France – Nimes

In the shadow of the Maison Carree, where once Roman priests sacrificed to strange gods, the coffee-roasters sit in a long row, turning their ancient black cylinders over glowing charcoal. Where once some white-robed Provencal equivalent of a vestal virgin tended a sacred fire, a graybeard in faded blue army breeches is cutting wood by rubbing the billets on a saw held between his knees. In the shadowy arcade of a bloody arena, a mild-eyed youth sells packets of sticky candy and little dabs of sherbet.

If the soul of burlesque is incongruity, then here is roaring farce, the more ludicrous in that the actors do not suspect their varied roles. It does not seem exactly proper that a chestnut-seller in American shoes, Paris ready-made clothes, and a screaming Lyon cravat should be sitting in the niche of a Greek god in the Temple of Minerva. Nor can one get used to the sight of modern art as exemplified in the comic magazines on sale in a shop hard by a Corinthian facade. Nimes is populous, aggressive as these southern towns go, and displays every evidence of a continuing existence. Its ruins do not stand out as ruins. Rather they are well preserved relics. They seem to be a part of the present day city, so much so that their age as Roman monuments is quite likely to be questioned by visitors. Therefore it is startling to discover this tomb of Roman culture to be more like Paris than Rome.

Gardens by Lenotre give an atmosphere of the Tuileries to the boulevard that leads to the Roman baths and unhappily detract something from the majestic remains which they were designed to embellish. A bit of gardening more nearly reproducing conditions as they were when the Romans built the baths would have cost no more.

Nimes was the Nemausus of Rome, a name probably formed by some Phenician adaptation of the Gallic word “Naimh.” According to legend the city was founded by one of the lieutenants of Hercules, who discovered the clear springs on the summit of the hill behind the Gaulish town. For centuries the place was a Phenician trading-post, and for years after that an important Gallo-Roman city.

Of the second epoch in the history of the place, the most important relic is the amphitheater, which stands in a remarkable state of preservation. Delicate archways and carved stone window-framing remain in the facade, which rises in magnificent bulk to within a few feet of its original height.

This arena, while smaller than that of Arles, is more complete, so much so that it has been used recently by dramatic societies for the presentation of historical pageants, mass-meetings, and similar amusements, somewhat different in effect if not in intent from the gladiatorial combats for which the pile was erected.

On one occasion the amphitheater served an entirely different purpose. After the Visigothic invasions of Provence, the arena was surrounded by a moat and converted into a fort. Here at various times during a period of several centuries widely varying populations lived in more or less discomfort. The town outside the ancient bull-ring was rivaled by a new city within, and a new civic population adjusted its life to the more modern four-roomflat conditions that the constricted space made necessary.

From the sands where Dacian strong men and others had impaled one another for the edification of the tired Roman business man, thin, tall stone houses sprang up along straight streets. The city of Nimes received a new foundation. Here in the year 100 a community of knights, Chevaliers du Chateau des Arenes, occupied about two hundred and fifty buildings. The nobles of the Arena quarreled vigorously with the bourgeoisie of the town.

In many ways the city of the amphitheater was one of the most remarkable in the world. The streets were not wide, but they were good. It was a matter of only a few minutes’ work a day to keep them adequately paved, cleaned, and drained. The houses themselves, if contemporaneous descriptions are to be believed, were a very close approach to the modern city apartment. Two-room flats housed the average family and—shades of the cliff dwellers some ingenious builder evolved a small charcoal fireplace as a space-saving device. The present tenant of a two-rooms-and-kitchenette apartment would not be so smugly complacent over his modernity could he have seen this community of the circus living in similar discomfort eight hundred years before the sardine-box style of architecture was rediscovered.

One hundred years ago, when France, recovered from the revolution, was looking toward the preservation of such monuments as had chanced to survive, the remains of the little town of the Arena were removed. Buildings that had grown up so thickly outside the walls were torn down, and to-day’s visitor to Nimes probably obtains a better idea of what the amphitheater looked like in the days of the emperors than could possibly have been gained from a view of it in the crowded conditions of the seven hundred years preceding.

The building is about eleven hundred feet in circumference and provided seating space for twenty-four thou-sand persons. It is believed to have been built during the reign of Antoninus Pius in the middle of the second century. The stone that went into its construction was brought in great blocks from the quarries of Barutel and Roquemaillere.

Until the Visigoths—uncultured barbarians—came to interfere with their business, the gladiators were personages of considerable note in the public life of Nimes. The museum is filled with inscriptions that testify to the event-fulness and brevity of the life that these swordsmen led. Here one who is acquainted with the peculiar shorthand of Latin epitaphs may read that “a Thracian” who fought with sword and buckler ended his life amid the plaudits of the multitude, or that one “Myrmillo,” heavily accoutred and armed with a keen short-sword, met with similar ill-luck. Here is the record of a wife setting up a memorial to her husband, Lucius Pompeius, who ran afoul of a net and trident on the sands of the arena at the tender age of twenty-five. Lucius, the mourning wife announces to the world, was born in Vienne and had despatched nine competitors in his chosen profession before his lamentable accident.

Such is the monument to Rome the cruel. Rome the sybaritic is also represented in Nimes, Rome of the gardens and baths and luxurious ladies. . . . The Jardin des Therms is singled out by Cecil Headlam as the “most delightful municipal garden in Europe,” and it seems to merit its distinction. An eighteenth-century Italian motif is present in the landscape-gardening that has preserved the Roman shrine of Nemausus—blue shadows under the chestnut-trees, a white road singing beneath one’s feet, marble balustrades circling through the half-lights in the foreground, classic gods peering with white eyes from the greenery.

