The Paris Heritage Strolls
The Vestiges of Ancient Paris Stroll
From Rue Saint-Jacques to Rue Monge (5th arrondissement)
We know little of the pre-Roman Gaulish settlement on the Seine. Beneath today’s Île de la Cité, no trace of the oppidum* mentioned by Julius Caesar has ever been found. In contrast, Roman-period Lutetia is well documented. By the end of Augustus’s reign (14 A.D.), the city centre had shifted to Mont Sainte-Geneviève.
In this stroll, you will be surprised by the wealth of Roman ruins which have been preserved, starting with the Cluny baths and the arena off Rue Monge. Today’s vestiges should be viewed as part of a larger urban fabric composed of imposing public edifices no longer standing today: a forum on today’s Rue Soufflot, a theatre on Rue Racine, and more baths, on Rue Gay-Lussac and under the Collège de France.
City planners laid out Lutetia on a grid pattern. Surveyors were likely military men. They began by carving out a network of streets called cardines* (north-south streets) and decumani* (east-west streets) which they endowed with water and sewer lines before launching construction of municipal buildings and dwellings.
By the 4th century A.D., a new city, which would soon take the name Paris, had sprung up in the middle of the Seine. Its governor was Constantine's nephew Julian, whose reign as emperor began in 361. Several small islands were artificially joined to create a single parcel of land, which was then ringed by rampart walls. New public buildings and monuments soon went up.
Today, only bits and pieces remain of this ancient topography, but it was instrumental in determining the city’s layout and orientation for centuries.
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(5th arrondissement) The Cardo Maximus*
Rue Saint-Jacques is the city’s oldest street. Roman surveyors must have driven their first stake in the ground at today's 174 Rue Saint-Jacques, at the summit of the hill. From this point, they mapped out the early urban grid. Expert road-builders, they paced off cross-streets every 300 Roman feet (a distance of about 240 feet, according to today's standardised Imperial measures, the equivalent of 73 metres).
We can appreciate the original width of the ancient Roman street by standing between 176-184 and 151-171 Rue Saint-Jacques. Southwards, past the corner of Rue de l’Abbé-de l’Epée and the Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas church, is a slight dogleg in the street., which resulted from connecting the Roman street to a much older road. In fact, the cardo maximus* is the urban part of the Orleans-Senlis highway. On the north side of the Seine (the Right Bank), the cardo maximus is the present-day artery Rue Saint-Martin.
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Rue Soufflot (5th arrondissement)
The rectangular forum, the very symbol and landmark of urban life, was located atop a hill. It measured 178 x 89 meters (584 x 292 feet), and consisted of a large plaza with colonnaded porticos to the west, north and south. The entire west side stood upon a cryptoportico*, a convenient underground walkway. A temple devoted to worship of the emperor stood to the west at present-day numbers 22-26 Rue Soufflot. Trade and legal business were conducted in the basilica* east of the forum. Two doors located in the middle of the long sides led traffic in to the square and, from there, to the various parts of the forum. A row of market stalls with their backs to the forum lined the outer walls. Their wares could be admired from the covered walkway bordered by a large gutter. A small section of the western wall’s façade is on display in the entrance to the underground car park at 61 Boulevard Saint-Michel. The forum’s south end (north side of Rue Gay-Lussac) was home to baths equipped with a 50-seater latrine, the largest public latrine known in Gaul.
Place de la Sorbonne
Gallo-Roman houses were uncovered in recent archaeological digs conducted right on Place de la Sorbonne. These vestiges of ancient Lutetia are typical of other dwellings discovered elsewhere. In the Early Empire, building materials were primarily wood and cob, which were then carefully coated. The houses most certainly had thatch roofs and packed clay floors. Masonry developed at the end of the 1st century AD. One sign of prosperity in citizens’ homes was the advent of cement floors, water conveyance, hypocausts* and frescos.
Rue des Écoles, the Rue Racine Theatre, the Collège de France Baths
(5th arrondissement) Roman Street Planning
Rue des Écoles, a street planned in the late 19th century by Haussmann, runs along part of a Roman decumanus* lined with impressive public buildings. A theatre in classic Gallo-Roman style measuring 71 x 47 meters (232 x 154 ft.) was discovered west of the cardo* (now boulevard Saint-Michel), at the corner of today’s Rue Racine, beside the Joseph Gibert bookstore and the Lycée Saint-Louis. East of today’s Collège de France at the corner of the cardo maximus* were the monumental baths, 200 x 86 meters (656 x 282 ft.), which might have been therapeutic. North of the street, on the site of numbers 49 to 53 Rue des Écoles (now partly beneath the roadway), stood the southern end of the Cluny baths.
The extraordinarily well-preserved Thermes de Cluny are one of the most emblematic monuments of Gallo-Roman spa architecture. The vault of the frigidarium* rises a stunning 14 meters (46 ft.) overhead. The opus mixtum* type of construction is characteristic of public monuments of Lutetia.
Scholars now believe the edifice a product of late 2nd-century AD imperial euergetism*. The floor plan respects the canons current then in Rome. The maritime decorative themes on the frigidarium’s consoles may be seagoing vessels. This is a manifest of the Roman Empire on the ocean. The building was endowed with two monumental façades, which, though now lost, could be reconstituted. To the north, on the Rue des Écoles decumanus, a colonnaded portico framing a fountain beckoned to passersby. On the south side, along today’s Boulevard Saint-Germain, the façade must also have been graced by an imperial statue ensconced in the porticos, in addition to the fountain.
In its day, this sumptuous building at the foot of the hill, one element in a multitude of other expressions of imperial worship, impressed visitor and resident alike.
