Artist’s reconstruction of Lutetia by Dassault Systemes (YouTube screenshot)

Ancient Lutetia: The Roman Roots of Paris


Over two millennia ago, France’s capital, Paris, was inhabited by Celtic Gauls who called their city Parisii. But then the Romans came and set up camp. They renamed their city Lutetia, meaning ‘place near a swamp’ – a far cry from the extravagant city we see today.

Compared to today’s Paris, Roman Lutetia was a much smaller settlement, merely occupying the 5 th arrondissement of the current city. Traces of the Roman city can still be seen in this part of the modern city, including the Arènes de Lutèce, and the Thermes de Cluny.

The city of Paris is often referred to today as the ‘City of Light’, commonly taken as a reference to the role played by the French capital during the Age of Enlightenment. Its ancient name, Lutetia, is much less appealing, as it translates to mean ‘place near a swamp’. As Paris became the capital of France, there was a need for the city to have a glorious beginning, and legends were spun. One of these, for instance, claims that the city was founded by a group of Trojans who had fled form their city after its fall, much like the story of Aeneas and Rome. Needless to say, the name of the city is associated with that of the Trojan prince , Paris. The archaeological and textual evidence, however, tells a different story.   

Paris in Prehistory

According to archaeological evidence, the site of Paris was already occupied during prehistoric times, as early as the middle of the 8 th millennium BC. By the 3 rd century BC, a Gallic tribe known as the Parisii had settled at the site. More specifically, they established a fortified settlement on the Île de la Cité, one of the city’s two remaining natural river islands, the other being the Île Saint-Louis. The Greek geographer Strabo, who lived between the 1 st century BC and the 1 st century AD, mentions the city in his Geography, “The Parisii live round about the Sequana River, having an island in the river and a city called Lucotocia”. This is repeated by Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars , “…  Lutetia (which is a town of the Parisii,  situated on an island on the river Seine)”.

Based on the textual evidence, one would expect to find ample archaeological evidence for a Gallic settlement on the Île de la Cité. This, however, has not been the case, as archaeological excavations have yet to unearth any significant signs of Gallic presence on the island. Consequently, it has been speculated that Gallic Lutetia (known also as Lutetia Parisiorum in Latin, and Lutèce in French) may have been located somewhere else, perhaps at Nanterre, to the northwest of the city centre of Paris. This is mainly due to the recent discovery of significant Gallic occupation at the site. Moreover, the site was abandoned around the time of the first signs of Roman presence in Paris, i.e. during the early reign of the Roman emperor Augustus . The population of Gallic Lutetia was transferred to the new Roman settlement.

Artist’s reconstruction of Lutetia before the Romans by Dassault Systemes (YouTube screenshot)

Artist’s reconstruction of Lutetia before the Romans by Dassault Systemes ( YouTube screenshot )

Roman Lutetia

According to Caesar, when the Parisii heard of the Romans’ arrival, they destroyed Lutetia, rather than to allow it to fall into the hands of the enemy, “Having repaired the bridge, which the enemy had broken  down during the preceding days, he led over his army, and began to march  along the banks of the river to Lutetia. The enemy, on learning the circumstance  from those who had escaped from Melodunum, set fire to Lutetia, and order  the bridges of that town to be broken down: they themselves set out from  the marsh, and take their position on the banks of the Seine, over against  Lutetia and opposite the camp of Labienus. ” Soon after, a battle that was fought between the Romans and the Gauls . The latter, who were led by Camulogenus, one of Vercingetorix’s lieutenants, were defeated. Lutetia was now in the hands of the Romans.

