Nimes

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Nimes

Pop. 150,000, dépt. Gard, situated halfway between the mountains of the Cévennes and the Rhone delta. After Perpignan, Nimes is the hottest city in France. There is a large army base nearby so soldiers are everywhere in its bars and restaurants. Industry is based around the wine trade. The most famous product of Nimes is denim, which comes etymologically from tissu de Nîmes. The word 'jeans,' incidentally, comes from the blue dye used commonly in the provençal rag trade, bleu de Gênes (ie. Genoa).

Nimes is not the most beautiful of provençal cities, surrounded in its historic core with rather anonymous C19 boulevards, but it rivals Arles in the quality of its Roman monuments. It has, however, recently made an effort to improve itself with various grands projets. From the early 80s until very recently the mayor of Nimes was a wealthy businessman, president of the fashion empire Cacharel. He set in motion a series of works to elevate Nimes in its cultural, touristic and economic status to a position rivalling Montpellier or Arles as one of the capitals of the central Midi. You may notice on your way into town new bombastic housing developments, grand post-modern boulevards and state-of-the-art sporting facilities, that all form part of this vision. In the centre the old town has been pleasantly prettified. The stunning Médiathèque Carrée d'Art is another example of the new Nimes.

A Bit of History  Nimes has a significant historical role in the development of the protestant south but for present purposes a brief excursus into its Roman history is enough. The Roman city, earlier just a minor settlement, was founded by veterans of the Roman army in Egypt, recently victorious over Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, at the time of the Emperor Augustus. Because of this early associaton with the defeat of Egypt, Nimes' coat-of-arms shows a palm tree and a Nile crocodile in chains. (You can see this symbol everywhere on town property if you look out for it.) The Roman name of the city was Colonia Augusta Nemausus, later shortened to Nemausus and hence Nimes. This was the name of the Gallic god who frequented the ancient sacred spring around which the colony grew up. That spring is still visible in the Jardin de la Fontaine. Nimes reached its height around 100 AD, the time approximately when the great amphitheatre was built. It fell with the collapse of the Roman Empire under the weight of Barbarian invasions (in this case the Visigoths) in the fifth century AD.

The Visit  When you visit Nimes you need to stop at three places: the Jardins de la Fontaine, the Maison Carrée and the amphitheatre Les Arènes. The amphitheatre is dealt with in some detail below so as to serve equally for any amphitheatre you may find yourself visiting (viz. Arles, Verona or Capua). The three monuments are just about within feasible walking distance of each other but groups may prefer to be dropped off first at the gardens, then drive round to the arena and finally walk up the Blvd. Victor Hugo to the Maison Carrée. They can then stroll through the rather pretty network of pedestrian streets and squares in the old town back to the arena and the bus.

Maison Carrée  This is without question the best preserved Roman temple in the world, virtually unchanged since the date of its construction in the first century BC. It is not known precisely who the temple served but it was probably built under Agrippa as a tribute to the "Princes of Youth," the adopted sons of Augustus Caesar. Architecturally it is very similar to a Greek temple with a few exceptions scarcely worth mentioning, eg. the lateral columns in a Greek temple would be free standing rather than set as pilasters against the wall of the inner sanctum as here. The columns are Corinthian in style (or, more correctly, Composite). In many ways the temple is so perfect in its state of preservation that it loses something of the dilapidated romanticism one often associates wih ancient monuments.

There was under Louis XIV a brief plan to move this temple to the gardens at Versailles. Napoleon chose it as the model for the Madeleine church in Paris. Thomas Jefferson took it as the model for the State House in Richmond, Virginia. These days it contains a small museum of Roman sculpture found in Nimes, eg. a statue of Apollo and a couple of mosaics. Unless the group is very interested it is not worth paying to go inside.

The building on the other side of the street is the uncompromisingly modern cultural centre, le Carrée d'Art, built by the English architect Norman Foster, subtly and thoughtfully echoing the columns and portico of the neighbouring Maison Carrée. There is a very nice cafe here which overlooks the Roman temple. It makes for a good possibility for lunch.

