Nîmes: "The French Rome"

Gaul, Rome, and France All Meet in This Delightful Corner of Provence



What’s the best way to get a sense of Ancient Rome as a place? One way I often recommend is to forget about Rome and go to France instead. The Roman Empire was present in France — or the provinces of Gaul — for at least half a millennium, and in many places, especially in the south, its imprint is still vivid. In some instances, one can see the many of the buildings of a typical Roman cityscape in the compass of a short walk, but without the bustling crowds of Rome.

One of the very best places in France for this is Nîmes. Nîmes lies not far from the River Rhone, and is a short journey from the Mediterranean port of Marseille. Proverbially it has been called “the French Rome”, and a 19th-century poet from the city, Jean Reboul, wrote that “the inhabitants of Nîmes are half-Roman, for their city also sits on seven hills, and the sun shines there on beautiful ruins.”

It is a relatively quiet place now, but in Roman times it was a city of importance: it sits on the Via Domitia, which connected Italy to Spain; it appears to have had the status of a colony from an early period; and in the 2nd century A.D. was the home city of the family of the Emperor Antonius Pius. The extraordinary Roman buildings which still stand in the city, and in some cases are still used in civic life there, are a testament to the city’s ancient wealth and significance.

Many of the Roman remains in the city find a place in the grand narrative of the history of the early imperial period, especially the time of Augustus and the 1st century A.D. A leading function of the buildings was to proclaim the legitimacy of the new imperial regime and encourage the loyalty of both the Roman and also the indigenous populations. There is the shrine of the Augusteum, dedicated to Augustus, which includes the misidentified “Temple of Diana” (in reality, most likely a library); the beautifully-preserved Maison Carrée, which appears to have been a temple dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, the grandsons of Augustus and “Princes of the Youth” who both pre-deceased Augustus and missed out on succeeding him to the throne; the two surviving gateways to the city, one of which — the Porte d’Auguste on the Via Domitia — is inscribed in honour of Augustus; or, on the grandest scale, the amphitheatre (locally called Les Arènes) probably built around AD 70 — a contemporary of the Colosseum, but still in full working order, seating up to 20,000 people for concerts and shows.

On first sight, it is easy to come under the impression that such monuments, and indeed the ideas of Roman culture as a whole were distant and self-sufficient impositions on a submissive province: alien imports which in spirit and in scale bore no resemblance to what went before, smothering the local cultures which had gone before.

However, the great merit of seeing these monuments in their actual location, is the realisation that this wasn’t at all the case. The culture which Rome brought to the provinces was dependent for its success on interaction with indigenous cultures. Looking closely at the local context of these monuments, one can see amalgams of Roman culture and ideas with those of the locality which are both fascinating in their own right, as well as deeply thought-provoking about the idea of Romanitas, and its persistence.

An excellent place to start this consideration is in Nîmes’ new Musée de la Romanité, which opened this month (June 2018). The permanent collection brings together a world-class collection of finds from Nîmes and the wider locality, stretching from the region’s Gallic origins (c. 700 B.C.) and the period of the Roman Empire, to the long-term legacy of Rome in the area for the medieval, renaissance and enlightenment periods.

In pride of place, over a newly-constructed archway by the museum’s entrance, has been set a huge fragment of a pediment, and close by it two columns. The pediment was recovered in the 19th century close to the “Temple of Diana,” in an area towards the north of the city which was by that time a public garden, the Jardin de la Fontaine. The pediment, colossal and intricately carved in fine local stone, has a lacunose inscription of which the words “RES PUBLICA” and “IMPERATORIS” can easily be made out, but a fuller conjecture using all the remaining fragments suggests that the inscription may have been “RES PUBLICA NEMAUSESIUM LABRUM CUM MARMORIBUS CETERISQUE BENEFICIO IMPERATORIS CAESARIS AUGUSTI D F HADRIANI AD NOVITATEM RESTITUIT” — a record that the complex, of which the pediment had formed a part, had been put up in the time of Augustus, and been restored by Hadrian in the early 2nd century A.D.

The pediment is on a grand scale, and excavations in the Jardin de la Fontaine have revealed the scale of the complex around it: Corinthian colonnades 100 metres in length on three sides, one incorporating the “Temple of Diana”, and another incorporating a small theatre in a further corner; smaller temple structures facing the pediment on the opposite side; and in the midst of the square formed by the three sides of the colonnade a square basin, filled with water from a spring, Doric columns at each corner, and in the middle on a small island a large marble altar.

What was this vast complex, so classical in execution? It was, so it appears, an Augusteum, or a site for the imperial Roman cult, a development which found parallels in other sites both in Gaul itself (for example in Lugdunum, or modern-day Lyon) or else further east, where such complexes designed for imperial cult were also called Sebasteia.

But was this complex, which drew so deeply from the Roman and classical idiom, something which was transplanted to Nîmes, and otherwise imposed on the city in a way that was thoroughly heedless of the indigenous religious traditions or the spirit of place?

The spring that fed the Augusteum was not a discovery of the Romans. It had been one of the attractions of the place to a Gallic tribe in earlier centuries, the Volcae Arecomici, who for several centuries before the Roman presence had held Nîmes as one of their major settlements. For these Gauls, the spring was sacred. There was an indwelling divine presence which they characterised as either a god, or a group of goddesses. As a god, they called it Nemausus, or as goddesses, the Nemausian mothers. Being divine, the spring had healing powers, and was a focus of pilgrimage for the local area, and it gave an especial sanctity to the place at which it rose. This sanctity was perhaps signalled by a large tower built by the Gauls on top of the hill which rises above the spring, the Tour Magne.

