ORANGE, Vaucluse

Orange is 21Km north of Avignon and it was our destination on our first full day in the region. In many ways our visit to Orange was very similar to our visit to Nimes on the previous day as both towns are famous for the preservation of major Roman buildings. However human habitation in the area didn’t start with the Romans; since the Iron age, the area was populated by the Gallic Tribe of the Tricastini. In the second century BCE, the area of modern-day Europe covered by France and Germany was in turmoil similar to the time of the fourth century CE ‘barbarian’ invasions. Wandering Gallic tribes looking for new homelands and plunder were encountering Roman armies heading north to enforce their growing control of Gaul. The map on the right estimates the route of the Cimbrian and Teuton invasions in the late second century BCE. It also shows an X on the spot of Arausio, the original name of the settlement where Orange developed. There was a major battle here in 105BCE between two Roman Armies and the invading tribes from the north. The battle was a huge loss for the Roman armies with an estimate of up to 112000 troops lost. The map also indicates that Cimbrians and Teutons went on to maraud through the top of Spain before returning to attack Italy. Luckily for the Romans, their armies this time worked effectively and the invaders were routed at Vercellae

By 35 BCE, the Romans were confident in their control of this area of Gaul and so large parcels of land were issued to army veterans of the Second Legion. As a result, a Roman city outside of Italy was established and its short name was ‘Arausio’. Many of the traditional Roman public buildings were constructed and two of these have survived the last two millennia and are the star attractions of Orange today. The first of these is the Roman Triumphal Arch.

The date of the construction of this impressive arch is deduced from two inscriptions on the arch itself. It is generally held to have been built in the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BCE – 14 CE) to honour the veterans of the Gallic Wars in this region where so many Roman soldiers lost their lives. The arch was built on the Via Agrippa, the Roman road that continued onward to pass through Nimes, about 60 Km away. It wasn’t too many years later in 27 CE when Emperor Tiberius did some remodelling of the arch to honour the victories of his adopted son, Germanicus over the German tribes. If the Battle of Arausio was an embarrassing Roman memory, the loss of legions and their ‘Legionary Eagles’ in the Teutoburg Forest disaster in 9 CE was even more harshly felt by the Roman Empire. This time however only around 20000 casualties were recorded in the Teutoburg Forest. It was Germanicus who took the Roman legions back across the Rhine and defeated the German armies sent against him. Germanicus had a short life in power (probably poisoned) but at least he rescued the lost ‘Eagles’.

On the surface of the arch are left the weathered sculptural reliefs of battles against barbarian tribes, naval battles and spoils of war. There are very visible small holes in the arch that once held bronze letters of inscriptions but alas these are long gone…definitive details of the arch’s history no doubt stolen, melted down and turned into useful household items.

The map below gives the visitor a simple trail to explore the key sites of Orange with the assumption they have most of the day to stroll around the beautiful streets of Orange. The map also shows where the parking stations are so the best plan would be to get a central car park and start with an inspection of the city’s Triumphal Arch and gorgeous landscaped park that surrounds it. From here it’s a walk down Rue Victor Hugo and turn left into Place des Langes in front of the City’s main cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth. Not being a native French speaker, I was curious to note that one of the translations of ‘Langes’ was “swaddling clothes”.

An abbreviated timeline of the history of Orange was printed towards the start of this article and it lists the period from 1150 to 1530 CE as the period where the region was ruled over by the Princes of Les Beaux. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1208 with William I of Beaux present for the ceremony. William was a difficult man and ended up spending his last years in prison in Avignon. Like William I, this church suffered a similar mixed life of tragedies; its first disaster was when it was sacked by the Hugenots in the 16th century as part of the country wide Wars of Religion. During the revolutionary period of the late 1700s it was converted into the ‘Temple of the Goddess Reason’. One curious link between the Cathedral and the Roman Theatre is that during the early days of the Revolution in Orange, 332 people (including 37 nuns!), after being held in the Theatre, were guillotined near the centre of the city.

The Cathedral was restored to the Catholic parishioners in the 19th century and has prospered ever since.

