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Arles, ancient (Latin) Arelate, city, Bouches-du-Rhône département, Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur région, southeastern France. It is situated on the Camargue plain where the Rhône River divides to form its delta, northwest of Marseille.
Already important in the days of the Ligurian tribes, Arles became a leading city of the Western Roman Empire. St. Trophime in the 1st century ce founded the bishopric, which endured until 1790. The city fell to the Visigoths in the 6th century and then to Muslim invaders in 730. In the 10th century it became the capital of the kingdom of Burgundy, known later as the kingdom of Arles, and in the 12th century emerged as an independent entity—much like the Italian republics—preeminent in commerce and navigation. In 1239 it was absorbed into Provence.
Portions of the wall around the old town are Roman, and a Roman arena dating to the 1st century bce that seated more than 20,000 spectators is still used for bullfights and plays. Excavations at a Roman theatre have retrieved many art objects, including the “Venus of Arles” now in the Louvre. The Romanesque church of Saint-Trophime was founded in the 7th century and was rebuilt several times. (The city’s Roman and Romanesque monuments were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1981.) Arles was also home to the painter Vincent van Gogh during one of his most productive periods.
A naval base under the Romans, Arles is still a river port, mainly for oil tankers. Industries include chemical, metal, and paper manufacture, but the economy is largely based on tourism and agriculture. Pop. (1999) 50,513 (2014 est.) 52,697.
The first recorded inhabitation in Arles was by Greek-Phoenicians in the 6th century BC - the town was originally called Theline. In the 1st century BC the region came under the legislation of the Romans. And it was in 102 BC, that Gaius Marius started to construct the Fossae Marianae, a canal that ran parallel to the river Rhône from Arelate (Roman Arles) to the sea. During this period Arles became one of the most prosperous towns in France through its trade as a commercial port.
In the 1st century AD, Julius Caesar annexed Arles to his empire making it the capital of Roman Provence and using its shipyards to build warships in the fight against Massalia. For four centuries the town prospered as a major trading centre and it was during this time that the Amphitheatre, Théâtre Antique and Thermes de Constantin were constructed (they still stand today), marking a pinnacle of Arles’ long and interesting history. As the Roman Empire collapsed during the 5th century, Arles went into decline.
Arles from Medieval to Modern Times
From the 5th to 9th centuries Arles was caught up in a series of dilapidating invasions by Visigoths, Barbarians and Saracens and remained a city in decline. In the 12th century the region became the Kingdom of Arles under the rule of Rudolf II and the city recaptured some of its former glory as capital of this new independent state. In 1521, Arles was permanently attached to the Comté de Provence and eventually became a part of France.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Arles became an important entrance point for immigrants coming from North Africa and it was during this period that many of the town houses that characterise the town today were built.
"Café de Nuit" by Vincent van Gogh
In 1888 the artist Vincent Van Gogh came to Arles and stayed for over a year. In this time he produced more than 200 paintings including ‘The Starry Night’, ‘Café de Nuit’ and ‘The Sunflowers’. Unfortunately many of the places that Van Gogh had visited and painted were destroyed during bombing raids in World War II.
The Roman Theatre of Arles - History
Arles’s Roman Theatre is a 1st-century Roman theatre, built during the reign of Emperor Augustus.. Started around 40/30 BC, it was completed around 12 BC. Thus becoming one of the first stone theaters in the Roman world. The theater is inscribed on the decumanus of the Roman grid. The ancient theater of Arles is the subject of a classification as historic monuments by the list of 1840.
The initial theater consisted of three parts: the cavea, a semi-circular space receiving spectators, the stage where the actors played, and the wall serving both as a decoration and as a closure to the monument.
The cavea, with a diameter of 102 meters, could accommodate 10,000 spectators seated on 33 rows of stands. In Arles, the theater therefore contained half as many spectators as the arenas and the circus. The spectators were distributed there according to their social affiliation: the people above, the knights and the notables on the lower stands and the orchestra.
