Arenas of Nimes or the revival of a 2000-year-old Roman amphitheater

It is one of the most emblematic and most visited ancient monuments in the Occitania region, and with good reason. Despite being nearly 2,000 years old, the arenas of Nîmes have managed to cross the ages and still stand proudly in the center of the city, a breathtaking testament to the region’s Roman past.

The elliptical building, about 130 meters long, is one of the best preserved ancient amphitheaters in the world. A feature that is all the more remarkable because she has known several lives. Its construction began around 100 AD, just a few decades after the construction of the Colosseum in Rome.

Journey into the heart of Nimes-la-Romaine

The amphitheater was intended for entertaining performances of the population. Nemaus, the former name of Nimes. Thus, it could accommodate about 24,000 spectators in its thirty rows spread over two floors. Among the most popular shows were the legendary gladiator fights.

However, since the 5th century, the building had completely different functions. Time turned into a fortress, in the Middle Ages it became the center of a real village, in which there were several hundred houses, workshops, shops and even two churches. This permanent occupation allowed the amphitheater to avoid demolition.

However, only in the 19th century did the building regain some of its former glory. It was cleared of the houses parasitizing on it and carried out an extensive restoration campaign. Goal: to turn the amphitheater back into a venue for entertainment and shows.

From Roman amphitheater to modern arena

This is how modern arenas appeared, recognized as a historical monument in 1840. The first shows were held here in the 1860s Goodbye gladiatorial fights, give way to bullfights. As this illustration published in the newspaper illustrated world May 23, 1863.

If spectators cannot watch the race from the stands, as before, then they are clearly there. And the events provide an opportunity to once again talk about the legacy of Nîmes and its famous arenas in the newspapers. November 24, 1865 it was the turn Arts Monitor dedicate part of the report to her:

Few monuments have made such a strong impression on us as the Arena. When viewed from a certain angle, they seem to be barely damaged, or rather, it seems that the imprint of their history is visible everywhere. Their blackish stones still bear the traces of the fire lit by Charles Martel to drive out the Saracens who had taken refuge there. An intelligent and discreet restoration is currently consolidating the Nimes Arena without destroying its majestic character.

At that time, bullfights, a Spanish tradition, were booming. And the number of impressions throughout France increased, including in the following decades. There were also criticisms of the treatment of animals during these events.

In 1884 the newspapers reported:bloody scenesdeployed in the arenas. Echoes that gave rise to the first debate in France about bullfighting as a kindred Little newspaper June 18:

These scenes were the reason for the decision of the Minister of the Interior to ban bullfighting. Following this decision, a large meeting was called in Nîmes, which took place on Sunday. The following resolution was adopted: “The Assembly strongly protests against the fictitious and misleading articles of the Paris press about bullfights. »

On behalf of the people of Nîmes, deeply moved by the news of the circular banning bullfights, it expresses the wish that the municipalities know, if necessary, that they use all their influence with the government to prevent it from canceling these spectacles held to the tastes and manners of the entire population south of France.

A year later, the public is still coming to these races en masse. But some scenes continue to shock. The fate of the bulls is not the only one that draws criticism. This also applies to the horses of the bullfighters, collateral victims of collisions. August 12, 1885 newspaper Cry of the people Explain :

Yesterday, a big bullfight took place in the arenas of Nimes. Over 30,000 people attended. Since early morning, trains from Paris, Lyon and Marseille have brought many travelers. The arena was decorated with Spanish and French flowers. […]

Six young Andalusian bulls were killed one by one; from the first pass, Frascuelo suffered a thigh injury from a blow from the horn […] Seven horses were disemboweled, a large part of the population strongly expressed disgust inspired by these bloody spectacles; at times hoots and whistles drowned out the sound of applause. We seem surprised in Nîmes that after the authorities refused to allow these races last year, the authorities relented this time…

About ten days later, on August 22, illustrated world publishes an illustration of the same event. We see that the spectators are no longer satisfied with the fact that they gather along the edges of the track. The work carried out in the arenas allowed the public to invest again in the stands as well as in the height of the amphitheatre.