Jardin de la Fontaine  This is a C18 formal garden of trees, statuary, gravel paths and ornamental canals, a little run down now, overlooked by a hill covered in cedar trees and pines and dominated by the Tour Magne. This tower is thought to be the oldest extant monument in France, built somewhere between 120 and 50 BC. It is not known exactly what it was for. (Beware that this is further away than you think if some people are planning to walk up there for the splendid view.) The garden itself is centred around the source of the Nemausus spring. You can still its rather filthy exit from the earth, approached by the original Roman steps. To the left of the spring as you look at it are the dilapidated but evocative remains of the so-called Temple of Diana, perhaps in its day an adjunct to the old Roman baths.

The Roman Amphitheatre (Les Arenes) The following comments are both specific and general. Much of this information can also be used for Arles or any other Roman amphitheatre you come upon in your travels. You do not need to know all of this but you should try to evoke something of the nature of these dramatic illustrations of the Romans at play.

The Building: As long as the place is not closed to visitors because of preparations for concerts or bullfights etc., you will go inside for a visit. This C1 amphitheatre is perhaps the best preserved of them all. It is oval in shape, measuring 450 ft. in length by 350 ft. across. Of the 75 Roman amphitheatres still surviving in various states of repair this one comes twentieth in size. It has 34 rows of seats with a capacity of 21,000 spectators (cf. the Colosseum, the largest, which could seat 50,000).

It is composed of two tiers of 60 arches (there are 80 at the Colosseum). All the arches on ground level were entrances and exits so the arena could be filled and emptied with a speed and efficiency unimaginable in arenas of comparable size today. (Nowadays only one arch is open, where you pay the entrance fee.) They are connected to the seating area by the oddly-named vomitoria or exit ramps. Seating was divided into four sections according to hierarchical social divisions - senatorial, equestrian, plebeian and slaves (or, on occasion, women). The top people occupied the lower seats. These four classes could enter and leave the arena without coming into contact with one another. This amphitheatre still possesses its upper storey, unlike its rival Arles. Structural details on the top raise the rather vexed question of the roof. It is clear that some sort of retractable tent roof was used to cover at least part of the arena in order to protect members of the audience from the discomfort of the rain or sun. In spite of modern attempts to recreate such a roof (using, for example, a bullring of similar size in Spain) it is still not known exactly how it would have worked. The word 'arena' comes from the Greek word for sand, since the floor was originally covered in sand. This was in order to absorb and easily dispose of the inevitable blood that accompanied a gladiatorial display.

The Games: Entertainment in the amphitheatre was populist and bloody (pan et circenses or 'bread and circuses' with which to keep a potentially unruly people at bay). Fights took place between trained gladiators and slaves, prisoners of war, criminals or sometimes wild animals. A gladiator was armed with a shield, a dagger, sword, pitchfork or net; his opponent had a shield and possibly a net but was otherwise unarmed. A wounded man would throw down his shield and raise his left arm for the crowd's verdict. There is some controversy over the meaning of the thumbs up/thumbs down signal. It may have meant: let him live (thumbs up) or kill him (thumbs down); or it may have meant: stab him in the chest to die with dignity (thumbs up) or stab him in the back to die with shame (thumbs down). At any rate it is known that occasionally some defeated fighters were allowed to live. In terms of fighting with wild animals, the general rule was, the more exotic the animal the better: giraffes, elephants, tigers and lions, etc.

The particular speciality of the amphitheatre in Nimes, however, was the re-enactment of the proudest victory in Roman imperial history. In 31 BC Octavian and his son-in-law Agrippa won a great naval battle over Anthony and Cleopatra off the coast of Greece at a place called Actium. The Roman republic was over and the Empire began. Octavian became Augustus and Agrippa went on to become Consul-General of Gaul, the man responsible for the building of the Pont du Gard and probably also the Maison Carrée. Generations later Agrippa's name was regularly evoked in grand and bombastic style at the amphitheatre in Nimes. This arena, in common with many others, could be flooded using subterranean pipes (bringing water from across the Pont du Gard). Egyptian-style ships would then be brought in, manned by Egyptian slaves, and they would fight once again - and, of course, lose - to the cheers of the crowd the Battle of Actium which Cleopatra had lost to Agrippa and the first founders of the colony of Nemausus generations before.

After the Roman era the arena was transformed by the Visigoths into a fortress, then much later fell into disuse as a local slum for up to 2,000 people, a town within a town. All this was removed during restoration work in the early C19, though you can still make out the remains if you look hard enough and in the right places. Nowadays it is used regularly for concerts, sports matches and bullfights. Once you have given your explanation, the group can explore wherever the various staircases and vomitoria will allow them.

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