Today, the Cluny baths are the property of the Musée du Moyen Âge, Thermes and Hôtel de Cluny.
The Petit Pont (literally “little bridge”) and the Pont Notre-Dame are, in a sense, the oldest bridges in Paris, as they line up perfectly with the cardo maximus*. Erected in the 19th century, the Petit Pont sits on the exact site of the Roman-period bridge. During the excavation of the RER (commuter rail line in the 1960s,), vestiges of wood from Roman times were found beneath Île de la Cité. Dendrochronological* dating techniques indicate that the wood came from trees felled in the year 4 AD.
The archaeological crypt was built in 1971 to house artefacts discovered during the campaign of digs on the esplanade. Most of them are relics of structures built on the riverbank. The present-day paving stones outline the medieval grid of streets. Rue Neuve-Notre-Dame, which dates back to the time of the construction of the Gothic cathedral, actually preserved the most ancient of the archaeological strata.
On display in the museum-crypt is a Roman-era dock. It dates from the period of Tiberius (14-27 A.D.). It was later integrated into the foundations of the 4th-century ramparts. Visitors can also discover the small public baths from the Late Empire period. They remained a prominent feature in the city for centuries.
The paving stones right in front of the cathedral outline the floor plan of the 8th-century Merovingian basilica, later replaced by the cathedral designed in the 12th century by Maurice de Sully. The Merovingian church stood upon the 4th-century fortification walls.
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In the 4th century, several major public buildings were erected on the rampart-ringed Île de la Cité. The largest was a courthouse. It was probably part of a larger military installation, vestiges of which were uncovered beneath the main entrance courtyard (Cour de Mai) of today’s Palais de la Justice. Its main entrance was located beneath today’s gilded iron gates. A decumanus* (an east-west street) ran from this point along the same line as today’s Rue de Lutèce.
A vast basilica* at least 60 meters long and 35 meters wide (197 x 115 ft.), the largest known in the Gallo-Roman period, was partially excavated beneath the Marché aux Fleurs (flower market) during the construction of the Cité métro station. It was built parallel to the Roman street and opened onto the cardo maximus* (Rue de la Cité). The building materials for both the courthouse and the basilica included large chunks of recycled architectural elements from richly decorated mausoleums.
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In 1898, sewer works exposed a segment of the island’s 4th-century rampart walls. A plaque on the paving stones marks the exact position of the discovery. The wall was dated to the first half of the 4th century. This wall consolidated several islands into the single island now known as Île de la Cité. One thing that visitors may easily notice is that the fortification determined the street alignment on the newly constructed plateau. It doubled the island’s surface area from its previous 10 hectares (24 acres) to the current 20 hectares.
The foundation was laid using large blocks of architectural elements salvaged from major Early Empire structures such as the arena. The base is generally 4 meters thick, but may taper down to as little as 2 meters at the top. As this is relatively thin for a fortification wall, archaeologists believe it was covered with a wooden hoarding. There would have been towers as well. The 10-meter-wide southern foundation walls were uncovered in the cardo maximus* (Rue de la Cité) in front of Notre-Dame’s esplanade.
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You can enter the Arènes de Lutèce at number 47 Rue Monge or by a gateway on Rue des Arènes. Built at the end of the 1st century AD, and abandoned in the 4th century, the Roman arena was rediscovered in 1869 during construction of Rue Monge. At that time, novelist Victor Hugo circulated a petition demanding its preservation. Restoration with partial reconstruction was carried out in 1918.
The open-air arena’s most interesting feature is its stage. The site is a cross between a full elliptically shaped amphitheatre and the more classic semicircular theatre shape of antiquity.
Spectators would have enjoyed an array of shows and entertainment ranging from gladiator fights (munera in Latin), wild animal hunts (venationes), classic theatre productions, and mime. The curved tiers of seats complete the circular aspect of the site. The arena (cavea) is oval-shaped.
In all of Gaul, only the arenas in Arles and Nîmes were bigger. Ancient Lutetia could boast seating for 17,000 spectators in a space measuring 100 by 130.4 meters (238 x 487 ft.). Furthermore, the venue was easy to reach it from inside and outside the city.
|Place de la Sorbonne||The First Bridge in Paris||The Roman Arena|
Basilica, in Roman times, a civil building housing commercial and legal activities. After the rise and spread of Christianity, the term referred only to churches.
Cardo (cardines in the plural), a north-south street laid out by urban planner for the creation of a Roman settlement.
Decumanus (decumani in the plural), an east-west street laid out by urban planners for the creation of a Roman settlement.
Cardo maximus, the main north-south street of a Roman town, and, therefore generally the first street surveyed and graded.
Cryptoportico (or cryptoporticus): an underground corridor beneath a forum used for storage and shelter from rain or snow. In addition, it served a purpose in sacred architecture, emphasising and heightening a temple’s upper portico.
Dendrochronology: a method of dating lumber based on growth rings in the wood.
Early Roman Empire, period from 27 BC to 235 AD.
Euergetism, literally "doing good," was the practice whereby rich, powerful Romans, emperors in particular, would curry favour by sharing wealth with communities. This might entail financing public works, urban development, banquets, entertainment, or even roads.
Frigidarium, in Roman baths, this room with no heating offered bathers a cool, refreshing, pool or splash.
Hypocaust, a heating system beneath a building’s flooring developed for both private homes and public buildings, like the baths.
Late Roman Empire, period from 235 AD to 476 AD.
Oppidum, a generic term found in Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic Wars applied to a wide variety fortified positions in ancient Gaul. The term covered anything from humble refuges to fortified towns.
Opus mixtum, a Roman masonry technique alternating layers of small limestone rocks with layers of brickwork.