In the south of France, a city is still ruled by ancient Rome
By MARY WINSTON NICKLIN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: June 1, 2018
A funny thing happened on the way to the Airbnb. As we dragged our suitcases along the cobblestones in the southern French city of Nimes, we saw a gladiator on a cellphone. The helmet-wearing warrior, looking straight out of ancient Rome, winked at my kids and kept marching toward the amphitheater.
Three hours by train from Paris, sun-soaked Nimes is home to some of the most immaculately preserved Roman monuments in the world. On his 1787 tour of France, a besotted Thomas Jefferson fell hard for the city’s Roman grandeur. “Here I am, Madam, gazing whole hours at the Maison Carree like a lover at his mistress,” the third president wrote in a letter about the stately temple.
And for the past nine years, the city has staged a spectacle that would make Augustus proud. In the same packed amphitheater where the Gallo-Roman population jeered and cheered at gladiatorial combat two millennia ago, Les Grands Jeux Romains, or the Great Roman Games, brings 500 re-enactment actors from all over Europe for a three-day event. We’ve arrived at the end of April for the Spartacus-themed edition.
This year’s sold-out spectacle was particularly buzzing because of the amphitheater’s new neighbor: The Musee de la Romanite, a highly anticipated museum that is hailed as one of France’s biggest recent cultural projects. Scheduled to open June 2, the museum, which cost about $65 million, is devoted to the civilization of ancient Rome and its legacy in Nimes. It was the brainchild of Mayor Jean-Paul Fournier, who has championed a contemporary urbanism that showcases the city’s rich heritage.
“We wanted to create a museum that befits the quality of the city’s 25,000-piece archaeological collection,” Fournier wrote in an email, “including the exceptional mosaics and a Roman house discovered during an excavation in 2006.”
Brazilian-French architect Elisabeth de Porzamparc beat out more than 100 other architects with a bold building draped in an undulating glass facade she has likened to a pleated toga. Explains Fournier: “For centuries, the architects in Nimes have drawn inspiration from the city’s ancient edifices while anchoring their buildings in modernity, and de Porzamparc continues this process ... establishing a dialogue with both nature and the surrounding urban landscape.”
As does Norman Foster’s Carre d’Art, a contemporary art museum that overlooks the Maison Carree, the Musee de la Romanite has a restaurant (overseen by Michelin-starred chef Franck Putelat) with a view. You can admire the amphitheater from there or from the rooftop terrace.
Following the city’s original Augustan ramparts, the museum’s inner “street” is open to the public, so that visitors can freely enter the monumental 17-meter (about 55 feet) atrium, adorned with the temple pediment from the sacred spring where the pre-Roman settlement of Nemausus was founded. Inside the museum, visitors will find cool 3-D renditions and virtual tours of ancient Gaul to enhance their understanding of objects such as the prized Pentheus mosaic. But perhaps the highlight is the archaeological garden. Free to access, it’s designed as a plant museum, with species chronologically arranged according to when they were introduced to the region.
The landmark museum is a cornerstone of Nimes’ campaign to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, the result of which will be announced in the summer. “Roman history has profoundly influenced the Nimois, creating our city’s identity and constituting our roots,” Fournier said. “We share this common good in everyday life, and want to bring it to the world’s attention.”
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Nimes came to my attention in 2006 via my first French friend, a Nimoise by the name of Marielle. As a Latin nerd, I found the city’s monuments mesmerizing, but beyond that, it was the passionate personality of the place that won me over.
Consider Petanque, the game also known as boules. In Nimes, this is not a leisurely, pastis-soaked diversion, I quickly learned, but a ferociously competitive sport that requires great skill, passion, and calculation.
Attendance at one of the biannual ferias (festivals) quickly immerses a visitor in the loud and exuberant traditions of the city. In addition to the Great Roman Games put on by Culturespaces, the amphitheater hosts a number of events including rock concerts, tennis tournaments and la corrida, or bullfighting. This was a draw for Ernest Hemingway, who used to camp out and write at the Hotel Imperator (which is closed for an ambitious renovation).
The city’s boisterous ambiance isn’t limited to its festivals. In the alleyways, cafes spill onto the sidewalks, and rowdy diners linger late into the evening. During the Great Roman Games, some restaurateurs dress up in togas and serve Roman-inspired meals. (We spy a few suckling pigs turning on a spit.) The atmosphere is so contagious that my gleeful 5-year-old takes off on a sprint through a narrow street, running smack into a dinner table, crashing its carefully arranged wine glasses to the cobblestones.
“Hannibal ad portas!” — “Hannibal is at the gates!” — is how parents in ancient Rome supposedly warned their kids to keep them on their best behavior. All I can manage is a shocked apology. But the waiter is too worried about Cecilia’s possible injury, giving her a kiss and shooing me away when I try to pick up the shattered glass.
This love of kids is everywhere in Nimes. “There must be a mistake,” we gesture to the waitress over the bill’s two-euro price of two children’s meals at the locally loved La Bodeguita, a lively restaurant on the Place d’Assas. “No, that’s our owner’s policy,” she replied with a grin, bringing ice cream sundaes topped with glow-stick bracelets.
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But bien spartacus was the real point of our trip. Glancing at our tickets, the word “vomitoire” gives us pause. Does this mean we’ll be so close to the action that our stomach will reel at the sight of the gore? Thankfully, we learn that this ancient term merely describes the interior stone corridors that efficiently “spew” people to their seats.
We’re transfixed. Emperor Hadrian is seated in pomp and circumstance, the crowd shouts a prayer to Jupiter (“Jovis Optimus, Jovis Maximus!”), horses race while 12,000 spectators cheer on their riders by waving color-coded napkins. Halfway through the spectacle, bread scented with orange blossoms is tossed from baskets — just like the panem et circenses (bread and circuses) fed to the Gallo-Roman audience millennia ago.
My daughters are particularly awed by the female gladiators, whose swinging punches and action-packed combat cause a cloud of dust to rise in the ring. Not to mention the pageantry of the Spartacus story, told in eight episodes.
But above all, it’s the historic accuracy that’s awe-inspiring. The costumes are assembled with the same materials used in ancient Rome. The volunteers and professional actors — such as Gilles Sindt, who plays Spartacus — have trained rigorously for six months, many reading the works of historian Eric Tessier.
I’ve also been immersed in this history, via classicist Mary Beard’s brilliant book “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.” In it she writes, “Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy.” Among many things, “Rome has bequeathed us ideas of liberty and citizenship” and “a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators.’ ”
She also shatters some of the myths our culture has nurtured about the ancient Romans. Thanks partly to Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick, Beard explains, Spartacus’ famous slave war “remains one of the most glamorized conflicts in the whole of Roman history.” But the reality of these “breakaway slave-gladiators” was probably not as depicted by modern accounts, which have “wanted to make Spartacus an ideological hero, even one who was fighting the very institution of slavery.” Instead, most evidence suggests that even Roman slaves took the institution for granted, and that Spartacus and his fellow escapees simply wanted freedom for themselves.
The Great Roman Games tell the story in such an intense way (slave markets, Sicilian pirates) that my older daughter Jane, wide-eyed with wonder, keeps asking me questions for days afterward. Meanwhile, I overhear Cecilia reciting the prayer to Jupiter in her bedroom, raising little palms upward to the heavens.