Conquered Paris: Roman Ruins in the City of Light

It’s well known that Paris is steeped in history. From the days of the first Celtic settlers right through to the contemporary moment, the city has witnessed some of the most incredible and poignant historical moments the world has yet seen, including being conquered by the Romans! Arriving in 54 BC and conquering the lands of the Parisii until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, their mark on the city has become an indelible part of its unique personality. Haussmann’s severe restructuring of the medieval city in the 19th century ironically revealed much of these hidden remains, exposing the depths of the city and its penchant for seeming past, present and future all at once. Here are ten of the best Roman ruins you can find in Paris today; walk the paths of ancient Rome in the City of Light!

1. The sunken defence wall

Located in the middle of the road and flat to its surface in rue de la Colombe, a small walk away from the Notre-Dame on Île de la Cité, the exterior defence wall built by the Romans circa 20 BC is still visible. Whilst this area is famous for its medieval streets, most walk past without ever knowing what ancient relics lay beneath their very feet; the Roman wall is visible both here outside an unassuming French bistro, and in neighbouring rue Chanoinesse, just around the corner. Discovered in 1989, the wall was fortified with stones taken from the amphitheatre in the Latin Quarter, which were taken to restore the city defences during the Viking siege of 886-887.

2. The temple to Jupiter beneath the chancel of the Notre-Dame

The Notre-Dame is not the first place of worship on l’Île de la Cité. It is actually the third temple to stand on the spot! Whilst the Gallo-Roman and Merovingian foundations were found in front of the world-famous cathedral during excavations in 1965, (you can see these for a small fee at the same spot in the Archaeological Crypt as you enter the parvis square), the temple ruins were discovered in 1711 as additions were made to the Notre-Dame during the reign of Louis XIV. A monument consisting of eight original carved stones featuring the god Jupiter, and other Gallic and Roman deities, once laid inside a temple worshipping the god of sky and thunder and is believed to have been erected by a corporation of Parisii merchants and sailors in the 1st century! Other artefacts found at the site during the developments and excavations can now be found housed in the Musée National du Moyen Âge on the left bank, where you can also find the 2nd century remains of Roman baths.

3. The basilica underneath Marché aux Fleurs

Walking towards the Palais de Justice and former Royal Palace close to the Notre-Dame cathedral, and also on Île de la Cité, one comes to the world-famous Marché aux Fleurs flower market at Place Louis Lépine, which was founded in 1830. In 1906 however, when tunnels were being dug underneath the market to accommodate the only metro station on the Île de la Cité, remains of a Roman basilica were found underneath it! The basilica was an administrative and commercial tribunal, so it was basically a public building, and it also served as a marketplace and a law court; again its construction from the use of bricks traced to the amphitheatre on the Left Bank indicates that the populace initially expanded in the Latin Quarter after the Romans conquered the area, but re-centred to the island for defence purposes due to barbarian raids. It’s amazing to imagine lost civilizations bustling about their daily lives where we now stand – the Marché aux Fleurs provides one of those moments perfectly.

4. Two Roman churches and a bridge

As you leave Île de la Cité and head onto the left bank’s Latin Quarter, be sure to take Le Petit Pont bridge. This was built on the exact spot of the very first bridge built in the city by the Romans, and was flanked by two Merovingian churches, at the sites now occupied by the churches Saint-Séverin and Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. The current stone bridge was built in 1853, and replaced the wooden bridges that had previously occupied the site and been washed away, destroyed or damaged no less than thirteen times since its initial build in the Gallo-Roman era! The first recorded flood that destroyed the bridge occurred in 885, and the Vikings even tried to burn it down in 886 to allow the passage of their longboats and a raid upon the city, which failed. House were even once built upon the tiny bridge when it collapsed into the river during harsh floods in the 12th century, losing many lives. The old Roman road from this bridge led between the two churches ahead, and can still be followed today, save for cars and street expansions. Both churches were initially built in the 2nd century to mark an important Roman crossroad, but had been pillaged by Vikings in the 9th century. Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre was restored, along with some alterations and additions in the 12th century whilst Saint-Séverin was formerly rebuilt in an overtly gothic style, with parts of the church dating back to the 13th century around the same time as (and most likely inspired by) the Notre-Dame. A Roman necropolis also existed between the bridge and the two churches, which were both built upon the tombs of Roman-era martyrs, a tradition of the time.

5. Rue de la Harpe

Turning into rue de la Harpe from rue Saint-Séverin, this fascinating little street leads directly to Île de la Cité and was once the site of major foot-fall in Roman times, even more so than today! It also dates back to the 4th century, making it one of the oldest remaining streets in the whole of Paris. If you follow rue de la Harpe south, it might not lead to Rome, but it does lead directly to the site of the Roman baths! It’s easy to imagine ancient folks strolling through here in days gone by, trading wares before heading to the baths to relax.

