimes is the Maison Quarree, a barbarous appellation for one of the most perfect samples of an ancient temple, that the fury of barbarous conquerors, or still more savage zealots, has spared. It is a temple of the Corinthian order, with six columns in each front, and nine on the flanks, the whole raised upon a basement story, five feet six inches from the ground. (..) The door was formerly the only opening through which light was admitted, but windows have since been broken in the side walls. (..) It will suffice to say that the elegance of proportion, the exquisite taste displayed in every ornament, the lightness of the whole building, and the harmony with which all the parts are connected, stand unrivalled by any work of the most refined art north of the Alps; but I do not think it is entitled to rank before every edifice that still perpetuates the glory of ancient architects in Italy, Greece, and Asia. Swinburne
Maison Carrée: (left) front today; (right) rear in a plate from "Alexandre de Laborde - The Monuments of France Chronologically Classified - 1816-1836"
building was formerly a Pagan temple, called the
Basilica of Plotina, to whom it was dedicated by
the emperor Adrian, in acknowledgment to that
princess for prevailing on the Emperor Trajan to adopt him. Nugent
It is apparent from the holes by which the brazen letters were fastened to the stone, that there was once an inscription on the frize, torn down for the sake of the metal. The words of this inscription had remained a mystery, never satisfactorily explained by any antiquary, when Monsieur Seguier, of this city, thought of tracing the form of the letters by means of the relation which the holes bear to each other. (..) From this discovery he drew an inference that the temple was erected in the reign of Augustus, and was not a monument raised by Adrian to the memory of Plotina, as most preceding antiquaries had believed it to be. (..) In my opinion (..) by the comparison which I draw between this building and the undoubted monuments of the Augustan age, I am fully persuaded that they are not coeval, but that the space of, at least, a century intervened between the different epochas of their erection. In the Maison Quarree I perceive a profusion and minuteness of ornaments not to be found in the more simple architecture of the Augustan times. Swinburne
Jean-François Séguier, a French epigraphist (1703-1784), interpreted also an inscription in the Forum of Arles. He came to the conclusion that Maison Carrée was a temple dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, whom Augustus appointed as his heirs, but who died before him.
Maison Carrée: detail of the frieze which the restoration has robbed of its antique and venerable aspect
The Maison Carrée is dated to the reign of Augustus primarily from its dedicatory inscription. However, no text of the inscription remains in situ; only clamp holes, without countersunk letter patterns, attest to what letter may have belonged where. The patterns are more or less consistent with the various restorations proposed for them; none is definite, secure, or proven. The dating of the temple cannot be based on such a phantom inscription. (..) The basic unit of measurement used in the ground plan of the Maison Carrée is the "pes Drusianus" (a measure of length slightly longer than the standard foot), otherwise not securely attested prior to the early second century A.D. Use of this measurement module suggests a date at least a century after Augustus's reign. Similar problems arise in analysing the proportions, Corinthian order, and decoration of the temple; all such problems are resolved or relieved by assigning the temple as we know it to a second-century A. D. restoration. Historical and archaeological evidence suggests that a restoration of an Augustan temple at Nîmes during the first half of the second century A. D., possibly in the reign of Hadrian or of Antoninus Pius (whose family originated from Nîmes), with the text of its earlier inscription reset on the façade (similar to what occurred at the Pantheon), may be more consistent with the extant remains of the Maison Carrée.
Abstract from "Anachronism in the Roman Architecture of Gaul: The Date of the Maison Carrée at Nîmes" by James C. Anderson, Jr. - Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 60 No. 1, Mar. 2001.
The date of the building is still debated; other main monuments of the region (e.g. the Arch of Orange and the Mausoleum of the Julii at Glanum) were dated IInd century AD because of their style until inscriptions and other historical evidence suggested that they were built in the Augustan age. You may wish to see the Temple to Rome, Augustus and Livia at Vienne which is similar to Maison Carrée.