The Romans built a new Lutetia on the left bank of the River Seine, on what is today the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. To the ancient Romans, the site was known as Mons Lucotitius. The site was chosen as it was away from the areas that may be susceptible to flooding. Like many other cities that the Romans founded, Lutetia was laid out in a more or less regular grid plan. Hence, the new settlement had two main roads that intersected at the city centre – the cardo maximus (the north-south road), and the decumanus maximus (the east-west road). The cardo maximus was the city’s principal road and ran perpendicular to the Seine. Over the centuries, the course of the cardo maximus has been left unchanged. This ancient road corresponds today with the Rue Saint-Jacques, Rue de la Cité, and Rue Saint-Martin. The Romans created the settlement’s orthogonal layout and insulae (city blocks) by building secondary roads parallel to the cardo maximus and decumanus maximus .

Roman Lutetia encompassed not only the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, but also the Île de la Cité, and small stretch of land on the Seine’s right bank. Compared to other major Roman settlements in the province of Gaul, however, Lutetia was actually not very large. It is suggested that the ancient city covered an area of 60-70 ha. In comparison, Nîmes (Nemausus) occupied over 220 ha., Lyon (Lugdunum) 350 ha., and Reims (Durocortorum) 600 ha. Estimates for the population of Roman Lutetia range from 5000 to 10000. Still, Lutetia served as the main city of the Parisii. More importantly, public monuments were erected on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, something that was normally done by provincial capitals, as each sought to imitate the city of Rome itself.

Some of these monuments have survived the passage of time, and still can be seen in the 5 th arrondissement of Paris. One of these is the Arènes de Lutèce, second only to the Thermes de Cluny as the largest monument of Roman Lutetia that has survived till today. Although commonly called an amphitheatre, the monument is not exactly one, in terms of its design. Like other Roman amphitheatres, the Arènes de Lutèce has a circular arena (about 40 m in length). The terraced seating, however, surrounded more than half of the arena’s circumference. This makes the monument more like a Greek theatre, rather than a Roman one (surrounding half the circumference), or an amphitheatre (surrounding the entire arena). It is estimated that the monument had a seating capacity of 17,000 people. Like other amphitheatres throughout the Roman Empire, the Arènes de Lutèce hosted both theatrical performance and gladiatorial combats .

Arènes de Lutèce is the largest monument of Roman Lutetia that has survived till today. Credit: antoine2k / Adobe Stock

Arènes de Lutèce is the largest monument of Roman Lutetia that has survived till today. Credit: antoine2k / Adobe Stock

The Roman Amphitheatre Arènes de Lutèce

The Arènes de Lutèce was built during the 1 st century AD and served as a place of entertainment in the centuries that followed. During the late 3 rd century AD, Lutetia was sacked by barbarians, and the amphitheatre dismantled. Shortly after this incident, the stones of the amphitheatre were used for the construction of a defensive wall on the Île de la Cité. In addition, the site itself was turned into a Christian cemetery. The amphitheatre was repaired during the 6 th century AD, but by the time the Wall of Philip II Augustus was built, i.e. during the early 13 th century, the Arènes de Lutèce had been completely filled in. 

As the centuries went by, the exact location of the Arènes de Lutèce was lost. Nevertheless, the neighbourhood that grew up in that area was known as Clos des Arènes, an indication that the memory of this ancient monument was still being preserved. The remains of the Roman amphitheatre were finally rediscovered during the 19 th century. Around that time, Georges-Eugène Haussmann (commonly known as Baron Haussmann) was tearing up the medieval streets of Paris. Haussmann had been chosen by Napoleon III to carry out a massive redesign of the French capital. Thus, it was in 1869, when the new Rue Monge was being opened, that the French archaeologist Théodore Vaquer found the city’s long-lost Roman amphitheatre.     

The rediscovery of the Arènes de Lutèce was also its final destruction. Believe it or not, in 1870, most of the remains of the original monument were demolished, so as to make room for a city bus depot. The famous French writer, Victor Hugo, did all that he could to salvage what he could from the wreckage. Furthermore, he led a campaign that resulted in the restoration of the site. Eventually, the site was opened as a public square, and is today part of a small garden. Most of the Arènes de Lutèce that stands at the site today, however, is a replica that was built between 1915 and 1916.

