Visiting Southern France with my brother let us see some of the best-preserved structures from the early years of the Roman Empire. Setting up our base at Avignon gave us great flexibility; for long distances we could board the TGV at a station at the edge of the city, and for short distances we could hop a local train at the nearby Gare d’Avignon Centre. We purchased tickets through www.oui.sncf and were soon aboard a stopping train to the town of Orange, department of Vaucluse.
It might seem that a town of only 30,000 inhabitants is unlikely to have any depth to its history, but Orange has surprisingly long roots. The area first gained prominence from a clash in 105 BCE, part of the Cimbrian Wars. The Roman Republic was irritated by the migrations of the Cimbrians and Teutons, who kept trying to take up residence in areas occupied by allies of Rome. In 105 BCE, Rome raised an army of 120,000 and landed them in Southern Gaul to defeat these migrants, but the Senate made an important error in establishing two separate forces reporting to consul Mallius Maximus and to proconsul Servilius Caepio (one on each side of the Rhône River). After an initial conflict between the “barbarians” and the Roman vanguard eviscerated the Romans, each of the two Roman military leaders signaled the other to move his forces closer so that they couldn’t be individually defeated, and both refused. With the two Roman armies in conflict with each other, their forces were mauled, with just a few dozen survivors. The disaster was named for a sacred spring called Arausio on Saint-Eutrope Hill.
When the Romans occupied southern Gaul, Arausio was colonized in 35 BCE to house veterans of the second legion of Gaul. The town gained substantial infrastructure, with a forum accompanied by a ampitheatre in the side of Saint-Eutrope Hill and a temple complex. A memorial arch was erected at the northern extremity of the town. One can find Roman amphitheatres all over Europe (even in Paris), but Orange is the only place I know where one can find a full-size theatre in this excellent condition. That’s why the town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout our visit, I was reminded of my visit to Italica with Natasha.
Tom and I walked west from the small train station to the center of the modern town of Orange. We paused at a statue of Raimbaud II, the Count of Orange. The podium celebrated his taking part in the First Crusade victories at Antioch and Jerusalem in 1099 CE. I think Tom was a bit surprised to see that the Crusades had any impact on a small town in Southern France. If I could linger on Raimbaud II for just a moment, I would point out that his battles in 1099 CE are closer to the present (2021 CE) than to the time during which the theatre this post describes was built. We turned south for a block to reach the hulking wall of the Théâtre antique d’Orange. We spent a few minutes just walking the bounds, emitting the occasional unabashed “Wow!”
Our visit to the theatre of antiquity
The theatre does not stand alone. The area west of the theatre on Rue Madeleine Roch has the remains of a temple porch and city center. I am glad that the modern city has not absorbed this area. Tom and I were able to enter the theatre for twelve Euros apiece, including audio guides coded to English. We didn’t opt for the special multimedia options.
We climbed the stairs to enter from the middle ranks of the seating area. When we stepped into the bowl, with the theatre surrounding us, we felt something like awe. The theatre was constructed between 10 and 25 CE. If you happen to be Christian, that means that the stones on which we were standing were quarried and placed during the life of Jesus (often thought to have died in either 30 or 33 CE).
Since Tom has spent much of his professional life teaching the next generation about history, he began talking about the “seven factors of civilization” that he saw in evidence around us. He paused to shoot a video on his phone for use in class.
So… about that theatre stage. We often think about a modern stage having replaceable images that can be rolled up and down at will, but in Roman theatres the wall behind the stage (“scaenae frons“) was static, with shelves for a variety of statues. It was amazing that some of the original statues had been returned to their alcoves in this wall. The twin “parascaenia” towers that once supported the roof were also still standing, and a modern roof has been anchored to them to protect the stage below from the elements.
The sunlight in the bowl of the theatre had gotten pretty intense, and so we entered the chambers under the upper ranks of seats. Most were devoted to the modern uses of the theatre; it has an active schedule of events, from rock concerts to celebrations of the city’s Roman heritage. Tom and I both enjoyed the music, but I was taken aback when one of the presentations noted that these chambers had previously been used as prison cells.
The restoration of this theatre is all the more amazing because at some points in its history the village of Orange has used the theatre to shelter its housing! Fabienne Dugast‘s Ph.D. thesis incorporates a variety of engravings that have been produced for the theatre of antiquity over the most recent centuries. Some of the images are on display in the Art and History Museum of Orange. I really wish we could have spent more time in the town to visit it.
From town center to the Memorial Arch at its northern edge
As Tom and I walked north to our next stop, we had a moment to enjoy the modern conveniences of Orange. Something kept nagging at the back of my mind about the town name, when I suddenly realized that the name “Orange” is often associated with Protestant communities (such as communities in Northern Ireland). In fact, William of Orange, the prince of the Dutch Republic who became the King of England in the “Glorious Revolution,” was named so because he was also the Prince of Orange, the area we were visiting. I was fascinated that the center of a Protestant Principality was a mere 13 miles from Avignon, which for many years was the home of the Pope.
Perhaps because Orange has not had as much economic growth as its neighbors, it has retained some of the small town atmosphere and walkable areas. Our path north took us to the Cathedral of Orange, which happened to be hosting a baptism that morning. I poked my head in to see another beautiful nave. As we got further north, we crossed a pretty bridge over the Meyne River, which empties into the Rhône River just west of town. It was all very peaceful.
National Route 7 runs north to the memorial arch at the (former) edge of town. In Roman days, the route was called “via Agrippa,” extending all the way north to Lyon. When we visited, the base was still surrounded by construction fences, since its restoration is an ongoing project. The arch has stood there for two millenia, but it doesn’t look a day over 1000 years old, if you ask me! The construction date is a little bit in doubt, since the colony was founded in 35 BCE but the arch carries an inscription honoring Tiberius in 27 CE. Was the original arch rebuilt? One cannot carbon date limestone. In any case, the arch has seen some interesting history. In the middle ages, stone masons incorporated the Roman arch into a defensive wall around the city.
Our path back to the train station took us by a lovely mansion in the angle defined by Avenue Frederic Mistral and Avenue Henri Fabre. I don’t know quite how we missed seeing that on our walk in!
Provence, in southeastern France, has a lot to offer if you are really interested in the full Roman experience:
- Nîmes “Maison Carrée” Corinthian Temple
- Pont du Gard aqueduct
- The Ampitheatre of Arles
- Ouvèze River Bridge
If you have access to a car, you can visit Orange and all of these other sites with a total of just over two hours’ driving.