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G - 52 : Liguria's Main Roman Towns

The Greek Style Roman Theatre in Marseille built in 1st century BC had 14'000 Seats

In less than two months’ time, we will be on the boat, sailing along the Ligurian coast and the Côte d’Azur. What is today divided between Italy and France was once the settlement area of the Ligures. Greek colonies lined the coast. When Caesar’s push into Gaul, Liguria gained strategic importance. It was the vital link between the Italian peninsula and Gallic lands. Liguria became Romanised to the extent that little of the indigenous Ligurian culture survived. The Roman culture and language was mostly adapted peacefully.

The Settlement Area of the Ligures stretched from West of Marseille to East of La Spezia - the red markers indicate the sites of major Roman towns

Roman settlements began to dominate the landscape. Already then Liguria produced wonderful wines and delicious olive oil. The coast was also rich in timbers and minerals. The Ligures were known as excellent soldiers. Mercenaries and export goods need trading places. Which were the big Roman centres at the time?

The Peutingerian Table was a copy of a Roman Road Map found in the Middle Ages

Started my search by looking at the one Roman map I know, the Peutingerian table - Rome at the center (enlarge with your fingers). The schematic map gives a good overview of roads and river connections in the Roman Empire but is not accurate in a geographic sense. It shows distances and how long it takes to reach a destination. The distances are expressed in Roman miles. A well-trained Roman Legion could march – wearing armor and carrying equipment – 20 miles a day. A Roman mile was about 0.9 modern miles. On the Peutingererian Map above, towns are indicated by two houses. In total, there are 555 towns. 3’500 other names are mentioned without any further indication of their meaning.

Masilia Aquis Sexttus Forum Julii Vada Sabatia Genoa

On the section above, four towns on the Ligurian coast are shown. From West to East: Masalia Graecorum (Marseille), Forum Julii (Fréjus), Vada Sabatia (Savona) and Genoa. Am not counting Aquis Sextus (Aix-en-Provence) since it is not on the coast. The importance of Marseille and Genoa as key ports and Frejus as Rome's naval base make perfect sense. Less so Savona which was a small settlement. Maybe because it was an intersection?

View of Roman Cemenelum (Cimiez) with Greek Nicea (Nice) on the Rock above the Sea

Was looking for another indicator and thought Roman Amphitheaters may be a good alternative. They were so expensive to build that they needed an imperial sponsor. Only Rome’s central treasury had enough money to build these monumental structures. Also, they were expensive to run. Gladiators and exotic wild animals were not cheap. The presence of an amphitheater thus indicates that the town was important and that there were enough wealthy citizens who to pay for the games. Amphitheaters usually sat 1/6 to 1/10 of a town's population thus give us a good idea of the size of a Roman city.

Drone view of modern Albenga. The old Town still shows the Roman Square. The Amphi-theatre was located on the small Monte di San Martino just west of Roman Albingaunum

On the Ligurian coast there are only three cities with an amphitheater: Albenga, Fréjus and Nice. Neither Genoa nor Marseille had one. Marseille had a Greek style Roman Theatre though. There is another Greek style Roman Theatre in Ventimiglia. The important, populous and wealthy towns on the Ligurian coast were thus Albenga, Nice and Fréjus.

Roman Albingaunum was a medium sized Town with probably about 50'000 people

The Theatre in Albenga is 72 m long and 52 m wide. It could sit 7'000 people. It almost completely disappeared. Very little remains. People must have used it as a quarry in the Middle Ages. It was completely demolished.

The few Remains of the Amphitheatre in Albenga

Far more is left in Cimiez, the upper class neighbourhood above busy Nice. The village took its name from Roman Cemenelum which Augustus made his provincial capital in 14 BC. The town had large baths and arenas and was the centre for many Roman villas in the surrounding hills. The Amphitheatre was built around 200 AD and sat 5'000 people.

Artist Impression of the Arènes de Cimiez during Roman time

Compared to Albenga, Fréjus and Marseille, Cemenelum was a small town. Archeologists estimate that It had only 10'000 people. The size of its Amphitheater is explained by the town's political role. 2 or 3 Roman cohorts were permanently stationed in Cimiez - about 1'000 to 1'500 men. In the 19th century, a park was built around the Arènes and the Thermes, the Matisse Museum and the Hotel Regina where Queen Victoria holidayed, are next to it. It is a quiet oasis in a big and hectic French town.

Cemenelum's Amphitheater was 67 m long and 56 m wide - comparable to Albenga's.

The biggest amphitheatres on the Ligurian coast was in Forum Julii (Frejus), the old Roman Naval Base. It was large. 114 m long and 82 m wide, it could sit 12'000 people. Forum Julii probably had around 100'000 inhabitants at the time. The number is not surprising given that the Fleet Headquarter was equivalent in size to a Roman Legion. Each ship needed 200 rowers. A Legion was 6'000 men. 30 Roman galleys were permanently stationed here.

The Roman Naval Base - Forum Julii and the War Harbor are at the Back to the Right

Over time, the need for a permanent fleet diminished. The Mediterranean was called Mare Nostrum - our sea - by because the Romans controlled every single shore. There were no enemy fleets to be fought after Augustus became Emperor. Forum Julii thus became a commercial harbour which served the Provence - a term not existing during Roman time.

Model of Forum Julii (Fréjus) with its large Amphitheater just outside the City Walls

In an interesting architectural experiment, the Arènes de Fréjus were remade in 2007 and are now used for rock concert and other performances. It hosted concerts with Rod Stewart, the Queens and the late David Bowie and Tina Turner.

The refurbished Arènes are now an important Venue in Fréjus busy Event Calendar

This little survey would not be complete without mentioning Masilia Graecorum (Marseille). Its location made it always the most important harbour in the region. It could maintain its status despite siding against Caesar in Rome's civil war.

Model of Roman Masilia - the Theatre is at the Tip

For one reason or another, Masilia never got an amphitheatre. It had a Greece Style Roman Theatre though which was built during the time of Emperor Augustus. It was 115 m wide and could rival Fréjus amphitheatre in size. It is estimated that it could accommodate up to 14'000 spectators.

Marseille's Roman Theatre below the surface

With the arrival of Christianity the theatre lost its purpose. Violent games were banned. The theatre started to decay. Its stones were used to build medieval Marseille. Nobody remembered it. A few remains were found in 1946 during construction work. But it took to 2000 - 2005 that the full extent of the theatre was understood. Today, a small circle in a modern court reminds us where this large structure once stood.

This little Circle reminds us of there Marseille's big Greek Theatre once stood

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