Nîmes, as an old proverb says, is the French Rome, and whilst it’s hard to miss the many relics of the Roman Empire througout the city — the Arènes, the Maison Carrée, or the Jardins de la Fontaine, to name but a few — the full complexity and richness of Nîmes’ involvement with the Roman Empire is perhaps less well known.
However, in spite of its name, the museum is not just about the Romans. The museum’s chief curator, Dominique Darde, wants people to remember that Nîmes is not just a Roman place. Many things came before them, she reminds us, and many things afterwards. The museum puts the Romans into the local context, showing how the effects of their presence continued to influence Nîmes throughout the centuries, even to the present day.
The museum traces the ancient impact of Mediterranean culture - from Italy, Greece and North Africa - on Nîmes.
Greek merchants and settlers first appeared in the region after 600 BC, bringing olives and wine, as well as their architecture and culture. There is a full-scale recreation of an iron-age family house (dating to 420 BC) excavated at Gailhan near Nîmes, enhanced by interactive multi-media displays which show how locals, even at that time, were integrated into a wider network of trade. There are also sculptures of Gallic warriors with finely crafted helmets and breastplates, and the first-known appearance of the name of Nîmes' patron-god, Nemausus, inscribed in a Celtic inscription written in Greek characters. The Greek presence paved the way for the Roman annexation of southern Gaul around 125 BC. There are aspects of Gallic custom which might perhaps have alarmed the Romans - for example, the frequent display of severed heads on Gallic doorposts, and the museum shows real examples from Le Cailar, near Nîmes, and also carved heads on lintels from Nages. However Roman culture was soon embraced, and a mosaic dating back to the first century BC - The Black Swimmers - from the heart of Nîmes, shows how rich locals had started to live in a Roman fashion even before the Maison Carrée and the forum were built.
Everything about the Roman way of life is on display. Recent discoveries of beautifully carved stonework, erotic wall paintings and the intricate mosaic of Pentheus being decapitated by his mother Agave (from Euripides’ Greek tragedy The Bacchae) show the Roman high life in Nîmes. There is a re-creation of a Roman bedchamber with an original mosaic and reconstructed wall-paintings - something which I’ve only seen before in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A newly restored statue of the sea-god Neptune is also a highlight.
You can also learn about everyday life, as there are countless artifacts of ordinary living, each in their own way hugely evocative - the remains of dice and board games, lamps, scissors, weights and measures, tools, ceramics, iridescent blue-green glassware and more. Although the Gauls benefitted from trade contacts before the Roman conquest, the Empire - despite the ultimate violence of the takeover - revolutionised their standard of living. One of the most poignant items on display is the tombstone of a vine dresser, named Vallonus, engraved with a picture of his pruning hook. Rome changed Gallic society, so that even some of the most humble were able to be memorialised in stone, and their trades also thought worthy of that dignity.
The new museum displays its internationally-important collections of stone inscriptions and coins, and both are clearly and innovatively displayed. A number of the inscriptions, which include tombstones of gladiators and altars dedicated by priests and priestesses, are brought to life with video projections and translations. Specimens from the huge coin collection, which offers examples from the reign of nearly every Roman emperor - many in gold and silver - are laid out with excellent magnifiers and family trees of the imperial houses to offer context, as well as video presentations.
Just as the museum shows the local context before the arrival of the Roman Empire, it also demonstrates its continuing cultural influence after its departure. A collection of carvings, never previously displayed, show how Roman ideas and motifs were used in artistic creations up to and throughout the Medieval period, often mixed with indigenous ideas. Especially striking in this section is a wonderfully fine 12th-century Corinthian column capital (similar to those on the Maison Carrée), but with stone faces included at the top, reminiscent of the pre-Roman Gallic tradition of displaying severed heads. Also on display are remarkable medieval carvings from one of the churches that was built in the Nîmes Arènes when it was turned into a fortress following the Romans’ departure.
The whole design of the museum is intended to reflect the Roman context. It allows free public access to a new garden behind the museum, including a stretch of the remaining Roman ramparts and bastion. The planting of the garden demonstrates a range of the flora widely cultivated before and during Roman times.
Nîmes has long needed an up-to-date museum for its Roman heritage, and the new Musée de la Romanité, with its extensive but sensitive use of interactive multimedia technology, its imaginative and engaging layout, as well as the high quality of the artifacts, offers something for visitors of all ages and all levels of previous knowledge about history. It is a splendid achievement after many years’ work, and is a worthy rival to similar museums in Arles, Lyon and Vienne.
For further details contact: museedelaromanite.fr
* "I came, I saw, I visited" - with thanks to Julius Caesar
Caesar’s Footprints is published by Head of Zeus, and is available at good bookshops, Le Bookshop Montpellier and online