A Little Bit of Art…A Little Bit of History: Orange Museum

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Museum of Art and History, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Orange, France

The promising and spruced-up Museum of Art and History in Orange was – like the rest of the town – something of a disappointment.  With my usual luck, parts were closed off, due to refurbishments, but I’m not sure that even if I’d seen their full collection, I would have been enamoured.

The Museum of Orange is located in a mansion built by the Dutchman Georges van Cuyl in the 17th century.  The current building has kept many of its original features, but has been extended.  You can get a bit of the sense of the place as a home, but not really.

The ground floor is dedicated to the Roman world.  That sounds grander than it is.  I was delighted to see the fabulous Centaur mosaic, but I was silly to think that the rest of the museum promised equal delights.  Quite frankly, considering the importance of Orange in Roman Gaul, I was shocked at the low quality, and tiny quantity, of objects on display.  I actually couldn’t believe it.

The museum’s main claim to fame, though, are definitely worth seeing.  These are fragments from three land registries, the Cadaster of Orange, discovered in the city in 1949/51.  They are unique survivors, and show the way that land ownership was divided up in 77 AD in the territory around Orange, from Carpentras to Montélimar.  Of course, more of the fragments would be on display had they not been destroyed by a floor collapse in the museum in the ’60s, but luckily it had all been thoroughly documented before then, so at least the information hasn’t been lost as well.

The history of this land survey goes back to money.  The Emperor Nero had depleted the national treasury, and the civil wars of 69AD had caused chaos.  Through the writings of Frontinus, who was a senator during Vespasian’s reign, we know that one way the Emperor tried to raise money was through selling land.  A happy result of this was tax – and the cadasters which have survived show a large-scale map which shows the tax liabilities of citizens in each block of land.

The inscriptions fall into three categories.  The first is an inscription from 77AD which explains the purpose of the Emperor’s edict.  Second are the fragments of the three cadasters, A, B and C.  Third are several inscriptions from the public record office (tabularium).

The inscription for the edict says:

The emperor Vespasian, in the eighth year of his tribunician power, so as to restore the state lands the emperor Augustus had given to soldiers of the second legion Gallica, but which for some years had been occupied by private individuals, ordered a survey map to be set up, with a record on each century of the annual rental. This was carried out by . . . Ummidius Bassus, proconsul of the province of Gallia Narbonensis.

The territory involved is that of the colony founded in Arausio around 35 BC, when it was planned for veterans under the name colonia Julia Firma Secundanorum.  The veterans got the best land, while the local Tricastini tribe was left with less desirable areas.  Over the following hundred years or so, official were obviously quite easygoing about who actually occupied the land, so it became necessary to reassert the law.

The purpose of the maps was to clearly display who owned what land as well as what tax they were expected to pay.  State land had been illegally occupied and had therefore deprived Rome of tax, and so this map helped to redefine boundaries and clarify the rights and obligations of each landowner.  The Romans used the system of centuriation for dividing up land – basically a grid system, as you can see in the photos below.  Each century, or grid, was about 50 hectares.  There are three different legal categories shown: EX TR – which was for land allocated to new settlers; REL COL – which was rented land, and shows the amount of rent paid; TRIC REDD – is land handed back to the native Celtic population.  It’s been observed that these lands are usually not the best.  Even for a layman, it is fascinating to see the precision and clarity of Roman administration in action.
Much of the information on this subject came from an article I found by OAW Dilke on “Roman Large-Scale Mapping in the Early Empire

I was so disheartened at this point that I was quite grumpy visiting the remaining two floors.  I found it all mildly brain-numbingly boring – I can’t even be bothered to write about it, honestly.  The top floor has paintings by Frank Brangwyn and Albert de Belleroche, some of whose works were pretty good.  I just really wasn’t in the mood.

So In Summary

Well, it exists.  If you’ve come to Orange to see the Theatre, you may as well pop in here to see what they have.  There ain’t nothing else to do in town.  Personally, I couldn’t get over the really poor collection of Roman-ness. Having said that, I’ve read that other people have enjoyed their visit, but I guess it all depends on your level of interest…

Further Information

You can get a joint ticket with the Roman Theatre across the road.

The website information is in English (amazingly): www.theatre-antique.com

How To Get There

Walking from the train station to the theatre is straightforward and this is right across the road.  I couldn’t find a map to post a link to here, but the theatre’s website has one you can check out: www.theatre-antique.com

Buses are around, but I didn’t bother using them so can’t vouch for their ease of use.

To get to Orange by train, check out the SNCF site: www.sncf.com

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