Arles: A Town of Old and New


During my visit to Arles, a lovely town along the Rhone River in southern France, I observed a strange and wonderful fusion of old and new, of the ancient and modern worlds.

This city was first founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC and it was taken by the Romans in the 2nd century. However, it did not grow into importance until after Julius Caesar established it as a colony for his veterans, in reward for their efforts in the war against his rival, Pompey. More recently, the artist Vincent Van Gogh made Arles his home for a time; it is here that he painted some of his greatest works, but also where he was placed into a mental institution.


As you might expect, I was primarily interested in the Roman ruins located in Arles. After visiting the Roman archaeological museum, I headed out to the old part of town surrounded by a wall (a medieval one, I believe). I strolled the streets, enjoying the warm summer air, and eventually I approached the famous Roman amphitheatre of Arles.


And then, I realized that to describe it as a “ruin” is entirely inaccurate. As with all the other Roman monuments I had seen earlier in France–the Maison Carree and the Pont du Gard–this arena is astonishingly well-preserved. It shines a glimmering white, beautifully showcasing the masterful architecture of ancient Rome. I briefly imagined it to be a pristine testament to the greatness of an ancient civilization.


Yet, as I soon realized, it did not reach the modern day untouched. In the Middle Ages, it became a fortified citadel, in which people actually built their homes. The amphitheatre continued in this strange residential function until the 19th century, when the houses were torn down and proper excavations began.

It has been restored multiple times; damaged stone blocks have been replaced to maintain the structural integrity of the arena. So, does it match that image I had in my head, of a pristine arena of the ancient Romans, preserved until the modern day, if pieces have been altered? The answer is yes… and no.

I learned that performances and events still take place in the arena today. Bull fights are a regular occurrence, alongside dramatic productions. There is even a ticket office inside. Modern metal seats have been installed on top of the ancient stone seats. So, yes, it is the same, in the sense that its old function–entertainment (though not in the form of gladiatorial combat)–has been maintained, but in no way can it be considered a pristine monument.


Rather, it must be called a living monument. It has changed through time. Sections of it are no longer original. The new metal seats have dramatically altered the look of the arena, as it adapts to modern conventions of stadium-building and entertainment. At the same time, these changes, adaptations, and ┬árestorations have allowed the amphitheatre to function almost exactly as it did 2000 years ago. The famous arena of Arles is, then, not just an ancient monument, but a place where old and new are blended together into a strange new mix–clearly visible in some of these images.

The same is also true of the ancient Roman theatre in Arles. I saw a poster advertising an opera that would be presented there in the next week. It was an odd, intriguing sight: old stone seats facing a modern stage with metal frames, and behind the stage, a lonely pair of columns are almost all that remain of the original Roman stage. As with the amphitheatre, this structure brings together both the old and the new, continuing to perform its ancient functions as a place of drama in the modern world.

It is a sign of the Romans’ skill at construction that we are still able to use their ancient structures today. Will our modern metal stadiums hold up to the same test thousands of years from now?

Credit to my mom for all images.


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