The stage itself consisted of a wooden platform 50 meters long by 6 meters wide and housed the machinery of the theater in its substructures.
The back wall was decorated on three levels with a hundred columns of the Corinthian order, only two of which have stood the test of time. The wall probably supported an awning to protect the scene from the weather. Niches in the wall housed a Greek-inspired statuary, like the Venus of Arles, the subject of a controversial restoration, which is now part of the Louvre collections.
The theater, unlike the amphitheater or the circus, offered performances in which actors performed these were Roman or Greek tragedies, comedies, mimes and pantomimes intended for a probably more refined audience. These plays, mainly performed at parties given in honor of the gods, were free so that everyone could attend. However, sometimes there were performances only for men. In addition, women and children were obliged to be accompanied by an adult man. For Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, “the only Greek theater in France is that of Arles, a Greek city”. It was obviously theancient Greek theater and plays such as the tragedies of Euripides or Seneca.
The theater of Arles was built atop the hill of Hauture the decumanus at the end of the 1st century BC. Its construction probably finished from 12 BC. AD and the richness of its decoration testified to the importance accorded to the Arles colony by the Emperor Augustus. Unlike Greece, this place was not devolved to Dionysus, but to Apollo, a deity honored by this emperor. It is reported that Emperor Constance II offered a grand performance on October 10, 353 and this place of entertainment remained in operation until the beginning ofv th century. On this date, the Church, fiercely opposed to comedians and pagan shows, used the theater as a career for the construction of the paleochristian basilica of Saint-Etienne, undertaken under the episcopate of Hilaire.
Later, probably between the end of the 6th and beginning of the 8th century, one of its walls was reinforced, integrated with the city walls and with a defense tower called “Tour de Rotland “.
The land was then gradually subdivided with houses and alleys. Mansions were built there and religious orders settled there, in particular the Jesuits who established their first college there as well as the Sisters of Mercy. In 1755 – 1789, the convent courtyard where the two columns were visible served to present to the public the archaeological discoveries made on the spot.
The theater began to be cleared from 1828, thanks to the action of the mayor of the time, the Baron de Chartrouse. Work was resumed in the 1840s and completed in 1860. It was discovered from the first excavations of the xvii th century many ancient remains, including several sculptures, the famous Venus of Arles, a bust of Augustus Apollo and head of Arles (ancient Arles Museum).
The ancient theater of Arles is one of the monuments registered on the 1840 list drawn up by Prosper Mérimée. Since 1981, he is on the list of World Heritage of Humanity established by UNESCO.
Today, the monument can be visited. From the ancient elevation supporting the cavea, there remains only one span, included in the Middle Ages in the rampart of the city where it was transformed into a defense tower. The orchestra keeps in its center the trace of the sealing of the altar to the swans, emblem of Augustus, dedicated to Apollo.
Finally, there remain, alone and mysterious, two columns, called “the two widows”, on the hundred which decorated the stage wall.
This monument is also a place for shows. It hosts in particular between the end of June and the end of August, the Arles and costume festivals, the International Photography Meetings, the Suds festival, the Escales du Cargo festival and the Peplum Film Festival.
Roman monuments and Romans of Arles
The Roman and Romanesque monuments of Arles, in France, are subject to inclusion on the list of World Heritage of UNESCO since 1981.
The site is on the list of World Heritage at the 5 th session of the World Heritage Committee in 1981 under the name of “Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments”. A “cultural” type of property, it meets criteria (ii) (evidence of a considerable exchange of influences during a given period or in a specific cultural area) and (iv) (eminent example ‘architectural ensemble illustrating significant periods of human history) of the organization. The name of the site was changed to “Arles, monuments romains et romans” in 2006.
