Roman Ruins of Paris

IMG_1283It 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.


The Flooded Seine











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.  

Fountain in courtyard at Cluny


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.

Street in Montmartre

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.






Milan — and Roman Ruins

Our winter vacation began in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see The Last Supper.  I had always thought of Milan as a Renaissance city, despite its reputation as a world-class business and fashion center, famous for its shopping gallery.  Which indeed it is.


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in 1861

IMG_Galleria 10001



But I love to delve into the past and Milan’s Renaissance history appealed to me.  When Jim invited me to join him on his pre-ski trip specifically to view this painting, I happily accepted.  The Last Supper was commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, also known as il Moro, around 1495-96.  Leonardo worked on it until 1498.

Ludovico Sforza had caused much turmoil in Italy during the period in which The Last Supper was being painted.  In 1494, he allied himself with the French king Charles VIII, who had a claim to the throne of Naples.  This city had, about fifty years earlier, passed from French to Spanish rule.  Moreover, the Spanish king had established an alliance with the Pope so that Naples would be inherited by his son.  To protect Milan against this Spanish-Papal alliance, Sforza invited Charles III into Italy so that he could make his way to Naples to re-claim it for France.  This opened the way for French aggression in Italy. Ultimately, in 1498, Charles VIII’s successor claimed the throne of Milan.  In 1499 both Sforza and Leonardo fled Milan; in 1500 Sforza was captured by the French, living the rest of his life as a prisoner in France, where he died in 1508.  Leonardo also spent his last years in France, at Amboise, one of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, under the patronage of Catherine de Medici.  And his greatest painting remains in Milan.

Our visit to The Last Supper was scheduled for late in the afternoon.  That gave us a large part of the day to explore the city and learn something of its history.   Our visit began, normally enough, with a visit to the cathedral.

A visit to Italy is always a trip back in time, however, and Milan was no exception.  Besides, we are always on the lookout for Roman ruins.  Were there any in Milan, a city noted for its Renaissance culture and contemporary design?  Anyone who has studied Latin in high school has heard of Cisalpine Gaul, as the region in which Milan is located was known to Julius Caesar.  The city itself had been conquered in 222 BC and from then on was under Roman administration.  And, yes, there were traces of that time, though not many.

Very impressive nevertheless were the Columns of San Lorenzo.  They are believed to have been part of a pagan temple or a bath house of the second century AD.  Two hundred years later, they were moved to the parvis or the area in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo


By the fourth century AD, Milan had been Christianized.  In fact, it was from Milan in 313 AD that the Emperor Constantine issued the edict that allowed tolerance for all the various religions of the Roman Empire.  From that point on Christianity could flourish openly.

Emblematic of this history, are the vestiges of this 5th-6th century church which we saw on the way to the Columns.  According to the signpost in front, it was built over “the remains of a lavish Roman residence.”


And also this niche that we found on our way to Maria delle Grazie. 


It was now the end of the day and we were making our way to see The Last Supper.  As we passed from ancient to modern times, we came upon a very interesting public building, the Stock Exchange.


It is a wonderful example of “fascist architecture.”  It is imposing and stark.  Very little of its structure is given to decoration, but what is, exemplifies Roman power and virtue.   This building calls attention to the authority of the State.  In front is an award-winning sculpture from 2000.  Its visual statement says it all.

It was the end of the day and growing dark when we finally arrived at our purpose – viewing The Last Supper.  Ludovico Sforza had purchased the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie around 1494.  The mural was originally intended as decoration for the family mausoleum.  It was only later that the room containing the mural became the rectory for the monks, the subject of the painting being appropriate for them to contemplate while dining.


The Last Supper was a Passover Seder at which Jesus announced that one of the Apostles would betray him.  Our guide pointed out the various expressions of suspicion and horror on their faces, each man wondering who it would be and trying to assert that he himself would not be the one.  Judas is depicted as holding a purse, representing the thirty pieces of silver and reaching for Jesus’ bread.

Jim had a question:  Why was the bread not unleavened instead of the round loaves depicted since it was a Passover Seder?  We have not been able to find the answer.

It was dark when we made our way to the metro and back to our hotel and a delicious dinner.  A great ending to a great day.  Tomorrow I would be on to Paris, where I had decided I would spend part of my time looking at still more Roman ruins.



The Roman Wall in London

We have just returned from a winter vacation.  Rather than remain house-bound, we faced the cold and went north.  Jim went skiing in the Dolomites and I went to Paris.  But we landed in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see the Last Supper.  Thoughts of separation and being on my own, made me realize that I would need a focus – and objective, in fact – for my solitary stay in Paris.  This was inspired by the sight of Roman ruins we came upon while walking the streets of Milan and by the memory of an earlier trip to England with my friend Jody.

My search for traces of Italy in my travels had really begun with a trip to Cornwall and a stopover in London with my friend Jody.  The first day in London Jody and I slept.  The next day, we went on a couple London Walks.   We learned that London was established in 43 AD by the Romans, after Claudius’ invasion of Britain.  The wall was built as a defensive structure between 180 and 225 AD.  It was on one of these London Walks that we found the remnants of the Roman wall.


