It is remarkable that Arles, a city of France celebrated principally for its Roman ruins, should be also the world’s outstanding survival of classic Greece. But here, amid the wreckage cast up by tribal inundations that had nothing at all to do with Greece, surrounded by the commerce of a new civilization, lingers a transplanted bit of the isles “where burning Sappho loved and sung.” Ethnologists have admitted with some surprise that in Arles, rather than in distant Athens, one will find the last of the race that brought Hellenic culture to its highest development. Commercial misfortune is not always an unmixed evil.
It is because the sea marched away and left Arles to stagnate in the Rhone lowlands that the enterprising community of the late Roman Empire was not allowed to achieve the destiny prepared for it by Julius Caesar and surpass Marseille as the principal port in lower France. Its channels to the ocean clogged up and its shipping industry died, and within a generation Arles had become what it is to-day, an isolated memory. Marseille has progressed, and in the thriving port of the present day one sees a San Francisco, a Liverpool, or a New Orleans. The past has been pushed aside in accordance with the spirit of modernity expressed by the late Mayor Nathan of Rome when he observed, “Rome is a city, not a circus.”
A modern comparing the cities of his own era can see that it is only in survivals of the past that communities differ. It is quite likely that all the Phenician trading-posts, all the Phocean colonies, all the Roman outposts resembled one another very much. They are different to-day merely because they were arrested at different periods in their development. Beaune survives as a city of the fourteenth century. In Autun the buildings of the Middle Ages have never covered the Roman remains on which they were founded. Aigues-Mortes, built as a city of the crusades, has not changed a particle from the days of St. Louis until now. Parts of Dijon, Besancon, and Lyon might well belong to the eighteenth century. Vezelay’s clock stopped when the paynim’s hold on Jerusalem was definitely established. And so it goes.
Arles, suddenly cut off from the world which might have reshaped it into the uninteresting uniformity of other port cities, clung to its old fashions in dress and language and is to-day a town of pre-medieval character.
One who would rediscover the history of Burgundy must of necessity find much to interest him in this district. Arles gave its name to the third incarnation of that frequently reconstructed monarchy. The territories of Arles added much to its wealth. The men of Arles exerted an important influence in its affairs.
But the glories of this port of Caesar were already in their full bloom when Rodolfe II took it upon himself to wear a regal crown for the duchy of Transjurane. Early in the Christian era Arles was a city with 120 gates, and her ships were virtually in control of the ocean.
Caesar, at the time of his war on Massilia, built a fleet of long boats in the Arlesian shipyards and made the city the base of his campaign by sea.
Constantine the Great, who was an ardent admirer of Aries, is said to have hesitated for a long time before placing his second capital in Byzantium instead of here at the mouth of the Rhone. His son, Constantine II, was born at Arles in 316 and built the palace of which the ruined tower, La Trouille, is still to be seen. He was still living here when Maximin, his father-in-law, attempted to assassinate him and murdered a judiciously placed eunuch instead.
Fortune continued to favor Arles well along into the Middle Ages. Even after Burgundy and Provence had passed into the hands of the Holy Roman Empire, this city, in common with other proud ports of the Mediterranean, established itself as a republic and was recognized as such by the Italian republics after which it was patterned.
But during these years the passages that allowed the tides to flow into the lagoons in the delta of the Rhone be-came choked. The wide bayous were transformed into marshes in which malaria found a ready breeding-ground. Commerce was at a standstill, and the lion of Arles no longer was seen at the mastheads of the ships that plied the Mediterranean. Yet all was not lost. The annual floods of the Rhone enriched the soil of the lands in the delta and made of them a wheat-producing region second only to the valley of the Nile. Arles might still have marched on toward the destiny that Caesar had dreamed for her had it not been for the ill advised engineering ventures of Louis XIV.
The Grand Monarch realized that something had to be done to the outlet of the Rhone if swamp-fevers were not to carry off most of the population. But instead of reopening the lagoons he decided upon a reclamation project. He drained the swamps and diked the river. The alluvial plain of Arles became a desert.
