Public Performance: the Archaeology of Roman Lugdunum

The Theatre and Odeon of Lugdunum, Lyon, France

France is blessed with many fine Roman archaeological sites.  So many cities in the south of the country have ancient origins and by just walking around the streets you can see evidence of the Roman period in dramatic remains like amphitheatres, or more mundane sights such as reused stones in houses.

On the hill of Fourvière are the monumental remains of Roman Lugdunum: the theatre, which was originally built in 15 BC, and the odeon, which was probably built in the late 1st century AD.  The excellent museum of Roman life in the city is right there too, so you have in effect a Roman complex which keeps you in the ancient zone.

One of the most important cities in Roman Gaul was the city of Lugdunum.  It was built in an area which had been occupied by Gallic tribes but it was only with the foundation of the colony of Lugdunum in 43 BC that its fortunes improved.  It became the provincial capital of Gallia Lugdunensis and was an important administrative and trade centre of the northwestern provinces.   The city minted its own coins, was the centre for pottery, metalworking and weaving in Gaul, and had a large area on the right bank of the Saône which dealt with the vast amounts of wine and oil that was transported by river.

The population boomed, with many foreign-born citizens making their homes in the city, as attested in the funerary inscriptions now in the Lugdunum Museum.  Everything went swimmingly for the city until 197 AD, when it got caught up in a struggle for power between Septimius Severus and Clodius Albinus.  The Battle of Lugdunum led to the suicide of the latter, and the plunder and destruction of the city.

Sadly, Lugdunum never really recovered.  It retained its administrative importance for another century, until Diocletian and then Constantine re-organised everything and drastically reduced its importance.

Despite the fact that there are some extraordinary remains from the Roman era on view in the museum, the city itself doesn’t have that much to show.  The theatre and odeon at Fourvière are the most substantial remains, though they’re not terribly exciting.  It’s all a bit barren, with the most interesting elements from both having been transferred to the museum next door.  The grandeur is in the location – high on the hill, overlooking the modern city.

So In Summary

For me, the site wasn’t very impressive.  It’s been heavily restored, but it’s not as evocative as some other theatres I’ve visited – like the one in Arles, for example.  If you are new to archaeology sites, then I’m sure it’s perfectly exciting to be in a real Roman theatre, but otherwise, I don’t think you’ll spend much time looking around.

Further Information

There is some basic information about the site as well as the museum on the website in English: www.lugdunum.grandlyon.com.

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: www.tcl.fr

 

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