I took five years of Latin, from middle school through high school, with a wonderful teacher who remains a vivid character in my educational memories. My Latin studies are a partial explanation for my love of words and (maybe?) my somewhat-ease in picking up languages (Dutch seriously excluded). But beyond the language itself, we studied Roman culture and translated war chronicles and love poetry. I still remember my teacher proclaiming to us the words of Catullus: Odi et amo! I hate and I love! and all of our angstful teenage hearts saying, “I totally get this Roman stuff.”
So let’s review. Depending on who you read, exact dates vary, but I learned that the Roman empire rose in the first century B.C. (prior to that it was a republic) and fell (in the West) in 476 A.D. The relics of those hundreds of years of expansion and creation and destruction are dotted all across Western Europe and parts of Africa and Great Britain. I saw my first Roman ruins in Bath, England, in 2004, but on our trip through France last week we had absolute Roman-ruin-o-rama. (We read in Rick Steves that Rome would send retired soldiers to southern France so they would be happy and satisfied and not plot overthrows.)
Here’s the thing: no pictures do justice to the vastness of the things the Romans built, and no picture transports you to the feeling you get when you stand there and contemplate how they built it, and how LONG ago they built it. But in case you never get there, I’m going to share some.
The amphitheatre in Arles was constructed around 90 A.D. and could hold 20,000 spectators who didn’t have to pay to come and watch animals kill people and other brutal stuff. The stadium’s tunnels and many arched entryways meant it could be evacuated in minutes, because by the time the entertainment was over, people were usually drunk and rowdy, and the authorities didn’t want trouble. It was sort of like Fenway Park, but thankfully without everyone trying to get to Kenmore.
The amphitheatre is still used today (hence the metal bleacher inserts).
Nearby is Arles’s Theatre Antique, a smaller Roman theatre of which very little remains.
Though one major column and some other areas are still standing, mostly it feels like they’ve tried to round up all the pieces and stack them in piles for you to contemplate. These kinds of ruins can be harder to visit, because you have to imagine what was once there.
About a half hour away by car is the truly incredible Pont du Gard aqueduct. The arena was awe-inspiring, the theatre was interesting, but this sight absolutely stunned me.
As we were told, Pont du Gard is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins anywhere, the remaining bridge of a thirty-mile aqueduct that brought water to the city of Nimes. The largest arch is eighty feet across. The river underneath is not so forceful anymore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
—from “To Helen,” by Edgar Allan Poe, 1845