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Rome Remains - Roman treasures in south west France

Rome Remains - Roman treasures in south west France

For centuries southwest France was occupied by the forces of Rome, who left a surprising legacy. We show you where to look...

 

Just 24 years after the successful Roman conquest of central Gaul (51BC) a census had been completed and colonies at strategic locations were linked by roads which shaped our present day system. South of Châtellerault (86), beside an important trade route between Tours (Caesarodunum) and Saintes (Mediolanum Santonum), the settlement of Vetus Pictavis (now known as Vieux-Poitiers) was established near Naintré by order of Emperor Augustus Caesar. In time it covered over 80 ha, with an amphitheatre seating some 10,000 spectators. Archaeologists have revealed evidence of everyday life including housing, temples, a large pottery plus a menhir bearing a Celtic inscription in Roman characters. In the late 2nd century the site was decimated by fire, and the focus moved further south to the ancient capital of the Picton tribe.

Lemonum, which we now know as Poitiers (86), would become the most important settlement in the Roman province of Gallia Aquitania before the rise of Bordeaux (Burdigala). For centuries it possessed a 30,000-seat amphi-theatre even larger than that of Nîmes, plus sophisticated thermal baths with fresh water supplied by stone aqueducts from outlying springs. Today just a single entry portal survives from the amphitheatre, while the Musée Sainte-Croix displays Gallo-Roman artifacts from local excavations.

Further down the ancient Imperial way linking Poitiers with Saintes a massive stone column known as la Fanal d’Ebéon stands beside the D129 near Saint-Même (17), south of Saint Jean d’Angély. It was originally surrounded by a rectangular wall and was perhaps a funerary monument. Its state of disrepair threatens its survival, but in the commune of Saint-Romain-de-Benet near Saujon (17) is a well-preserved similar structure. La Tour de Pirelonge is 6m square and some 25m in height and again was originally surrounded by stone walls, creating an enclosure which when excavated revealed several graves.

Nearby Saintes (17) not only had north-south connections but also lay on the Via Agrippa, running all the way from Lyon (Lugdunum) via Limoges (Augustoritum). Saintes presented Roman engineers with substantial challenges. A few km to the northeast, for example, the village of Fontcouverte (17) possesses no fewer than eight spring-fed lavoirs, the largest served by the Escambouille, which emerges at la Font Morillon. During the 1st century AD it was diverted by a Roman aqueduct to provide Saintes with fresh water, but was soon superseded by a more copious and dependable source a little further north at le Douhet (17), whose own aqueduct begins with a cave-like underground passage. It then passes beneath the gardens of the 17th century Château du Douhet and emerges at the lavoir of la Jarretière.In 1840 the still-functioning aqueduct gained Monument Historique status. As Saintes grew, yet another aqueduct was constructed, this time from la Fontaine de la Roche and la Fontaine du Moulin, near the village of Vénérand (17) (which gained a modest place in the history of France when Saint Louis bathed here before confronting Henry III at the Battle of Taillebourg in 1242).

Constructing aqueducts would have required significant investment. Throughout their long journey (up to 17km) the U-shaped channels employ cut stone sealed by heavy capstones to preserve water purity. Keeping things flowing by gravity alone required precise land surveys, the necessary gradient (sometimes as little as 1mm per metre) being achieved among unsuitable natural contours by tunnels and viaducts. Several stone arches survive at le Vallon des Arcs, surrounded by the town’s golf course. Among the reasons for the town’s seemingly insatiable thirst were several thermal baths, including the 1st century Thermes de Saint-Saloine, whose site preserves portions of the walls which supported a caldarium (heated baths). By the 3rd century they had become a necropolis and the town was undergoing a radical transformation into a castrum defended by walls and watchtowers. Buildings which lay outside the boundary were demolished to provide stone, and portions of the masonry visible in Place des Récollets confirm the use of massive stones up to 5m in length.

Taking the Via Agrippa across the River Charente into the town and onwards to the coast was an 11-arched stone bridge completed around 18 AD, and which survived largely intact until river widening led to its demolition in 1843. Thanks to Prosper Mérimée, Inspecteur Général des Monuments Historiques, the monumental Arch de Germanicus through which travellers passed escaped destruction and was transferred stone by stone to the eastern riverbank overlooking the original crossing between Rue de l’Arc de Triomphe and Rue Victor Hugo on the opposite bank. Despite the passage of almost 2,000 years, the arch dedicated to Emperor Tiberius and his adoptive sons Drusus Caesar and Germanicus remains impressive with Corinthian columns, foliated capitals and more besides.

