A Roman Town in Provence


Recent television programmes plus the British Museum’s current Life and Death in Pompeii exhibition have brought renewed interest in the city that was destroyed in a cataclysmic eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in the year 79AD. What many people do not realise is that – albeit on a lesser scale – if you are walking in Provence you will have the opportunity to explore another Roman town that, like Pompeii, disappeared from sight for many centuries. That town was Glanum. It was lost not from a volcanic eruption, but from man-made circumstances. The town was abandoned in 260AD when its inhabitants founded the nearby city of St. Rémy. In fact, they used some of the stone from the deserted buildings of Glanum in building St. Rémy. The sophisticated drain and sewer system of Glanum that had been constructed by the Romans ceased to be maintained. Over the centuries the ruins eventually became flooded and covered with mud and sediment washed down from the surrounding hills in heavy rainstorms. Little was left to indicate that it had once been a thriving settlement.

Not until 1921 did the first systematic archaeological excavations begin – and they continue to this day. In the intervening years, the 5-acre site on which Glanum stood has been opened to the public. Sunflower’s two guidebooks Walk & Eat Avignon and Landscapes of Western Provence both contain tours or walks that visit the site. Among the ruins to be seen are the public baths and swimming pool. The huge stone slabs with which the Romans constructed the main street remain intact. Underneath the street ran a water channel to carry away rain water and sewage. Extensive information plaques can be found throughout the town directing the visitor to the principal buildings of interest including the council house, treasury, fountain and wells. One of the houses has a painted bedroom and there is also all that remains of the forum and theatre. Stone, engraved in Latin nearly two thousand years ago with beautiful classic lettering, will delight any designer or artist. It’s a fascinating glimpse of how thoroughly the Romans colonised this part of France.

Across the road from the site entrance is a magnificent triumphal arch in a remarkable state of preservation, (see photo above) together with an equally well-preserved and impressive three-storey mausoleum. These two buildings remain largely intact, in contrast to the ruined state of the remainder of the town. A visit is a must if you are staying in Avignon, Arles, Nîmes, Orange, or nearby. (Each of these towns also have Roman remains worth exploring, including some fine amphitheatres.) Whether you are walking or touring by car in Provence, do make a point of visiting Glanum. The setting, surrounded by trees, is delightful – a visit will be a highlight of your walking or touring holiday in Provence.

Above left: Part of the Roman town of Glanum. Right: the triumphal arch