Via Domitia

23/03/2016 10:12

Driving along A9 motorway through French Languedoc region, occasionally a sign reminds that we are running on the ancient Via Domitia, a Roman road that linked the province of Tarraco in Hispania with Cisalpine Gaul, from the Pyrenees to the Alps.

A route that Greeks attributed to hero Heracles, when he had fulfilled the tenth of his twelve infamous labours, the theft of King Gerion livestock, and then returned this way to his country. This is the same path that led Hannibal and his elephants to cross the Alps before entering the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War.

After the conquest of Gaul, Rome was in a hurry to improve their land communication routes taking advantage of some sections of the old Heraclean route, constructing new carriageways, shortening it with bridges and paving the access to new colonies. These roads were vital to the Empire. Through them they easily and quickly moved their armies and, of course, developed the trade. Rome came to have more than sixty five thousand miles of public roads, which construction was promoted by prominent citizens. In the case of the Via Domitia it is named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, the Roman general who in 118 BC sponsored the work. His victories in Gaul earned him a parade on elephant back, a place in the Roman senate and founding two new cities that would be known as Colonia Narbo Martius, Narbonne and Forum Domitii, today Montbazin.

Along the way intermediate stops were established to facilitate the journeys and leisure to travellers. The mansio were not as much distant each other as the distance a man could be able to walk in a whole day marching on foot, about twenty miles. Some of them end up forming major urban centres. Its location was already documented under Augustus. The four cylindrical Vicarello goblets, discovered in 1852 where Aquae Apollinares once stood have engraved on its surface the list of names and distances in miles of each station that existed between Rome and Cadiz, in Hispania. The coloured Peutinger table shows all the Empire routes included those listed in the Antoninus Itinerary, made in times of Diocletian in the late third century.

The Via Domitia crossed the Pyrenees through Panissars Pass, Summum Pyrenaeum, now in disuse, as the current border is now crossing La Junquera. One of the first stops mentioned in the itinerary is Ad Salsule, Salses castle. Opposite the one built by the Catholic Monarchs in 1497 can still be seen the remains of the ancient Roman fortress, basically the squared foundation of the building and some of the towers. Soon, the road arrives to the town founded by Cneus Domitius, Narbonne. Today, in the town hall square, there’s a hole showing the old road pavement.

Leaving Narbo and Baeterrae, Beziers, the route crossed the Herault River, which today gives its name to the department, over the bridge which is on the outskirts of Saint Thibéry. Rebuilt in the years 1536 and 1678, finally a flood took away a large part in the nineteenth century. Of its original nine arches barely remains the half. Before sliding under its eyes, the raging waters of the Hérault pass below after crossing a mill of the thirteenth century that used a part of an old Roman tower.

Rolling on the new Via Domitia, now called A9, and once past Montpellier, Lunel exit leads to Ambrussum. On a hill near the Vidourle River, the Volques Celtic tribe had built an oppidum, a fortified town. After the Roman conquest Ambrussum adopted new architectural formulas as the building of a forum with a civil basilica, streets lined with shops and some walls defended by twenty-five towers accessible by two gates. At the place where the southern gate was there’s still the basis of the semi-circular tower that protected it, while near the north gate, long stretches of paved road are clearly visible with the marks left by the wagons wheels that circulated. At the lower side of Ambrussum, near the river, was the mansio that offered shelter to travellers. There are the remains of the hostels and stables, baths, a forge and a temple. The flood that inundated the area contributed to protect the remains of the mansio in a mode, obviously less violent, as the ashes of Vesuvius preserved the ruins of Pompeii. Just beyond, the bridge over the Vidourle retains only a bow from those eleven that once crossed to the other shore.

The next main stop was the Colonia Augusta Nemasus, the present city of Nimes. As Ambrussum and other towns it was originated from a previous Celtic settlement. Here the Volques Arecómiques worshiped Nemausus, a spirit that dwelled in a sacred spring. The population lived on nearby Mount Cavalier protected by the oppidum walls and the surveillance over the territory made by a high watching tower. With the arrival of the Romans the population moved to the plain. The sacred spring adapted and mixed with new gods, becoming an Augusteum, in which, besides worshiping the emperor continued the one to Nemausus and water nymphs. The sanctuary was modified by adding new spaces of worship. Only has survived the one known as Temple of Diana. It had probably library functions within the temple complex. In 991 the Benedictine monks occupied it, making it the convent of Saint Saveur, which they would not leave until 1562. Two years before Jean Poldo d'Abenas had made an engraving of the building, where it’s seen that in those days it still preserved almost completely the roof. The gardens that exist today were made in the eighteenth century and despite the obvious difference in style preserved a certain air of the sanctuary of the Nymphs. At least, waters still preserves its main role in the place.

