Nîmes’ Musée de la Romanité: From Gallic Tribes to Roman Life

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Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, France

In June 2018, the new Musée de la Romanité opened up in Nîmes.  The news was all over the media and they generated much hype which I, as a Roman fan, was surprised but very happy to see.

I was therefore doubly pleased that Nîmes was on my list of cities to visit in the summer.

Now, I should clarify – the museum is called Musée de la Romanité, which they themselves translate into English as The Museum of Romanity.  That makes no sense in English, and a better translation would be Roman-ness.  But that is a stupid name in English, so I’ve decided to just refer to the museum in its French name.

The new building, an Elizabeth de Portzamparc design, was commissioned after the discovery of a Roman house and two amazing mosaics in 2006/7.  The old 19th century museum was already cramped, and so to accommodate these new finds a new, modern home was needed.  And it’s awfully nice – with thoughtful curation and considered design.

Even though its title stresses the Roman emphasis of the museum, the journey starts in the 7th century BC, and goes through to touch on the Middle Ages, throwing in a few 18th/19th century objects for good measure at the end.

Let’s start at the beginning – Gallic Nîmes.

Gallic Nîmes

The first traces of human habitation in Nîmes date from the end of the 6th century BC and were found close to the sacred spring dedicated to Nemausus – the current site of the Jardin de la Fontaine.  The Celts who lived in the area came to benefit from trade that went through the Greek colony of Massalia (modern Marseille), though they didn’t just gain material profits: the Celts had no writing system of their own, and this area is littered with inscriptions in the Celtic language, written in Greek letters.  Interestingly, it’s still not possible to always completely understand Gallo-Greek inscriptions, because the Gallic language has not been fully deciphered.


The friezes that show severed heads are particularly interesting.  The fact that the Gauls chopped off the heads of their enemies was documented by ancient writers, but I thought it was fascinating that this ghoulish tradition was immortalised in stone.  One further factoid I discovered, is that the Gauls embalmed these heads to keep them in tip-top condition, and very recent research has identified that they used conifer resin for the job (see here for the article from Science) – I love the way that archaeology keeps on giving!

A portion of the section dedicated to the pre-Roman era is taken up by the impressive reconstitution of the Gallic house of Gailhan (Gard), which dates from the end of the 5th century BC and was excavated from 1978 to 1981. The house collapsed suddenly, and thus perfectly preserved the living conditions of its inhabitants, allowing archaeologists to gain a real insight into a Gallic home.  It was quite cosy, really.

And now back to other random Gallic objects, as we edge towards the Roman era.  The Gauls had an unhappy relationship with the Romans – there was much fighting between them from the early 4th century BC onwards.

From 123 BC the Romans made of a concerted effort to take over Gallic territory and by118 BC, they’d taken over much of the area between the Alps and the Pyrenees, creating the province that, under Augustus, became known as Gallia Narbonensis. Nîmes got its name from Nemausus, the Gallic god whose cult was related to the sacred springs up the road.  Economically and demographically there was growth in the region, and Nîmes in particular had a large amount of housing – it’s estimated that the city covered 30-35 hectares, proportions which have only two equals in Southern Gaul: Arles and Béziers.   Another sign of its status is the fact that it was the first city in eastern Languedoc to coin its own money at the beginning of the 2nd century BC.

Once we get on to the Augustan period, we start to look at the world of Rome thematically.  Rows of road markers, a room of religious art, many interesting funeral stele… mosaics, frescoes, objects from everyday life… the list goes on.  It’s really fun to explore and they’ve done a great job of displaying everything so you can see details and really appreciate the variety of objects that have been found in and around the city of Nîmes.

There’s not much for me to say, except that I was constantly surprised by what was on show.  The quality of the objects is high, and some are unique.

Let’s start with one of the city’s most famous creations: the ‘as of Nîmes’.  It commemorates the capture of Egypt and the settling of veterans in the city of Nemausus.  The story is connected to the final years of the Roman Republic, when Mark Anthony and Octavian (later given the name Augustus) were battling it out in a civil war caused by the death of Julius Caesar.  Mark Anthony allied himself with the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, and their defeat at the Battle of Actium saw not only the end of that couple’s ambitions, but also the end of Egypt’s independence.  The crocodile on the coin, therefore, symbolises Egypt, and it is chained to a palm tree, representing Roman triumph.  The image is still used to represent Nîmes and can be seen around the city.

The frescoes from the Villa Roma – actually a series of 10 houses and one public building – were the biggest surprise for me.  I hadn’t expected to see such good quality painting.  The room in which they are displayed has a sort of multimedia display which highlights sections of the design and explains it, which means that if you want to see something that they aren’t highlighting at that moment, you have to wait for the brief moment when all the lights go on.

My pictures don’t do justice to the painting.  If you are interested in the history of this recently excavated site, and want to look more closely at the painting styles that have been found there,  you may be interested in this article here.  It is only in French, though.


The section on the post-Roman Nîmes is also basically an exhibition on Christian art. There are some lovely medieval fragments which show the prosperity of Nîmes in the 1200s – a time when the nearby town of Aigues-Mortes was a prosperous Mediterranean port.  There isn’t an awful lot on show, but what they have is cool.


The final section of the museum looks at the Roman legacy, which highlights a few ancient items but most interestingly includes the cork models of prominent Roman sites made by Auguste Pelet in the 19th century.  Cork is actually a clever material to use for replicas, because it gives them a warmth as well as making details quite easy to make out.

So In Summary

Well – what can I say?  I loved this museum.  Naturally the objects on display are fascinating, but what I really appreciated was the thoughtful and intelligent curating.  The displays were appealing both to those with and without knowledge of the period, giving just enough information without being too much – when I visited it was wonderful to see how genuinely engaged all the visitors were.  The same balanced attitude can be seen in the selection of objects that are on display.  It just goes to show that when you have money and the chance to start with a fresh slate, you can do great things.

Further Information

There is an entry fee for the museum – there are various, clearly explained, ticketing options detailed on their website.  And guess what – their website is available in English!: www.museedelaromanite.fr

The museum has a space for temporary exhibitions, and when I visited it was a truly excellent one on Gladiators.

The gift shop has the potential to be very good – but when I went it was very French-biased.  There was, for example, no book on the museum in English.  I don’t know if this was just my bad luck, because I couldn’t ask any member of staff because the shop was left completely unmanned for the five minutes I loitered there.  Yes, unmanned.  Incredible.

Having said that I would just like to add that the staff in the museum were really nice and seemed far less bored than many of the people I’ve encountered in French museums.

How To Get There

The museum is located right next to the Arena in Nîmes, and is easy to walk to from the train station.  We didn’t use any transport on the day we went, but if you want to look at the local buses, this is their website (French only): www.tangobus.fr

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