Unesco justifies the inscription as follows: “Arles offers an interesting example of the adaptation of an ancient city to the civilization of medieval Europe. It has some impressive Roman monuments, the oldest – arenas, ancient theater, cryptoporticos – date back to the 1st century BC. AD. She knew the iv th century a second golden age, Constantine’s thermal baths testify and the necropolis of Alyscamps. In the xi th and xii th centuries, Arles once again became one of most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean. Inside the walls, Saint-Trophime with its cloister is one of the major monuments of Provençal Romanesque art”.
The inscription protects an area of 65 ha of downtown Arles, located between the Rhône to the northwest, the Georges-Clemenceau and des Lices boulevards to the west and south, and the Émile-Combes boulevard to the to the east and to the north, to which must be added the area of the Alyscamps necropolis which forms a protrusion in the southeast, from the summer garden to rue Georges-Pomerat, along the Craponne canal.
Built in 90 AD, this ancient Roman amphitheater can be found in the small town of Arles, in the Provence region of France.
The town of Arles was a thriving city during the height of the Roman empire. In 90 AD, the town built this impressive amphitheater, which provided seating for over 20,000 good Roman citizens. Inspired by the famed Coliseum in Rome, the structure has over 120 arches, a series of galleries and staircases, and two levels of seating. For over four centuries the amphitheater provided a variety of entertainments, including gladiatorial battles, chariot races, and theatrical performances.
The philosopher Seneca described the brutal spectacle that probably greeted Arles spectators:
In the morning men are thrown to bears or lions, at midday to those who were previously watching them. The crowd cries for the killers to be paired with those who will kill them, and reserves the victor for yet another death. This is the only release the gladiators have. The whole business needs fire and steel to urge men on to fight…There was no escape for them. The slayer was kept fighting until he could be slain. ‘Kill him! Flog him! Burn him alive!’ (the spectators roared) ‘Why is he such a coward? Why won’t he rush on the steel? Why does he fall so meekly? Why won’t he die willingly?
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheater was converted into a fortress, encircling houses and chapels. In the 19th century, the amphitheater was painted by Vincent Van Gogh, who spent many of his last years living in Arles. Today, the amphitheater is used for traditional bullfighting. Plays and concerts are also held at the venue. The Arles Amphitheatre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with many other buildings in the city of Arles.
Know Before You Go
The amphitheatre is very easy to find. Upon entering the walls of the city you can see its arches in the distance. A main road will lead you directly up a hill to the structure.
The building measures 136 m (446 ft) in length and 109 m (358 ft) wide, and features 120 arches. It has an oval arena surrounded by terraces, arcades on two levels (60 in all), bleachers, a system of galleries, drainage system in many corridors of access and staircases for a quick exit from the crowd. It was obviously inspired by the Colosseum in Rome (in 72-80), being built slightly later (in 90). The amphitheatre was not expected to receive 25,000 spectators, the architect was therefore forced to reduce the size and replace the dual system of galleries outside the Colosseum by a single annular gallery. This difference is explained by the conformation of the land. This "temple" of the games housed gladiators and hunting scenes for more than four centuries.
With the fall of the Western Empire in the 5th century, the amphitheatre became a shelter for the population and was transformed into a fortress with four towers (the southern tower is not restored).  The structure encircled more than 200 houses, becoming a real town, with its public square built in the centre of the arena and two chapels, one in the centre of the building, and another one at the base of the west tower.
This new residential role continued until the late 18th century, and in 1825 through the initiative of the writer Prosper Mérimée, the change to national historical monument began. In 1826, expropriation began of the houses built within the building, which ended by 1830 when the first event was organized in the arena – a race of the bulls to celebrate the taking of Algiers.
Arles Amphitheatre is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with other Roman buildings of the city, as part of the Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments group.
Roman Arles visitor guide
The Roman town of Arles is in southern Provence near the Camargue region. The town was originally founded by the Greeks, then later taken first by the celts and then again by the Romans. In Roman times Arles was the second most important city in the region after neighbour Marseille - the region was very important to the Romans because of its position on the route between Spain and Italy.
