Unlike many southern French cities, Paris tends not to be associated with a Roman past. Some guidebooks barely mention their presence at all, or they do so only in passing. Not surprisingly then, of all the things to see and do in Paris the Roman sites rarely get a look in. Of course the Roman archaeology that does survive in Paris today is nowhere near as visually spectacular as say the amphitheatre in NÃ®mes or the theatre in Orange. But, for those interested in a deeper past of European cities there are some interesting Roman sites to visit.
Soon after Julius Caesar defeated the Celts in 52 BC, the Romans established a settlement on the left bank of the Seine River. Although it would never become an administrative centre, its location on the navigable river meant the settlement would always be strategic for shipping and maritime commerce. Visitors to the crypt of the Notre Dame Cathedral can see the remains of the Roman port. A wonderful but simple multimedia display that adds life to the stone foundations, and children today excitedly watch the arrival in port of a Roman ship (below).
The main centre of the Roman town, Lutetia as it was called then, lay to the south of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Ile de CitÃ©. Rue St. Jacques is generally thought to have been the main axis road, or the cardo maximus, of the town on the left bank, while the modern day equivalent on the right bank is the Rue Saint-Martin – the road that runs alongside the Pompidou Centre. So while tourists explore the very trendy Latin Quarter and students study at the Sorbonne, beneath them are the foundations of the Roman town.
Remains of Roman bath house in Paris
An exception can be found on Boulevard Saint-Michel, where the substantial remains of what was one of a number of public bath houses can be seen from the street (above). This bath house still stands today because it was not destroyed by the Franks when they sacked the city in the mid fifth century AD, and it has been in continuous use since. Part of the building now houses the National Middle Ages Museum.
Reconstruction of Roman amphitheatre in Paris
As with all sizeable Roman towns, Lutetia also had an amphitheatre. Do not expect anything like the Colosseum in Rome – that was after all the biggest and most elaborate amphitheatre in the entire Roman world. Today the ArÃ¨nes de LutÃ¨ce is a reconstruction of the amphitheatre that was located just beyond the edge of the Roman town. That there is anything there at all today is thanks in part to Victor Hugo who spearheaded a campaign to have the remains preserved when they were discovered in the 1860s.
The Romans were by no means the first to settle in Paris. The earliest evidence of human habitation along the Seine River goes back some 10,000 years. One of the earliest dugout canoes to have been excavated in Europe can be seen on display in the Carnavalet Museum; along with many other archaeological objects from the earliest times in Paris.
More Paris Tips
If you’re in Paris to attend a football or rugby match or a gig at the Stade de France, we’ve ideas for day trips by car from the Stade de France area in our guest post on the carhiremarket.com site. Having a hire car will enable you to visit places such as the Montmorency Forest and the Isle d’Adam, giving you a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Paris.