The wall, enclosing the Roman city, marks — more or less — the perimeters of The City London today.  (The City of London is the one square mile of the historic center and business district.  It is an entity unto itself.  The surroundings areas are really the City of Westminster.)

This is what the Roman area of London looks like today.

Roman London seen from across the Thanes
The Gherkin, a modern building in what was Roman London


And then Jody noticed something in a brochure.  The remains of the Roman Baths in London can now be visited by the public.  So, the search began.  The address was 101 Lower Thames Street, Billingsgate.  When we arrived, we found modern office buildings, but no number 101 Lower Thames Street.  No one knew anything about Roman baths.  We were near the Tower of London, so we asked in the tourist information office.  The receptionist didn’t know, but she asked her supervisor.  Oh, yes, was the answer.  She had been there herself.  You have to go through an office building and they will let you into the basement.

I was ready to give up, but not Jody.  She found the spot!  We went in.

Jody was very happy to have discovered the site of the ancient Roman baths.

Oh, yes, we could visit the baths, but only on Sundays.  Maybe we could come back.

Here is the link to the site of the Roman baths.

If you visit London, I hope you can see them, for Jody and I never got to.  We did see other sights, however.

First we visited Midsomer Murder country and some of the places frequented by Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sgt. Ben Jones.

This is Henley-on-Thames where some of the many episodes were shot.

The Argyle pub is a spot where Ben Jones is said to hang out.  Alas, not when we visited.


Our next destination was Cornwall.  Our first stop was Port Isaac, otherwise known as Port Wen where Doc Martin has his practice.  This was turning out to be the British television tour.


IMG_1126- Entering Port Isaac
Entering Port Isaac, aka Port Wenn


IMG_1123-Doc Martin's House
Doc Martin’s surgery
Mrs. Tischler’s


Jody went on to Paris and I met up with Jim on Dartmoor.  On our last day, Jim and I went to London.  It was a Sunday and I thought we would certainly visit the Roman baths.  However, we did something better.  We spent the afternoon in A Friend at Hand pub with Charlie and Georgie Knaggs.


Charlie, Jim, me and Georgie



Georgie is a writer who has also lived in Naples.  We had both studied Italian at different times at Centro Italiano.  And that is how I met her – the school suggested she contact me and, happily for me, she did.  Georgie maintains a blog,  She is a wonderful writer and photographer, so I hope you will visit her blog too.

Maybe next time we’re in London, we’ll visit the Roman baths.  But now searching for Roman ruins wherever possible has become a goal.


Pont de Gard and Aqueducts

Pont de Gard

Not all Roman ruins are in Italy.  The Empire was vast.  We’ve climbed Roman walls in England, found a statue of Trajan in a far-flung field in Romania.   When we visited Cahors, France, we couldn’t use the municipal parking lot because, when expanding it, workers discovered Roman ruins.  All work stopped and the archaeologists were called in.  These ruins are a patrimony to be conserved and appreciated.

France, when it was Gaul, was a part of the Roman Empire.  One of the most impressive relics of that time exists almost intact:  The Pont de Gard in Provence. 


The Pont de Gard is an aqueduct built in the first century AD to direct water from a mountain spring to the Roman colony at Nimes.  Of course, it fell into disuse when the Western Empire collapsed.  Fortunately during the Middle Ages it was used as a toll bridge, so remains more or less intact. 



Jim, being an engineer, has a lot of knowledge and something to say about aqueducts.

 Aqueducts by Jim MauroDSC00230


 Roman aqueduct technology gave the Roman population an advantage of better health over competing civilizations and better food supply as they also supplied water for their extensive crops.  The technology included:  gravity feed at a minimum slope of 1 to 4000, periodic maintenance required a conduit large enough for a person to enter through the regular openings; also at regular intervals, pools dug down, would collect sediment; if the topography was too steep steps in the conduit or large receiving pool to catch the falling water and release it into a lower conduit would be used.  They also developed a form of concrete called putoleum that would cure under water and was water proof.   Rome in the year zero received from its aqueducts as much water as New York City in the year 2000. When a large festival with many animals was staged in the Coliseum, after it was over the whole bottom area was flushed out to the river.

 The aqueduct scene that most people think of is of arches supporting the water conduit, but in reality most of the aqueduct is below grade and through mountains/hills, only 20% is above grade.  Some of the techniques used by the aqueduct engineers for siphoning water over depressions are still used by today’s hydraulic engineers.

 Aqueduct near St. Agata dei Goti 2

Aquaduct near St. Agata dei Goti (2)
Aqueduct near St. Agata dei Goti


In the Naples area the “Augustus” aqueduct was built to supply the Southern Fleet stationed in Mycenium northwest of Naples.  It terminated in the “Piscina Mirabalis” which is a One Million gallon holding facility built exclusively for the fleet. 

Entering Piscina Mirabilis
Descent into Piscina Mirabilis
IMG_0505 Light through Surface Access
Light through surface access


In Naples itself at Virgil’s tomb you can walk through a section of the aqueduct.  It is about 5 feet high & 2 feet wide.  The bottom & sides up to 4 feet are covered with putoleum cement as the rock in Naples is largely tuffa that is porous.

Roman Brickwork inside aqueduct
Roman brickwork inside aquaduct