As I just finished translating an article on Nîmes for the Rotaract of the Mediterranean, I figured I would share it with you, dear readers. Enjoy your history lesson! ; ) Thank goodness I went to the museum of archaeology here yesterday so I’d done some historical research without really even meaning to. It helps with translations. Thank goodness I also had an amazing high school teacher when it came to Roman history.
The foundation of Nîmes, located in the Gard region of southern France, dates back to the Roman Empire. From this period, Nîmes preserves several exceptional monuments, such as the Roman arena, the Maison Carré, and the Tour Magne at the foot of which the Jardins de la Fontaine are located. This rich Roman heritage earned Nîmes the nickname “the French Rome”.
The Maison Carrée
The Maison Carrée is a Roman temple constructed at the beginning of the first century AD. After it’s construction, it was dedicated by the emperor Augustus to the glory of his two grandsons: the consuls and military leaders Lucius Caesar and Gaius Julius Caesar. Over the centuries, the temple notably became a consular house, a church, and then an art musuem. It is today one of the best preserved Roman temples in the world.
Construction of the monument was completed sometime between 70 and 80 AD. Originally an amphitheater, its purpose was to entertain the population of Nîmes and the surrounding area with gladiator fights and other spectacles. At the time of the barbaric invasions, it became a fortified village where the population went to take refuge, becoming in the Middle Ages until the 19th century a distinct neighborhood with its own roads and boutiques. In 1863, the monument was remade into an arena for bullfighting. Today, the arena hosts around twenty corridas, Spanish-style bullfights where a matador armed with a sword fights the bull to the death, and courses camarguaises, where competitors must snatch a rosette from a young bull’s horns, as well as various other cultural events (concerts, the Feria, the Festival of Nîmes, The Great Roman Games, historical reenactments…). Besides these events, the arena welcomes tourists year round for visits.
The bulls and distinctly colored horses used in bullfighting are both raised in the Camargue region of France. The Camarguaise culture, with its emphasis on tauromachy, has had a strong influence on the image of Nîmes.
This amphitheater is, without a doubt, the best preserved in the world. However, it is not yet a registered UNESCO world heritage site, unlike the neighboring arena in Arles which is not as well preserved.
The Tour Magne (“Magnificent Tower”)
The Tour Magne is a pre-Roman monument transformed during the era of Augustus. During the 3rd century AD it measured 18m tall, then 36m during the Roman era, though today it measures no taller than 32.5m.
Numerous hypotheses have been suggested for the original purpose of the monument. During the Roman era, due the fact it was part of the fortification of the city, it may have played defensive role, such as a watchtower or signal tower. In doubling its height, the Romans made a show of their power.
Les Jardins de la Fontaine (The Gardens of the Fountain)
The Jardins de la Fontaine were completed in 1745 at the base of these other Roman vestiges. It emphasizes the value of two other Roman monuments, the Temple of Diana and the Tour Magne, both having resisted the trials of time particularly well.
During the Gallo-Roman era, the area of the Jardins de la Fontaine notably contained the thermal baths of the city (of which one can see some remnants). Recent excavations of the area have led to the discovery of a rich abode from the second century on the rue Pasteur, hints of a working-class neighborhood, and where the boulevard Jean Jaurès intersects the rue de Sauve, a sumptuous public edifice of which the purpose remains a mystery.
The culinary specialty of Nîmes is the “brandade de Nîmes”. This is a purée of salted cod, olive oil, and mashed potatoes. Its origins are in the trade of cod from fishers in the Atlantic and salt from the south of France. In 1766, Monsieur Durand, a chef of the bishop, created the recipe for a restaurateur in Nîmes. It is a dish typical of Mediterranean cuisine.
Due to the twang of the accent in Nîmes and the area of southern France as well as for the distinct accent which the Roman remains give the city, Nîmes’ motto is “the city with an accent”. And it sure does have an accent!