Conquered by Rome in 1st century BC, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region is heir to an impressive Roman architectural legacy. A foremost facet of the region’s history and identity, these ancient ruins are now an intrinsic part of the local culture.
Orange and Arles
UNESCO World Heritage sites
Provence is home to three Roman sites featured on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. Two of them are located in Orange, or “Arausio” as it was originally named by the Romans, founded in 35 BC: the Arc de Triomphe and Théâtre Antique. An honorary passage and symbol of the empire’s glory, the Arc de Triomphe (Triumphal Arch) marked the boundary between the original city and world of the dead. Set in the heart of Orange, the incredibly well-preserved Théâtre Antique (Roman Theatre), boasts extraordinary acoustics and provides the magnificent setting for the internationally-renowned Chorégies d’Orange annual opera and classical music festival. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Arènes d’Arles in Arles was built using the same drawings as the Coliseum in Rome and was a stage for gladiator fights. Don’t miss a visit to the Musée Départemental de l’Arles Antique : the museum harbours the astonishing wreck of a 31-metre Roman barge unearthed in the Rhône river in 2011.
A must-see archaeological hub
Located a few kilometres to the East of Orange, Vaison proudly flies the flag of its Roman roots: in 1924, the town even requested that the words “la Romaine” be added to its original name. And rightly so: Vaison-la-Romaine is France’s largest archaeological hub, home to the Roman sites of Puymin and La Villasse, unearthed from 1907 onwards. Puymin harbours the remains of lavish Roman villas and a theatre formerly able to welcome up to 6,000 spectators. In La Villasse, you can admire the foundations of the Rue des Boutiques – the town’s main thoroughfare – and Silver Bust House. Measuring an impressive 5,000 square metres, it was the town’s largest inhabited construction at the time.
An ancient Roman port
After being conquered by Julius Caesar in 49 BC, the city of “Massilia”, originally founded by the Ancient Greeks, gradually evolved into a Roman city. Its port activities began to prosper from then onwards, as witnessed by the Musée des Docks Romains, set on the Vieux-Port (Old Port), where Roman warehouses used to stand. The museum collections include many “dolia” – jars used to store wine – and objects retrieved from shipwrecks. Just a stone’s throw away, the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille surprisingly rubs shoulders with a shopping mall. In fact, remains of the Roman city were unearthed while the mall was being built. In addition to its open-air “Jardin des Vestiges” (Garden of Remains), the museums harbours impressive wrecks, including that of a late 2nd-century Roman vessel.
The Trophée d’Augustus in La Turbie
A symbol of Imperial glory
Your next stop is La Turbie, on the heights of Monaco, marking the ancient border between Roman Gaul and Italy. This is the site of the Trophée d’Augustus, erected in 6 BC. Rising to 35 metres, this monument has a purely symbolic purpose and celebrates the unity and power of the Roman Empire after the decisive victory of Octavius, the nephew of Caesar and future Emperor Augustus, over the 45 tribes that populated the French Alps. A special dedication addressed to Augustus by the Senate, followed by the names of these peaceful peoples, is engraved on the western side of the monument. At the time, trophies were traditionally dedicated to the deities of victory. The Trophée d’Augustus, erected near a sanctuary worshipping Hercules Monoikos (at the origin of the name “Monaco”), was clearly intended to hoist the future Emperor to godly status…
A Roman site in the heart of Nice
The Roman town of “Cemenelum”, the capital of the Roman province of “Alpes Maritimae”, is located in Nice. The site is home to the remains of an amphitheatre, streets, shops and a sewage network. The most impressive feature is undoubtedly the complete set of thermal baths, including a frigidarium (cold pool) and several caldariums (hot pools). Outside, the remains of a sports field, pool and latrines stand witness to the major role of the baths in Roman society. Located just next to the site, the Musée Archéologique de Cimiez harbours a large collection of official and private documents dating back to the days of “Cemenelum”. You can also admire numerous everyday objects there, including vases, crockery, jewellery, perfume bottles and hair pins…