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Long before there was New York’s Madison Square Gardens, long before there was Chicago’s
Soldier Field, long before there was the Los Angeles Coliseum, and long
before there was London’s Wembley Stadium there were the coliseums and
arenas of the Roman Empire.

construction of many of those predates the birth of Christ, and a few
remain in remarkably good shape. One of the best-preserved Roman arenas
in all of Europe can be found in the city of Nimes in the south of
France–a city that proudly wears the title of “the Pearl of the Roman

Located in the
Languedoc region of France, the 2000-year-old coliseum is a monument to
the remarkable building skills of the ancient Romans. It was erected
under the watchful eye of Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus and the
foremost construction engineer of his day. He and his group of military
engineers are also responsible for a number of other buildings
throughout Nimes as well as nearby Pont du Gard, this country’s most
prominent Roman aquaduct.

On a
recent visit to Nimes I spent an afternoon exploring this extraordinary
arena. Along a well-worn stone walkway under a series of stone arches,
I followed a tunnel that circumnavigated the arena’s lower level, often
pausing to examine the immense stone pillars that supported the arches.
The pillars consisted of stone blocks piled upon one another,
displaying an almost perfect fit. The construction, I had to remind
myself, was done without the benefit of concrete, a building material
unknown 2000 years ago. I stood in awe at the ingenuity of this ancient
civilization and its ability to create such splendid structures using
the most rudimentary of tools.

way around the arena I again stopped to examine one of the columns. In
the seclusion of the darkened tunnel, I thought I heard a boisterous
crowed of long ago cheering a victorious gladiator as he stood poised
over his fallen foe. It is a moment I will not soon forget.

the tunnel I could see that the arena was divided into sections, each
having its own column of stone steps that lead up the various tiers.
Worn into many of the steps were smooth, concave depressions that
recorded the wear and tear of the ages. Making my way up one of the
columns I entered the bright sunlight of the second tier. From here I
had a splendid 360-degree view of the entire arena and its row upon row
of stone benches encircling the structure. Wanting to absorb everything
I could of the spectacular edifice I took a seat on one of the stone
benches. I hardly took note of the workmen below preparing the stadium
floor for the pending weekend bullfights. Beyond the rim of the
coliseum I caught a glimpse of a church tower a few blocks away, and as
I gazed off into the distance my mind wandered back and caught a vision
of a toga-clad crowd, cheering wildly as drivers guided their chariots
around the ring below.

As I made
my way back to the entrance my eye was attracted to the sun-drenched
upper tier, which struck me as a great place from which to take
pictures. With some effort I worked my way to the very top and not only
was rewarded with grand view of coliseum below but also a 360-degree
view of the sprawling city of Nimes.

arena is made up of 60 pairs of arches, which continue around the
circumference on two levels with an ellipse 436 feet long by 331 feet
wide. The floor measures 223 feet by 124 feet. There are 34 sections of
terraces, accommodating 24,000 spectators. The spectator’s sections are
divided into four specific areas with an autonomous group of terraces
served by its own entrances and exits, allowing the various social
classes to remain separated. The arena was planned so that access to
the terraces is quick and easy through corridors, with separate
galleries for each section and stairs and exits adapting to the needs
of all.

History does not tell us
whether the Nimes coliseum was ever the site of such events as the
modern-day Super Bowl; nevertheless, it often played to SRO crowds who
flocked to witness gladiator combat, bull fights and bear-baiting,
chariot races and nautical entertainment in the ponds beneath the area

Long before stadium
builders came up with retractable roofs, the Nimes arena had its own
version. In the very hot weather a canopy of vellum was spread out over
the tiers of seats; evidence can be seen on the tiers, where the holes
for the canopy’s poles still are visible.

its 2000-year history the coliseum took on a mumber of different
functions. In the 5th century it was turned into a fortress by the
Visigoths, and subsequently the Saracens and medieval noblemen used it
for the same purpose. In 1229 Nimes was annexed by the Kingdom of
France after being captured by Simon de Montfort. As a result, the city
fell on hard times. Consequently it was taken over by a crowd of
paupers who made it a vital village in its own right. It was not until
the 19th century that the arena was cleared and returned to its
original purpose. Today, it is the site of famous bullfights and other
events. The last addition to the arena happened in 1987, at which time
a removable roof was installed above the floor of the arena, converting
it into an all-season facility.

arena is just one of a number of impressive Roman sites located in
Nimes,a city that boasts the largest concentration of Romanc buildings
anywhere in France. Still on my “must see” list was the famous Square
House (Maison CarrÈe), built in 49 BC by Agrippa in honor of Caius and
Lucius, the adopted sons of Emperor Augustus. I also wanted to see the
fabulous Roman gardens and fountains and baths, the Temple of Dianna
and the more than half dozen other monuments and neo-Roman churches.

they would have to wait until tomorrow. The remainder of the day would
be spent wandering through the pedestrian malls of old Nimes and
sun-drenched squares brimming with colorful restaurants. It was at one
of these restaurants, beside a quite fountain and under a palm whose
branches where being fanned by a gentle breeze that the day would be
concluded with a delicious Italian dinner. For me, as twilight decended
on the city, tomorrow would not arrive soon enough.

Originally from Canada, Bob Christman lives with his wife Joyce in Portland, Oregon. They travel to France whenever they can.