Nîmes from yesterday to today
The first traces of human habitation in Nîmes date from the late 6th century bc. These were clay huts with roofs of wattle and daub, supported by wooden posts. They were located close to a sacred spring dedicated to the god Nemaus (the site of the current-day Jardin de la Fontaine).
At this time, Nîmes was a modest fortified village, an oppidum built on the slopes of Mont Cavalier, which provided a certain degree of protection. Early on, the prosperity of the Greek colony of Massalia (current-day Marseille) attracted the greed of the Romans. When a conflict broke out between the Massalia and the Celtic tribes of the area, the City turned to the Romans for help. The Romans then settled in the region, extending their territory along the Mediterranean coast of Gaul. This province, extending from the Alps to the Pyrenees, was known as Gallia Narbonensis. During this period, the city of Nîmes was called Nemausus, in honour of a Gallic god whose cult was related to the sacred springs that flowed in the city.
Julius Caesar sought to conquer the Gallic territories for the Roman Empire. The Gallic Wars, at the end of which Caesar would be proclaimed emperor, lasted a period of 7 years and saw the invasion of the Roman Legions as far as current-day Germany. Although the South-East of France was already very Romanized at the time, Caesar sought to enhance this even further. The city adopted Roman law which provided it with a privileged position and relative autonomy. Its inhabitants practised the language, laws and customs of Roman citizens.
Under the leadership of the Emperor Augustus, the town underwent a period of great growth and development. Ramparts were constructed, extending for 7 km and surrounding more than 200 hectares of land, which was considerable for a Gallo-Roman city at that time. All that remains of these fortifications today is the Porte d’Auguste [The Gate of Augustus], and the Tour Magne. This tower was named after the Latin ‘Turris Magna’ meaning ‘great tower’, and was the tallest tower of the fortifications. It was built around an already existing Gallic tower that was approximately two hundred years old. Nîmes became one of the most important cities of Gallia Narbonensis and had the honour of being named ‘Colonia Augusta Nemausensis’ by the Emperor himself.
In addition to its ramparts, the city also boasts a large number of buildings of historical interest. One of these is the Maison Carrée which was constructed as part of this comprehensive programme implemented by the Emperor Augustus to equip Nemausus with the public buildings required for the running of the city. This temple was intended to accommodate the imperial cult. The Maison Carrée was dedicated to the Emperor’s grandson. Access was reserved to priests alone. However, rituals, sacrifices and processions were carried out in the presence of the city’s inhabitants.
During ancient times, shows were primarily held in wooden theatres. Over time, these theatres were replaced by more solid constructions made of stone. In order to host fights between both animals and gladiators, the Romans had the idea of designing an elliptical stage for this combined use. The stage was surrounded by tiered seating, the ancestor of our modern stages. The Romans used two different methods to build such edifices: either they made use of the natural terrain (with the tiered seating built directly into a hillside, as for example with the amphitheatre in the French town of Orange), or they built huge external walls to support the stands, as was the case in Nîmes. Construction of the Nîmes amphitheatre took 39 years to complete.
Gradually, gladiatorial contests became increasingly bloody, and at times fighting even broke out amongst the spectators. At this time, the Roman Empire was little more than a giant with feet of clay, whose rule was contested in many parts of the Empire: the frontiers were under attack from the Barbarians, and within the Empire, there was a growing threat from Christians whose values had little regard for Pagan pleasures. The Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion in 391. Former pagan temples were transformed into churches and the violence of the Roman Games was called into question.
A few years after gladiatorial contests had been definitively forbidden, the amphitheatre, no longer having any real use or function, was transformed into a fortress. It was surrounded by a strong wall made from blocks recycled from the Roman era. Besieged on several occasions, the amphitheatre proved to be particularly efficient in terms of defence.
Up until the 16th century, the Maison Carrée was used as a municipal consular building and was known as ‘Le Capitole’.
Local historian Léon Ménard explains how the changes brought to the building effaced many of the vestiges of the ancient architecture, particularly in the interior: ‘First, the interior was divided into several rooms, and even into two floors; arches were constructed, a fireplace was built, which stood against the east wall, and a spiral staircase was added to the west wall. Furthermore, several square windows were put in to light these new apartments. The consuls [...] closed off the entrance area with a wall, stretching from one column to the other, more windows were added and a cellar ran from the underground vault to the hall. The front steps were also demolished.’
Under the suzerainty of the counts of Toulouse, the amphitheatre become the seat of the Viscount of Nîmes and his vassals. A castle was built inside the amphitheatre. Over the course of a century, inhabitants of the castle lived alongside local Nîmes residents without any real interaction between the two populations. However, control of the city was shared with the local bourgeoisie.
The amphitheatre lost its military value when the Languedoc Region became part of the Kingdom of France. The Knights were evicted from the amphitheatre by the troops of King Louis VIII, who took up occupancy of the site until the 14th century, before moving to a new castle built on the site of the Porte d’Auguste. The abandoned amphitheatre was then taken over by private individuals.
Augustinian monks purchased the Maison Carrée with the purpose of transforming it into a church of dressed stone. They remained the owners of the site until 1789 when it was taken over by the département. It would become a Prefecture, the first in the département of Gard, in 1800.
Once the amphitheatre passed into the hands of the local population, a veritable village sprung up inside its walls. It housed some 700 inhabitants by the 18th century, with more than a hundred homes and two churches, St. Peter’s and St. Martin’s.
Following the visit of Marie-Thérèse, the Duchess of Angoulême (daughter of Louis XVI and Louis XVIII's niece), the Maison Carrée became a museum and opened its doors to the public under the name of the ‘Musée Marie-Thérèse’. The museum housed collections of paintings dating from modern times, as well as mosaics, sculptures and architectural fragments from Ancient Rome, which are now exhibited in the city’s Musée Archéologique.
King François I was keen to restore the amphitheatre to its former glory. However, at the time, only the buildings of the first-floor gallery were cleared, leaving the disorganized cluster of houses standing in the stage area. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the last houses were cleared and architect Henri Revoil completed the restoration of the monument. Once the amphitheatre had been fully restored, it hosted its first corrida (bullfight).
Architect Henri Revoil cleared the underground areas of the amphitheatre and the room known as the ‘salle cruciforme’ [circular room] due to its shape. Holes, originally used to hold the beams supporting the floor and two lead counterweights marked with Respublica Nemausensis, point to the presence of trap doors through which the gladiators would have entered and exited during performances.
On 9 July 2005, the Municipal Council of the city of Nîmes entrusted Culturespaces with the development, running and promotion of three of the city’s Roman monuments: the amphitheatre, the Maison Carrée and the Tour Magne.
Every year, more than 400 history enthusiasts come together in Nîmes from all over France, as well as Germany and Italy, in order to re-enact the legendary Roman Games that were once held in Nemausus over 2,000 years ago, featuring gladiatorial contests, chariot races, parades of legionnaires, offering ceremonies, etc. The Great Roman Games have now become a major event and tourist attraction during the spring season in Nîmes.