The Romans were master architects. We know that, we have many tangible testaments left to prove it. Their structures still stand sometimes intact in various spots in Europe. We can almost wonder what they and the Egyptians had on our architects, to have made buildings and other constructions to withstand the times so well.
Are any of our magnificent towers going to survive millenniums? Skyscrapers, bridges, arches, none seem to be eternal like the pyramids of Egypt and the Roman Pont du Gard aqueduct.
In short (very short), the ancient Roman civilization gave way to the mighty Roman Empire. Covering a vast territory comprising all of England and France, Belgium, bits of Germany and Switzerland, all of Spain and Italy of course, and plenty more territorial holdings around the Mediterranean in Europe and Africa, plus some big chunks of Asia.
These guys never had enough. One Julius Cesar had something to do with all this, as he was appointed the perpetual emperor of the whole shebang, but he was assassinated - so there, House of Cards is mild compared to Ancient Rome.
For over 500 years, the Romans reigned over their large empire and had plenty of time to built massive structures and gracious real estate. They were so good at it, we're still looking at it today. France had no real roads before the Romans, just dirt paths and muddy ways. The Romans used stones, pebbles, cement and hard-packed mud to line up a maze of connecting roadways through France.
The Romans were master sculptors as well - just look at the wonderful emperor Augustus full size effigy, an ornate draping of fabric so masterful, it looks alive! They applied their talent to many bridges and roads, arenas and towers, arches and walls, houses, thermal baths, entire cities and a massive network of paved roads to take them there.
After all, they did stay some 560 years. Roughly from II BC (200 years before the birth of Christ) to 1453, just about half a millennium. They had time to settle and make themselves at home in an extended territory formed by foreign lands with foreign languages and different civilizations they had to crush to take over. But let's not get into that today.
The most common Roman contribution to architecture was the famous arch. The domes and vaults were also part of their portfolio. More than 2,000 years after their departure, many structures still stand - due to the sophisticated achievements in their methods. The roads they built were still considered the best until early 19th century.
They had a plan: all the amphitheatres, theatres, gymnasiums and thermal baths that were public buildings were built according to an almost identical master plan for every Gallo-Roman colony of a certain size. The Roman government saw this as a way of spreading Latin/Roman culture among the colonized populations, to maintain order and prevent revolts. After all, they were the conquerors.
Here are Some of the Best Roman Structures I Visited in France
• Le Pont du Gard.
My personal favorite is the gorgeous Pont du Gard, an aqueduct across the Gardon River in Provence. It is listed on the World Heritage Sites of UNESCO. I have climbed on it, crossed it by foot, swam underneath it, and picnicked under its arches. It is a majestic limestone structure, practically intact, and well hidden on purpose.
The Romans built it in the bend of the river where the high sides only allow the bridge to be seen as you arrive upon it and not a minute sooner. It has three tiers of arches standing over the water at 160 feet high. It carried water to fountains, baths and homes to the city of Nîmes, and was still possibly used until the 6th century.
The inside of the aqueduct was finally detailed for smoothness, made from masonry incorporating tiny shards of pottery and tile, then coated with native olive oil and finally glazed with lime, pork grease and the viscous juice of unripe figs - to produce a sleek durable surface. You almost want to eat it!
It is located in Vers-Pont-du-Gard, between Uzès and Nimes, in the Gard Département, in the South of France. It's about a 30-minue drive from the town of Nimes on the road D6086 (D stands for départementale, which means a road that travels between départements, or provinces.)
• Les Arênes de Nîmes.
Since you'll be in the area, do not miss the best preserved Roman arenas of Nîmes. The spectacular structure was used as an amphitheatre by the sophisticated Romans who liked art and dance, theater and fighting. Well, they also used the arena for public executions at lunchtime, gladiator fights and men against beast combats in pretty violent endeavors.
This building was tweaked a little, but the foundations and the overall effect are still genuine. Built around AD 70, it was only remodeled in 1863 to serve as a modern bullring, where two traditional bullfights take place each year. The building encloses an elliptical central space ringed by 34 rows of seats in a vaulted construction.
Its nowadays capacity is 16,300 spectators. In 1989, a removable cover and a heating system were installed, but none of that affects the incredible visual impact of the arena.
It sits at the center of the city. Nîmes has many other Roman monuments you can visit. Its summer music festival is a popular event drawing visitors from all over the country. This year, Pharrell Williams, Johnny Hallyday, Lenny Kravitz, Toto, Santana, Lionel Richie, Joan Baez, Nicki Minaj, Sting, and Soprano are among the artists performing.
• Saint-Rémy de Provence.
In this small typical village of Provence, the Roman people settled down in a strategic valley and built a town known as Glanum. Today the remnants are called Les Antiques and are crossed by a small road going around its own business. Stop the car or just glance at it in passing, but it's really worth a visit.
Walk among the thermal bath ruins and the arches in perfect shape for a moving experience of lived-in effect. The detailed sculpted frontispiece is one more proof of the artsy and sophisticated lives of the ancient Romans.
• Les Arènes de Lutèce.
Jumping up to the capital, don't miss the arenas of Paris - Lutèce/Lutetia is the former name of Paris - these ones were built more for entertainment, less for violent happenings. The theater could hold about 15,000 spectators. The amphitheatre had a stage made of an oval arena, two large lateral entryways and an area for sitting.
The opened section was used by mimes, pantomimes and singing performances. Gladiators and wild beasts were also the guests of the shows. The rounded structure had an exterior gallery and a highly ornamented facade. The nearby Thermes de Cluny were more than a bathhouse for public hygiene. Like all public baths in Roman times, cleanliness, pleasure and social relations all took place at the baths.
Sort of the very first social media meeting point.
Both are located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where students like to start many a revolution. Latin because it's a subject matter in French school. Latin because many Roman ruins are in that area. Latin because it's the lovers' district, with the romantic side of the city very present here.
The Romans called the city Lutetia, but before them, the ancient Parisii tribe - one of the many Celtic tribes in Gaul - inhabited the area, and the name returned to Paris after the Romans left.
Ciao they said!
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