The Little Rome of Ancient Gaul

A treasure of monuments, ruins, and art that allows a glimpse into the city’s former golden age as one of Rome’s proudest and most prosperous colonies, Arles is, in fact, a four course banquet of history for the visitor. The city’s prehistory is an appetizing apéritif, the Roman ruins and monuments are the elegant pièce de résistance, the city’s medieval history provides a sweet dessert, and following in the footsteps of the post-impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh, is a gentle digestif. This is a meal intended to be taken in the Provençal manner; deliberately, with frequent pauses between courses to allow ample discussion and relaxing digestion.

Arles is located in the Provence region of southern France, celebrated for sunshine, blue skies, lavender fields, and Mediterranean beaches. The former Roman colony is perched on a small hilltop overlooking the vineyard lined Rhône River. Here the land begins to fan out into a delta just before the Rhône deposits its cool alpine waters into the legendary sea that was once the heart of classic civilization. This delta is called the Carmargue, a region famous for horses and rough-skinned cowboys. The city is often called “double Arles” for its double advantage of a strategic position on the hill and commercial port on the river. Arles was favourably situated in many ways at the crossroads of Gaul, Italy, and Spain to eventually dominate politically, militarily, and economically the former Roman province.

The Neolithic tribe that first occupied the site would have settled on an island in the delta of the Rhône that slowly expanded thanks to sedimentary deposits. Phoenicians, those famed navigators, arrived from North Africa in the 11th century B.C. and established a small market on the riverbank not from Arles. Greek colonists overflowed into the area like they did in many places in the 6th century B.C. and established a small colony on top of the rocky hill that they named Theline. Legend says that the Greeks came to Arles from Phocaea and asked the local King for his friendship. The leader of the Greeks charmed and was charmed by the King’s daughter and the two soon married which created a peaceful bond between the two groups. Colonists from Rhodes, from where the Rhône River receives its name, improved the market into a commercial port on the river in the 4th century B.C. Then, Celto-ligures arrived soon after and occupied the strategic location and founded the village of Ar-lath, meaning the land of marshes. These are the same Ligures who according to Aeschylus, Hercules had to struggle against at the mouth of the Rhône. Finally, when the Romans arrived, they Latinized the village into Arelate.

In 49 B.C., the neighbouring colony of Marseille chose to side with Pompey against Julius Caesar. Caesar established himself and the legendary Sixth Legion at Arelate in order to construct war galleys that would be used to attack Marseille. After the successful siege and capture of the city, Tiberius Claudius Nero, quaestor of Caesar, officially renamed the city Colonia Julia Paterna Arelate.

Sextanorum, that is, as a colony for veterans of the Sixth Legion. Arles earned the envious status of a city of Latin Right and was also given some of the territory of Marseille. Thus, Arles began her climb to prosperty and the civitas became one of the largest in the province of Gallia Narbonensis.

This cornucopia of history is packed into an area of only two square kilometers surrounded by stout roman and medieval walls and towers. The classic charm of the city is still flourishing and is best experienced by casual strolls through the narrow, twisting alleys and streets. Many of the ancient ruins lie buried beneath the medieval and modern constructions but the grandest monuments of classical culture are still remarkably well preserved. Archaeologists have found traces of the city aqueduct (the majestic Pont du Gard aqueduct is not far from the city), fortifications, the ancient “Lion” bridge across the Rhône, which while not being as famous as the ruins at Avignon is still interesting, as well as the forum, triumphal arches, temples, baths, circus, statues, and crypts.

Enter the ancient city from the direction of the train station and you will pass through the walls between two stone towers. Even the untrained eye will distinguish between the stone from the Roman foundations of the walls and the later medieval additions. Especially noticeable are the marks left by bullets from the brief, but intense firefight that took place on the neighboring square between the German garrison and French Resistance in 1944. You quickly arrive at the elegant, elliptical amphitheater, mistakenly indicated as “les arènes” on signs and tourist maps. The amphitheater was built around 90 A.D. and could seat more than 20,000 citizens. An efficient design of stairways, porticoes, and passages would allow anyone to exit in five minutes. The grand edifice has surprisingly resisted the centuries of wars and weather to be one of the most well conserved monuments of ancient Rome. Unfortunately, the attic that crowned the amphitheater has not survived. Today, the arènes are still used for different spectacles which include the ever popular course provençale that are held twice a week in the summer. The course provençale is a type of bull running where a bull is let loose in the arena with a group of men. A knot of colored ribbons, called a cocarde, is affixed to the bull’s horns and the participants must attempt to retrieve it. Also in the summer can be seen mock gladiatorial combats of dubious quality.