The Arles thus cut off from the rest of the world, a city in which Greek and Roman traditions had been remark-ably preserved, complacently settled down to face a changeless future. Greek sculpture and architecture al-ready existing were incorporated in the rebuilding of old houses. They were duplicated in newer works. Some portions of the city were peculiarly Moorish in appearance. So they remained. To this day there is a hint of Araby in winding streets with arched gateways, boutiques that resemble bazaars, and latticed windows that have lost none of their old-time mystery.
And the women, tall and straight and fine of feature, preserve their ancient heritage of beauty. According to the history of the district, theirs should be the blood of the Gaul, Greek, Roman, and Saracen intermingled. But by some freak of atavism the Greek strain predominates.
Mistral says of them in “Mireio” :
He said not, fruitful Arles, that thy fine air Gives to thy daughters beauty rich and rare, As grapes to autumn, or as wings to bird, Or fragrance to the hillsides.
Just as the France of which they are a part has failed to alter their charm or mar their loveliness, it has failed also to make them subject to the dictates of dress which the rest of the world is quick to obey. Here the Arlesienne coif remains the same from generation to generation. The black hair is combed back plainly under a little white cap and tied with a ribbon of black silk. A white collar crossed at the breast, a gold chain and Maltese cross, a blouse waist, ample skirt, black stockings, and plain, low-heeled shoes complete the costume.
These dark beauties with the burning eyes have a manner and a carriage that display their pride of ancestry. They know of the homage that the world pays to them, and they admit that it is just. And, wise women, they know that simplicity is a most effective trick and that perfection needs no ornament. Of what use are fashions to a queen?
There is a semi-tropical luxuriance about the gardens of Arles. Flowering vines cling to the tinted walls of the houses. One follows a winding way through a gallery of blooms across the Boulevard Victor Hugo to the east of the town and so enters the Alyscamps, an Appian Way strewn from end to end with empty stone coffins and walled with crumbling tombs.
This, in the early years of the Roman occupation of Gaul, was the principal cemetery of the ancient Provincia, and so it remained even after Christian saints had usurped the niches of Diana and Venus. Legend avers that Christ himself came here in answer to the prayer of St. Trophimus and dedicated this field of tombs as a Christian burial-place. What the legend may have lacked in tradition was given compensation in its effect. Well intentioned home-builders, whose tribe have ruined more monuments in France than the barbaric Vandals, felt some hesitancy about coming here in their search for building-stone. And so Les Alyscamps remained to pique the interest of the twentieth century.
Tradition has it that bodies came to this cemetery from the upper reaches of the Rhone. The process of transportation was delightfully simple. The dear departed was placed in a barrel with his passage-money and letters of identification at his feet. Then, like a passenger in the bark of Charon, he floated down the Rhone until the eddies at Arles drove him ashore. He was then buried in a tomb lately vacated by some dusty Roman, to sleep peacefully until turned out, not by Gabriel but by the curator of some modern museum who needed the sarcophagus to go with an exhibit of Etruscan urns.
Recently tracks and shops of the P.-L.-M. railway have taken over a large tract of this ancient burying-ground. As a result parts of sarcophagi are to be seen in the cornices of new stone buildings, as gutters and drains in ancient sheds, and even as rabbit-hutches.
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, and turned out of his tomb to make a place for a pink-eyed rabbit.
No wonder the ghosts still walk in Provence !
The Roman amphitheater of Arles, while not so well pre-served as that of Nimes, is larger, and its history is better known. It still plays a large part in local festivals, although bull-fights of a bloodless variety have taken the place of the gladiatorial combats which made it one of the most famous abattoirs of the ancient world.
Account-books kept by the gladiatorial impresarios of that far day, showing how anything from a ceremonial murder to a complete massacre could be booked upon payment of certain set fees, have been preserved in the museum near-by. Here one may read how the memory of some proud patrician was honored by a fight in which thirty well selected gladiators took part.
The bullfights that stir the red sand where the gladiators once contributed to the gaiety of festival days are less likely to diminish the population. Usually they are con-ducted with the utmost decorum and the best of humor except on the part of the bull, who is under the erroneous impression that he is attending a bull-fight.
