A visit back to Pont du Gard and Nimes with my guest from the US reminded me how much history is so close to me in the south of France.
Revisit some of the Roman past with a tour to Nimes — one of the key Roman towns in “Gaul” during the days of Augustus.
Here’s why Nimes is a “must” for Roman history lovers
France has so many amazing places to visit it’s hard to decide where to start. If you’re a Roman history buff, you must visit Nimes. It’s a city where you can see, touch and experience life in France during the days of the Roman Empire. Unlike other places with rich Roman history that are now in ruins, there are many artifacts from Augustus Caesar’s time that are in active use still today.
In Nimes you can walk on the same streets, into the same buildings … literally sit in the same seats as the Romans who once occupied this part of Gaul.
Visiting Nimes is more that seeing “remnants” of a Roman civilization. There are intact, still-standing Roman structures. A Roman temple, a Roman arena, a Roman tower. Places that are enjoyed now by real, 21st century people.
The Roman History of Nimes
The area that is now Nimes was an established community as early as 400o BC. It was founded as a Roman colony (Colonia Nemausus) by Tiberius Claudius Nero in 45 or 44 B.C. for veterans that had served Julius Caesar under his command in Gaul and the invasion of Egypt. The name “Nemausus” was derived from the name of a Celtic god — the protector of the nearby spring that provided water for the early settlement.
As part of the Roman Empire, Nemausus benefitted from great wealth — especially during the reign of Augustus (27BC-14 BC) — and from an era of relative peace, Pax Romana (Roman Peace). The city reflected its opulence with grand architecture typical of a prosperous Roman colony. Among the most famous, the Maison Carrée was originally a Corinthian temple that dominated the city’s forum.
It is said that Thomas Jefferson became so enamored with the Maison Carrée during a visit to France, as foreign minister to the United States, that he had a clay replica made. He later used the model to design the capitol building of Virginia, his home state.
The Arènes de Nimes or the “Amphitheater”
In Roman times, the Arènes de Nimes could hold up to 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces. Divided into four separate areas, each section could be accessed through hundreds of galleries, stairwells and passages.
The amphitheatre was designed for crowd control and ultimate viewing pleasure. There were no bottlenecks when spectators flooded in and all had unrestricted visibility of the entire arena. Several galleries and entrances were located beneath the arena so that animals and gladiators could access the arena during the Roman games.
The “games” included animal hunts with lions, tigers and elephants and gladiator matches. Executions were held, as well, where those in town who were convicted to death were thrown to the animals as punishment.
After the times of the Roman Empire, Nimes fell into the hands of the Visigoths, then the Muslims. The Visigoths turned the arena into a fortress or “castrum arena” where the townspeople could gather in the event of an attack. When Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne, captured the city in 752, the splendor that was Nimes was pretty much in ruins. It was not until 1786 that work began to be restore the arena to its original grandeur.
The Tour Magne (Magne Tower) remains a prominent structure in Nimes, erected during the reign of Augustus in 1 BC. It is said to have been built atop an earlier Celtic/Gallic tower from 15BC- 14BC. The tallest structure for miles around, the Tour Magne was used as part of the fortification that surrounded the city. What remains of the tower can be seen from throughout the city.
Along with the Roman buildings that are still in use today in Nimes, there are ruins of the early civilization that visitors can wander through or view.
Your Walking Tour of Nimes
The downtown area of the Roman city of Nimes is still alive. The most historic Roman monuments are within walking distance. To reach Les Jardin de la Fontaine, you might want to hop on a local bus. Visit the Temple de Diane while you are there. If you climb up to the highest levels of the terraced stairway, through more gardens, you will reach the park-like area of Mont Cavalier. Further up the hill is the Tour Magne. It’s a hike to reach the tower, but it’s worth it if you want a view of the city from all directions. Take along plenty of water and, perhaps, a snack so that you can stop and enjoy the view along the way.
Step by step guide
- Nimes can be reached by train, bus and car. The train station (GARE) is in the center of the historic area. Regional buses stop behind the train station as well. From the station, a pedestrian promenade leads straight from the station to the amphitheater.
- Park at any one of the downtown parking lots. Just follow the blue P signs. Some of the parking is outside and some in a garage. When I visit Nimes I park at the Marché (city market) that is outlined in purple on the map because it is so close to the Maison Carrée.
- Start your tour at the Maison Carrée. A 20-minute film runs every 30 minutes during tourist season. It’s excellent and it gives you an overview of the history of Nimes. You can buy combination tickets that give you admission to the film, the amphitheater and the Tour Magne.
- Walk to the Arèna (amphitheater). There are self-guided tours of the amphitheater with headphones and an audio presentation describing the days of gladiators. Stop along the way to the amphitheater, or afterwards, at any of the many cafes and restaurants for a more leisurely visit.
- Walk past the Porte d’Auguste to view a part of the fortification that protected the ancient city. It’s not a short walk from the amphitheater, but it’s on the way to your next stop.
- Les Jardin de la Fontaine is a “modern” part of Nimes that has a rich Roman background. It was built in the 18th century atop the ruins of Roman baths (thermal). You can stroll for hours in the garden enjoying the fountains, canals and seasonal plantings.
- Tour Magne is your last stop. The tower is open for tourists (check the schedule) to wander through inside. A very narrow, spiral stairway leads to a viewing area where you can see the city of Nimes from all angles.
Here’s another reason why you must see Nimes
Nimes blends the “new” with the “ancient”. A modern world among ancient Roman buildings.The Amphitheatre, for example, is the entertainment center used for rock concerts and other popular musical events.
Roman history reenactments, with all the pomp and ceremony, are staged in the Nimes amphitheater each year.
Then there are the Ferias or bull fights in the amphitheater. The events are popular in the south of France still today and draw crowds for the weekend events.
Regardless of the time of year you visit Nimes, there’s a party going on.
For more information about the arena
More places to visit history in Provence
Film trailer of the history of Nimes, on view at the Maison Carrée