6 places to experience Roman history in Paris

6 places to experience Roman history in Paris

Sometimes I stand in Paris, pause and try to imagine this city under Roman rule. My imagination goes straight to Roman baths, gods, goddesses and gladiators. Paris was a thriving Roman city named Lutèce or Lutetia. Look around Paris today and you will find brasseries named Lutetia and a luxury hotel of the same name.

Look a little further and you will discover the remains of this Gallo-Roman city where approx

10,000 inhabitants lived. Paris was by no means a large Roman city like Lyon or Nanterre, but the traces from this period that exist link curious travelers and history buffs to an ancient part of Paris’ history.

Roman Paris: A little background on Lutetia

Long before the Romans arrived, Gallic or Celtic tribes lived by the river Seine. A tribe, who called themselves the Parisii, were the first permanent inhabitants of the area.

In 52 BCE, the Romans led by Julius Caesar invaded Gaul. The Gallic tribes united under their leader Vercingetorix and put up a great battle. Needless to say, the Romans won, taking over the settlement and naming it Lutetia.

In classical Roman style, they built a city on a strict grid system with a main road from north-south, cardo maximus, which can still be found today. Lutetia had great monuments, including a forum, several thermal baths, and an amphitheatre. The forum and baths were located along the main road, while the amphitheater was located just outside the city to accommodate a large audience.

In the year 308, Lutetia was fortified to protect it from barbarians. A rampart was built, made of towers and walls, making Lutetia a military city where the Roman army could set up base.

Let’s see where we can find Lutetia in today’s Paris.

People playing at Les Arènes de Lutèce

People playing at Les Arènes de Lutèce

Photo credit: Jerome LABOUYRIE / Shutterstock.com

1. The Roman amphitheater, Les Arènes De Lutèce

49 Rue Monge, 75005 Paris

The Roman amphitheater, called Arènes de Lutèce, is tucked away in the Latin Quarter. Enter the amphitheater, sit on one of the stone bleachers, and imagine what happened here. Outside Lutetia’s city limits, people flocked to the amphitheater to see plays, animal fights, and gladiators. The Arènes de Lutèce held 15,000 to 17,000 spectators in its tiered seating. Built at the end of the first century AD, it is one of Paris’ oldest monuments.

Eventually the amphitheater fell into ruins, and there is no sign of it on medieval Paris city maps.

Between 1869 and 1870 during the construction of the rue Monge, the amphitheater was rediscovered on land acquired by a coach company. The Parisians rallied to save their Roman heritage, but part of the ruins were destroyed.

Signs at the Roman amphitheater

Signs at the Roman amphitheater

Photo credit: Alison Browne

With further excavation and further gathering of the public led by Victor Hugo in 1883, the Arènes de Lutèce finally received city protection. It was not until 1917 that it was restored to its original state.

Today, the Arènes de Lutèce is surrounded by a park, and instead of gladiators fighting lions, footballers fight for a fantastic goal. You can also find men playing the iconic French game of pétanque. The amphitheater is an oasis of calm in Paris, the perfect place for a picnic or to sit and ponder Paris’ long history.

Pro tip: It’s easy to walk right past the Arènes de Lutèce, so look out for the main entrance and historical plaque at 49 rue Monge.

  • Nearest metro stations: Cardinal Lemoine, Place Monge and Jussieu
  • Opening hours: Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 10.00 to 21.00 – Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday: 9.30 to 20.30
  • Access: Free
Roman wall at Les Thermes De Cluny

Roman wall at Les Thermes De Cluny

Photo credit: Alison Browne

2. The Roman Baths, Les Thermes De Cluny

28 Rue Du Sommerard, 75005 Paris

There is no better place to see living proof that Lutetia existed than standing in it frigidarium, or the cold room, of the Gallo-Roman thermal baths in the Cluny Museum. The Thermes de Cluny, built around 200 AD, are among the largest such ancient remains in Northern Europe. The Cluny thermal baths were the most important public baths in Lutetia and measured approximately 64,583 square meters. The frigidarium has a huge vaulted ceiling rising to 45.9 feet with walls of limestone rubble interspersed with brick.

The Boatmen's Column at the Roman Bathing Museum

This is part of the Pillar of the Boatmen – a Latin inscription dedicating the pillar to a Roman god Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Photo credit: Alison Browne

Spend some time admiring the Pillar of the Boatmen (Pilier des Nautes) which dates from around 25 AD. The four blocks of this 17-foot long column showing carved bas-reliefs of both Roman and Gallic gods would have stood in one of the temples of Lutetia in the first century AD. The blocks were found under Notre-Dame in 1710, and in 2001 they were restored for the first time since their discovery.

But who were these boatmen, or sailors? While every average citizen had the right to fish and navigate the Seine by boat, it was under the supervision of the nauts, who were responsible for navigation and river trade.

