The Roman Arena in Arles most likely looks much like it did almost 2000 years ago.
I could feel the history as I walked through the interior and all the passageways from the gladiators' dressing rooms, through stables where animals were kept, and out into the arena itself.
Be sure to climb to the top. There are great views of the city of Arles and Provence from the top row of the arena.
The arena is right next to hotel le Calendal. They still hold outdoor events and bullfights in the arena. I root for the bull.
I took this one evening after midnight.
The city of Nimes, just a few kilometers NW of Arles, also has an excellent Roman Arena.
Southern France is filled with outstanding roman ruins.
There are two friezes elaborating the facade of St. Trophime church. One should read what is probaby the first sculpture of a nativity story of Jesus which is given in the lower frieze below the tympanum on the facade. It starts at the edge of the north main door with the Annunciation and Joseph's dream and progresses to the south main door edge with the first bath and the Nativity. The following events include the stories of the Magi, the killing of the Innocents and the Flight Into Egypt.
Lateral to each side of the main doors of the church stand five statues of important saints of the church. The lateral ones stand between Corinthian columns. The medial one on the north is St. Trophime dressed in high religious attire. On the south facade at the same point is a decapitation of St. Stephen showing his soul going to heaven. In this period there was no recognition of excessive expression and so sculpture was applied where ever there was free room. Immediately below Stephen sitting on the facade base is a forlorn Daniel with two crying lions.
St. Trophime stands on the outer corner of the northwest point of the cloister. He is one of the earliest examples of full height statues created by the Moissac and Toulouse masons on leaving for new sites. They came to Arles in 1160 after first doing some similar works 10 miles west in St. Gilles. These tall deeply carved works, almost free standing, were similarly being created at Chartres on its west facade. That Cathedral was shortly destroyed by fire. Luckily Chartres west facade was saved allowing its statues to become more famous. On the northeast corner is St. Stephen, but no statue is remains from the third corner. There are four sets of statues in between the ends, also on pilasters and most have survived. Few visitors stop to look at them; walking in the cloister in the shade for a few minutes is enjoyable enough.
The story of the Last Judgement occurs on the West facade of St. Trophime covering two friezes lateral to the tympanum, the upper one at the level of the lintel. The story has a prelude with the Original Sin starring Adam and Eve on the north lateral upper frieze. The saved souls start on the main west facade. On the right facade starts the walk of the damned and they continue around onto the lateral face. Large bas-relief sculptures complete the story with St. Michael weighing the souls on the north lateral face and the devil on the south lateral face.
The Cloister of St. Trophime was built between 1150-60, before the famous facade which was finished in 1180. Only two side of the cloister were done at that time, the other two galleries were completed in the 14C and were done in Gothic style. The capitals are figured and there are sets of free standing deeply cut statues held to the pilasters set at the ends and between each four set of slender columns similar to the earliest ones at Chartres.
The new Musee de l'Arles Antique replaces collections in two disused 17C churches in the middle of town. The materials were found in and around Arles, giving a continuous picture of the area which ends during the 5C. The only significant structures created between then and the building of the Cathedral are the towers on the Arena walls and one at the Theater. The pagan and Christian sections still separate themselve, as they must. There are statues and busts in the early Roman period. Mosaics become the style before 400AD. In the 5C religious sarcophagi with pagan motifs still exist with such as this hunt . Note the persistence of a beardless Christ in picture five.
The Theater is the oldest public Roman building in Arles. It was erected in about 30 BC during the reign of Augustus and seated over 7,000. It originally was backed by a fine portico with many slender Corinthian columns with only two whole ones still standing. Heavy damage occurred in the early Christian period and it became a quarry but some 20 rows of seats still stand. A tall tower stands behind the seats at the south end in the medieval period. At this time there are summer activities, most important the Festival of the Queen of Arles with dance and song from all of Provence and there others as well, where old costume is seen everywhere.
The main street of Arles is the Blvd. des Lices, a wide roadway lined along one side with many cafes and shaded by plane trees. It is here that on Wednesday and Saturday morning is held the weekly market. Above the street is the Jardin d'Ete, which is just down the hill from the Theater. One of the copies of a van Gogh work is located here to indicate a place where he painted. On the south side of the Blvd. is the Jardin d'Hiver and further south are Les Alyscamps.
The most important ancient building in Arles is its Amphitheater ("les Arenes") seated near the top of the central hill. It was built in 80 AD measuring 133x107 m, shortly after a smaller one in Nimes; both were erected by T. Crispius. The Arena has two remaining levels, each with arcades and 60 arches and at one time there was an attic level above for the slaves. It is decorated by lower level Doric pilasters and upper Corinthian partial columns. After 550, the plague hit Arles followed by various invasions and it became a fortress and was walled up. In the 12 and 13C it became a bastide with over 200 habitations, two chapels and four watch towers of which three still stand. In the 19C the rubble was cleared and the Arena has be used in the summer for festivals, Spanish corridas and the "course la cocade", a Provencal bull fight competition, which we describe in a Local Custom.
An entrance into part of the vanished Forum is a subterranean structure measuring 348 x 236 feet, which is quite tall with air shafts high on the walls which open into the area where the forum once occupied. There are two galleries in it with a connecting end and it is thought that this wa used to store grain, but some pieces of statuary have been found here. Only a couple of similar structures have been found among all of the Roman remains.
The inside of the Church of St. Trophime is unusually tall, wspecially for a 12C church but the nave is quite narrow and has four bays. It has heavy pillars and a longitudinal barrel vaulting. The choir was rebuilt in the 15C. There are two two ancient sarcophagi used in the church, one used as a font with two tiers of 14 figures and the other an elaborate Crossing of the Red Sea. There are many Aubusson tapestries on the walls and the treasury contains a great many reliquaries.
Although the cemetery was once over a mile long and half a mile wide, it is now only a wide lane with the remains of sarcophagi along the sides leading to parts of the Church of St. Honorat , which is now fragments of a Carolingian church and a 12C Romanesque chancel and two story belfry with a lantern and watch candle at the top. Coffins were once sent from further up stream along with burial fees attached to be interred in this holy place where St. Trophime and others worked miracles. It was a Roman burial area before the 4C. In the 15C began its decline, as most of the tombs were pillaged for their sculptures as gifts by the local and distant nobility. Only a few of the fine ones have survived in the new Musee de l''Arles Anitique. Two of the best are in the Church of St.Trophime. Van Gogh painted here and a poster is displayed of one of his views.
The Hotel de Ville was built as an expansion of a 16C bell tower which is topped by a bronze statue of Mars. The building was started by Peytret but it a work of Mansart in the next century. It has a ground floor supported by columns and covered by an unusual wide flattened arch ceiling which is studied by students of architecture and its graceful outer arrangement of parts is also worth a view. A copy of the Venus of Arles stands on the landing on the way to the first floor. The statue was unearthed in digging out the ancient Theater; it is standing in the Louvre. The ground floor is commonly used as a passageway between viewing the Obelisk in the square and walking north to the Place du Forum.
At the hieght of the reign of Constantine in the early 4C, Arles was the leading Roman city in Gaul and aso in the entire nirthwest part of the Empire. Constantine liked to live here and built a palace and a set of baths next to it at the edge of the Rhone river. All that remains of the two structures is parts of the baths: a semicircular apse like "calidarium" and wall pieces of the tepidarium. The buildings are built with rough blocks of stone (opus mixtum) and interwoven courses of red thin bricks. Another set of baths were once in the area where the Pl. Republique now stands with its obelisk from the Roman Circus .