One of the best preserved amphitheatres from the Roman world, the Arena of Nîmes was built in about 100 AD, just a few years after the Colosseum in Rome. Although the monument is currently undergoing a massive 25 year restoration programme that began in 2009, visitors are still able to tour the interior, attend events and explore this amazing building.
Les Arènes de Nîmes is an incredible sight. A 2,000 year old building that is still in use today, it has undergone so many changes over the centuries that the fact it can still be used is testament to Roman construction and engineering. Situated in a large square in central Nîmes, the amphitheatre is an instantly recognisable landmark within the city. There may very well be other bigger Roman amphitheatres in the world to visit, but few are as well preserved as this one.
HISTORY OF THE ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE IN NÎMES
The amphitheatre was built in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Augustus, using stone from local quarries. It was located right up against the Roman walls, which passed just a few metres behind one side of it, the outline of which can be seen today marked on the pavement outside. If you visit in the evening, the lines of where the walls once lay are lit up in red, making it clear how close they were. The amphitheatre may be central to Nîmes today, but back then it was right on the outskirts, a late addition to the city.
It was used to provide entertainment for the masses including gladiatorial combat, wild animal hunts and public executions. There were real life battles being fought at the borders of the Empire, but Nîmes was far removed from any of that, and it was a way of bringing controlled fighting to the people in the more central areas.
At 133 m long, 101m wide and 21 m high, with two floors of 60 arches, the arena of the amphitheatre has a distinctive elliptical shape, which becomes more or less evident depending on where you are sitting in the stands. There is some disagreement over the reason behind the oval shape, but one theory is that as well as allowing the audience to see the action more clearly, it also allows the audience to see each other much more clearly, creating a sociable atmosphere, where people could see and be seen.
People sat in a strict hierarchy according to their social ranking, with the patricians sitting at the bottom, right up to the non-citizens who sat at the top. Entrance to the games was free, usually paid for by one of the local dignitaries who wanted his name known and his praises sung.
The amphitheatre could hold up to 24,000 people who sat spread out over 34 tiers of seats, which were divided into four separate areas called maeniana. With 60 arches on two tiers, many staircases, passageways and five circular galleries, which were accessed by stairways and passages called vomitories, the layout of the amphitheatre provided optimum circulation for the audience. There were no doors or barriers in the archways, unlike now, and the amphitheatre could be evacuated in 10 minutes, even when at full capacity.
The shows included gladiator battles, wild animal fights and public executions. Gladiator fights had started in the 3rd century BC in Rome, due to the Roman belief that when people died, their souls were transported by human blood. When an important Roman citizen died in the early 3rd century BC, his family arranged for three pairs of slaves to fight during the funeral, so that blood was spilt. This developed over the years as other families copied the idea and it soon became a massive public spectacle.
Gladiators trained in schools and many of them were professionals; they weren’t all slaves or prisoners. There was probably a gladiator school in Nîmes, as although the building hasn’t been found in excavations, gravestones of gladiators have been found in the area, implying there was one nearby. A fight often ended when a gladiator raised his hand to surrender, knowing that he was beaten. The person paying for the games would then decide whether they would be condemned, spared or retired: the well known gladiators were far more likely to be spared, protected by their reputations.
Wild animal hunts also took place in the arena, with animals raised up through trapdoors in the ground of the sunken ring. The remains of an elevator system have been found in excavations. Excavations have also revealed that the underground features of the arena were a later addition. Although because the amphitheatre was built in an area with a high water table, the arena suffered repeated flooding and was later abandoned.
In 399 AD, when the Roman Empire was already in decline, the emperor Honorious decreed that gladiator games must stop. It was around this time that the Western Roman Empire came under attack and started to fragment. The inhabitants of Nîmes strengthened the defences and took refuge within the arena. The arcades were blocked up all but transforming the amphitheatre into a fortress.
By the 6th century, under the Visigoths, the arena had become a castle fortress ‘castrum arena’, even having a moat; it became an emergency shelter for people in times of attack. The arena was under siege several times, but managed to withstand them all. Houses and churches were built inside the walls. After the conquest of Nîmes by Charles Martel in the 8th century, it became the home of the Carolingian counts, the short lived Frankish Empire which ruled much of Europe. By the 12th century, it was the seat of the counts of Toulouse and became home to a chateau. They left in 1390 and the locals moved in. By the 18th century there was a village of 700 people living within its walls.
It started the slow process of being restored back to its Roman appearance in 1768, when the city purchased all of the houses and started to demolish them. By 1812, the last of them had gone. The first Camargue bullfight took place in the arena in 1839 and the first Spanish bullfight was in 1853. Today, the amphitheatre is still a venue for many occasions such as bullfights, concerts and sporting events.
