University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Architectural Adventures in Roman Gaul – John Sigmier

September 5, 2017

The scene building behind the stage of the theater at Orange, still standing after two thousand years.

One of the biggest perks of studying Roman archaeology is the fieldwork—there are certainly worse places to spend a summer than the sunny Mediterranean. This past May, I was able to do research in the South of France, a region which boasts some incredibly well-preserved examples of Roman architecture. My focus was on theater buildings, but I was fortunate to also have opportunities to visit and explore all kinds of other structures.

I’m investigating how the Romans shared architectural expertise, and the theater buildings of Roman Gaul offer an enticing case study. The theaters in many southern cities are almost identical (down to the colors of the decorative stones used to pave the areas in front of their stages!), but the theaters from the north of the Gallic provinces are often as different from one another as the southern theaters are alike; at some point, builders were either no longer able or no longer motivated to replicate familiar architectural forms in new places. Beginning in Lyon, I worked my way down the Rhone River and along the Mediterranean coast toward Italy, taking photographs and documenting how ancient Roman architects at times utilized a standard design vocabulary in their theater buildings and at other times departed from typical practices. In particular, I spent a lot of time poking around the bowels of the buildings, which usually consisted of ingeniously arranged vaults that served as structural supports, passageways, and storage spaces for the seats and stages above.

Examining the region’s theaters reinforced for me how closely connected the cities of Southern Gaul were in antiquity; each building followed the same general format, and a standard set of features appeared in all of them. However, small differences underscored how Roman architects were able to take liberties in adapting their buildings to specific sites and environments. For example, the theaters were built into hillsides wherever possible to provide extra support for upper levels of seating, and this meant that each theater had a different configuration of sub-structural passages to funnel spectators to their seats. Since they were built into hills, the theaters also had to include ways to deal with runoff from rainstorms, and I saw evidence for all kinds of different drains (some of which are still in use today to keep the archaeological sites from flooding).

Arches and vaults beneath the seats of the Nimes amphitheater.
The water-driven mills of Barbegal.

Of course, there is much more to Roman France than just its theaters. At sites like Arles and Nîmes, I spent time looking at strikingly complete arenas, whose tiers of seats supported on radial vaults were very similar to what I’d seen in the theaters. I also took some time away from the urban sites to hike around the countryside looking for aqueducts. I was able to visit several unique examples, including the Pont du Gard, a famously massive aqueduct bridge that crosses the valley of the Gardon River; the Gier siphon, which put water under pressure to carry it to the provincial capital at Lyon; and the Barbegal mills, a cascading industrial complex powered by water from a nearby aqueduct. The sites that I saw were consistently impressive, and I left France with a wealth of ideas to pursue in the coming academic year. Plus, the pastries were outstanding.

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