LA MUSÉE DE LA ROMANITÉ – NÎMES
Opened in 2019, the modern Museum of Romanity in Nîmes brings together all of the archaeological finds from this area, and has a wealth of Roman artefacts.
The recently opened museum dedicated to the history of Nîmes is in an ultra-modern building right next to the Arena. Designed by leading architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, its exterior is covered in 7000 sheets of square printed glass, intended to represent the mosaic tiles so commonly used in the Roman world. The rippling effect is to emulate a toga, wrapped around the building, and designed to accentuate movement, creating the effect of folds in cloth, which look as if they ripple and change as the sun shines and the city is reflected in the glass.
Outside the museum and free for all to access, is a huge 17m high atrium, with the corner of a pediment high up on the wall and with two columns on the sides. These are original pieces from the Roman sanctuary by the source, which formed the entryway to the font from which the town of Nîmes has sprung, and where both the Gauls and Romans built religious buildings. Used once more as a gateway, this time to the archaeological garden at the back of the museum, these are visible from much of the museum and act as a backdrop to a visit here.
Beyond the atrium is a large garden, planted in sections, with perennial plants from the Iron Age, Romans and Medieval times, all around the remains of one of the Roman walls of the town, and the base of a small tower. The walls were built in the 1st century BC and were punctuated with up to 80 towers, of which the best preserved is the Tour Magne in the nearby Jardins de la Fontaine.
Once inside the museum and after purchasing your ticket, you head up the sweeping concentric staircase to the first floor. The museum itself is laid out in chronological order, with brightly lit gateways to take you from one time period to the next. Each section is introduced with a map, putting Nimes in context to the world around it, showing the dynamics at play across Europe and how Nimes fits into the wider picture.
The first section is Pre-Roman (Gallic) and starts when Nimes was no more than an oppidum, a small fortified town, which was founded at the end of the 6th century BC. The settlers were attracted by the spring and built a 30 hectare settlement surrounded by ramparts with a large watchtower, which was later used by the Romans for the Tour Magne. With roads, farms, burial enclosures, the residents would trade with other oppida in the area, including the areas colonised by the Greeks. With no alphabet of their own, they used the Greek alphabet to write their Gallic words. There are some incredible inscriptions in Gallo Greek on funeral steles, from the Greek colonies which settled on the shore of southern France. One, found near the source, talks of the mother spring, Nemasus and shows the importance of the spring long before the Romans arrived.
One particularly good exhibit is a mockup of an Iron Age residence, modelled on the remains of a house which was found nearby and which has been dated to the 5th century BC. When it was excavated, it was found that the wood and clay roof had been suddenly destroyed, collapsing in on the building below and preserving all of its contents in situ for future archaeologists to find. The main building was divided into two.
The largest was used as a store room, and was full of pots for storing wheat and other supplies to keep the family going through the leaner months, as well as a millstone for preparing the food. A smaller living room had a hearth and was for resting and eating. This opened up onto a courtyard and small outhouse, the outlines of which are drawn on the floor for visitors to see the size and scale.
The VR machine can be moved around to see how the outside living area would have looked when the hut was in use, following the outline on the floor which show visitors where the walls and outhouses were located.
The pots inside have been painstakingly reconstructed and their contents revealed a great deal about the inhabitants who had had to abandon their property so quickly, as remains of grains, grapes, animals and more reveal details about their lives. Some of the amphora contained wine from the Marseille region, showing that the family traded with the coastal regions. What really brings this scene to life is a VR machine, that the visitor can move around, to see how it would have looked at the time, with goats in the stable, people cooking and working, and it gives a really good sense of how they would have lived.
One rather macabre exhibit dates from the 3rd century BC from the ancient settlement of Cailar, where archaeologists found a large open space inside the settlement, containing 50 human skulls and weapons such as swords, lances and shields. This was testament to the Gaulish practice of cutting off the heads of their enemies on the battlefield, and taking them home to put on display.
The museum moves us through time, with the influence of the Romans becoming stronger and more present. Grave goods from a wealthy tomb show a prevalence of foreign objects, with companion ceramics made in southern Italy, and two beautiful bronze wine jugs from the Naples region. They are exquisite. A small ladle accompanied them, to dole out the wine.
The museum also has the original coin from which Nimes has themed itself for centuries. A small coin, displaying the heads of Agrippa and Augustus on one side, and a crocodile and palm frond on the other. The palm is the palm of victory, the crocodile representing the conquest of Egypt at the Battle of Actium in 31BC, when Anthony and Cleopatra were vanquished. This decisive battle saw the transition from Roman Republic to Empire and the start of Augustus’ reign as Caesar. NEM COL written on the coin signifies that Nemausus had received colonial law.
These symbols are still of great significance to the Nimois, and although the palm frond has now become a palm tree after some redesign over the years, the symbols can be found throughout the city, from decorative studs in the pavements, to bollards, public fountains and even in their confectionary.
