France is home to some of the best preserved Roman Sites from the ancient world. From the 1st century BCE to the 5th century CE, much of modern day France was part of the Roman Empire as the province of Gaul. Today, many Roman buildings and structures survive, as well as fascinating ruins that give a glimpse of the country’s Imperial Roman heritage.
Temples, amphitheatres, tunnels, roads, and bridges are all some of the things to admire as part of Rome’s impressive legacy; not just along the Mediterranean coast, but also far into the northern frontiers of Rome’s legendary empire.
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard aqueduct is one of France’s most extraordinary Roman ruins. Located in the Occitanie region, the limestone aqueduct spans the river Gardon and is the highest Roman aqueduct in the world at 48.8 metres (160 feet). It was designed to provide water to the city of Nîmes, 50km (31 miles) away. It ceased to function as an aqueduct around the end of the Roman Empire, but stood the test of time and was repurposed as a toll bridge by medieval lords.
In the 18th century, restoration efforts were launched to maintain and restore this historic treasure. A parallel pedestrian bridge was built in 1747 to allow admirers to have a close up view of the bridge without walking on it. One of the biggest proponents of its saving was the emperor Napoleon III, who approved a large renovation project. The Pont du Gard has UNESCO World heritage status today, and is one of the most popular ancient tourist sites in France.
The south of France is home to one of most impressive Roman amphitheatres still standing today, the 2000 year-old Arena of Nîmes. Built around 70CE, the amphitheatre is located in the Occitan city of Nîmes. Its 34 terraces were designed to accommodate 24,000 cheering spectators, and the structure has fantastically preserved galleries, staircases and sculptures.
Visitors to the amphitheatre can view exhibitions of weaponry and armour used by gladiators, as well as exhibitions that describe the bullfighting (torero) tradition which the arena is now used for.
Nîmes is home to another Roman architectural masterpiece, the Maison Carrée (square house). The imposing columns of this square-plan temple were erected around 2BCE, and is considered by many to be one of the world’s best preserved Roman temples. The huge temple stands 17.1 metres (56.1 feet) high, and has one entrance that leads to the chamber. Where the shrine once was is now a film viewing area, which plays Nemausus: The Birth of Nîmes, a history of Roman culture in Nîmes. The Maison Career has been cited as inspiration for many more contemporary buildings, including the Virginia State Capitol, and l’Église de la Madeleine in Paris.
Roman Ruins at Jublains
Jublains is the site of one the most northernmost Roman ruins in France. Originally a Gallic settlement of the Diablintes tribe, the Romans turned the site into the town of Noeodunum (also known as Noviodunum). The remains of the site include a temple, tiered amphitheatre, and a defensive fortress ringed by stone walls and earthern ramparts. While these structures no longer stand, it is possible to imagine the splendour of the city in its heyday. For visitors, the Musée de Jublains museum is located onsite that explains the history of the area, and exhibits excavated artefacts from Jublains.
Temple of Janus
In the hills of the Autun commune in the Bourgogne-Franche-Conté region is the imposing Gallo-Roman Temple of Janus. Now destroyed, the ruined 1st century temple is composed of two sides of a square cella, the inner chamber of the temple. It’s imposing 24 metre (78 feet) height and 2.2 metre (7.2 feet) thick walls makes it one of the most impressive Roman ruins in France. It is one of the highest remaining Roman structures in the world.
The city of Arles, on the Mediterranean coast of France, sits about halfway between Marseille and Montpellier in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. The city is renowned for its large collection of Roman and Romanesque monuments that span centuries of Roman and French history, and are classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Among the oldest and most impressive monuments date to the 1st century CE, and include the two-tiered Arles amphitheatre that was inspired by Rome’s Colosseum; the Roman Theatre of Arles; and the Crypoporticus, a vaulted passageway.
The sites at Arles also include the 4th century Necropolis of Alyscamps, a Roman burial ground, and baths of Constantine. In addition to the Roman ruins are a number of outstanding Romanesque-style buildings that date to the 12th-15th century after the fall of the Roman Empire. One notable example includes the Church of Saint-Trophime.
In the Vaucluse department of Occitanie in France is the commune of Orange, known for its stunning Roman architecture and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Roman Theatre of Orange is the most celebrated Roman sites in France, built between 10 to 25CE for an incredible 10,000 spectators. It is known for its stage wall, a stone wall that creates a huge backdrop to the stage performers. Surrounding Roman structures also are included in the World Heritage listed status, such as the Triumphal Arch of Orange which dates to 14BCE – 27CE. Visitors can learn more about the sites and admire Roman artefacts in the Art and History Museum of Orange.
In the northern region of Normandy are a number of Roman ruins scattered around, remnants of the Romans Empire’s northern frontiers. The town of Lillebonne is located on the river Seine, just 40 minutes from the coastal city of Le Havre. It was built as a Roman city named Juliobona around the 1st century CE, and is known for its Roman baths and Galli-Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatre was thought to seat as many as 3000 spectators. Lillebonne was abandoned around the 3rd century CE, as barbarian tribes reduced the Roman Empire’s borders. Today, the Juliobona Gallo-Roman Museum located at the amphitheatre site houses historical artefacts. Some of the more valuable Roman treasures are on display around the country, such as a bronze statue of Apollo in The Louvre, and mosaics now on display in Rouen.
Arènes de Lutèce
Located in the heart of Paris, yet hidden away behind the houses and trees is the Arènes de Lutèce, a Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatre is almost 2000 years old, built in the first century when the city was named Lutetia (Lutèce). It was used for performances and gladiatorial combat, the spectators covered by linen shades. Over the centuries, the amphitheatre was covered over and lost, only to be rediscovered by builders during Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. It’s conservation by the Société des Amis des Arènes was overseen by Victor Hugo. Today, it is near Place Monge station, and free to enter for everyone.
Le Théâtre Antique de Fourvière
Just as Paris has a Roman amphitheatre rights in the city centre, so too does Lyon. Le Théâtre Antique de Fourvière is located in the hilly Fourvière district of Lyon, and is part of the UNESCO World heritage site of Lyon’s historic centre. The amphitheatre dates to around 15BCE, and was later expanded to accommodate more spectators. Today, the site is open to visitors, and still hosts music and theatre performances during the Nuits de Fourvière. It is customary for spectators to hurl their seat cushions at the stage at the end of each show, as a show of appreciation.
France has a fascinating collection of ancient Roman dites to discover, with some of Europe’s best preserved bridges and temples. This is by no means a complete list, and there are many more pieces of Roman heritage to be found throughout France.