Thermes de Cluny, the Public Baths of Lutetia

Another important monument from Roman Lutetia that has survived till this day is the Thermes de Cluny, the city’s public baths. Like the Arènes de Lutèce, the baths are located in the 5 th arrondissement. Although the exact date of the monument’s construction remains uncertain, it is believed that the Thermes de Cluny was built at the end of the 1 st / beginning ofc the 2 nd century AD, and was in use for no more than two centuries. The Thermes de Cluny was the largest of the three public baths that were built by the Romans in Paris, and is sometimes referred to as the city’s ‘northern baths’. It is widely speculated that the Thermes de Cluny was built by the city’s guild of boatmen, as the groins of its vaults rest on consoles sculpted in the shape of the prows of ships.

The Thermes de Cluny suffered a similar fate to the amphitheatre when Lutetis fell to the barbarians. Nevertheless, it was not completely destroyed, unlike the other two baths. Moreover, the monument retained its grandeur even as the Roman Empire was ion decline. It has been speculated, for instance, that in 360 AD, Julian (whose epithet was ‘the Apostate’) was proclaimed Roman emperor in the Thermes de Cluny. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the baths were repurposed as a palace by the Frankish kings. 

The baths became associated with Cluny from 1340 onwards, when the ruins of the ancient monument were obtained by the powerful Order of Cluny. In the following century, the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny was partially built over them. The hôtel served as the residence of the Abbot of Cluny during his visits to Paris. During the construction, the remains of the baths were preserved, and integrated into the Medieval hôtel. It may be said, however, that this was done partly out of economic reasons. It was much more expensive to demolish the ancient ruins, and the demolition cost could not be recuperated, as it would have been difficult to sell the materials salvaged from the building. Therefore, the builders decided to retain the Roman building, and to incorporate it into the new structure.

Model of Thermes de Cluny showing the major elements of the baths. (CC by SA 2.5)

Model of Thermes de Cluny showing the major elements of the baths. ( CC by SA 2.5 )

Thanks to these Medieval builders, the Thermes de Cluny were not destroyed. The monument has survived till this day and is regarded to be one of the best-preserved Roman baths in Europe. The frigidarium (cold water room) is particularly well-preserved, as fragments of the original Roman wall paintings and mosaic have survived. Additionally, the vaults, ribs, and consoles of this room have survived. The vaults, which rise to a height of 14.5 m (47.6 ft.) are some of the tallest that have survived in the western part of the Roman Empire. In 1810, the baths and hôtel both underwent a transformation. The baths’ frigidarium was turned into a museum of antiquities, whilst the Hôtel de Cluny became the Musée National du Moyen Age. Today, the entire site is known as the Musée de Cluny, or Musée national du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny. Whilst some of the baths’ structures, such as the frigidarium, are no part of the museum, others are part of an archaeological site.

Paris is Born

Following the end of Roman rule in Gaul, Lutetia was renamed as Paris, after the Parisii. As the centuries went by, much of the remains of Roman Lutetia disappeared. Some, like the northern baths, were repurposed, but this was the exception rather than the norm. Still, the Roman city was not entirely forgotten, as artefacts of this bygone age were made from time to time. During the 6 th century AD, for instance, Gregory of Tours reported the discovery of an ancient bronze serpent and badger in a Parisian gutter, whilst a section of a Roman aqueduct was uncovered in the Latin Quarter during the 16 th century.

Some of the most significant breakthroughs in the archaeology of Lutetia occurred during the 19 th century, when Haussmann was redesigning Paris. Excavations conducted at that time led archaeologists to conclude that Lutetia was built from scratch, as opposed to being constructed over an older Gallic settlement. Lastly, new discoveries are still being made even today.

In May 2006, a street from the time of Augustus was discovered during an excavation on the top of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Such discoveries will contribute further to our knowledge and understanding of Roman Lutetia.

Top image: Artist’s reconstruction of Lutetia by Dassault Systemes ( YouTube screenshot )

By Wu Mingren                                                                                                     


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