Nîmes Arena - Roman France

Exterior of Nîmes Arena. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

French Rome

The South of France boasts some of the most impressive Roman sites outside of the traditional ‘Roman World’. If you happen to be visiting this region, a must-see destination on your list should be Nîmes. The city, nicknamed the “French Rome”, was once a major Roman colony called Nemausus. In the 1st century AD, it was a thriving metropolis of 60,000 inhabitants. By the third century, it began to experience a steady decline until it finally fell to the Visigoths in the late fifth century.

So what is there to see in this former Roman city? It has an impressive number of ancient sites, but if you’re short on time, and need to choose just one, it would have to be the Arena.

Interior of Nîmes Arena. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

Roman Use

Built in 70 AD, Nîmes Arena, while certainly not one of the oldest or largest, is still an imposing building. This magnificent amphitheatre was once home to gladiators, the site of public executions, and where game-like hunts called venetiones took place. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, a palace was built inside the amphitheatre, and a protective wall was erected around it.

Replica gladiator costumes at the Nîmes Arena museum. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

The Arena Today

Today, the amphitheatre is still in use. Every May, it hosts the the world famous bullfighting event, the Feria de Nîmes, and has been used for concerts and videos by bands such as Depeche Mode, Rammstein, and Metallica. It also hosts the, Le Festival de Nîmes, a month long music festival that just celebrated its twentieth anniversary in June.

Aside from clambering around the seats, and giving an emperor’s thumbs down to imaginary crowds, visitors can explore the cavernous hallways and poke their heads into a tiny museum dedicated to the lives of Nîmes’ famous gladiators.

The passageways of Nîmes Arena (Photo: Medievalists.net)

Nîmes is in the process of securing UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition. The French Ministry of Culture submitted an official nomination in 2017 and is waiting for a (hopefully positive) response. In the meantime, if you’re visiting the arena you can still cast your vote to help preserve this incredible Roman city, and its monuments, for future generations.

Panoramic view of Nîmes Arena. (Photo: Medievalists.net)

Top Travel Tip

Some final words of wisdom... If you’re spending more than a few days in the South of France, a great way to fit in some spectacular sites and save money is to pick up a ‘Pass Romain’ (Roman Pass). It’s a fantastic deal; for €18.50 you can visit 5 monuments at both Nîmes and nearby Orange. You have one month to use the pass, and the it includes:

  • Nîmes 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.
  • Théâtre Antique d'Orange (The Roman Theatre of Orange) : A stunning 1st century theatre that is still used today.
  • 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.

Sandra Alvarez is a guest editor, along with Danièle Cybulskie, for Issue 12 of Ancient History Magazine.

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