There are some rather lovely funeral stones from gladiators, who would have fought in the Arena. Gladiators were buried separately to the rest of the citizens, considered somewhat beneath the rest of them, so they had their own cemeteries. It is believed that Nimes had its own gladiator school, and although no concrete evidence for this has yet been found, inscriptions do point to there being one.
It is possible to tell the type of gladiator by the code used on the inscriptions of the gravestone. For example, RET shows that the person was a Retiarius, a gladiator who fought with a net and trident, the lowliest of the gladiators who wasn’t even able to wear a helmet. MUR shows they were a Murmillo who fought wearing a helmet with a fish on the crest.
In 2006, a large excavation was carried out on a strip of land, the Avenue Jean Jaurès, that was 400m long and 17m wide, as the city planners wanted to build an underground car park.
This land was next to the Jardins de Fontaines and had been a promenade since the 18th century, preserving underneath it an amazing array of Roman remains. The archaeologists found paved streets, crossed with alleyways, houses with floors covered in mosaics, frescoes, statues and monuments. This was clearly a wealthy residential area of the city and produced some incredible finds.
One find was a rectangular fountain of 12m², with a statue of Neptune lying next to it, probably fallen off a central plinth. A small hole at the base would have held a lead pipe for the water to flow from. This statue is now on display in the museum, and had consisted of 90 separate pieces when it was found. There is a short video of the archaeologists intensive work to reassemble it for exhibition in the museum.
There is a stunning mosaic, dating from the end of the 2nd century BC, the Pentheus Mosaic, which is the star exhibit of the second floor of the museum, and has an elevated viewing platform to enable the visitor to look down on it. With medallions of theatrical masks, birds and personifications of the seasons, the central panel shows Pentheus being killed by his mother who mistook him for a wild animal, when she was under the influence of the cult of Bacchae. This is the only representation of this myth that has ever been found as a mosaic, as they were usually frescoes, and the style of mosaic was more common in northern Africa rather than Gaul, making this a rare find.
On the wall of a separate area is an amazing Roman fresco from a private house, contained within a small room in the museum so the visitor can imagine how it would have looked in its original setting, with the correct room height and size. Multimedia graphics show how the whole would have looked, and then highlights the details in the images, to explain what they are and allow for a closer look. It is skillfully done and is absorbing to watch, standing in the semi-darkness looking at the fresco and seeing the details that you probably wouldn’t otherwise have noticed or understood their relevance.
A Roman tombstone with a projection of people digging a grave by torchlight.
Projections on the stone help the visitor to understand its purpose. This one is a gravestone.
An inscription on a stone with a projection of Roman soldiers on it.
This wording on this stone is of religious significance.
The Museum has 75 mosaics in its collection, only 15 of which are currently on display, as well as over 1000 Latin inscriptions, making it the most important collection of Latin inscriptions outside Italy. A small handful of these are on display, a mixture of milestones, honorary, religious and funerary stones, some with small projections on them to show what their purpose was and to help the inscriptions to come alive.
The museum then moves to the Medieval period, from the 10th – 15th centuries. In the latter part of this period, people had built inside the Roman Arena, with houses, two churches and even a castle inside its walls. These were all removed in the late 1700s, but some of the Medieval cornices, reliefs and blocks still remain and are now on display in the museum. There are a series of videos explaining how the Jardins de la Fontaine were developed in the 18th century, and how the Temple of Diana became a monastery after the Roman era.
The last section of the museum is a look at the legacy of the Romans and how it has had an impact on more contemporary life. There are some incredibly detailed models of the Roman monuments, all made from cork by a local craftsmen, which were displayed at the Universal Exhibition of 1839.
A planted roof terrace on the top of the building gives 360° views over the rooftops of the city, and is a peaceful place to walk or rest. The Arena is right next door, and in the distance, the Tour Magne can be seen on a hilltop.
The museum has a cafe on the ground floor and a restuarant on the floor beneath this roof terrace. Called La Table Du 2, it serves meals prepared by a top chef and has indoor as well as outdoor seating. It is worth booking a table here for after your visit, to enjoy a meal with views over the Arena.
VISITING LA MUSÉE DE LA ROMANITÉ
Open every day except Tuesday
1st April – 3rd November: 10am – 7pm
4th November – 31st March: 10am – 6pm
Closed on some public holidays
Children aged 7-17 €3
Under 7’s visit for free
Family tickets available
Guided tours are available for an additional fee
Good to Know
The site is wheelchair and pushchair accessible.
There is plenty for kids to do in the museum, with a wealth of interactive exhibits. One very popular item is a screen that dresses you in a toga, or with a Roman hairstyle, with people standing on a designated spot and seeing their image with the extra adornments. It is popular with visitors and looked to be great fun for all ages. The augmented reality exhibits are equally as fascinating, and the many screens and projections make this an ideal place for children. They can also do trails around the museum which can be picked up at the ticket desk.