5 Places to Find Roman History in Provence
Visible traces of Roman history weave throughout Provence, which is one of many reasons to visit the region. Below we highlight five (5) top places for evidence of the Roman era.
#1 Roman Aix-en-Provence
The Romans understood the need for freshwater for a settlement to thrive and survive. So, Entremont, the oppidum established by the Salyens, a Celtic-Ligurian tribe (180-170 BC), was abandoned for accessible water sources. Established in 122 BC, a community named Aquae Sextiae paid tribute to respected Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus. These water sources supported the growing population of Aquae Sextiae and are the reason that Aix-en-Provence is known as the “City of Water.”
Strategically located, this new city had access to natural water sources (les Etuves and les Bagniers). These springs supplied warm water for the Roman thermal baths. The remains of these ancient pools are visible at the Thermes Sextius spa. Read more about unearthing the treasures of Aix-en-Provence in this city guide.
Before most civic projects and road construction in Aix-en-Provence, the archaeologists arrive ahead of the bulldozers. Over the years, they have unearthed Roman pottery, statues, funeral urns, drainage systems and stretches of road.
Dans les Rues D’Aquae Sextiae – Aix Antique is a tour created by Frédéric Paul of Le Visible est Invisible. The company offers walking tours in French, English, German, and Italian, helping you understand the first Roman city in Provence. The Roman town is hard to imagine as most traces have been removed, buried or reused. However, Frédéric and his team bring history into view. You will discover Roman columns in odd places, the remains of ancient roads, baths, temples and more.
#2 Roman Arles
Arles was a critical Rhône River trading centre during the Roman era. Cargo from all over the Empire travelled along the Rhône to Avignon, Tarascan, Arles, and beyond. Imports like tapestries, fabrics, spices, and grains from other Mediterranean ports along the river on low-hulled wood boats. In addition, commercial trade of local products such as almonds, wine, and olive oil was active.
Today, the Roman presence in Arles remains evident in its well-preserved arena, Alyscamps (burial ground), theatre and even a 31m wooden Roman barge at the Musée départemental Arles antique. The arena, constructed on three levels, is a site for concerts and special events. Also worth visiting are the Cryptoportiques (old shops and storage areas) underneath the Hôtel de Ville (city hall).
It took eleven years to complete the Muséon Arlaten renovation. The 15th-century mansion – Hôtel de Laval-Castellane – required a complete renovation and restoration. The project cost of 22.5 million Euros included relocating an archive of 40,000 objects. Organized by timeline, your first glimpse is a return to 1 AD with the remains of a Roman forum. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the museum walks through time from the Romans to the Arlesians.
#3 Teatre d’Orange
Located a short distance from Avignon (21km) and neighbouring the Rhone Valley vineyards, Orange is an agricultural working town, in the Vaucluse, with a UNESCO World Heritage classification. Orange was the Roman capital of Northern Provence, as is evidenced by the remaining monuments.
Initially, the Celts established a settlement in this place in approximately 150 BC, calling it Arausio after their water god. Later founded by the Romans in 35 BC, there were crucial decision-makers and military figures in Arausio’s population.
It isn’t easy to imagine Arausio’s (now Orange) prominence during Roman times. But unfortunately, there is little evidence of the city’s former glory under the Roman empire other than the remains of two structures, the Arc de Triomphe and Théâtre Antique d’Orange.
The exact timing of the arch’s construction is unclear, although it once formed part of the town’s fortified walls during the middle ages. Today, the Arc de Triomphe d’Orange stands alone on a busy traffic corridor on Route Nationale 7 (RN7). At 21m wide, the heavily decorated Roman Triumphal Arch now straddles a roundabout. This ornate stone gateway was once a marker for the ancient trade route linking Lyon to Arles and eventually Spain. At its pinnacle, Orange was a diminutive, less populated Rome with notable public structures (theatre, temple and arch) to match.
Over two millennia have passed since the construction of Orange’s Antique Theatre (Théâtre antique), including an elaborate stage wall. The theatre’s stage runs 61 metres in length, backed by a curtain wall that is 103m long and stands 37m high.
In Provence, medieval times were rough, and Orange was far from immune from armed incursions and religious wars. Nevertheless, in a farsighted project by the French state, restoration work on the Antique Theatre began in 1825, and the first public performances were in 1869. Today, this massive venue accommodates 9-10,000 people for live performances during les Chorégies each summer.
#4 Marseille’s Vieux Port
In roughly 600 BC, the Greeks established a settlement called Massalia (Marseille). They chose a naturally sheltered harbour along the Mediterranean coastline for maritime trade development. Here the Greeks and the Romans established their trade routes for spices, silks, cotton, wine, olive oil and more. Today, Marseille is the second biggest city in France and the country’s largest seaport – le Grand port maritime de Marseille. The city also ranks among the top five cruise ports in the Mediterranean. Although the naval business activity has shifted, the Old Port remains an epicentre for tourist cruises, personal watercraft, and ferry shuttles. The Vieux Port is one of the must-see sights in Marseille.
Musée d’ Histoire de Marseille, one of the largest museums in Europe. This museum received funding ahead of the Year of Culture (2013) to improve and modernize the displays. So add this museum to your “must-see” list. Over 4000 artefacts in the museum’s collection cover 26 centuries of human settlement in Marseille (Greek: Massalia). The museum is steps from the Vieux Port and close to the Musée des Docks Romains which has archaeological objects unearthed from the Greek and Roman eras, including dolia (large clay amphorae used to transport wine).
#5 Wines of Provence
These wines are almost mythical due to the Greek’s arrival with non-indigenous vines in about 600 BC. The vines were likely the earliest intentionally cultivated grapes and the first rosés in France. The Romans arrived in Nostra Provincia (“our province”) in approximately 125 BC, expanding their commodity trade routes.
Unearthed throughout the region is evidence of Roman grape cultivation, including fragments of pottery and tributes to Bacchus and Ariane on steles, sarcophaguses and statues. Wine and local goods shipped down the Rhone River to the port of Marseille to other destinations. In addition, the Romans recognized that the flanks of Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail provided good drainage for grapes. Read more about the wines of Provence.