Every French town generally has a Place de la Republic and so it is via this piazza that the visitor should stroll directly south, from the Cathedral to the Roman Theatre. The city of Nimes claims their arena is the best-preserved Roman Amphitheatre outside Italy, likewise the city of Orange claims their theatre is the best preserved of any Roman theatre outside Italy. They were both entertainment centres for the populace and the authorities decided it was through public entertainment that Roman culture and politics could be effectively spread amongst their colonies. The theatre was built in the first century CE and the image on the left below shows the condition of the building in a painting from the 18th century. It looks amazingly preserved from a distance and when I first saw the exterior wall when visiting Orange, I was very impressed at the state of the theatre after 1900 years of dramatic life. Another character who was very Impressed by the wall of the Theatre said it was “The most beautiful wall in my kingdom.” This was the famous Henry XIV, King of France, who wasn’t a big fan of any other buildings in Orange.

From the inside, the theatre looks just as impressive. The front wall of the theatre, called the scaenae, is 37 metres high and 103 metres long and was originally highly decorated with mosaics. In the centre is a niche with a statue of Augustus. The theatre was originally covered with a wooden roof that covered the audience during inclement weather. The image on the right of the theatre was taken a few years ago and does not show the recent addition of a glass roof built over the stage area. Today the theatre can hold over 9000 spectators and is used for regular performances, particularly its annual opera festival.

Earlier I mentioned the story of Germanicus’s suppression of the Germanic tribes that gave the Roman Empire another three or more centuries of functioning in this region of modern day Europe. However there is a certain irony that the barbarians were back at the gates of eastern Roman cities in the fifth century CE and Orange was one of these. The Visigoths around 412 CE pillaged Orange’s Roman buildings and the amphitheatre was one of these.

Although stripped of its better stones, the theatre was used as defensive fortification in the early Middle Ages to keep at bay its many jealous neighbours. During the Wars of Religion during the 1500’s, it was also used as a refuge for the townsfolk seeking to escape the marauding Huegenot Armies. From 1544, the rulers of Orange passed into the hands of the Counts of Nassau (William the Silent) who also had significant land holding in the Netherlands. However this didn’t stop Orange being sacked again in 1662.

The photo above of the Roman Theatre illustrates how it was built into the hill behind it which today is the site of the Parc Colline St Eutrope. If the visitor has time and plenty of energy, they can climb up to the top and will be rewarded not only by the great views back over Orange but get to check out the remnants of the significant buildings and fortifications that were constructed on this hill to defend Orange during the 17th Century. One of the things the Dukes of Nassau brought to their rule of Orange was an interest in building town walls and a Castle/Fortress on the hill above Orange’s Roman Theatre. The drawings below from the 17th century of the city gives us the best understanding what this short-lived Castle Fortress looked like. Certainly it would be very difficult to get a strong sense of this fortification if one was just using the remaining remnants of the buildings in the Parc Colline. In the image to right can be seen one of the larger fragments of this ruin. The key question for modern viewers is how can such significant fortifications disappear so completely when Roman remains can last for two thousand years? In the images from the time, the famous wall of the Roman theatre can still be clearly seen below the castle/fortress; the fabulous stone wall remains but all the other major buildings sbove it are gone. The answer lies in the demands of an absolute monarch,, le Roi Soleil, Louis Quartorze of France.

Louis XIV was king of France from 1643 to 1715, the longest reigning monarch of any ruler in European history. Throughout the 17th century he determinedly attempted to move the borders of France to include all those lands between France, Germany and Italy that he saw as naturally belonging to his kingdom. The region around Orange was one of these areas and his troops attacked the city and captured it for periods of time during the late 16th/early 17th century. It was fully ceded to France in 1713 and the castle/fortifications of Orange were pulled down under direct orders from Louis XIV. Visitors to the Parc on top of the hill can still see some of the foundations of the Chateau but this once impressive building no longer sits protectively over Orange.

A good way to finish off the day at Orange is to visit the Museum of Art and History that is sited opposite the Roman Theatre  in a 17th century mansion originally built by a Dutch nobleman. It will no doubt answer a lot of questions about the long history of Orange as it contains many exhibits from the archaeology conducted over the years in this city. Below are a few images of curious finds contained in this museum.


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