Arles’s Roman Theatre is a 1st-century Roman theatre, built during the reign of Emperor Augustus.. Started around 40/30 BC, it was completed around 12 BC. Thus becoming one of the first stone theaters in the Roman world. The theater is inscribed on the decumanus of the Roman grid. The ancient theater of Arles is the subject of a classification as historic monuments by the list of 1840.
The initial theater consisted of three parts: the cavea, a semi-circular space receiving spectators, the stage where the actors played, and the wall serving both as a decoration and as a closure to the monument.
The cavea, with a diameter of 102 meters, could accommodate 10,000 spectators seated on 33 rows of stands. In Arles, the theater therefore contained half as many spectators as the arenas and the circus. The spectators were distributed there according to their social affiliation: the people above, the knights and the notables on the lower stands and the orchestra.
The stage itself consisted of a wooden platform 50 meters long by 6 meters wide and housed the machinery of the theater in its substructures.
The back wall was decorated on three levels with a hundred columns of the Corinthian order, only two of which have stood the test of time. The wall probably supported an awning to protect the scene from the weather. Niches in the wall housed a Greek-inspired statuary, like the Venus of Arles, the subject of a controversial restoration, which is now part of the Louvre collections.
The theater, unlike the amphitheater or the circus, offered performances in which actors performed; these were Roman or Greek tragedies, comedies, mimes and pantomimes intended for a probably more refined audience. These plays, mainly performed at parties given in honor of the gods, were free so that everyone could attend. However, sometimes there were performances only for men. In addition, women and children were obliged to be accompanied by an adult man. For Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, “the only Greek theater in France is that of Arles, a Greek city”. It was obviously theancient Greek theater and plays such as the tragedies of Euripides or Seneca.
The theater of Arles was built atop the hill of Hauture the decumanus at the end of the 1st century BC. Its construction probably finished from 12 BC. AD and the richness of its decoration testified to the importance accorded to the Arles colony by the Emperor Augustus. Unlike Greece, this place was not devolved to Dionysus, but to Apollo, a deity honored by this emperor. It is reported that Emperor Constance II offered a grand performance on October 10, 353 and this place of entertainment remained in operation until the beginning ofv th century. On this date, the Church, fiercely opposed to comedians and pagan shows, used the theater as a career for the construction of the paleochristian basilica of Saint-Etienne, undertaken under the episcopate of Hilaire.
Later, probably between the end of the 6th and beginning of the 8th century, one of its walls was reinforced, integrated with the city walls and with a defense tower called “Tour de Rotland “.
The land was then gradually subdivided with houses and alleys. Mansions were built there and religious orders settled there, in particular the Jesuits who established their first college there as well as the Sisters of Mercy. In 1755 – 1789, the convent courtyard where the two columns were visible served to present to the public the archaeological discoveries made on the spot.
The theater began to be cleared from 1828, thanks to the action of the mayor of the time, the Baron de Chartrouse. Work was resumed in the 1840s and completed in 1860. It was discovered from the first excavations of the xvii th century many ancient remains, including several sculptures, the famous Venus of Arles, a bust of Augustus Apollo and head of Arles (ancient Arles Museum).
The ancient theater of Arles is one of the monuments registered on the 1840 list drawn up by Prosper Mérimée. Since 1981, he is on the list of World Heritage of Humanity established by UNESCO.
Today, the monument can be visited. From the ancient elevation supporting the cavea, there remains only one span, included in the Middle Ages in the rampart of the city where it was transformed into a defense tower. The orchestra keeps in its center the trace of the sealing of the altar to the swans, emblem of Augustus, dedicated to Apollo.
Finally, there remain, alone and mysterious, two columns, called “the two widows”, on the hundred which decorated the stage wall.
This monument is also a place for shows. It hosts in particular between the end of June and the end of August, the Arles and costume festivals, the International Photography Meetings, the Suds festival, the Escales du Cargo festival and the Peplum Film Festival.
Roman monuments and Romans of Arles
The Roman and Romanesque monuments of Arles, in France, are subject to inclusion on the list of World Heritage of UNESCO since 1981.
The site is on the list of World Heritage at the 5 th session of the World Heritage Committee in 1981 under the name of “Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments”. A “cultural” type of property, it meets criteria (ii) (evidence of a considerable exchange of influences during a given period or in a specific cultural area) and (iv) (eminent example ‘architectural ensemble illustrating significant periods of human history) of the organization. The name of the site was changed to “Arles, monuments romains et romans” in 2006.
Unesco justifies the inscription as follows: “Arles offers an interesting example of the adaptation of an ancient city to the civilization of medieval Europe. It has some impressive Roman monuments, the oldest – arenas, ancient theater, cryptoporticos – date back to the 1st century BC. AD. She knew the iv th century a second golden age, Constantine’s thermal baths testify and the necropolis of Alyscamps. In the xi th and xii th centuries, Arles once again became one of most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean. Inside the walls, Saint-Trophime with its cloister is one of the major monuments of Provençal Romanesque art”.
The inscription protects an area of 65 ha of downtown Arles, located between the Rhône to the northwest, the Georges-Clemenceau and des Lices boulevards to the west and south, and the Émile-Combes boulevard to the to the east and to the north, to which must be added the area of the Alyscamps necropolis which forms a protrusion in the southeast, from the summer garden to rue Georges-Pomerat, along the Craponne canal.