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Arles Amphitheatre. Photo source: emperorcosar / Adobe Stock.

Arles Amphitheatre – A Roman Treasure in the Soul of Provence


Arles Amphitheatre (known in French as Les Arènes d'Arles) is a Roman amphitheatre located in the southern French city of Arles. The city is situated in the Bouches-du-Rhône department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, and has been dubbed the ‘soul of Provence’. Arles Amphitheatre is one of the city’s most important and impressive Roman structures.

Other monuments from this period of the city’s history include the Baths of Constantine, the theatre, and the Alyscamps (a Roman necropolis). Like other amphitheatres throughout the Roman world, the one at Arles hosted spectacles that entertained the masses.

This function was lost following the fall of the Roman Empire but has been revived in modern times. Arles Amphitheatre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under the category ‘Arles, Roman, and Romanesque Monuments’.

The Arles Amphitheatre is a Perfect Example of Roman Architecture

Although the amphitheatre is one of the best-known examples of Roman architecture, it is, etymologically speaking, Greek. The name of this structure is a combination of two ancient Greek words, ‘amphi’ and ‘theatre’, the former meaning ‘on both sides’ or ‘around’. Therefore, an amphitheatre is simply a ‘theatre in the round’ or a ‘theatre with seats on all sides’.

Aerial view of Arles with the Arles Amphitheatre in the center. (Chensiyuan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

An amphitheatre was built as a free-standing monument with a round, though more often, oval shape. The central area of the structure is the arena, in which the spectacles took place. Seats were arranged concentrically around the arena. It was at the amphitheatres that such entertainment as gladiatorial battles, executions, and animal combats took place.

Incidentally, other forms of entertainments were held at different venues. For instance, those interested in cultural entertainment, such as plays and orations, would go to theaters, while the hippodrome (or circus) was the place to go for races.

At present, about 230 amphitheatres have been identified throughout the lands of the former Roman Empire. The most famous of these, no doubt, is the Colosseum (known also as the Flavian Amphitheatre) in Rome. This is also the largest known Roman amphitheatre, with an estimated seating capacity of between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators.

The interior arena of the Arles Amphitheatre. (Jmalik / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Other well-known amphitheatres around the Roman world include the ones in Leptis Magna (Libya), Verona (Italy), and Nîmes (France). While some of these amphitheatres are still in good condition, others are much less so. As an example, little remains today of London’s Roman amphitheatre.

Only parts of this monument’s walls have been discovered, leaving the rest to be conjectured by archaeologists. Today, the foundations of what was once the east gate to the arena are on display in situ in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

The Construction of the Arles Amphitheatre and the City of Arles

The Arles Amphitheatre was built during the 1st century AD, around 90 AD not long after the Colosseum in Rome, which was constructed between 70 and 80 AD. By that time Arles had been under Roman rule for more than 200 years. Nevertheless, Arles’ history stretches much further back and it is considered to be one of the oldest cities in France.

Arles was originally known as Theline and was recorded as one of the native settlements that had trade relations with the Greek colony of Massalia (modern day Marseille). During the 6th century BC the name of the settlement was changed to Arelate following its capture by the Saluvii, a Gallic tribe, in 535 BC.

In 123 BC, Arelate came under the rule of the Roman Republic. Under the Romans, the city prospered as a commercial port and grew rich as a result of trade. The importance placed by the Romans on Arelate as a trade center may be seen in the construction of the Fossa Mariana (meaning ‘Trench of Marius’) around the end of the 2nd century BC.

The creation of the canal was initiated by the Roman general and statesman Gaius Marius (hence its name). The Fossa Mariana ran parallel to the Rhône River from the city to the Mediterranean Sea and was meant to provide merchants with a water route that could be more easily navigated, especially at the mouths of the river.

In 49 BC, civil war broke out in the Roman Republic pitting Julius Caesar against Pompey. The city of Arelate supported Caesar, while the inhabitants of Massalia fought on the side of Pompey. Warships were constructed at the shipyards of Arelate which were then launched by Caesar against Massalia. When the war ended in 45 BC Arelate was rewarded while Massalia punished.

The properties of the latter were confiscated and given to the former by the victorious Caesar. In addition, the city was re-established as a colonia, where the veterans of the Legio VI Ferrata were settled. The city was renamed as Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum, which translates as “the Ancestral Julian Colony of Arles of the Soldiers of the Sixth”.

It was in AD 90, during the reign of Domitian, that the amphitheatre was built in Arles. By then the famous Colosseum in Rome had already been standing for about a decade and would serve as the source of inspiration for many amphitheatres built throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire, including Arles Amphitheatre. As an amphitheatre in a provincial town, Arles Amphitheatre was not expected to receive as many spectators as its counterpart in the empire’s capital. Therefore, certain modifications were made which made it different from the Colosseum.

The most prominent of these is the size of the amphitheatre which, needless to say, is smaller. In addition, whereas the Colosseum has a dual system of galleries (which increased seating capacity), Arles Amphitheatre has only a single annular gallery. Still, Arles Amphitheatre is an impressive monument and is considered to be one of the largest amphitheatres in the Roman world.

Arles Amphitheatre measures 446 feet (136 meters) in length and 358 feet (109 meters) in width, while its external façade rises to a height of 69 feet (21 meters). The amphitheatre has 120 arches, a single gallery and staircases, as well as two levels of seating. It is estimated that Arles Amphitheatre is capable of accommodating up to 20,000 spectators.

