Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remarkable Roman Ruins


On our last morning in Lyon, we went up the hill to see ruins of two Roman amphitheatres. The large one, which seats 10,000, showed newer stoneworks where repairs had been made and is still in good enough shape to host performances today. You can see the moden metal stands to hold lights - an interesting juxtaposition of the old and the new.

Beside the old theatre there was a smaller theatre mainly for musical performances which was distinguished by beautiful marble work on the stage floor. The marble had come from all around the Mediterranean, testament to the trading reach of the Romans. 


On we drove to the beautiful little town of Orange, site of an even more impressive theatre, built in the first century AD. The Orange Festival still uses the theatre, seating about 7,000. 

The most impressive part of the theatre is the rather well preserved original stage wall. In its day, it was extremely ornate, with arches and niches filled with statues. 

This theatre was heavily used in the decadent period of the Roman Empire decline as people spent as many as 100 days a year being entertained there, with tragedies, comedies, mime and pantomimime. In latter times, the performances deteriorated to bawdy performancs, even hitting the pornographic. But much of the importance of the theatre was in disseminating the cult of the emporer. That's him in the middle niche:

These statues were mass produced and sent out to the colonies. They were made with detachable heads, so that a new head could be placed on the statue whenever there was a new emporer. How clever!

There used to be a roof over the stage area, and an awning was strung with ropes over the seating. A new roof was carefully added a few years ago after researching information about the original roof and making sure not to spoil the spectacular acoustics in the theatre. The audio tour was very well done here, as well as various multimedia displays showing performances over the ages, up to and including rock concerts in recent times.

As Christianity gained sway, the theatre was closed down, and at one time, about 40 residences were built within its confines. These had to be carefully removed when the theatre was being restored.

There was a great little museum across the street, whose most interesting aspect (for me at least) were the remains of old Roman land records for the area. After a refreshing drink by a fountain in a cafe gazing at the back of the theatre wall, we headed to the old Roman triumphal arch, again from around the first century AD.

Pont du Gard 

The Pont du Gard is the tallest Roman bridge and aquaduct. It impressively spans the Gardon RIver and was built to serve Nimes (next stop on our journey). Quite an engineering feat to be still standing a couple of millennia later. But it was only used for 150 years, because it gradually filled with muddy water because of the debris that fell into the top vents.

The museum at Pont du Gard was also impressive - very large space in darkness with artifacts placed widely apart highlighted with bright lights*. We learned a lot about the aquaduct and the city of Nimes.  What a marvel of engineering. Five years and 500 men. I couldn't help thinking of the training exercise alone as these Romans arrived and had to teach the locals the various  skills ranging from stone cutting to applying the mortar.  Because of  their local spring and the vast amount of water delivered through the aquaduct, the people of Nimes became profligate water users - about 1,000 litres per inhabitant per  day, compared to our average modern usage of 400-500 litres per person per day. The baths were a focal point for the town's social life and it took lots of water to keep those baths full.


Our last stop on our Gallo-Roman tour was Nimes, Here we visited an oval Roman amphitheatre which seated 24,000, claimed to be the best preserved of all Roman amphitheatres. It was indeed impressive, but somewhat marred by the wooden seats and metal structures which obscured the original form. 


The arena was filled with sand to absorb the blood, from the animals killed in the morning, the condemned people over noon, and some of the gladiators in the afternoon. Apparently, about 90% of the gladiators who surrendered were allowed to live by choice of the guy running the games.

One of the things I found very interesting there were a series of placards describing all the different kinds of gladiators - I had not realized how many different types there were. I will post them separately for my own records and for anyone else who's interested.

We then walked up to the Maison Carree, a beautiful Roman temple.

We saw an excellent film in the temple telling the story of Nimes. The tribes from Nimes joined the Roman army as they marched north to conquer Northen Gaul, and hence Nimes became a big Roman centre,

That was a lot of Roman-Gallo history - wonderful to see and a real treat.

*So much creative imagination went into this vast and spacious space, but none into whether any of the placardss would be legible, Someone thought it was a good idea to use tiny crem font on a light grey baxkground, with no light shining on them in this dark space. Wow. Such and important detail!

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