The years have been less kind to the 15,000-seat amphitheatre begun in the reign of Tiberius and completed in that of his successor Claudius. The arena was abandoned during the 3rd century and by the Middle Ages was providing a convenient source of ready-cut stone for new construction. In the early 20th century, however, the town acquired the site and began preserving what had survived. While most of the upper walls and tiered seating have long since gone, what remains tells us much about the structure and the bloody spectacles it hosted. Gladiators entered (and left, should they survive) via the Porte Sanavivaria, or ‘Porte des Vivants’, while remains of those slain were removed to the nearby necropolis via the Porte Libitensis or ‘Porte des Morts’. The Musée Archéologique de Saintes displays finds from local excavations plus reconstructions of Roman daily life.

On the coast near Rochefort the local Société de Géographie has excavated sites of two large Roman farm-style villas at Porte des Barques (17), plus another on the tiny Île Madame (17). Local people refer to the locations as ‘les Chapelles’, and artifacts found include a plate decorated with a cross plus a ‘Domine’ inscription, which date the sites from the arrival of Christianity.

Further south, below the mouth of the Gironde at Barzan (17), is another hugely important Gallo-Roman site believed to be the long-lost port of Novioregum or Portus Santonum.

Aerial photographs reveal contours of a site covering 140ha, with an amphitheatre, several temples, thermal baths, villas, warehouses and a geometric street plan. You can visit the remains of a Roman temple and baths, then see the results of around 20 years’ excavations in the Musée du Fâ, whose interactive displays bring it all to life.

Inland, east of Rouillac (16) and beside the Via Agrippa, you can visit the largest ancient theatre in the Roman province of Aquitaine. The Théâtre Gallo-Romain des Bouchauds was constructed at the beginning of the 1st century AD and is set into a hillside, giving audiences distractingly stunning views over open countryside. It’s remarkably well preserved, and at the top of the hill is a small shrine thought to have been dedicated to Mercury.

Further inland between Poitiers and Niort is Sanxay (86), whose Gallo-Roman site extends to 20 ha. Dedicated to water as the source of life and fertility, its own amphitheatre sits beside a lazy meander of the River Vonne. On the opposite bank are remains of 2nd-3rd century thermal baths plus an octagonal temple thought to have been dedicated to Apollo and Mercury. Each August the amphitheatre hosts the popular Soirées Lyriques de Sanxay opera performances.

Some way further southeast the Via Agrippa passes through northern Charente and has left us with yet another important Gallo-Roman site. Since the 1960s archaeologists have been studying the site of Cassinomagus near Chassenon (16), and the results are impressive. They include a theatre, three temples and a thermal bath complex supplied with spring water by an aqueduct. So important are ‘les thermes’ that this area of the site is currently closed, receiving some 10,000m2 of stylish protective roof panels to provide better protection from the elements. Work should be completed in 2017, until which time there still remains plenty to see at this remarkable 25ha site.

Meanwhile, the site of a complete Roman villa complex plus the vast central tower of a temple are already fully preserved at Périgueux (24) (Petrucore) in northern Dordogne. Versunna’s displays are truly exceptional, as is the protective architecture by Jean Nouvel, while nearby you can wander through park-style gardens within the romantic ruins of a huge Roman arena.

As we’ve seen, the whole region possesses more Gallo-Roman remains than is generally appreciated, with the promise of a great deal more still to come as surveying techniques continue to develop. Each site is well worth visiting, and will help you piece together a truly fascinating historical jigsaw.

 

Find out more

Gallo-Roman sites in Vienne: www.tourisme-vienne.com/en/

Sites in & around Saintes: www.saintes-tourisme.fr/Decouvertes/Sites-et-monumentsDecouvertes/Sites-et-monuments 

Roman Charente Maritime - the definitive overview: www.mediolanum-santonum.fr/ 

Site Gallo-Romain du Fa: www.fa-barzan.com  www.fa-barzan.fr 

Amphithéatre des Bouchauds: www.cg16.fr/culture-patrimoine/sites-departementaux/les-bouchauds/

Parc Archéologique Cassinomagus: www.cassinomagus.fr  

Musée Gallo Roman de Vesunna: www.perigueux-vesunna.fr 

 

WORDS: ROGER MOSS

© Living Magazine - published April 2015