The well-preserved ancient theatre was built in the late first century B.C. and is only a few steps to the south of the amphitheatre. Unlike many Greco-Roman theatres, the unique theatre of Arles was not built into a hillside. Consequently a three-storied, arched wall in the shape of a semicircle that resembles the outer walls of the amphitheatre was constructed in order to support the terraced seating. The theatre could hold up to 12,000 spectators and is often complimented for excellent acoustics. A marble columned, three-storied edifice for seating was built at the rear of the stage but is now completely gone except for two lone columns still standing proudly as a salute to a former golden age. A small replica of the ancient theatre can be seen in the Arles antiquity museum to allow a view of what the theatre would have looked like at the height of its glory. As the capital of the region, the theatre of Arles is still used today for traditional celebrations unique to the Carmargue region. Local inhabitants will don the traditional provencal outfits thus sustaining local traditions and customs including the election of the Queen of Arles that takes place every four years at the theatre.

Continuing further into the interior of the old city and only a couple minutes to the west of the theatre is the charming Place de la République. An obelisk proudly stands like a sentinel in the middle of the square marking the open area that was once the ancient circus. The obelisk formed the primary decoration of the spina around which chariots and horses once vigorously raced. Today, the square is the location of the city’s pleasant Hôtel-de-Ville and also of the beautiful Saint Trophime Cathedral with its magnificent Romanesque façade. Construction began on the cathedral in the 12th century on top of the remains of the church of Saint-Etienne that had been built in the 5th century.

Remain on a westerly course from the Place de la République and in only a few short minutes you will arrive at an especially enchanting square called the Place du Forum. As the name indicates, this was the spot of the once bustling ancient marketplace of Arles. Now, only two columns supporting an ancient gate with a stone slab in the centre marked Forum reveal this spot of ground as the central meeting point of commercial activity in one of the most prosperous colonies of the Empire. Concealed just to the south of the square is the Cryptoportico of the Forum; double horseshoe-shaped galleries that had a triple function of supporting the primary architecture above ground, as a passageway, and as a cool location for storage.

Baths are the true indicator of the prosperity and refinement of the former city of Arelate. The stone and brick baths of Arles lie near the Rhône not far to the north of the ancient Forum. Arles was especially flourishing in late Antiquity when a Roman general in Britannia by the name of Flavius Claudius Constantinus named himself emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 407 and became Constantine III. He declared Arelate as his new capital and his career seemed to be paralleling that of the Great Constantine before being captured and executed in 411. Fortunately, he still found enough time during his brief reign to construct the baths.

The famous pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain crosses through the centre of the ancient city of Arles. One of the stops on the pilgrimage route, as well as an intriguing stop for any traveller, is the shadowy necropolis, the Alyscamps. The “Elysian Fields” is an ancient cemetery including an eerie dirt alley lined with poplar trees and sarcophagi containing the remains of emperors, bishops, and other great personages from the time of the Empire to the Renaissance. The reputation of the Alyscamps as a uniquely hallowed place sanctified by various relics of patron saints spread far beyond the region of the Carmargue. Being laid to rest in the Alyscamps guaranteed redemption and many accounts of miracles only added to the legend. The Alyscamps has been greatly reduced from its former hallowed grandeur and many of the tombs have either been removed or pillaged, but the site still retains an air of quiet majesty.

The evening is best for peaceful digestion and silent reflection. It is also the ideal time to see Arles through the eyes of Victor Van Gogh. Follow the yellow footprints (painted by the tourist office) into the past, like some yellow brick road into a fairy tale. Take a stroll next to the Rhône and gaze up at the Starry Night. Meander through the narrow streets and arrive at Café la Nuit and enjoy the peaceful comfort of the warm Provencal air spiced with a hint of the neighbouring Mediterranean. Have a café crème and notice the column marked Forum and reflect that on this spot, the ghosts of thousands of years of history are with you. You can easily feel the ambiance that inspired Van Gogh to record this location for posterity. The ancient charm of the city is still pumping through her lifeblood toward a classic heart. Finally, the modern traveller finishes a trip through time, having tasted the pleasures and delights of history given generously by the still beautiful, Little Rome of Gaul.