This is a little look at a whirlwind day out in Saintes, with lots and lots of Romans. After an early start from Bordeaux, I arrived in Saintes at about 9am and set about looking for some of the remains of the Roman town, Mediolanum Santonum.
Stage 1: The arch. On its own.
The Arch of Germanicus, dating from 18-19 CE, originally stood at the end of the bridge across the Charente River, marking the entry to the city. Now it’s on its own on a stretch of embankment near the Tourist Information Office.
The inscription tells us about the donor, a wealthy citizen of Mediolanum Santonum by the name of C. Julius Rufus. He seems to have been a pretty important man, locally at least, and the inscription lists his lineage to four generations: ‘Caius Julius Rufus, son of Caius Julius Otuaneunus, grandson of Caius Julius Gedemo, great-grandson of Epotsovirid(i)us’, his position in society: ‘priest of Rome and of Augustus at the altar at Confluens’, and his title: ‘prefect of works’.* He paid for the construction of the arch in honor of the Emperor Tiberius, his son Drusus Julius Caesar, and his adoptive son Germanicus.
Looking rather festive on my visit, the arch we see today is actually a reconstruction. It was dismantled in the 19th century when the old bridge was demolished but later restored in its present location.
Stage 2: The city wall. Mind your step.
As with many Roman cities, the turbulence of the third century prompted the building of additional fortifications and there is a short stretch of the city wall remaining in-situ.
Now, I quite like France, but there’s one thing in particular that I really really hate about France. Dog-shit. There’s dog-shit everywhere. No-one cleans up after their dog. This means that some patches of grass are an absolute minefield (shitfield?), this one included. After weighing up the odds, I decided that I wasn’t going to risk it. The combination of sloping ground, lots of rain making slippery grass and naughty inconsiderate dog owners made this particular patch of grass no-woman’s land (seriously, there was shit everywhere). I stayed up on the pavement and took what pictures I could from there.
But you can still see the large, well-shaped stone blocks that the wall was built from. There are a few bits of reused stone that I can see amongst the rectangular blocks which indicates that by the time the wall was built, older buildings, shrines and memorials were considered expendable.
Stage 3: The amphitheatre. A hidden gem.
Heading up the hill, cross the main road near the bus stops, turn right and then left up a residential street, walk along a bit, turn left and…the surprise of seeing the entrance to an enormous amphitheatre was not at all dulled by the fact that I was actually looking for an enormous amphitheatre.
And it is enormous, originally seating about 12,000-15,000 spectators (although possibly up to 20,000) and with all the features expected of a well appointed 1st century entertainment venue. Built in 40-50 AD, construction began under Tiberius and was completed under Claudius, this is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in France. It’s set in a natural bowl-shaped valley and the seating (cavae) takes advantage of the natural slopes most of the way round.
From the ticket office, you can walk most of the way round the outside where the upper levels of seating would have been. A lot of the original seating had gone and it looks like some of the stonework is actually modern concrete, but it give a good impression of how the seating looked. You can walk up the steps of some of the vomitoria to get the views over the arena.
The two ends of the amphitheatre still have the remains of two striking features. At the east end, the East Gate.
This is the main entrance facing the town and processions (pompa) would make their way up from the town to the amphitheatre, entering through this gate. This is the way by which victorious gladiators would also leave the amphitheatre, hence it’s alternative name, Porta Sanavivaria, ‘the Gate of the Living’.
Opposite the east gate is the dark and slightly intimidating Porta Libitinensis, ‘the Gate of the Dead’. This where the bodies of vanquished gladiators were carried out of the arena.
When I visit some types of Roman site; bathhouses, forums, paved streets and amphitheatres, I’m always on the lookout for the remains of Roman games. Sometimes, etched into the stone paving, you can see gaming boards for such games as ludus duodecim scriptorum and Nine Men’s Morris. I did take the time to look along all the remaining seating, but the only one I found was this not-so-ancient one…
Stage 4: The bathhouse. Just a little bit.
Ten minute’s walk from the amphitheatre, on a corner just outside the cemetery that’s just up the road from the church of St. Vivien are the remains of the Thermal Baths of St Saloine.
These baths dated from the second half of the first century, during a second phase of development in Mediolanum Santonum, and were abandoned as the city contracted in the fourth century. The baths were fed by the aqueduct which brought water from as far away as Font-Morillon (in the village of Fontcouverte).
There isn’t a huge amount of it left but it is still possible to identify the caldarium (hot room),
with its retaining wall, with these large niches.
A few other wall lines have also been identified however, most of the building has been destroyed, either used as a quarry or in the later uses of the site, which was converted into a church and cemetery.
Stage 5: The museum. Small but perfectly formed.
Back towards the Arch of Germanicus and, next door to the tourist information office is the Musee Archeologique de Saintes. The entrance fee is included in the ticket price for the amphitheatre. Bargain!
It’s a wee little museum, just one room, but every case is a winner. I was going to post a few images here but there are so many very cool things to share that this post is in danger of becoming an epic, so I’ve decided to add those as a supplementary post. Here’s just a couple to whet your appetite.
So on a Roman level, Saintes was a bit of a success. As well as all these brilliant sites to visit, I also spotted random bits of suspiciously Roman-looking stonework, reused here and there in walls and the like.
I also had the most fantastic cappuccino ever. Not only did it look like a work of Spiderman-influenced art, it also tasted fantastic and wasn’t overly milky. Yum yum, and thank you Thes et Cafes, my recommendation for sustenance and fortification in Saintes.
The Office de Tourisme is a good source of information about what to see and do in and around Saintes. And for the archaeology, the Société d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de la Charente-Maritime .