Trip to Fréjus: Part I

After an enjoyable lunch at the Clos des Roses vineyard, we decided to explore Fréjus. We’ve cycled past it many a time but have not previously visited either its Roman ruins or its Old Town. Now, if you’ve read any of my earlier trip articles about the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur (PACA) area, you’ll know the Romans were all over it like a bad rash in 1st century BC. Consequently PACA is heir to an impressive Roman architectural legacy which forms an intrinsic part of the local culture.

Fréjus, lying south of the Estérel Massif and equi-distant between Cannes and St Tropez, has a rich historical and architectural heritage. The city is filled with monuments. These include one of the largest amphitheaters from Gallic times (1st or 2nd century), a Roman theatre, the Porte Doree (a golden door), ruins of baths from 3rd century, the Porte des Gaules, the aqueduct which carried the water from Signole for 40 km (25 miles) and the Cocteau Chapel conceived by Jean Cocteau In 1961 and finished by E. Dermit in 1965.

In 1837 at the request of the then Inspector General of Historical Monuments, Prosper Mérimée, a list of each departments’ monuments was drawn up. In 1840, the first list of its kind in France was completed and the amphitheatre in Fréjus was included. It is one of the oldest in Gaul (of the thirty listed).

While it has proved difficult to date the monument, it was most certainly built after the Coliseum in Rome, probably toward the end of 1st century AD. It’s outside the town, backing into the side of the hill, a popular material-saving device.

In its heyday the amphitheatre’s capacity was 12,000 spectators, as against 5,000 today. Its exterior dimensions were 112.75 m (370 ft) by 82.65 m ( 272 ft) and the arena itself was  69.37m (226 ft) by 39.17 m (128 ft), height 21 m (69 ft) which makes it smaller than Nîmes’ but larger than Nice’s.

The monument would have been faced in green sandstone from the Estérel but, unfortunately, the facade has completely disappeared, as well as its upper tiers. The galleries’ arches are based on 2 rows of bricks (many are marked “CASTORIS”, the name of the manufacturer). Some of the arcade walls and radiating walls in sandstone still remain. Two large openings on its main axis and a small lateral one open onto the arena (“arena” in Latin means “sand”).

During excavations a cruciform pit in the centre of the arena whose function has not been determined, was found. To protect spectators from the sun, a “velarium” – a sort of awning attached to a series of supports, often made of wood – was stretched above the seating area. Under the seating are the entrances from the “carceres” (cells) – hence the word “incarceration”- which were used to hold the gladiators.

The entertainment included gladiator fights, hunting and killing of wild animals, and fighting between gladiators and animals, or just between animals. The Romans were a blood-thirsty lot.

The ruins were celebrated by Victor Hugo during his visit to Fréjus in 1839 – (En Voyage, Volume 2). He writes:

I was in the same place where 2000 years ago lions, gladiators and tigers writhed. Now the tall grass around me is grazed peacefully by a herd of lean horses…

Subsequently, the monument gradually deteriorated, being used as a bastion, stone quarry, and even a rubbish dump, which partly explains the multiple restorations visible today. After further archaeological excavations (2005 – 2008), Francesco Flavigny, chief architect of the Historical Monuments, decided to give the building back its coherence and return it to its original function as a place of entertainment. Many events and corridas take place here, although since 2010 killing has been forbidden in the Fréjus arena. I’m assuming this refers to the killing of animals but you never know…………….