The Roman Theatre of Orange
By Sandra Alvarez
Our final look at Roman France takes us to the city of Orange, in the Provence-Alpes- Côte d'Azur, France, 21km north of Avignon. Orange boasts the best preserved Roman theatre in Europe, Théâtre Antique d'Orange, and has been a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981.
The Romans founded Orange, then known as Arausio, in 35BC and built a theatre there in 40BC. It is famous because it is one of the last existing Roman theatres to have miraculously preserved its stage wall. During its heyday, it was open to every Roman citizen to enjoy comedies, poetry readings, mimes, and big stage productions, all for free.
In 391 AD, the Church closed the theatre because it was considered a place that promoted unchristian activities. After the Fall of the Roman Empire in the mid-fifth century, the theatre was abandoned. During the later Middle Ages, it was occasionally used for church plays, but it was predominantly used for housing, with numerous dwellings built on the grounds. In the sixteenth century, it was used as a place of refuge for religious dissidents during the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
In addition to being a spectacular archaeological site, and a museum Roman history, the theatre still plays a vibrant role in the city's entertainment.
The Roman Festival
If you happen to be passing through the region in early September, make sure to scoop up tickets to the theatre's Roman Festival. This year, it will be held over the September 9th-10th weekend. This fun, family-friendly event will see re-enactors spending two days immersing themselves in Roman life; from daily encampment activities, to exciting displays of armed combat, and even a religious ceremony by the priests of the Roman Imperial Cult honouring the Emperor Augustus.
Concerts & Theatre
The theatre is still in use today, for festivals, plays, evening tours, and everything from rock concerts, to stunning operas. Every August since 1860 the theatre has hosted the summer opera festival, the Chorégies d'Orange. Seeing open air opera in an Ancient Roman theatre that seats 9,000 would certainly be an unforgettable event!
In 1925, archaeological excavations revealed the foundations of a large temple on the theatre grounds. The Temple was dedicated to the Imperial Cult of Augustus and was connected to the theatre by a long street. You can see the remnants of this temple as you enter the theatre.
While conservation efforts are in place, unprotected parts of the theatre and temple continue to erode; an eight-year restoration project begun in 2016 is underway. The theatre will remain open for the duration of these renovations, with work being suspended in the summer during peak tourist season.
Another great reason to visit this theatre is to pick up a Pass Romain (Roman Pass) instead of the usual single ticket. You have one month to visit 5 monuments in Orange and Nîmes for €18.50. The two cities are not far from each other (only a 40 minute drive!) so it's a real money saver if you are travelling in the area and want to get the most out of your sight-seeing without breaking the bank. Your Roman Pass includes:
- Théâtre Antique d'Orange
- Musée d’Art et d’Histoire d'Orange ( The Museum of Art and History of Orange): A museum that showcases the city’s rich Gallo-Roman history, located directly across from the Roman theatre.
- Nîmes Arena: A spectacular 1st century AD gladiatorial arena.
- Nîmes’ Maison Carrée (Square House): Built in the 2nd century AD, it’s the only remaining completely preserved temple of the Roman Empire. Stay to watch a short movie about the history of Roman Nîmes.
- The Tour Magne (The Great Tower): An Augustinian watchtower that formed part of a Roman wall.
Sandra Alvarez is a guest editor, along with Danièle Cybulskie, for Issue 12 of Ancient History Magazine.