Out of this closely leafed garden one steps into an open court where silent waters pass through an alabaster colonnade. Beyond is the Temple of Diana with a stone roof so disrespectful to gravity and the other forces of physics that it seems to float from wall to wall, and farther up the slope, at the head of a series of stairs and hedged ter-races, is the tree-bordered spring.

This fountain was held sacred by the Gauls of the lower Rhone at the time that the Phenician counterpart of Nemausus came to take over that god’s functions in the founding of the city for Hercules. The Romans, always considerate in such matters, accepted Nemausus as a member of their own theology, gave him Diana—Diana in her seldom remembered character as the local equivalent of Artemis, goddess of the woods and waters—as an assistant in the care of the fountain, and transformed the shrine into a pleasure-garden.

The Romans established the custom of dropping coins into the water as an offering to the god of the spring. Antiquarians have found the basin an interesting mine of forgotten currencies. But no explanation of Roman superstition or barbaric ignorance can account for the fact that the men who would fish relics of the past from the grasp of Naimh have discovered a very considerable quantity of modern silver coins in their nets. Those who overlook the spiritual survivals of vanished civilizations in their study of ancient towns and peoples might find a thought in this.

The canals of Marius are choked. The houses of Gallo-Roman Nemausus, save only one or two of the greater monuments, have fallen down. The fortresses that the conquerors built have slipped piece by piece from the seven hills of Nimes to the plain. Of the prehistoric shrine that existed here when the legions came into Gaul not one mark has come down to us. And yet, in a century as thoroughly enlightened as nineteen hundred years of Christian culture can make it, franc pieces, shillings, and silver dollars are seined from a sacred spring to bear evidence that Naimh is still collecting his votive offerings.

On top of the hill from which flows the spring of Nemausus a stone tower ninety feet high, known locally as the Tour Magne, is another landmark commemorative of human credulity. During the reign of Henri IV one Trucat, a farmer of considerable means, chanced to read some of the works of the astrologer Nostradamus and decided without further evidence that a great treasure was to be found under the Tour Magne. He spent a fortune proving that Nostradamus had been in error.

Aigues-Mortes, an almost deserted stronghold on the edge of the Camargue south of Nimes, is perhaps the best preserved memorial of the crusaders to be found in France. It owes its longevity to the same circumstance that brought it into existence, its isolation.

St. Louis made this his mobilization-point in the holy war that brought him to so tragic an end. Lacking political control over any port on the coast of Provence, the king was forced to purchase such camping-grounds as might be available, This particular tract of swamp was owned by an abbot, who consented to sell it. So Louis built his fortress, sinking its foundations through the silt of the Rhone to more solid rock, tossing a great cincture of white stone toward the dazzling sky.

It remains to-day about as it was when he completed it, towers, bastions, crenelated ramparts uninjured by weather, untouched by any of the destructive wars that ravaged lower Provence. It never died. It atrophied.

Twenty kilometers northeast of Nimes, where the Gard comes tumbling out of the Cevennes towards the Rhone, may be seen the principal remnant of the twenty-three-mile aqueduct that the Romans built to augment the bathing-facilities only partially supplied by Naimh and his bubbling fountain. The Pont du Gard, a mighty stone trestle across a valley nine hundred feet wide, is probably the most remarkable example of Roman masonry to be found in France. It was built about nineteen centuries ago of blocks of stone designed to hold their position without cement or fastening.

And it stands today with scarcely a single stone displaced, rising up out of the waters of the Gard to a height of 160 feet in three tiers of arches. The bridge is 870 feet long at its longest measurement. It shows little sign of weakness. Despite the fact that the flume was badly battered by ingenious natives, who sought, for use as building-stone, the limestone deposits left by the water and by the Duc de Rohan, who broke a number of arches in the second tier to permit the passage of his artillery, it remains virtu-ally intact, with its end still centuries in the future.

Inscriptions on the arches have led antiquarians to believe that the aqueduct was the work of Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus. But despite this evidence two legendary theories are advanced to explain the building of it.

One story relates that a beautiful damosel of Nimes attracted the loving attentions of a Roman governor. She promised to marry him on condition that he bring the plentiful waters of the Fontaine d’Eure to her home. He accomplished this miracle with the no less miraculous Pont du Gard. Whereupon the lady, with a fine eye for the modern dramatic denouement, promptly jilted him for a vintner of the neighborhood.

The second story—to be found in the poems of Mistral and other literature of Provence—ascribes the actual construction of the bridge to the devil.

This legend, similar in its details to that which concerns the building of Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle, tells how the engineer in charge of the aqueduct found himself facing insuperable difficulties. The devil appeared before him and offered to complete the work in a single night provided that he might claim as his own the first living thing that passed over it. The engineer complied and sat up all night thinking of his bad bargain.

Early the next day he went out to the valley of the Gard and saw the great rainbow of golden stone spanning the green valley. At the opposite end the devil stood waiting. Then, with rare inspiration, the engineer loosed a hare, which darted across the long flume and leaped into the devil’s bag. The all-evil, tricked as he always was in such legend, threw the hare against the bridge, cursed loudly, and disappeared. The mental equipment of the medieval devil was very poor.