The Amphitheatre of Nîmes is a perfect illustration of the degree of perfection attained by Roman engineers in designing and constructing this type of extremely complex building. It demonstrates perfect symmetry: oval-shaped, it measures 133 metres long and 101 metres wide, with an arena of 68 by 38 metres. 21 metres high, its exterior façade comprises two floors of 60 superimposed arches and an attic, separated by a cornice. At the top, pre-drilled stones were positioned to overhang so that long poles could be hung over the arena. A huge canvas canopy was then attached to these poles, thereby providing protection for the spectators against the sun and bad weather. Originally, all the arcades on the ground floor were open to act as entrances or exits. There are certainly bigger Roman amphitheatres, but this one is the best preserved of all of them.
In Roman times, the monument could hold 24,000 spectators spread over 34 rows of terraces divided into four separate areas or maeniana. Each was accessed via a gallery and hundred of stairwells and passages called vomitories. This clever arrangement meant that there was no risk of bottlenecks when the spectators flooded in. The amphitheatre was designed so that everyone had an unrestricted view of the whole arena. Several galleries were located beneath the arena, and were accessed by trap doors and a hoist-lift system. As a result, the decorative effects, animals and gladiators could access the arena during the games.
Amphitheatre Of Nîmes, Maison Carrée, Tour Magne (official website)
In the sixth century, under the Visigoths, Nimes Arena began to play a military role. Transformed from a sports arena to a castle fortress or “castrum arena” complete with a moat, Nimes Arena was a sort of emergency shelter of the people of the town in the event of attack.
Nimes Arena would go on to play an even more elaborate role in the twelfth century when it became the seat of the viscounty of Nimes and home to a chateau. In the eighteenth century, this went even further with the establishment of a whole 700-strong village within its walls. It was only in 1786 that Nimes Arena began to be restored to its original grandeur.
Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the arena was transformed into a fortress by the Visigoths. Many invasions ensued and threatened the security of the people of Nîmes who decided to take refuge in the amphitheatre, which was easy to defend. In the Middle Ages, the edifice became a veritable fortified village with wells, houses, two churches and even a castle, all of which Existed up to the 18th century. The place became insalubrious and in 1786, as part of a city rehabilitation project, the destruction of the houses and restoration of the amphitheatre was decreed. The first phase of the works was interrupted during the revolutionary period to be resumed during the Second Empire. In 1813, the Prefect of the Gard authorized the first bull races and the arena was soon able to return to its original function. The first Spanish running of the bulls took place in 1863.
Avignon & Provence.com