Despite ongoing criticism, bullfighting remains one of the defining spectacles of the early 20th century arena. The building is definitely regaining its original function as an entertainment venue, drawing crowds, including politicians. In October 1924, the building was visited by Gaston Doumergue, a native of Gard and the newly elected President of the Republic, who appeared on the front page of the weekly. in Little diary:

In the arenas of Nimes. The first official visit of the President of the Republic was to his native country. Mr. Doumergue was greeted everywhere with enthusiastic reception, and he enjoyed rediscovering the spectacles loved by his youth, including the mobile exercises of the “guardians” of La Camargue, jumping with a trident in hand on their flexible horses and frisky.

A window into the ancient past of the city

The arenas, once again becoming a place of entertainment, nevertheless remain an important testament to antiquity. Thus, in addition to the restoration work, several excavations were carried out in the building, as a result of which important discoveries were found in its architecture, the way performances were held and the life of the inhabitants of the city. Nemaus. Knowledge that complements the testimony of other surviving monuments of the city, as indicated Small illustrated magazine July 19, 1925:

There is no region in France where the remains of Gallo-Roman antiquity are more numerous, more beautiful and so wonderfully preserved than in this former country. Volskoe Arekomiciout of which Nemaus was the capital. […] The best of the monuments erected by the Romans at Nîmes is the temple, believed to have been dedicated to the memory of the adopted sons of Augustus, and which is called square house. […]

Nîmes has another marvel of ancient art: its Aren. Of all the Roman amphitheaters surviving in France, this one is the best preserved. Although it does not have the formidable dimensions of the Colosseum in Rome, it nevertheless gives a great idea of ​​​​what the city of Nimes was like at a time when circus games, gladiator fights and horse fights of animals drew crowds there. […] The fact remains that the amphitheater at Nîmes dates back to the time when architectural art reached the highest degree of perfection in such buildings.

The arenas of Nîmes also provide a more global window into the Gallo-Roman world, as well as into the customs and traditions of the time. An easily accessible window, as the building is well preserved and allows you to imagine the scenes that took place there two thousand years ago. As the name suggests school and life October 9, 1948:

Nimes is a city in the south, where beautiful buildings built by the Gauls after the Roman conquest are still preserved. Arenas. We are far from the Gallic hut before the conquest. Very similar to the construction site these days. However, it dates from the 2nd century (200 years after Vercingetorix), so it is 1800 years old. Work solidity. This is mortar masonry; which the Gauls could not do before.

In the arenas of Nimes, people came to watch the fights (since we are going to see boxing or football matches today). Gladiators sometimes fought on the track (from sword), armed and battleships. Sometimes they fought to the death. On other occasions, they were forced to fight ferocious beasts (compare today’s bullfights). Gauls (now we call them Gallo-Romansbecause they look more and more like the Romans) still love chariot races in circuses more than arenas.

Today, the monument offers a new tour that allows you to walk through its galleries, discovering the secrets of its construction and the performances that took place there, including the famous gladiator fights. It also remains the venue for major events drawing up to 200,000 spectators a year. The arena regularly hosts bullfights, concerts, sporting events, TV shows, as well as a large historical reenactment.

In 2022, Emperor Hadrian will appear in the reenactment, offering to immerse yourself in scenery and costume in the battles that the Roman legions fought against the Picts, a people who once lived in the north of England. From 4 to 8 May, the city will also host numerous celebrations commemorating Nimes-la-Romaine’s past.

>> Find in this section all articles in partnership with RetroNews, BNF press site. And if you’re into newspaper archives, RetroNews has launched its quarterly magazine, which offers exploration of historical events and periods through the press of the time. It is available at newsstands, bookstores and online.

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