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Nemausus (Nîmes)


Coin from Nîmes. Musée des Antiquités nationales, St.Germain-en-Laye (near Paris, France). Photo Marco Prins.
Coin from Nîmes (Musée des Antiquités nationales, St.Germain-en-Laye)
Nemausus (Νέμαυσος): Roman city in southern France, modern Nîmes.

The ancient city of Nemausus, according to Strabo (Geography, 4.1.12) the capital of the Gallic Volcae tribe, was situated on the southern edge of the Cevennes Mountains (Mons Cebenna) in a fertile part of the valley of the Lower Rhône. The towns was named after an ancient god, Nemausus, who was venerated in a sacred well in the northwestern part of the city.

The Romans started to develop this part of their empire in 118, when they built the Via Domitia, which connected Italy and Hispania. According to Strabo, the road was "easy to travel in summer, but muddy and flooded by the rivers in winter and spring". This may have been especially true for the countryside of Nemausus, which is rich in sources.

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The Tour Magne. Photo Marco Prins.
The Tour Magne.

In 27 BCE, the emperor Augustus settled veterans from his Egyptian campaign in the city and gave it the rights of a colonia. (Alternatively, they were soldiers of the army of his defeated rival Marc Antony.) As a consequence, the coins of Nemausus showed an Egyptian crocodile and sometimes palm tree or leaf. Eleven years later, the emperor also surrounded the city with a wall (length 6 kilometers; 9 meters high), in which several older monuments were included. One of these is the Tour Magne. The original function of this Gallic building is not known, but it may have been a mausoleum, a watchtower, or a sanctuary. A satellite photo can be seen here.



The Gate of Augustus.

Another part of the new wall was the Gate of Augustus (Porte d'Auguste) in the southeastern part of the enceinte. This gate was originally called Porta Arelatensis ("Gate to Arles"), but has in the past also had such illustrous names as Porte de France and Porte d' Espagne. The monument was built in 16 or 15 BCE and consists of two main arches, which were probably designed to separate traffic and make it keep its lane. Two small arches to the left and right were meant for pedestrians.

The Maison Carrée in Nîmes (France). Photo Marco Prins. The Maison Carrée
Another early monument was the temple of Augustus and Roma, which is now known as the Maison Carrée. A generation later, the sanctuary of the god Nemausus was restored. The city received an aqueduct, that takes in its waters near Uzès (ancient Ucetia), almost 50 km away from the city; the famous Pont du Gard is part of this aqueduct. The castellum, where the aqueduct ended and the waters were divided, has also survived (château d' eau). During the Flavian emperors (69-96), the amphitheater was built, which is still in use for bullfights. It is about 133 m long and 101 m wide, and has a capacity of about 16,000 people; a satellite photo is here.

The emperor Hadrian added a basilica, that was named after Plotina, wife of Trajan; according to the Historia Augusta, it was "of marvellous workmanship" (Hadrian, 12.2).

The Amphitheater Entrance to the Amphitheater A mosaic
Milestone from the age of Claudius. Photo Marco Prins.
Milestone from the age of Claudius Amphitheater, detail Milestone from the age of Antoninus Pius
Model of Nîmes. Photo Marco Prins.
Model of Nîmes: Gate of Augustus and amphitheater in the foreground.

The city may have had as many as 50,000 or even 60,000 inhabitants, which is about as many as Nîmes had in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a fairly cosmopolitan city: for instance, there was a cult of the Jupiter of Baalbek. Nevertheless, decline appears to have started early - the city was eclipsed by Arles - and it is probably no accident that we do not hear of a Christian community until the sixth century: Nemausus had become a very small town indeed.

In the Middle Ages, the city was largely abandoned, except for the part near the amphitheater, which had been turned into a fortress by the viscounts of Nîmes.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 9 August 2008
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