Amphitheatre (Les Arènes): main/northern entrance with heads of bulls (see an overall image of the building in a plate by Laborde and as it is today in the introductory page)
The chiefest thing to be marked in this Citty is an
Antiquity consisting in an Amphitheater which is intire, being built in the figure of an Oval; within the Amphitheater there are houses built, so that when one is on the
topp of all it seemes like a Bourgh or little Village. It is
esteemed to be the worke of the Emperor Trajan in favour
of his wife Plotina. Mortoft
The amphitheatre is counted the finest monument of the kind, now extant; and was built in the reign of Antoninus Pius, who contributed a large sum of money towards its erection (today it is dated late Ist century AD). It is of an oval figure, one thousand and eighty feet in circumference, capacious enough to hold twenty thousand spectators. (..) The entrance into the arena was by four great gates, with porticos. (..) Over the north gate, appear two bulls, in alto-relievo, extremely well executed, emblems which, according to the custom of the Romans, signified that the amphitheatre was erected at the expence of the people. (..) This amphitheatre was fortified as a citadel by the Visigoths, in the beginning of the sixth century. They raised within it a castle, two towers of which are still extant (these are no longer noticeable; see those at the Amphitheatre of Arles); and they surrounded it with a broad and deep fosse, which was filled up in the thirteenth century. In all the subsequent wars to which this city was exposed, it served as the last resort of the citizens, and sustained a great number of successive attacks; so that its preservation is almost miraculous. It is likely, however, to suffer much more from the Gothic avarice of its own citizens, some of whom are mutilating it every day, for the sake of the stones, which they employ in their own private buildings. Smollett
The amphitheatre is one of the best preserved works of the kind now extant; its form is, as usual, elliptical: on the outside are two orders, Tuscan and Doric, each of sixty arcades, divided in the first gallery by pilasters, in the second by columns. (..) Four gates gave admittance into the area, which is at present crowded with houses. I was told that upwards of three thousand persons dwell within its walls, most of them manufacturers, and professing the reformed religion. The king has lately (1786) issued an edict for destroying these hovels, clearing out the area, and putting this noble edifice into proper repair. Swinburne
The Amphitheatre is now isolated by the removal of the buildings which obstructed it within and without, in the middle of a wide place allowing unimpeded view of its very perfect oval circuit. Murray
Amphitheatre: upper storey
all is a battlement or parapet, that either formed the pedestal of a third order, or
crowned the second; perhaps the building
was never raised higher, for there appear at
this height, which is sixty-eight feet from the
ground, projecting stones, bored through to
receive the poles from which the awning was
suspended over the spectators. Swinburne
Here you may examine the round holes, cut in the projecting stones and corresponding with hollows in the exterior cornice below, into which the poles were put in order to fasten the awnings stretched over the spectators. Murray
Amphitheatre: view of the interior
The interior retains some of the original seats especially of the lower and upper rows. The modern French architect employed on the building, not content with preserving and protecting the parts which remain, has committed the fault of restoring or rather reconstructing in a somewhat clumsy manner part of them and some of the arcades. (..) Until within a few years the people of Nismes used the Arenes for an entertainment called Ferrade which consisted in teasing a number of wild bulls from the Camargue previous to branding them. The sport was but a poor imitation of a Spanish bull fight nearly as cruel, without being so exciting and it has properly been prohibited. Murray
Bullfights were reintroduced at the end of the XIXth century, similar to what occurred at the Amphitheatre of Arles.
A long corridor, surrounding the building, runs within the arches on the ground story, and a smaller corridor encircles the upper story. It is worth while to make the circuit of these and, indeed, to penetrate every part of this extraordinary structure. The vaults of the lower corridor or portico are like some vast natural cavern; the upper one, instead of being arched, is roofed with huge stone beams 18 ft long, reaching from side to side, many of them cracked, either by an earthquake, or by the conflagration which consumed the Arenes in the time of Charles Martel. It is interesting to penetrate the wedge shaped passages, radiating from the centre, and widening outwards, so contrived as to facilitate the egress of the hastening crowds and allow them to depart without any check; to ascend the stairs, by which ready access was given to every part of the huge structure; to clamber over the broken seats, some still marked with the line indicating the space allotted to each spectator, scaring the frightened lizard, which starts away from under your foot, out of the sunshine in which it has been basking, to the shelter of the tufts of grass or weeds springing up among the crevices of the masonry; and, finally, to stand on the topmost stone, the rim of this huge oval basin, surveying its whole interior, dismantled, and almost gutted. Murray
|Other ancient amphitheatres in this web site:|
The Colosseo of Rome
The Amphitheatre of Albano
The Amphitheatre of Capua
The Amphitheatre of Verona
The Amphitheatre of Pompeii
The Amphitheatre of Catania
The Amphitheatre of Syracuse
The Amphitheatre of Sutri
The Amphitheatre of Alba Fucens
The Amphitheatre of Urbs Salvia (Urbisaglia)
The Amphitheatre of Pola in Istria
The Amphitheatre of Salona in Dalmatia
The Amphitheatre of Arles in France