6. Roman baths at the Musée Cluny

Also known as the Thermes de Cluny, the ruins of the Roman baths at the Musée Cluny date back to the 2nd century and can actually be seen from the street, so if you’re on a budget or pushed for time, one can still take in the full splendour of the archaeological ruins! Though it was sacked by barbarians during the 5th century, the remains consist of a caldarium (hot water room), tepidarium (warm water room), gymnasium and frigidarium (cooling pool), and also remarkably well-preserved features and fragments of artefacts such as vaults, decorative wall paintings, and mosaics! Also a museum (Musée National du Moyen Âge), which is partly housed in the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny, other ancient relics and sculptures are kept here, such as the stones from the temple to Jupiter. The baths were part of daily Gallo-Roman life, and were free for use by the public. A marvel of Roman engineering, aqueducts feeding it and the island ran down the length of the Blvd Saint-Michel, leaving an indelible mark on the shape of the city.

7. Remains in a parking-lot stairwell

Blvd Saint-Michel lays upon, and still follows, a major Roman axis road. Walk down here to just outside 61 St-Michel, and head down the stairs to the public parking lot; encased behind protective glass, part of the foundation of the wall that enclosed a Roman forum can be seen here! The forum followed the traditional Roman design and was surrounded by trading platforms and shops, had a law court to the east, and a temple to the gods Romae and Augustus. Julian the Apostate even held his coronation as Roman Emperor here in the 4th century! Just outside the forum, archaeological evidence of a Roman legion camp was uncovered, and it is thought that Emperor Valentinian stayed here.

8. The well at Place de la Sorbonne

Located on an unpredictable street lined with brasseries on one side and leading up to the Sorbonne, sometimes quiet and sometimes crowded with tourists and students, a Gallo-Roman well has been preserved at the centre of the square. Often overlooked amidst the striking fountains that also occupy Place de la Sorbonne, the well is thought to be a vestige of one or more early Roman houses. Roman housing for the poor generally consisted of small apartments and did not usually provide access to running water; thus by deduction, one can assume that perhaps significantly more wealthy citizens inhabited the area, a notion more probable by the sites proximity to the baths and the forum.

9. Rue Saint-Jacques and the Roman bulge

Rue Saint-Jacques, crossing over the Blvd Saint-Michel, follows the old Roman main axis road exactly. Building numbers 172 and 174 near the Luxembourg station, actually mark the corners of the forum, of which the foundation wall lies in the underground parking lot around the corner! Follow rue Saint-Jacques to rue Taillier; the slight bulge that runs the length of this street corresponds to the wall that actually enclosed the forum! The remains have been built over and are now underground, but this unusual feature prevails, reminding us that the ruins of an ancient city are not so far beneath our feet. It makes one wonder what other unknown treasures of lost civilisations might also lay there!

10. Arènes de Lutèce

The most spectacular of Paris’s Roman ruins lies just east of the Latin Quarter, close to the Natural History Museum complex and gardens. Situated between rue Monge and rue Linné, and accessible via rue de Navarre and rue des Arènes, Roman amphitheatre Arènes de Lutèce was constructed in the early 2nd century. Partially destroyed by barbarians and somewhat dismantled to build up city defences on the islands during the Viking raids, the arena was filled in in the 12th century before the ruins were discovered during Haussmann’s city restructuring in the 19th century. A campaign to preserve it was lead by celebrated author Victor Hugo, and is now surrounded by a pretty public garden but only half of the remains have been successfully excavated, with a medieval wall being built on top of the rest! Even though the arena’s main buildings and nearly all of the seats are now gone, the open-air amphitheatre is dramatic and striking, and could once seat around 15,000 people for activities such as animal fights, aquatic sports and gladiator events. It also contained a covered theatre, which could host an additional 4,500 spectators, and even had a chariot racing ring! The sunken arena is now mostly a quiet place unless its a hot summer day, and is occasionally used as a venue for music and movie festivals, yet another reminder of the city of light’s unique spirit.

“It is not possible that Paris, the city of the future, should renounce the living proof that it was a city of the past. The arena is the ancient mark of a great city. It is a unique monument […] Conserve it at any price!”

-Victor Hugo

 

Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. To discover more about the Roman rule of Paris, and find out about the city’s ancient conquerors, check out my Invaders, Crusaders & the Origins of Paris History Tour! Contact me on +33 651 072 176 or parislens@outlook.com for enquiries and bookings.

-Dr Maddie S.

*The feature image shows the Roman wall in the road on Rue de la Colombe, outside no.5. Image belongs to the site convener and cannot be used without permission*

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