Saintes: Roman capital

In the first century CE, Saintes was known as Mediolanum: "town in the middle of the plain." Located at a crossroads of trade routes between the Roman provinces and towards the ocean, it became capital of the province of Aquitania.

Fondation du patrimoine

Amphithéâtre de Saintes vu depuis le clocher de Saint-EutropeFondation du patrimoine

Mediolanum: Gallo-Roman city

In the year 19 CE, the Via Agrippa, which started in Lugdunum (Lyon), ended at the entrance of Mediolanum. Located on the banks of the Charente, it also provided a link to the Atlantic Ocean. This strategic position gave the city its status as the capital of the Aquitaine province, before being supplanted by Burdigala (Bordeaux). Mediolanum was designed and organized in the Roman style, with roads laid out at right angles, like all big cities in Roman Gaul and the Empire.

Buste d'Auguste-Octave retrouvé à SaintesFondation du patrimoine

This head of Emperor Augustus, found in the foundations of the Tour de Meslier, demonstrates the city's importance in the early years of the Empire.

L'Arc de Germanicus de SaintesFondation du patrimoine

The town has monumental adornments, including this triumphal arch, which is one of the most beautiful examples. It is said to be erected by Germanicus, based on its fragmentary dedication.
A true city gate, the arch was the main point of access to the ancient city.

Arc de Germanicus de SaintesFondation du patrimoine

Built around 18-19 CE, it protected the entrance to the bridge that crossed the Charente and ended on the city's main axis— the Decumanus Maximus.
Its two arches enabled the city to direct traffic flow: one as an entrance and the other as an exit.
This configuration with two arches and two bays is very rare. Of the 350-360 known arches from the Roman world, only 6 have two bays.

During the demolition of the old bridge in 1843, the arch was saved by Prosper Mérimée: it was moved and reassembled on the redeveloped bank.

Amphithéâtre de SaintesFondation du patrimoine

The amphitheater in Saintes is the second Gallo-Roman monument that cannot be missed.
It is part of the urbanization plan ordered by Tiberius in the first century CE. Completed during Claudius' reign between 40-50 CE, it became one of the most emblematic symbols of Mediolanum.

Amphithéâtre de SaintesFondation du patrimoine

Set in the Arènes valley, the sides of which were dug out to make room for it, the amphitheater has an exceptional location.
It can accommodate several thousand spectators at presentations of gladiatorial combat or animal hunts.

Amphithéâtre de Saintes et clocher de l'église Saint-EutropeFondation du patrimoine

This vast oval monument is 413 feet (126 m) on its long side and 335 feet (102 m) on its short side. It has no less than 90 points of access to lead the public into the cavea's different levels, which included either 32 or 35 terraces.

Thermes de Saint-Saloine à SaintesFondation du patrimoine

The Saint-Saloine thermal baths are the final monumental example of Gallo-Roman architecture in the town.
Built around 100 CE on the site of the workshops, the Saint-Saloine thermal baths consist of hot baths or caldarium—service areas—as well as elements of the heating and water supply system.

Thermes de Saint-Saloine à SaintesFondation du patrimoine

This site bears witness to the zenith of the Gallo-Roman city, and then to its downfall. In the 3rd century, the inhabitants retreated behind the city walls and its thermal baths were abandoned.
The site was progressively Christianized, which meant that it was relatively well preserved. It was first occupied by a necropolis, then a Christian sanctuary dedicated to Saint Saloine. The church, ruined during the Wars of Religion, was leveled in the 18th century.

Carte Postale de Saintes à la fin du XIXe siècleFondation du patrimoine

From quarry to tourist destination

Like the thermal baths, the Saintes amphitheater, located outside the city's walls, was abandoned in the 3rd century. During the Middle Ages, it served as a stone quarry for the inhabitants. Aware of the site's historic and heritage value, Prosper Mérimée registered the building on the first list of Historic Monuments, established in 1840.

Événement dans les arènes au début du XXe siècleFondation du patrimoine

The people of Saintes began to reclaim these areas at the end of the 19th century, in particular by organizing cultural events there: concerts and lyrical performances.

Affiche des Chemins de fer de l'Etat figurant l'Arc de Germanicus (1912) by Julien LacazeFondation du patrimoine

The Gallo-Roman remains have even become tourist attractions for the town, as shown by this advertising poster published in 1912.

Groupe de visiteurs aux Thermes de SaintesFondation du patrimoine

The people of Saintes are gathered, dressed in their best clothing. They are posing in front of the ancient ruins in their city.
This photo was taken in front of the vestiges of the Saint Saloine thermal baths.

Fouiles dans l'Amphithéâtre de Saintes au début du XXe siècleFondation du patrimoine

During the first decade of the 20th century, significant work clearing the amphitheater was carried out, giving it the appearance we know today.

Amphithéâtre de SaintesFondation du patrimoine

Today, the amphitheater in Saintes is the best-preserved in western France. It is the subject of major restoration and redevelopment projects to give it back its original purpose: to be a place of entertainment and celebration.

That is the reason it was selected as the 2018 Heritage Mission's emblematic project, as well as enjoying support from the Fondation du Patrimoine (French Heritage Foundation).

Cap Sud-Ouest - Saintes et ses vestiges gallo-romainsFondation du patrimoine

Watch the video to admire these historic sites.

Credits: Story

Our thanks to the town of Saintes, and especially to Muriel Perrin, head of the town's Art and History Services, for her invaluable help.

To support the Saintes amphitheater restoration project through the Fondation du Patrimoine, click this link

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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