The Amphitheatre of Bordeaux in France
The Amphitheatre of Périgueux in France
The Amphitheatre of Saintes in France
The Amphitheatre of Toulouse in France
The Amphitheatre(s) of Carnuntum in Austria
The Amphitheatre of Trier in Germany
The Amphitheatre of London
The Amphitheatre of Caerleon in Wales
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 Carthage
The Amphitheatre of Mactaris (Makhtar) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Thapsus in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Thysdrus (El Djem) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Uthina (Oudna) in Tunisia
The Amphitheatre of Leptis Magna in Libya
Tour Magne: (left) plate from Laborde's book; (right) as it is today
Without the walls on the top of a high hill,
there is an ancient building, called the great
tower. It was of a prodigious height, in form
of a pyramid, and seems to have been designed
for a watch tower, for the sea is said to have
come up formerly to the foot of this hill. It is
built of small square stones, so well cemented,
that it is hard to be demolished. Nugent
On the summit of the craggy hill, that overhangs the city, stands the Tour Magne, a pyramidical tower of several stories, to each of which a winding stair-case afforded access. The building contains below one large vaulted room of an irregular shape, with a conical roof; above it are six small cells, round at the bottom like a kettle, with apertures only at top, and not communicating with each other. Antiquaries differ as to the use made of this tower, while some call it a public treasury, others a granary, a third pronounces it to have been a light-house, and others a mausoleum. Swinburne
The hill rising behind the fountain, planted with trees and accessible by zigzag walks, is surmounted by another singular monument known as La Tour Magne, a dismantled tomb of rough, not unlike several still existing in vicinity of Rome (e.g. Torre di Capo di Bove), but which passed at different times with antiquaries for a lighthouse (50 m inland and remote from any river!), a Gallic temple and a treasury. It is hollow within having a rude conical shape, resembling that of a glasshouse. The walls are very thick below, but taper upwards; externally it was an octagon, but the surface stonework is for the most part removed. It is, perhaps, the oldest building in the town. Some have referred its origin to times preceding the Romans; in their time it was included in the defences of the town, and connected with the walls (this is still the most likely explanation of the origin and purpose of the building). Murray
(above) Upper part of Tour Magne; (below) view from the top of Tour Magne
The view from hence
is delightful, comprehending the whole city, its almost boundless plains, the sea, the
mountains of Dauphine, and the still more
distant heights of Provence. (..) All is open to the south, as far
as the Mediterranean, which is thought by some philosophers to have washed the foot of
the rocks of Nimes in ancient times; but
this retreat of the waters must have taken
place long before the Romans had extended
their conquests to Gaul, as is evident from
the observations of Pliny: that sagacious
people would undoubtedly have availed themselves of such an advantage as a harbour,
had there existed one at or near a place
which they treated with distinguished marks
of predilection. Swinburne
The situation of the Tourmagne is very commanding; at the foot of the heights on which it stands the whole city is displayed, and the distant horizon includes the bifurcation of the Rhone, and, perhaps, the site of Aigues Mortes on the Mediterranean. Murray
(left) Entrance to the Gardens of the Fountain (it brings to mind the "Grille d'Or" of Versailles); (right) a canal / fountain in town
At the foot of
the hill rises a fountain in form of a pond, with a
whirlpool in the middle, which swallows up
every thing that comes near it, without being seen
any more. Nugent
At Nismes are manufactures of silk and wool, carried on with good success. The water necessary for these works is supplied by a source at the foot of the rock, upon which the tower is placed; and here were discovered the ruins of Roman baths, which had been formed and adorned with equal taste and magnificence. (..) The baths, in a great measure, were restored on the old plan, though they are not at present used for any thing but ornament. The water is collected into two vast reservoirs, and a canal built and lined with hewn stone. There are three handsome bridges thrown over this vast canal. It contains a great body of excellent water, which by pipes and other small branching canals, traverses the town, and is converted to many different purposes of economy and manufacture. Between the Roman bath and these great canals, the ground is agreeably laid out in pleasure-walks for the recreation of the inhabitants. Here are likewise ornaments of architecture, which savour much more of French foppery, than of the simplicity and greatness of the antients. It is very surprizing, that this fountain should produce such a great body of water (..) when I saw it, there was in it about eight or nine feet of water, transparent as crystal. Smollett
Gardens of the Fountain on the site of Roman baths
There is a fine Public Garden, planted with trees, in the midst of which a fountain bursts forth in exuberant copiousness from the foot of a hill, and is received into a large reservoir, originally a Roman bath for women. It is surrounded by a large colonnade below the level of the ground, and is conducted through a formal canal lined with masonry like the ditch of a fortification, and bordered with a handsome stone balustrade. A part of this enclosure is of antique masonry, but the whole has been restored in modern times. It is a very handsome, but formal construction, and it and the garden which it traverses form a principal ornament of the town. Murray
"Temple of Diana"
A little out of the Citty one may see the Temple of