You will see references to the Pilier des Nautes in both the archaeological crypt and the Carnavalet museum.

Pro tip: History buffs will love the newly renovated Cluny Museum or the Medieval Museum. Don’t miss the amazing Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry Series. Plan to spend at least 90 minutes viewing the extensive collection.

  • Nearest metro stations: Cluny-La Sorbonne, Odéon, Saint-Michel
  • Opening hours: Daily from 9:30 to 18:15 except on Mondays
  • Access: $12 USD
The archaeological crypt

The archaeological crypt

Photo credit: Alison Browne

3. The archaeological crypt, Crypte Archéologique Du Parvis De Notre-Dame

7, Place Jean-Paul II, Parvis Notre-Dame, 75004, Paris

Stand on the square, known in French as in pairs, in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral and admire her glory. Most people don’t realize when looking at her stunning French Gothic architecture that they are standing above a 19,000 square meter archaeological crypt full of artifacts that tell the story of Paris’ history.

Archaeological discoveries were made here during excavations between 1965 and 1970 when a car park was built. Imagine cars parked in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. It seems sacrilegious!

Remains are seen in the archaeological crypt of the first fortress of Paris built in the 4th centuryth century AD In 308 a rampart made of towers and walls was built to fortify Lutetia. In the crypt, there are ancient large stone blocks that formed the foundation of the wall. If the former ramparts are of particular interest to you, head to nearby rue de la Colombe. Here at #5 you can see traces of the former Roman ramparts on the hill.

Port of Lutetia screen

Port of Lutetia screen

Photo credit: Alison Browne

From 1St century, Lutetia was a trading town that saw many merchant ships carrying goods along the Seine. One of the highlights of a visit to the crypt is standing where the banks of the Seine would have been at the time. Large rocks lead to a realistic rendering showing Lutetia’s first port built by the Romans. It is easy to conjure up a vision of this trading center on the Seine.

Pro tip: Another fascinating aspect of the archaeological crypt is the exhibit that traces the history of Notre-Dame from the publication in 1831 of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dameand the cathedral’s restoration project began in 1844 led by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

  • Nearest metro stations: Cité or Saint-Michel
  • Opening hours: Daily from 10am to 6pm except Mondays and French holidays
  • Access: $9 USD
Exhibition at the Carnavalet Museum

This is the crowned head that would have adorned a niche in the amphitheatre. It can be found in the Carnavalet museum and dates from the 2-3rd century.

Photo credit: Alison Browne

4. The Carnavalet Museum

23 Rue De Sévigné, 75003, Paris

“The History of the Paris Museum”, or Musée Carnavalet, is the perfect place to find some treasures from Lutetia. Head straight to the basement level and surround yourself with Gallo-Roman artefacts.

One of the greatest treasures here is the crowned head of a statue from a niche in the amphitheater! Staring at this stone face, I can’t help but wonder what other details would have adorned the amphitheatre.

The stone statue of the headless goddess Juno found on Ile de la Cité came from Lutetia’s forum. She is an indication of how statues would have adorned the forum.

Note the monument to Mercury and objects from daily life.

  • Nearest metro stations: Saint Paul
  • Opening hours: Daily from 10:00 to 18:00 except Mondays
  • Access: Free
Rue Saint-Jacques near the Sorbonne University

Rue Saint-Jacques near the Sorbonne University

Image credit: goga18128 / Shutterstock.com

5. The main Roman road, Rue Saint-Jacques

Remember how the Roman city planners used a strict grid? Rue Saint-Jacques, which still exists today, was built as the main street in the north-south axis, cardo maximus, of Lutetia. Stand near the Panthéon on rue Saint-Jacques and you will see how it slopes down towards the Seine. The Romans built Lutetia on a high point, Mons Lucotitius, today known as Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, to avoid flooding.

Turn and look down rue Soufflot towards the Luxembourg Gardens. Rue Soufflot in this Gallo-Roman period was where the Roman Forum was located. Imagine arcaded galleries lining the street and a Roman temple.

Petit Pont in Paris


Photo credit: bensliman hassan / Shutterstock.com

6. Petit-Pont

There has been a bridge where the Petit-Pont is found since ancient times. Parisii built a wooden footbridge to connect the Ile de la Cite to the left bank. When the Romans took over in 52 BCE, they rebuilt the bridge and aligned it with theirs cardo maximus. Still today, Petit-Pont goes straight into rue Saint-Jacques. The present bridge, which opened in 1853, is not the most interesting to look at, but it is remarkable to think who has crossed to the left bank on this particular route!

Pro tip: There are many bridges that cross the Seine! The Petit-Pont runs from Quai Saint-Michel in the 5th arrondissement to Quai du Marché Neuf-Maurice Grimaud on the Ile de la Cité.

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