The Arles Amphitheatre has 120 arches. (Elliott Brown / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Arles Amphitheatre, like other Roman amphitheatres, was the place where gladiatorial battles, animal combats, and executions took place. These spectacles continued throughout the Roman period and only came to an end after the fall of the Roman Empire during the 5th century AD. In the centuries that followed, Arles Amphitheatre was transformed into a fortress.

The Arles Amphitheatre is Converted into a Fortress

The arches of the monument were walled up, while four towers (three of which are still visible today) were added to the amphitheatre, not unlike a medieval castle. Houses were built in the arena and the Arles Amphitheatre was essentially turned into a walled town. Moreover, this fortified settlement enjoyed the legal status of a small town (La Cité Arénoise, or the Arena-town) which separated it from the rest of Arles.

The Arles Amphitheatre exterior arcades, with a tower added in the 6th century. (Tohma / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Considering the tumultuous history of Arles in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire it is little wonder that the amphitheatre was converted into a fortress. During that time the city was in decline. At the same time, it had to deal with foreign invasions.

During the 5th / 6th century AD Arles fell to the Visigoths while the Muslims conquered it in AD 730. During the 10th century Arles became the capital of the Kingdom of Arles, which was established by Rudolph II.

Arles became an independent entity during the 12th century, was absorbed into the county of Provence in 1239, and finally became part of the Kingdom of France in 1481. Thus, as a fortified town, Arles Amphitheatre provided some level of security and protection to those living within its walls during these turbulent times.

Even after the incorporation of Arles into the Kingdom of France, Arles Amphitheatre continued to serve as a walled town. It was only during the late 1820s that the amphitheatre was converted back into a venue for public entertainment. The conversion of Arles Amphitheatre from a walled town into a historical monument was the initiative of the French writer Prosper Mérimée.

The Arles Amphitheatre in the 18th century as a walled town. (Robert Schediwy / Public Domain)

The Conversion of Arles Amphitheatre into a Historical Monument

Incidentally, Mérimée was also involved in the protection of other French historical sites including Carcassonne and Notre-Dame de Paris. In 1826 the first houses within Arles Amphitheatre were demolished. The whole process lasted several years and more than 200 houses, along with 2 churches, were razed to the ground.

Interestingly, the restorers decided to spare the medieval towers instead of tearing them down, thus leaving Arles Amphitheatre with a unique look. The first spectacle was held in the amphitheatre in 1830 and was meant to celebrate the conquest of Algiers by France. Unlike the ancient Romans, the crowd that year was treated neither to gladiatorial battles nor public executions but to an equally ancient form of entertainment – bullfighting.

1963 Bullfight in the Arles Amphitheatre. (Yann / CC BY-SA 4.0)

While bullfighting is most commonly associated with the Iberian Peninsula, Spain in particular, this sport is popular in the south of France as well. Dating back to Roman times, interest in bullfighting in the region was revived during the 19th century, when combat with bulls was a means to gain royal favor. While Spanish style bullfighting (known as Corridas) is practiced in the south of France the region also has its own indigenous style of bullfighting, known as the Course Camarguaise.

While the Corridas usually ends with the slaying of the bull by the matador the Course Camarguaise does not. Instead, the bullfighters, known as raseteurs, attempt to pull ribbons off the bulls’ horns. In this form of bullfighting the bulls are never killed and the raseteurs rarely injured.

Bullfighting is still practiced in the Arles Amphitheatre today, most notably during the popular festival Feria d’Arles, one taking place in April and another in September. In addition, musical concerts are also held in the amphitheatre.

Arles Amphitheatre, in particular a bullfight, is the subject of Les Arènes a painting by Vincent van Gogh which is housed today in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. The renowned Dutch painter had lived in Arles for about a year, between 1888 and 1889. During this period, van Gogh produced over 200 paintings, including some of his finest and most famous works, such as Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and Café Terrace at Night.

Les Arènes, a painting by Vincent van Gogh of the Arles Amphitheatre. (Trzęsacz / Public Domain)

Vincent van Gogh left Arles in May 1889 when he admitted himself as a patient at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Thanks to the connection between the city and van Gogh, Arles is also frequented by art lovers.

The Restoration of the Arles Amphitheatre

Although Arles Amphitheatre has stood for almost 2000 years, it was found to be in a poor state of conservation. Therefore, in 2001, a preliminary study was performed, with the aim of carrying out restoration work. The study sought to identify the most suitable repair materials, i.e. the type of repair mortar and replacement stones, as well as the best way by which the monument ought to be restored.

In addition to strengthening the amphitheatre, the restoration material had to maintain the structure’s appearance. Alain-Charles Perrot, the architect in charge of the project, did not wish to make the old stones look like new ones but to preserve their current appearance and to protect them from further weathering.

Passageway into the Arles Amphitheatre. (Leon petrosyan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Analyses were carried out in the laboratory to characterize the original and the newly-quarried replacement stones, as well as to select the repair mortar most suitable for the structure. Field tests were also conducted at Arles Amphitheatre before the repair materials were selected.

In 2003, the first experimental restoration work was undertaken which allowed the behavior of the selected materials to be assessed. Once this was done, the rest of the monument could be restored.

Today, Arles Amphitheatre remains one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and is a must-see for anyone visiting the city. The importance of Arles Amphitheatre is also evident in the fact that in 1981 the monument was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of the ‘Arles, Roman, and Romanesque Monuments’ group.

In addition to the amphitheatre, this group also includes the Roman theatre, the cryptoporticus (both of which date to the 1st century AD), the Baths of Constantine, the Necropolis of Alyscamps (both dating to the 4th century AD), and the Medieval Church of Saint Trophime and its cloister (an important Romanesque monument).

Top image: Arles Amphitheatre. Photo source: emperorcosar / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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