Incredible Roman Arena of Nimes and its Ancient City
The monumental Roman building encloses an elliptical central space of 435 feet (133 meters) long by 330 feet (101 meters) wide, ringed by 34 rows of seats supported by a vaulted construction. It was constructed of stones from two quarries near the town — Barutel and Roquemaillere.
The front of the building consists of 2 levels of 60 over-and-under arches and an attic, separated by a cornice. Massive stones overhang at the top which were drilled to support long poles that suspended a huge canvas over the arena, providing protection for the spectators against the sun and foul weather.
One passes through the terraces to the interior galleries via the arena, opening to an overall view of the architecture and the history of the Nîmes Arena — 34 rows of “cavea” (terraces), which are supported by semi-circular vaults, bearing seating capacity for an audience of 16,300.
Beneath these vaults are 5 circular galleries and 162 stairwells and corridors, leading to the terraces for quick access to spectator seats to watch the games, gladiator fights and Venatio –animal hunts — which were open to everyone.
Inscriptions in stone have revealed that the boatmen of the Rhone and the Saone had seats reserved for their corporation. The lowest terraces were reserved for the town’s dignitaries and important people. The town’s citizens were seated in the intermediary terraces and the ordinary people and slaves viewed the battles from the upper terraces.
The amphitheatre was designed so that all had a clear view of the entire arena. Several galleries were located beneath the arena, accessed by trap doors and a hoist-lift system that provided entrance to the arena for the animals and gladiators during the games.
History of the Arena of Nimes
Prior to the Romans, the Celts established a settlement in Nimes. During the rule of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus the city grew in importance.
As the Empire fell, the amphitheater was fortified by the Visigoths and surrounded by a wall. During the turbulent years that followed the collapse of Visigoth power in Hispania and Septimania, not to mention the Muslim invasion and re-conquest by the French kings in the early 18th century, the viscounts of Nimes constructed a fortified palace within the amphitheater.
A small neighborhood later developed within its confines, complete with 100 denizens and 2 chapels. 700 people lived within the amphitheater during the height of its service as an enclosed community.
The buildings remained in the amphitheater until the 18th century, when the decision was made to convert the amphitheater into its present form.
The Arena was once the setting for gladiatorial battles, but today it’s matadors who fascinate their audiences during the Whitsuntide Féria.
Remodeled in 1863 to serve as a bullring, the Arena of Nimes not only hosts 2 annual bullfights, it’s also the scene for other public events such as concerts and operas. Since 1989 it’s had a movable cover and a heating system.
City of Nimes
Nimes — or “Nemausus” as the Romans named their colony — developed into an important center. In the 2nd century A.D. emperors Hadrian and Antonius Pius ordered the construction of 2 further splendid buildings, enriching the town with fine architecture. It was located on the Via Domitia, a Roman road constructed in 118 B.C, connecting Italy to Spain.
The city is known for its many well-preserved Roman structures, including:
• The Maison Carrée from the 1st century A.D. built in a Greek style as a temple and now housing a museum of Roman sculpture, and the only completely preserved Roman temple in the world.
• The Pont du Gard from late 1st century B.C. or early 1st century A.D. — a famous aqueduct.
• Near the city is the Tour Magne, a tower likely built in the 1st century B.C.
• The Temple of Diana from the 2nd century A.D.
• Also of note is the Cathedral of Saint Castor which began in the 11th century.
Today the beautiful view from the most highly elevated seats of the Amphitheatre extends across the rooftops of the picturesque old town of Nimes and its 2,000 years of glorious history.
The city gets its name from the Nemausus spring in the Roman village. The contemporary symbol and shield of the city of Nimes includes a crocodile chained to a palm tree with the inscription ‘COLNEM,’ an abbreviation of ‘Colonia Nemausus’ — meaning the ‘colony’ or ‘settlement’ of Nemausus.
The hill named Mt. Cavalier was the site of the early oppidum, which gave birth to the city. In the 3rd to 2nd century B.C. a surrounding wall was built, closed at the summit by a dry-stone tower, which was later incorporated into the masonry of The Tour Magne. The Wars of Gaul and the fall of Marseille in 49 B.C. allowed Nimes to regain its autonomy under Rome.
It became a Roman colony some time before 28 B.C, and some years later a sanctuary and other constructions connected with the fountain were raised on the site. Nimes was already under Roman influence, though it was Augustus who made the city the capital of Narbonne province, and gave it all its glory.
Augustus gave the town a ring of ramparts 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) long, reinforced by 14 towers, with gates of which 2 remain today — the Porta Augusta and the Porte de France. The city had an estimated population of 60,000.
He had the Forum built, and an aqueduct was built to bring water from the hills to the north. Where this crossed the River Gard between Uzes and Remoulins the spectacular Pont du Gard was built, 12 miles (20 kilometers) northwest of the city.
Veterans of the Roman legions who had served Julius Caesar in his Nile campaigns were given plots of land to cultivate on the plain of Nimes after 15 years of soldiering.
Nothing remains of certain monuments, the existence of which is known from inscriptions or architectural fragments found in the course of excavations. It is known that the town had a civil basilica, a curia, a gymnasium, and perhaps a circus.
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