Nîmes: France’s Hidden Gem of Roman Antiquity
To fully immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Ancient Rome, consider looking beyond the crowded streets of Rome itself! France offers a unique perspective, as the Roman Empire left a lasting mark on the provinces of Gaul for over five centuries. Especially in Southern France where the remnants of Roman influence are still strikingly visible.
Affectionately known as “the French Rome”, the city of Nîmes proudly showcases this with exceptionally preserved ancient structures, inviting you into a captivating and unhurried setting where beauty, sunshine, and history converge.
Embark on your own odyssey here, marveling at the Roman Amphitheater that once hosted 20,000 roaring spectators and exploring the architectural wonders of two UNESCO heritage sites—the Maison Carrée (Roman Temple) and Pont du Gard (Aqueduct). Along the way, stop to discover the ancient sanctuary where it all started, with both Celtic and Roman vestiges centered around a sacred spring that has brought life to Nimes for over two millennia.
Picture yourself strolling through Nîmes, where the echoes of ancient Roman civilizations harmonize with the rhythm of modern life, and keep reading to learn about the fascinating history and sites that this “off-the-beaten path” city holds in the heart of the South of France.
Nimes: Thriving Roman Colony
Nimes, known as Nemausus in Roman times, was established as a Roman colony during the reign of Augustus in the 1st century BC, superseding an earlier Celt settlement in the region.
The city’s development was part of the broader Romanization efforts to establish strategic colonies and infrastructure throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman colony of Nemausus flourished as a vital hub along the Via Domitia, the ancient Roman road that connected Italy to Spain. This artery facilitated the flow of goods, culture, and power, establishing Nimes as a crucial point in the vast Roman network.
Wherever they went, the Romans impressed the “indigenous” locals with massive engineering projects. The construction of significant structures like the Nimes Amphitheater, Maison Carrée temple, and the Pont du Gard aqueduct, among others are tangible proof of Nimes’ importance as a Roman colony at this time.
From Nile to Nimes: City’s Symbol of the 1st Roman Emperor
Born Gaius Octavius, later known as Caesar Augustus, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the first Roman Emperor. He played a pivotal role in the rise of the Roman Empire, marking the end of the Roman Republic. Augustus’ reign, from 27 BC to 14 AD, is known as the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability.
Augustus’ influence extended far beyond Rome, reaching the captivating landscapes of Egypt. Following the demise of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in 31 BC at the battle of Actium, Augustus strategically annexed Egypt into the Roman Empire.
To celebrate this event, ancient Roman coins were minted in Nimes featuring a distinctive emblem – a crocodile chained to a palm tree. The inscription “Col Nem”, the Colony of Nîmes, suggests that victorious legionaries had been granted land near Nîmes.
Today, the crocodile emblem endures as a powerful symbol of the city’s rich history. Seen on modern flags, emblems, and town insignias, the crocodile remains a timeless link between the ancient grandeur of Nimes and its contemporary identity.
Gallo-Roman sanctuary and first French public park
In the ancient chronicles of Nimes, a Celtic tale unfolds.
Back in 121 BC, the Volcae Arecomici, a group of Celts (called Gauls by the Romans) peacefully handed over the reins to the Romans. At that time, a sacred spring dedicated to the Celtic god Nemauso, believed to have healing powers, adorned the land. The Magne Tower, a symbol of Celtic identity, already proudly defined the skyline perhaps to signal this sacred site.
As the Romans took charge, instead of erasing the Celtic symbols, they strategically “embraced” them to portray themselves as continuity rather than conquerors. The tower, once a Celtic emblem, gained new significance within the Roman fortifications. The deity Nemauso seamlessly became part of the Roman colony’s identity, and the Romans even incorporated this Celtic god into their own pantheon. This calculated integration led to the renaming of the settlement as Nemausus, later known as Nimes.