Diana, which at present is ruined, onely the forme is
yet standing. Mortoft
Here also are the ruins of the temple of Diana, of a square form, and built of large stones, supported by columns, adorned with chapitels, architraves, and niches in the walls for their idols. Nugent
Fronting the Roman baths are the ruins of an antient temple, which, according to tradition, was dedicated to Diana: but it has been observed by connoisseurs, that all the antient temples of this goddess were of the Ionic order; whereas, this is partly Corinthian, and partly composite. It is about seventy foot long, and six and thirty in breadth, arched above, and built of large blocks of stone, exactly joined together without any cement. The walls are still standing, with three great tabernacles at the further end, fronting the entrance. On each side, there are niches in the intercolumnation of the walls, together with pedestals and shafts of pillars, cornices, and an entablature, which indicate the former magnificence of the building. Smollett
"Temple of Diana": (left) plate from Laborde's book; (right) as it is today
On one side of the fountain is a ruined Roman building, supposed at one time to have been a temple of Diana, but now regarded as a Nymphaeum (or fane dedicated to the Nymphs), and connected with the neighbouring baths. It appears to have had a semi cylindrical roof rising from an entablature, supported by columns. It is proved by inscriptions to have been built, along with the baths, by Augustus. It was reduced to ruin in 1577. Murray
"Temple of Diana": (left) architectural details; (right) XVIIIth century graffiti of stonecutters (above - see those at nearby Vis-de-Saint-Gilles) and of couples in a love heart (below)
Today the building is believed to have been the library of a complex of facilities dedicated to Augustus which included a small theatre. It is dated Ist century AD, but it might have been partly redesigned in the following century.
The ancient aqueduct which the Pont du Gard carried across the valley of the Gardon, terminated in the fountain at Nismes, into whose basin it discharged its waters, at a point not far from the Temple of Diana. Murray
When the water is brought home to the walls of the city, a reservoir (castellum) is built, with a triple cistern attached to it to receive the water. In the reservoir are three pipes of equal sizes, and so connected that when the water overflows at the extremities, it is discharged into the middle one, in which are placed pipes for the supply of the fountains, in the second those for the supply of the baths, thus affording a yearly revenue to the people; in the third, those for the supply of private houses. This is to be so managed that the water for public use may never be deficient, for that cannot be diverted if the mains from the heads are rightly constructed. I have made this division in order that the rent which is collected from private individuals who are supplied with water, may be applied by collectors to the maintenance of the aqueduct.
Vitruvius - De Architectura - Book VIII - Translation by Valentin Rose.
Nîmes was supplied with water by a long aqueduct that started near the town of Uzès. In 1844 archaeologists found a circular cistern with ten openings for pipes which distributed the water to the town.
(left) Cathedral; (right) detail of the façade
While the Roman government retained its vigour, Nimes continued
to flourish as one of its most favoured
transalpine settlements: the Antonines,
whose family is supposed to have belonged to this colony, patronized it in a distinguished manner; but when Rome sank
beneath the weight of those torrents of
barbarians that poured upon her from the
forests of the North, Nimes was one of
the first cities that felt the fatal effects of
her debility; its riches allured each rapacious invader, and repeated devastations
soon laid its glories in the dust. Swinburne
In the heart of the old town stands the Cathedral, an ancient building, but so injured during the wars of religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, and now so much modernised, as to possess little interest. High up on the W front, above a circular window, a curious sculptured frieze, representing events from the book of Genesis, is introduced; it is very ancient. Murray
Cathedral: Romanesque frieze (another detail can be seen in the image used as background for this page): (above) Temptation of Adam and Eve; The Original Sin; God questions Adam and Eve; Angel at the entrance to Eden; (below) Expulsion of Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel make offerings to God (in the form of a hand); Cain kills Abel
The Cathedral was founded in 1096 at approximately the same time as the Abbey Church of Saint-Gilles; the façade of the latter retains its beautiful Romanesque decoration.
The subjects of the reliefs were most likely influenced by those which were visible in early Christian sarcophagi as those found at Arles.
Maison Romane (Romanesque - XIIth century) and details of its decoration
Church of the Jesuits (deconsecrated)
The Jesuits have a handsome modern church, very well worth seeing. (..) There are several other churches and convents, none of which
contain any thing deserving of particular notice. Nugent
In 1916 the nearby former College of the Jesuits housed a small archaeological museum, some exhibits of which can be seen in the introductory page. They were eventually moved to a new museum which was inaugurated in June 2018.
(left) Homme aux Quatre Jambes (made up of pieces of ancient statues) near the Amphitheatre; (centre) XVIIIth century Hercules in Hotel de Regis; (right) Maison des Atlantes (XVIIth century)
The history of the antiquities of Nismes takes notice of a grotesque statue, representing two female bodies and legs, united under the head of an old man; but, as it does not inform us where it is kept, I did not see it. Smollett
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)