Treasures of the River: Caesar and the Rhône Exhibition in Geneva

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Caesar and the Rhône: Masterpieces of Ancient Arles, César et la Rhône: Chefs-d’œuvre antiques d’Arles, Geneva, Switzerland

When walking around the clean, tidy and efficient city of Geneva, it’s easy to forget the fact that it has ancient origins.  There are no obvious outdoor remains, like amphitheatres or even walls, but the fact remains that it was an important place in the Roman period.  An excellent exhibition at the Museum of Art and History served as a reminder of the role the city played in the Roman world.

Notebook of excavations from the ‘Camargue-Rhône’ 2003-2008, Luc Long, Caesar and the Rhône Exhibition, Art and History Museum, Geneva, Switzerland

Much of Geneva’s prestige was thanks to its position at the end of Lake Geneva, and at the mouth of the Rhône – the river which flows through France to the Mediterranean.  This was an important trading route in the Roman period, and Geneva served as an equally important gateway; it was from here that goods went to Germany, as well as to other towns of Switzerland, like Nyon and Augusta Raurica.

The main port at the Mediterranean end of the Rhône was Arles.  In the Roman period, Arles was closer to the sea than it is now, and ships docked there before some of the wares were sent up the Rhône in barges to Geneva.  The massive amount of trade that took place accounts for the massive amount of trade-related goods that have been discovered in the Rhône, specifically at Arles.

Much of what was on show has only been discovered by underwater archaeologists in the last 30 years, and some of these treasures are extraordinary – I mean, really extraordinary.  You can’t help but start to speculate about what may still be found… and then you make a promise to the gods that if you ever win the lottery, you will give money to these fantastic archaeologists and help them find more!

Very strikingly, the exhibition started with some bronze figures.  The figure of the slave was perhaps one of the finest bronzes I’ve seen.  The way that his body is contorted and the muscles are straining make for a very dramatic sculpture which looks striking from all angles.

I also found the amphorae fascinating: so many of them had legible writing on them, indicating what they held.  Aegean quinces, olives… the best garum…

But let’s not ignore how amazing it is that so many wooden objects from boats have survived as well, like that brush…

One of the stars of the collection is a bust of Julius Caesar.  Well, they don’t really know if it’s Caesar or not, but he looks quite like some of the profiles on contemporary coinage and generally there are enough similarities for academics to agree that it could be him.  It is a fine bust, and considering the fact that it was found in the river at Arles, a town that became a colony through Caesar’s good-will, it makes sense that it is – after all, they would have plenty of his busts around.

One of the few things that I knew about Arles was that there was a very good sarcophagus workshop there in the early Christian period.  We got to see a few fine examples with the tomb of St Hilary and some fascinating fragments, which demonstrated the impressive workmanship of the city’s sculptors.

The final section had lots of everyday objects like the little wooden pots, parts of furniture, and knife handles.

So In Summary

I hadn’t expected the exhibition to be as large as it was – and I certainly didn’t expect it to have such a rich collection of objects.  For most of my Roman-museum-going life, I’ve not seen very much ancient wood but in the last few years I’ve been astounded by the amount that has survived in France.  Last year, an exhibition in Lattes was an eye-opener, because they had so many wooden elements of ships on show.  But this exhibition was even more extraordinary – not only did they have the boat paraphernalia, but they had everyday objects too.  It was a tremendous show, highlighting the importance of the Rhône in the context of Geneva as well as of Roman Arles, and I really hope that the museum hosts something like this again soon!

Further Information

There is still some information about the exhibition on the museum website.  There’s not a lot to read, but it has links to the audio-guide you can listen to – which is nice:


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