On the site of the original Celtic sacred spring where Nimes itself was founded, a peculiar Roman sanctuary called Augusteum emerged. This sanctuary, dedicated to Emperor Augustus and his family, is quite unusual, as it was built not through an imperial decree, but rather by the local population showing gratitude for imperial favors granted to Nimes. While the Augusteum temple itself has disappeared, some puzzling ruins still remain, like the so-called “Temple of Diana” dating back to the 1st century. The true purpose of this structure is still uncertain but was most likely a library.
By the 1730s, as Nîmes flourished as a textile industry hub, the city faced a water shortage for its growing cloth manufacturers. To address this, the ancient Nemausus spring was excavated, uncovering the forgotten Roman complex. Rather than creating a simple water channel, Jacques Mareschal transformed the area into France’s first public gardens. Set within the park’s verdant and serene landscape, the ancient sacred spring flows in 18th century canals while the enduring Celt-Roman Magne Tower and the ruins of the “Temple of Diana” stand as testaments of the interwoven Celtic and Roman heritage of Nimes.
From Gladiator Fights to 21st Century Concerts
Venture into the heart of ancient Nimes, where the colossal Amphitheater stands as a living testament to Roman entertainment. Probably built during the 1st century AD, this architectural marvel witnessed a myriad of events, from gladiatorial contests to hunting scenes and public spectacles that could welcome up to 24,000 spectators.
The Romans, recognizing the significance of public entertainment. The games, often brutal, were enjoyed by the masses, with Nimes hosting numerous events each year. Funding for these spectacles came from wealthy citizens, politicians, and even emperors, seeing it as a means of gaining popularity.
Exceptionally Preserved Roman Temple
As you continue your journey through Nimes prepare for an awe-inspiring encounter with The Maison Carrée: a Roman temple proudly standing as one of the most well-preserved examples of its kind. Crafted with precision and splendor during the reign of Emperor Augustus from 16 BCE to 2 CE, this architectural masterpiece was originally dedicated to Gaius and Lucius Caesar, grandsons and adopted sons of Emperor Augustus. Adorned with Corinthian columns and intricately carved friezes the temple stands as a testament to the craftsmanship of the Romans.
The Maison Carrée earned the esteemed recognition of a UNESCO monument in September 2023, solidifying its status as one of the world’s most well preserved Roman temples.
Just across from this ancient marvel lies Le Carré d’Art, a contemporary masterpiece by Sir Norman Foster. Designed to seamlessly blend into its historic surroundings, Le Carré d’Art, named after the Roman temple, houses the Musée d’Art Contemporain and a municipal library. This harmonious blend serves as a modern homage, paying respects to the ancient masterpiece while presenting a contemporary interpretation.
The Pont du Gard: A Roman Engineering Feat
During the Roman expansion of Nemausus, the limitations of the natural spring became apparent, prompting the construction of a 30 mile long aqueduct system. This masterpiece of Roman engineering gave the city (approximately 20,000 inhabitants at the time) a high degree of prestige: fountains, spa, running water in the residences of the wealthy, and clean streets all contributed to a sense of urban well-being.
One of the key elements of the aqueduct is The Pont du Gard, an aqueduct-bridge that crosses a steep Canyon over the Gardon River. The bridge itself is an exceptional architectural achievement, towering at 160 feet, making it the tallest Roman aqueduct bridge in the world. It is the sole surviving example of an ancient three-tier bridge, a testament to the prowess of this colossal project, which was finished in just five years!
While the aqueduct no longer conveys water, its majestic structure still profoundly impresses modern visitors. This ancient feat of engineering reminds us that the Romans executed such ambitious projects with sophistication that continues to captivate even 2,000 years later.
Nîmes now thrives as a stylish Provincial town of 150,000, with winding lanes filled with chic boutiques and cozy bistros all leading to imposing Roman structures that beg one to come closer and unlock its secrets from across millennia. This fascinating convergence of past grandeur and present pleasures makes Nîmes an unparalleled jewel not to be missed during your visit to Southern France.
Other Roman Ruins in Southern France: If you wish to visit more Roman vestiges in Southern France we recommend to visit Arles, Orange, or the vestiges of Glanum in St-Remy-de-Provence.