It has been chilly and rainy here in New York –not a pleasant time to be out of doors. This damp but not-too-cold weather takes me back to this past January in Paris where it rains some time almost every day, but is almost always 41degrees F. When I first arrived, the Seine was still flooded, but had crested and was beginning to recede.
I had planned to visit the crypt at Notre Dame, but was afraid it might have been flooded. But fortunately, the crypt was open, and I was able to visit Roman Paris.
The Romans under Julius Caesar invaded and conquered Gaul, which included France, around 58 BC. The Gallic tribe settled on Île de la Cité – the island in the Seine where Notre Dame Cathedral stands today –at that time were known as the Parisii. In 53 BC, with Vercingetorix as their leader, they revolted against Caesar. Unfortunately for the Parisii, they were defeated; still Vercingetorix is considered to be the first French national hero.
The Romans proceeded to build a new city on the left bank of the Seine, which they named Lutetia (Lutèce in French). They, of course, introduced Roman customs and entertainment, traces of which can be found today. My first visit was to the Arènes de la Lutèce, a Roman amphitheater in the 5th arrondissement.
The arena was used from the first to the third century, then destroyed during the time of the barbarian invasions, its stones being used for building materials. The site became buried under layers of soil
The exact location of the amphitheater was forgotten over time, although the place name Clos aux arènes remained. The remains were discovered in 1869 when the Compagnie Générale des Ominibus opened the street to construct a space for its vehicles. Nowadays the amphitheater is a public park than one can enter through a stone archway on Rue Monge. It wasn’t very chilly, and the rain had stopped the afternoon of my visit. Kids were playing, and people were sitting on benches watching them. It was a very peaceful end of the day.
Next, I visited Cluny. Once a mansion for the Cluny abbots in the fifteenth century, this complex is now a museum of the Middle Ages.
However, it is built over what once were Roman baths. Built in the first century AD, the baths were places where people gathered to conduct business, exercise, gossip and relax. There were open to the public and fees were low. Having public baths was the Empires attempt at the Romanization of conquered Gaul.
I was fortunate that the crypt of Notre Dame Cathedral on Île de la Cité did not flood when the Seine did, and that site was the next I visited. During the third century AD, Germanic tribes began to invade Lutetia. The residents fled the left bank and relocated to the island in the Seine – Île de la Cité. Stones from abandoned monuments were used to build a fortifying wall.around the new settlement. Over time the Roman streets were buried under medieval and modern layers of construction to be rediscovered in the 1970’s when the city began excavations for a parking lot
My last excursion was to Montmartre, famous for free ways, artists, and bohemian life in general.
However, this hill is so named for the martyrdom of St. Denis, the patron saint for France. In 250 AD, Denis was the Bishop of the Parisii; however, Christianity was still outlawed in the Roman Empire. Citizens were required to do reverence and make sacrifices to the Emperor and the traditional Roman pantheon. Denis had been sent to convert the Gauls to Christianity and was so successful that the Roman officials had him arrested and executed. He was beheaded, along with two other clerics, on the highest hill in Paris then known as the Hill of Mercury and Mars and which subsequently became Mount of the Martyrs or Montmartre. Legend has it that St. Denis picked up his head and walked several miles while continuing to preach.
Montmartre is famous for the 19th century church Sacré-Coeur.
However, there is another, older church nearby – Saint-Pierre de Montmartre – founded by St. Denis in the third century. There are not many Roman ruins to be seen, but supposedly the columns on the interior are of Roman origin. In any event, it is a charming and peaceful place to visit.
Paris is always lovely – another part of the world where you can find the past awaiting you, if you just look.