Arles then gained pole position in 46 BC fter Marseille backed Pompey during a war with Julius Caesar - Caesar, backed by Arles, was victorious. Arelate, as it was then known, became a very important Roman centre and trading region, reaching its heyday in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Roman monuments in Arles
The importance of the Roman centre here can still be seen in the important monuments. The most important Roman monuments in Arles date from the period after 46 BC. They include:
- the arena (amphitheatre), the best preserved of all the monuments, is central in the town. Originally used for major events and gladiatorial combats it is still used for various grand spectacles. During the middle ages the walls of the arena were modified to include defensive towers and the area was used to provide protection and shelter - an entire village was built within the arena itself.
- Constantines thermal baths were part of his grand palace (no longer in existence), and built later than most of the Roman monuments here, in the 4th century. Only a small part of the baths have been excavated, although these are sufficient for us to see how imposing the original baths would have been
- the Place du Forum - 2,000 years later and still the lively heart of the city, although the evidence from roman times is limited to a corner of a building on the square, now incorporated in a more recent building.
- the Theatre follows the usual Roman design, with a raised stage, and a semi-circle of stone benches for the audience, with a wall behind the stage for a background to the performance. The theatre was used for performing plays while the amphitheatre was used for large 'sporting' events. (arles once also had a 'circus' where chariot races were held, but this has now been replaced by the Place de la Republique).
- the Necropolis at Alyscamps, the Roman burial ground at Arles. Numerous tombs and stones have ben excavated here, although a significant part of the original very extensive cemetery has now become a part of the city.
No visit to the roman ruins here would be complete without a visit to the archaeological museum of Arles, which holds some fine remnants and very interesting artefacts
The Roman remains at Arles are now listed as a France world heritage site by UNESCO.
You can find more travel ideas in the Bouches-du-Rhone guide and the Provence guide.
6. Van Gogh Self-Guided Walking Tour
Van Gogh Trail | Allen Sheffield / photo modified
Tourists can retrace the steps of Vincent van Gogh by following the trail of the sites where the artist created some of his most well-known works. Highlights of this self-guided walking tour include the outdoor café on the Place du Forum that provided the scene for the Café Terrace at Night (Le Café Le Soir) painting, and the location of the celebrated Starry Nights (La Nuit Etoilée) painting.
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The Roman Theatre of Arles - History
Rue du cloître, 13200 Arles
Tel : 04 90 49 59 05.
Full price/ reduced price: &euro9/ &euro7.
Free for children under 18 years old (rates include entrance to the Amphitheater)
November through February: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
March, April and October : 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
May through September: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The Roman Theater is located between the amphitheater and the Jardin d&rsquoEté (summer garden). In the late 40s BC, shortly after the founding of the Roman colony, a monumental program was initiated for the development of large public spaces and the construction of three major buildings: the forum, the arc of the Rhône and theater. The theater was completed around the year 12 BC. It served as the stage for many shows, tragedies, comedies, mime shows, which the public attended for free.
Fortified in the Middle Ages, it was used as a quarry and then completely covered with houses. The Roman Theater of Arles is 102 meters in diameter. Its outer wall was composed of three floors of 27 arches supported on pillars. It could accommodate 10,000 spectators spread over 33 stands. Only a few elements remain: some steps, the orchestra, the stage curtain pit and two high marble columns. The pulpitum wall separated the orchestra and the stage. It was adorned with decorated niches, including the altar of Apollo, found in 1828. The stage wall consisted of three rows of columns and numerous statues, including that of the Emperor Augustus that now resides in the Museum of Ancient Arles. The famous statue "Venus of Arles" is housed at the Louvre. The Royal Door stood in the middle of the wall, and was bordered on each side by columns, still visible today. Like for the amphitheater, it was cleared of the buildings that occupied the site in the 19th century.