A wrong-headed little steer is brought into the arena by bull-ring attendants garbed in the picturesque uniforms of the Chicago stock-yards. His horns are decked with brilliant ribbons that stream out over his back.
Amateur toreadors wave red flags at him until he charges. Then they deftly leap out of his path and snatch one of the ribbons from his head. That is the bull-fight. It is exciting enough, for the bull is usually as earnest and pains-taking a bull as could be found in the arenas of Madrid or Barcelona. It is a pretty exhibition of skill, for the ribbon-catchers of Arles must be as sure of foot as any Spanish matador. And it has a distinct advantage over the bull-fighting exhibitions of Spain in that the odds are not all against the bull. Usually the animal is unwilling to quit the combat.
Quite recently a troupe of Spanish bull-fighters has been touring the south of France, bringing to the Roman arenas in several towns of the Midi the sanguinary spectacles of Madrid and Barcelona. But these contests, while more dangerous than the Provencal bull-fight and therefore a bit more thrilling, are not as well accepted as the old-fashioned encounters, in which the bulls, as well as their opponents, are widely and favorably known.
The Church of St. Honore at the end of the poplar-shaded Via Appia is the most interesting of the city’s numerous ecclesiastical relics. It is a Romanesque chapel with three aisles ending in three apses. Immense pillars, some of them ten feet in diameter, rise from the floor to the half-seen vault like black stalagmites.
The ruined nave contains the Chapel of St. Trophimus, apostle of Arles, whose memory this part of Provence reveres almost to the isolation of the other saints of which the territory was so productive. A sixth-century church and fourteenth-century reconstruction inclosed the chapel, and antiquarians, studying the semicircular arches of the smaller building, have reached the conclusion that the chapel itself was built over a tomb, probably that of the saint.
St. Trophimus, according to the fragmentary accounts of his life obtainable in this spot where he lived and died, was an Asiatic contemporary of St. Paul who came to Provence with the three Marys. Church records, however, do not classify him so readily. The first Bishop Trophimus of Arles whose career is positively linked with that of the town is Martianus, who, according to Gregory of Tours, was sent into Gaul “during the consulship of Decius and Gratus,” A.D. 250.
St. Vergilius, whom south European legend has frequently confounded with Vergilius the Sorcerer, was the builder of the first Church of St. Honore.
His engineering is given full credit for the massive pillars in the nave. It is said that the wagons hauling these ponderous monoliths became bogged so often that the architects were on the point of altering the construction of the church.
At this juncture Vergilius conducted a personal investigation and discovered a small devil holding on to the wheels of the leading truck. He chased the devil away, and after that the pillars were easily removed. Such is the Provencal version of it. Less romantic persons have identified the little devil as Friction and have credited Vergilius with the invention of a cone-shaped axle-bearing and a useful grease-cup.
Vergilius, however, did not confine his romantic exploits to the exorcism of stone-wagon axles. Of him is told the story of the Provencal Flying Dutchman, the phantom ship with its crew of the damned that sailed the world in search of a cargo of lukewarm souls.
Vergilius was walking one night on the Rhone quay where the tall ships of the Mediterranean still dropped anchor in the thickening silt of the vanishing river. Suddenly out of the mist emerged a galleon as hazy as the fog itself, a blue-gray ship with masts of transparent silver. Strangely garbed sailors ran about the deck and shouted to one another. But the saint could hear no sound save the lapping of the waves against the stone piling of the quay.
They heaved overboard a heavy silver anchor that slipped into the water without a splash. A captain as white as the moonlight leaned over the rail and smiled at Vergilius.
“Good evening,” he said. “It seems to me that I recognize you as the holy Vergilius.”
“I am Vergilius,” admitted the bishop. “And who may you be?”