The watchtower of the oppidum was transformed and integrated into the defence system in the early days of the Roman conquest. They increased their height to nearly one hundred feet. From its terrace, accessible by foot, the control of the territory is absolute. Today dominates the view over the city as the long, wide, tree-lined avenue Jean Jaures, crushed by the summer sun extends; another row of bananas hidden Boulevard Gambetta and the water channel starting in the gardens remains in shadow; beyond, the profile of the amphitheatre stands and looking toward the horizon are seen the range of the Alpilles and the summit of Mont Ventoux. In the seventeenth century, the Tour Magne, as it is known, was the subject of obsession of François Traucat, a gardener and horticulturist transmuted into meticulous hidden treasures hunter. Traucat, knowing the prophecies of Michel Nostradamus, freely interpreted the already vague prophecies of the Provencal seer, assuming destiny was inextricably linked his life to the hypothetical existence of a treasure in the tower. Undeterred, his stubbornness obtained from King Henry IV, the Good King Henry, authorization, dated May 22, 1601, to undertake the necessary excavations to achieve its objective, with the understanding that two thirds would be delivered to the crown. Traucat unsuccessfully almost completely emptied the Tour Magne threating their structure, so they had to build a large central pillar to reinforce it. This was used to incorporate a metal stairway, ascending spiral, leading to the viewpoint. But Traucat vain efforts to find a hoard demonstrate the existence of a previous tower older than the Roman.

Via Domitia entered to town through several gates in the missing walls. On the south there is still the one known as Porte de France which was defended by two towers. On the Boulevard of Admiral Courbet, opposite the church of Saint Baudile, still stands the eastern entrance, the Gate of Augustus. This was a monumental gate with a double access for vehicles and two smaller side doors intended for pedestrians, defended, as usual, by two round towers. On the arches an inscription attributes it to August: IMP CAESAR DIVI F AVGVSTVS COS XI TRIB POTEST VIII PORTAS MUROS COL DAT (The emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Julius Caesar, eleven times consul, tribune invested with power per octave, donated these walls and gates to the colony).

Some of the most prominent buildings from the Roman era have survived to this days remarkably well preserved, the cause is that never were used as a quarry and, in one way or another, they had continuity over time, particularly in the Arenas and the Maison Carré. Furthermore, since in 1741 the city appointed a responsible to ensure the new findings that were discovered, particularly in the area of ​​Lafontaine Gardens. The oldest museum in Nîmes was founded by the scholar Jean François Séguier in 1770 to house his library and his collection of antique pieces. The Maison Carré itself became a museum in 1823. After the First World War interest in Roman heritage increased, the Societe d'Histoire et d'Archeologie and l'Ecole de Nîmes Antique were founded and between 1932 and 1958 the magazine Vieux Nîmes was published periodically.

Beside the boulevard Victor Hugo a wide square lies where once was the forum and just in the middle, almost as before, is the Maison Carré, a temple that was dedicated to the imperial cult and to Caius and Lucius Agrippa, sons of Marcus Vipsanianus and Augustus adoptive grandchildren. Throughout history it has been almost always in use. Between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries as a private residence. On May 28, 1670 the Augustinian monks, represented by the parent Valéri Croix bought it for 5,650 pounds, occupying it until the Revolution, when it was used as a warehouse for grain and subsequently city files. In 1823 it became a museum, housing parts that were being discovered in the city. An 1851 snapshot taken by Photographer Eduard Baldus shows the state of the temple before its restoration. The walls were bricked up in the space between the pronaos portico columns and a conventional door and windows appear at the front facade. In the early twentieth century, the Marseille deputy J. Charles Roux wrote about the temple: quand on connait tout son histoire, on l’aime comme un enfant très chère, que les dieux ont miraculeusement sauvée  (When one knows all its history, one loves it as a most beloved child miraculously  save by the gods). Virtually returned to its original state is still imposing.