RESTORATION OF LES ARÈNES DE NÎMES
The first restoration work was carried out at the start of the 19th century, by civil engineer Stanislas-Victor Grangent. The first floor lintels were strengthened, staircases to the upper gallery were rebuilt and the ring was cleared. It was Grangent who discovered the basement underneath the ring, referred to as the cruciform room because of its shape.
From 1939-45, work was done to strengthen lintels and to improve the pillars, arches and vaults at street level. From 1953-54 and from 1960-68, masonry was strengthened in the external façade. Since then, work has been done to improve the drainage of rainwater, a perpetual problem in limestone buildings.
L: The chief engineer of the current restoration project pointing out the lead lining at the top of the exterior of the Arena.
R: The restorers are using wooden arches just as the Romans did before them.
The current restoration is an ambitious 54 million euro project which is expected to be completed around 2033. I was lucky enough to get the chance to climb up the exterior scaffolding with the chief engineer in charge of the current phase of the restoration, to see the work close up and to find out more about what they have learnt about the Roman construction.
A detailed two year study was conducted before any work was started on the restoration, and it is thanks to this that they had comprehensive plan before they started. The survey showed that the arena had suffered from a seismic tremor around the 5th or 6th century AD and blocks had moved up to 60 cm.
Blocks were attached with bow-tie joints, in which a wooden block in the shape of a bow tie was placed between two blocks, to keep them together. The restoration team have found many wooden blocks still in situ during their work.
The restoration team have divided the Arena into 60 sections, based on the 60 archways, and were working on sections 53-57 during my visit. They discovered that this section has construction marks left on the stones, ones that had been erased on all the other sections but not here; the builders clearly hadn’t found the time to do it. This is probably because they had to complete the building in a hurry, maybe because an Emperor was visiting. The restoration team have also discovered that the amphitheatre is bulging outwards here, probably because of doing a rushed job, and that the original builders were trying to reinforce it as they built it.
The Romans had started construction on sections 15 – 45, and this section shows a completely different style of construction in the details. It is probable that the architect and engineer were changed at this point and the subsequent construction was supervised by different people.
Water damage is a critical problem with this limestone building, and it is imperative that water is not allowed to stay on the stones but that it must be able to drain away, to keep the stones going for as long as possible. Following the Venice Charter on restoration, the aim is to replace as few stones as possible, even if the stone is damaged. If possible, it will be filled with mortar, or glued together again if cracked. The stones that are jutting out and therefore liable to more serious water damage are being covered with a lead lining that cannot be seen from the ground, but that will protect them from water damage caused by rain.
L: The latest phase of restoration is filling the holes where the wooden poles sat, with lead to stop water accumulating and destroying the stones.
R: This section of the building was restored in an earlier phase of restoration, where they did not fill the holes with lead lining. As you can see, water has accumulated and is damaging the limestone.
The seating tiers were also the roof of the amphitheatre passageways and staircases below. On the top edges of the building, pre-drilled stones were positioned to overhang on the outside, so that long poles could be put through them, and anchored in other holes on the wall. Canopies were then hung between the poles to create shade for the spectators.
The restoration is a constant battle between authentic restoration, conservation and modern use as a concert venue. Compromises have to be made at every step of the project. For example, the Romans had stone barriers on the upper storey of arches which were flush with the walls. Now there are metal barriers in place, to ensure current health and safety regulations are met, but they are set midway so that they cannot be seen from the outside.
The stone used by the Romans is Barutel stone, a local limestone which is a finely grained white or grey limestone. The restoration team are using the same quarry. The current vein being mined is grey rather than white, but they have decided to stick with the grey, rather than source an alternative white limestone, to keep it as authentic as possible. Mortar is being used to keep the blocks together where necessary, even though the Romans used dry joints. Small pipes are being put into the mortar which stick out, so that water which accumulates can drain away and not stay in the stones.
VISITING THE ROMAN ARENA IN NÎMES
January, February, November and December: 9.30am - 5pm
March and October: 9am - 6pm
April, May and September: 9am - 6.30pm
June: 9am - 7pm
July and August: 9am - 9pm
TIPS FOR VISITING ARÈNES DE NÎMES
The Arena is open all year round, but do check your dates as it is often used for bullfights, concerts and other events.
You can download an App beforehand which will take you on a 80 minute tour with full commentary.
Guided tours take place in the summer months and are included in the entrance tickets. Self-guided audio tours are available when you buy your tickets and are in several languages.
GUIDED TOURS OF THE ARENA AND ROMAN NÎMES