The Romans chose this spot for the dedication of their own imperial shrine. Yet, they did not obliterate the indigenous Gallic worship. Offerings continued to be made to Nemausus and the Nemausian mothers, but these went hand-in-hand with offerings to the imperial genius. Nemausus was a bringer of healing. So, suggested the placement of the complex, was Augustus, who brought peace and prosperity to the Roman world after a century of civil war. In spirit and intention, and so in practice, the local god and Augustus were combined. One of the structures on the site appears to have been a square Gallic temple, or fanum, perhaps for the worship of Nemausus. The Gallic tower above the spring, the Tour Magne, was increased in scale, but to no obvious defensive purpose. Steps leading down into the waters to allow healing by immersion seem to have been designed to allow the continuance of earlier Gallic practice; and the waters of Nemausus in the central square basin washed around an altar which was likely dedicated to Augustus.

Many inscriptions found at the site in the 18th and 19th centuries confirm that devotion was offered both to the imperial cult as well as Nemausus. Indeed, altars were also dedicated both to Jupiter and Nemausus together. One example dating to the end of the 1st century A.D., discovered in 1742, was set up by a senior Roman centurion, a primipilus, named Caius Iulius Tiberinus, and was dedicated both to Nemausus and also Jupiter Heliopolitanus — Jupiter with a cult site originally based at Baalbek in Lebanon. On one side, the altar displayed a Gallic-style shield, and on the other side a representation of Jupiter. Dedication to the local gods was melded with that of a wider pantheon brought to the region by Rome, and the devotion to the shrine appears to have been reinforced by this mixture; indeed, it is difficult to imagine that the shrine could have remained the focus of local veneration if it had not incorporated these earlier strata of tradition, even if changed and altered, allowing them to give vitality to the new developments at the site.

The only exception to this Roman custom of accepting and incorporating the indigenous gods and religious customs into their own schemes of worship appears, in Gaul at least, to have been the Druids. Whether one accepts Julius Caesar’s assessment that their continuing use of human sacrifice was of disgust to the Romans, or that they offered the only cohesive alternative to Roman structures of power in the region, the order was suppressed, often with violence, in the first centuries of Roman rule. But this aside, veneration of the local deities and sacred places was the Roman custom. The Nîmes museum, for example, preserves another altar dedicated to the spirits of the spring of the Eure, which fed the aqueduct that, via the Pont du Gard, was later used to augment the water supplies of Nîmes. The altar is dedicated to this indigenous deity, but is in classical Roman form, with a relief of a priest in traditional garb — his head covered with a folded toga — pouring a libation in the conventional Roman fashion. Similar examples of Roman veneration of Gallic healing springs have been found at Glanum and the source of the Seine, and it was widely the case that deities from the traditional Roman pantheon were worshipped together with those in Gaul.

It is not just that the Romans accepted the worship of local Gallic gods. They also introduced customs and the worship of deities from far-flung corners of the empire. The Musée de la Romanité preserves fragments of a large inscription in Greek, showing that performances in honour of the imperial cult at the small theatre in the Augusteum complex were carried out by a company of Greek actors. Pieces of exquisitely carved stonework, recently discovered in the city and on display for the first time, may have come from an Isis temple. In the Musée de la Romanité collection, the heads of cult statues depicting members of the Julio-Claudian imperial family are mixed with altars and votives dedicated to other imported deities of the eastern mystery cults, such as Isis, Mithras and Serapis. The Roman monumentality of Nîmes may suggest that the spirit of place is a repressive imperial order, but the reality of the matter was a creative ferment, marked by continuity and an incorporation of local tradition.

If anything, this spirit of place has continued to the modern age. By the medieval period, the Augustuem complex had all but fallen into ruin and been forgotten. Only the structure of the “Temple of Diana” survived, continuing in use as a church until the 16th century, when it was damaged in the French Wars of Religion. Yet, by the 1730s, when Nîmes was more at peace and developing as a major centre of the textile industry (denim fabric was originally an invention of Nîmes, the word a contraction of “de Nîmes”) the city was in desperate need of extra water to furnish the cloth manufactories. The old spring of Nemausus was excavated as a solution for this problem, and the Roman complex rediscovered. Rather than simply making a channel through the ruined area to bring the water into the town, the area of the Augusteum was converted into a public garden in 1740 by Jacques Mareschal — the first public garden in France — preserving the outlines of the Roman complex. There is a basin and sculpture to mark where the original altar of Augustus stood, and this is again washed by the waters drawn from the Nemausian spring, which then feed the city by a network of 18th century canals. The gardens of the Augusteum, the Jardin de la Fontaine, are, for me at least, one of the most beautiful and serene spots in France, with a profound sense of connection to the Roman and Gallic cultures that preceded them. They are not, to be sure, Roman or Gallic in themselves — rather a product of the French 18th century inspired by the past. Yet the Jardins suggest that there is a deep merit in being open to adopting, borrowing, and adapting cultures according to the changing of the times; in such a way was the Augusteum able to survive, metamorphosed in a new form, in a later age. As the Romans saw with Nemausus beforehand at that spot, this willingness to adapt is paradoxically also the key to a culture’s survival.