Another building that has remained miraculously in pretty good condition is the amphitheatre, known as the Arènes. Inspired by the Colosseum in Rome, built a few years later, it has considerable dimensions and accommodated 24,000 spectators in 34 rows of seats. It was used mainly for the munera, gladiatorial combat, because for venatio, hunting scenes with savage beasts, the protection of their steps wasn’t enough. After the games were banned in the V century and the fall of the Empire the Arènes was transformed into a fortress. In 673 resisted the siege of King Wamba, it fell to the Arabs in 725 and recovered to the Franks by Count Radulf in 754. In the fourteenth century it lost its military usefulness and then housing started inside and on the outer walls. In 1726 the city historian Leon Ménard surveyed the existence of thirteen buildings in the arena, sixty five distributed by seventy two porches and abroad. In total one hundred and fifty homes that housed more than seven hundred inhabitants and counted even with their own church, Saint Martin des Arènes since the eleventh century. The amphitheatre dwellings began to be dismantled by imperial decree on February 1809. On 1853 the Arènes was used again as a public space and especially for bullfights. The love for bullfighting in this area of ​​France is considerable. There are three annual encounters, in winter, in the Pentecost and at the end of the grape harvest. Just in front the amphitheatre there is a statue dedicated to Christian Montcouquiol, a local bullfighter maestro, who was known by his nickname Nimeño II.

In 1844, in the rue de la Lampèze, was discovered a structure of which few have been found in the Roman world. It is a Castellum Aquae, literally a water castle but it’s a water distributor that reached the city through an aqueduct. It poured the liquid element into a five cubic metres circular pond provided with ten holes sixteen inches in diameter where attached lead pipes supplied through underground channelling. The spring take was about thirty miles away, at the source of the Eure, near the town of Uzes. Thirty-five thousand cubic meters arrived daily to Nîmes and it slipped by an average gradient of 0.03%. The main obstacle the aqueduct had to overcome was just another stream, the river Gardon. It was saved by the building of a huge bridge structure rising up to 160 feet above the river. It is now known as Pont De Gard, and soon become an attraction which Stendhal wrote: l’âme est jetée dans un long et profond étonnement. C’est à peine si le Colisée à Rome, m’a plongé dans un réverie aussi profonde. (The soul is thrown into a long, deep astonishment. Hardly the Colosseum in Rome, plunged me into a deep dreaming). Jean Jacques Rousseau, who visited the place in 1737 could not avoid fell himself as une insecte dans cette immensité. Je sentais, tout en me faisant petit, je ne sais quoi qui m’elevait l’âme. (an insect in this immensity. I felt while I was becaming small, don’t know whatever that elevated my soul.) Composed of three levels of overlapping arches all seems oversized, stone blocks weighing up to six tones brought to calculate the total weight up to 50,000 tones. The aqueduct supplied water to Nîmes for five hundred years.

Following the route towards the Rhone River, before crossing was Ugernum, the current Beaucaire. On the outskirts stand three milestones of the Via Domitia. These vertical monoliths, indicate the distances and provide information about the repairs of the road or promoter’s name. They were placed at each Roman mile, i.e. at intervals of 1620 yards. The Beaucaire milestones are popularly known as les colonnes du Caesar.

Once crossed the river and under the protection of the Alpilles Mountains the road reaches Glanum, now beside the town of Saint Remy de Provence. For centuries the only known remains were a mausoleum and a victory arch, probably contemporaries, which were called Les Antiques. The arch, has lost its upper third, has reliefs depicting Celtic warriors and women taken as prisoners. The mausoleum must be part of a larger necropolis. It is inspired by that of Halicarnassus and is dedicated to Julius and his father by his descendants Sextius, Lucius and Marco, as you can read in the inscription SEX L M IVLEI C F PARENTIBVS SVIS. It consists of three levels. At the bottom, a quadrangular base, exalt military and hunting scenes; the central is decorated with friezes in which human bust mermen are mixed with other sea dragons and mythological beings. In the tholon, the top round, are eight Corinthian columns supporting a circular dome inside which two statues representing the deceased.

From 1921, the architects Jules Formigé and later Pierre de Brun, began a campaign of excavations that revealed the existence of a town of Celtic origin also related to the focean colonies along the coast before entering the sphere of influence Roman. As in Nîmes, the centre of religious worship focused on a sacred spring. The remains excavated have a remarkable extent. The longitudinally paved road had shops and spacious apartments near the hot springs. In the area of ​​the forum there was a great monumental fountain, basilica and two twin temples. Glanum was deserted early, before the end of the third century.

Via Domitia still continues its way through Cavaillon, Notre Dame de Lumieres, Apt and other stops before arriving at the port of Montgenevre at 6080 feet above sea level, that crossed by Hannibal's elephants.

© J.L.Nicolas


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