“Ah, who, indeed?” returned the captain. “Who but a wandering mariner on the broad uncharted seas? I am the commander of the craft that bore the sainted widow Basilissa over the Black Sea to Byzantium with the body of Adrian, her husband . . . and would have landed her safely there, too, had not the curse of a learned astrologer fallen on us and dissolved the ship. I am the sailoring person who several hundred years from now will be condemned by the silly narrators of ghost-stories to spend the rest of a long eternity trying to get around the Horn. But of course you don’t know where the Horn is, so there ‘s no object to this conversation.
“I should like, my good Vergilius, to have you as my guest on a voyage to Jerusalem. The pagans hereabouts all seem well enough converted to satisfy any ascetic, and there is a fine field for a man of your attainments in Jerusalem.”
“You speak your riddles very glibly,” commented Vergilius. “But I suspect you of foul purposes, and, besides, I don’t want to go to Jerusalem.”
“Ah, why be skeptical?” pursued the commander. “This is the lightest craft that ever sailed the seas. My crew is the best trained that ever combined to scuttle a ship or cut a throat. Good lads withal, and well acquainted with places where there is treasure enough to build three churches larger than the dismal barn that you set so much store by.”
Then Vergilius, feeling the first urge of temptation, made the sign of the cross. The misty boat and its shimmering rigging just faded away into streaks of moonlight, and Vergilius found himself standing on the quay alone.
Four miles to the northeast of Arles rises the rock of Montmajour, which was an island citadel of note in the days when the lagoons covered La Crau. It seems an island still, for the rock stands forth in all its ancient nakedness from the fertile growths that Louis XIV’s draining process brought to this section at the expense of the lower Rhone. An ancient abbey, falling away bit by bit each year, and a feudal castle cling to the heights.
The Abbey of Montmajour in its day was one of the richest religious houses in France. It has a splendid history. It was founded by Childebert the Frank after he had defeated Villegis, king of the barbarian Goths. Villegis, who had driven the Romans out of Arles, ceded a vast territory. The son of Clovis found Montmajour a part of it and was so impressed by the piety and selfsacrifice of some hermits who had established a community on the island that he built an abbey for them.
The hermits were succeeded by Benedictine monks, under whom the abbey prospered. It was famous throughout the Middle Ages for its Chapel of the True Cross, now totally destroyed. Pilgrimages were made here by boat as late as the eighteenth century.
During the revolution mobs from Arles sacked the monastery, pillaged its chapels, and turned the dead out of their tombs in search of buried treasure. Since that time Montmajour has been a city of the ghosts, similar in all ways to the other deserted ports of the Rhone.
A tower ninety feet high in the military architecture of the fourteenth century remains intact at one corner of the abbey walls. But its resemblance to a fortification is only superficial. Its masonry is thinner, and the stones with which it is built are smaller than those usually employed in such works.
Most of the abbey was carved out of solid rock, including a subterranean church as dark as a catacomb. Here again one meets the story of St. Trophimus. It appears that his preaching to the pagan was not always successful, for he had a confessional here, a narrow cell which legend says was originally a cleft in the rock that gave him shelter from the Saracens.
Here also the Golden Goat finds grazing-ground. Near the cracking walls of the monastery is the Montagne des Cordes, where a venturesome explorer may penetrate man-made galleries deep into the recesses of the earth. The mystic rites of some prehistoric religion were celebrated here, the weird ceremonials of a priestcraft that preceded even that of the druids. Archaeologists have puzzled over the place for a long time, but the people of Provence do not waste time in seeking scientific explanations for the existence of a shrine like this. It is another Trau di Fadogrotto of the fairiesthey declare. That being the case, it is only logical that the grotto connects by means of a forgotten tunnel to the other Trau di Fado of Les Baux.
One might be skeptical of the basis for this story of the tunnel did he not know the peculiar nature of this country-side. Surely a tunnel would be no more remarkable than the wild carvings of Les Baux. There may be no such mysterious subway now, but who can say that there never has been’? Such a country as this is productive of faith. One strains his eyes in a vain attempt to comprehend the vertiginous mazes of Baux or listens to the abysmal silences of Montmaj our, and he is no poet if he does not set out at once on the unending quest for the treasure of the Chevre d’Or.