Roman Life in all its Forms in Lyon’s Lugdunum Museum

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Lugdunum Museum, Lugdunum Musée, Lyon, France

If you first approach the Lugdunum Museum from the base of the Roman Theatre, you may be struck by the bunker-like quality of the architecture.  Depending on your aesthetic sense, your heart may drop.  You may get a flashback to the days of the Cold War.  You may think, ‘Why?  O why?’

But don’t despair.  The museum building may not be a classical beauty, but that is its virtue.

The museum is located on the slopes of Fourvière Hill, which is where the city of Lugdunum was founded by the Romans in 43 BC.  With a view over the archaeological remains of the theatre and odeon, it makes for an attractive site and certainly it’s nice to have the unity of a ‘Roman zone’ in Lyon.

The current museum was designed by Bernard Zehrfuss, and despite being opened in 1975, it still works well as a space for showing off the amazing variety of objects they have at their disposal.  What I appreciated was the way the museum is designed as one oval downward spiral, so you don’t accidentally miss anything as you’re going along.  The curators have also done a great job in creating galleries which explore themes with unusual clarity and depth.

Starting the whole experience with the magnificent sarcophagus depicting Bacchus in India is rather striking.  It is a beautifully sculpted piece and thanks to the lighting, you can really appreciate the layering of people and animals.

This being fundamentally a chronology-respecting museum, the first section is on Bronze Age objects.  It’s a small collection, but representative of the period, and sets you up for the Roman objects to come.

There were lots of interesting inscriptions in this museum, and from the very beginning you can just get swept up in trying to read them all.  I have only included a few, but I hope they give you an idea of the sort of cultural information you can get from these stone documents.

Included in this portion of photographs is the incredible bronze sheet which records a speech made by the Emperor Claudius.  It called on the Senate to allow for more citizens from Gaul to be allowed the chance to enter the Senatorial class in 48 AD.  The tablet was presumably placed in the city to celebrate the good news.  We can admire the fine engrave-manship, as it were.  If you want to read part of the speech, you can check it out here:

It’s appropriate that we get a bust of the Emperor Caracalla in the museum, since he was born in the city.  History doesn’t think much of him, but he always looks awesome in his portraits.

Some native Gallic deities are on show in this next section.  The most fascinating find was the calendar and statue which were discovered in fragments in Coligny.  It gives a five year cycle of a lunisolar calendar, with intercalary months.  What makes it remarkable is the fact that it is written in Latin script but in the Gallic language.

Gee, now look at that!  A second bronze statue!  That’s quite incredible.  The little statuettes were pretty neat too, and it’s always fun to play the dodecahedron-spotting game.  Particularly since no one knows what their purpose was.

Some nifty mosaics and very beautiful torsos are the highlights of this next section.  The chariot scene was dynamic and full of details which show how dangerous the races were.

This next section is full of great inscriptions which show the range of occupations that locals were engaged in.  These were punctuated by remains which could be linked in to the trades mentioned, which was a good way of really appreciating the work.

In this last section there were quite a few objects of interest.  The beautiful silver figurines, the mirrors, the doctor’s box.  Then there were the inscriptions – a particularly striking one was for the poor murdered woman.  It’s shocking to read about even 2000 years later, and it’s a sad reminder that people never change and that the old crime drama adage that ‘it’s usually the husband’ is even older than you’d think.

And perhaps the most magical find of all – young Claudia Victoria, whose death mask was preserved under her tomb, and whose sickly little face can still be admired today.  Why this isn’t more famous, I don’t know.

So In Summary

Quite honestly, the museum houses one of the most comprehensive and captivating Roman collections I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.  They literally have everything – mosaics, frescoes, bronze statues, clay figurines… It all goes to show the richness of the visual culture of everyday life but also highlights the thoughts and emotions of people in the inscriptions and tombs – people with fascinating professions whose stories are eloquently told if you have the time to stand and read them.  The layout of the museum helps to make it an immersive experience.

I would love to go again.  For anyone interested in the Romans, this is a great place to visit.

Further Information

The museum has basic information available on the website in English:

If you can get by in French, and are interested, they have a neat database system which allows you to look up objects from their collection:

One thing I really appreciated about the museum was the fact that everything was translated into English, which made some of those very long inscriptions easier to understand.

Also, there was a cute area for children to play in.  But if there are no children to give you competition, you can have a go too.  Sister-Chickpea rode the chariot below with great skill.

Play area for children, Lugdunum Museum, Lyon, France

Play area for children, Lugdunum Museum, Lyon, France

How To Get There

The museum is away from the main bustle of town.  We walked there, and it was uphill and not a fun walk.  We came down via the Funicular of Fourvière.  It makes for a far more enjoyable journey and I would recommend it for making your ascent to the site and museum.  For more information on transport, there is a website in English:


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