The Surprising World of Roman Nyon

Roman Museum of Nyon, Musée romain de Nyon, Nyon, Switzerland

As you walk around the museum, it is very striking to see just how intertwined the town’s Roman heritage is with its present.  Not only is the structure of the museum actually within the foundations of the Roman basilica, but many of the objects on display name the street that they were found in.  Roman materials were often used in later building work, and there are certain buildings in town where you can still see pieces of Roman workmanship being used as building blocks.

It was in the 1860s that the first steps in local archaeology were taken, but it was in the 1930s that the biggest developments were made in understanding the Roman colony.  A significant discovery was made in 1974, when the Roman basilica was found.  Four years later, a new museum opened on the site, showing off the town’s Roman collections amongst the two metre high walls of the basilica.

The museum was extended in 1993, and the exhibition space was completely renovated in 2009.  It feels more modern than that – they’ve done a very good job of making the building and the displays seem fresh and interesting.

History of Nyon before Colonia Iulia Equestris

Remains have been found that attest to the fact that humans have lived on the shores of Lake Geneva since the Neolithic period.  Two sites are known to have been occupied in the late Bronze Age around the lake at Nyon and though the archaeology is rare, the region was probably a part of the territory of the Celtic Helvetii people.

The Roman name of the town Noviodunum (new fortress) suggests that there had been a previous fortress on the spot, probably settled by the Helvetii, but due to the lack of any archaeological evidence, it’s all a bit speculative.  The only evidence of pre-Roman activity was found in the lake – a limestone head, which is unique in Switzerland in its use of stone rather than wood.

There are also objects from a post-Roman burial with some beautiful fibulae.

The Romans Arrive

While Geneva had been a part of the Roman province of Narbonese Gaul since 120BC, the addition of the area around Nyon, and the rest of the Swiss Plateau, occurred as a consequence of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.  Indeed, it was a strategic decision of Caesar’s to found Colonia Iulia Equestris between 50-44BC.  It was to help consolidate his military achievements, and like so many Roman towns, it also served the important purpose of helping to spread the Roman way of life, showing off its many virtues to the newly conquered: in the 1st century AD, a forum, a basilica, an amphitheatre etc. were all built to form a central hub around which the city grew.

The various military and political problems that brought down so many cities in the Empire in the 3rd century were also felt in Nyon.  By the end of the century, the city served as a quarry, including for sites in Geneva and Lausanne, and though Nyon continued to be occupied, it suffered a stark decline.

Today, we can try to piece together the lives of those who lived in Roman Nyon through the objects on display in the museum.  We get the chance to really see aspects of city life through a range of objects, which helps to demonstrate how the locals lived and reiterates just how uniform Roman society was across the Empire, in spite of regional variations.

Now let’s start looking around the museum.  And unless otherwise stated, all the objects were found in Nyon.

The water for Nyon was supplied by an aqueduct that came from the springs in Divonne – a town in nearby France which is still well known for its spas.  Nyon not only had a fine network of fountains and wells, but it also had an efficient drainage system beneath the central streets.  This rather remarkable partial-reconstruction of a water basin shows just how fantastic their system was.

There are many fragments of fresco, which is always wonderful to see.  Most of it comes from a villa at Commugny, on the road from Nyon to Geneva.  The villa belonged to a wealthy official, and was built in the mid-1st century AD.  While 734 fragments have survived, and can be grouped into 19 wall designs, it is impossible to build an idea of which would have been in which room.

Fresco fragments were found in the presbytery of the Commugny church in 1965.  This fresco is thought to date from the end of the 2nd century, and is similar to what has been found in the northern provinces.

There is a good range of odds and ends on show, which demonstrate everyday Roman life, and there are some fragments of statues which show the grander aspect of Nyon living.

Three statuettes that was discovered during the building of an underground car-park have offered an interesting insight into the inhabitants of Nyon.  They were probably from a lararium, the little household altar for venerating favourite deities in the home.  Statuettes of Venus and Apollo are commonly found all over the Roman world, but the figure of Hecate is very rare in the western provinces of the Empire.  It is thought that the trio have a link with the Balkans – the style of this particular Venus is similar to those found in modern Bulgaria, and the style of the Apollo shows similar heritage.  Hecate was particularly popular in Thrace (the region of Bulgaria, northern Greece and the European part of Turkey), and the base of the statuette has symbols relating to Sabazios, a god who, again, was popular in Thrace and further east.  Therefore the owner of these items must have either been from that region or was a solider who had served there.  Either way, these statuettes are a reminder of the fluid movement of people across the Roman Empire.

There is an impressive display of amphoras on the wall.  About 60% of the amphoras found in Nyon were used to import oil or the infamous fish sauce, garum, from Spain.  The remaining 30% came from Southern Gaul and brought wine and salted foods.  All this just goes to demonstrate just how well oiled the transportation network was in the Roman world

So In Summary

You can tell that the curators of the Roman museum love what they have and want to show their objects off in the best way possible.  While the collection is not large, there are some very impressive pieces and it is all integrated in an effective way with the Roman remains around which the building has been structured.   It all makes for a very satisfying visit – for a Roman fan.  For a non-Roman fan, or a Roman fan wannabe, there is a good variety of items giving an informative overview of Roman city life which could be a great starting point for learning about just how clever those Romans were.

Further Information

There is a charge to enter the museum, but you can get a museum ticket which covers this, the Chateau and the Lake Geneva Museum.  Honestly I found the latter museum to be rather pointless and very uninspiring.  And they didn’t allow photographs – not that I probably would have taken any anyway.

But back to the lovely Roman Museum.

The information is only available in French, but from the reception you can get a neat booklet which translates the information panels on display throughout the museum into English.

The website is available in English, French and German: www.mrn.ch

There are regular events for children and sometimes for adults too, which you can find out about on their website.  They also have exhibitions – the one I visited was on the history of water in Nyon.

Child-friendly activities are available, and I know that they can engage under-6s because we had a family group walking around with us at one point and they were deeply interested in the displays.

Outside there is a promenade overlooking Lake Geneva, just a little way along from the Roman museum.  It’s here that you’ll find some Roman columns standing picturesquely against the lake and mountains.  Or it should be.  If you don’t visit when there’s a storm brewing and there’s a bunch of annoying Spanish tourists taking selfies and vast group-shots for literally 15 minutes.  That’s why I have only a photo of the top.  I refused to include them in my picture.

There’s not much to it, as a monument.  The columns were used as building materials in the town, and in 1958, the local authorities had the smart idea of moving them to their own special spot on the Esplanade des Marroniers.

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The Roman columns in Nyon, Switzerland

How To Get There

To get to Nyon by train, check out: www.sbb.ch

While the museum is an easy walk downhill from the train station, and a little harder work uphill from the ferry stop, there is a local bus company.  You can get info on their services here: www.bustpn.ch

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