Archaeologists Unearth Two Luxury Roman Townhouses In Nimes, France

Archaeologists conducting an extensive survey in the historic city of Nimes in southern France have unearthed two opulent and expansive Roman domus townhouses. These upper-class, multipurpose townhouses were apparently the family dwellings and official headquarters of prominent Roman citizens, who lived in Nimes in the first or second century AD.  

Digging in anticipation of an upcoming construction project that threatens the integrity of a known underground depository of Roman artifacts, archaeologists associated with France’s  National Research Institute of Preventive Archaeology (INRAP)  were delighted to discover these long-buried residences, which were found in Nime’s center, just 100 meters from the celebrated Maison Carrée.

The mosaic tile floor found in the reception room of one of the domus townhouses recently unearthed in Nimes, France. (INRAP)

The mosaic tile floor found in the reception room of one of the domus townhouses recently unearthed in Nimes, France. ( INRAP)

The Luxurious Townhouses Of The Nime’s Roman Elite

These two  Roman townhouses  proved to be larger and more labyrinthine that expected, based on the findings of preliminary excavations. This, along with their central location, suggests they were occupied by prominent personages who held prestigious positions in the local business or political communities. 

Nimes was an especially important city since it had been handpicked to be the regional capital by the Roman  Emperor Augustus  during his visit to the city in approximately 16 BC. Consequently, those who were responsible for protecting and promoting Roman interests in the city were in a highly privileged position, socially and financially, and would have been expected to live accordingly.

One domus was particularly well preserved, and provides an excellent example of high-style Roman living as it was practiced by elites during the Roman imperial age. 

Inside this combination residence/place of business/house of worship, the archaeologists discovered a reception room for visitors that had maintained most of its structural integrity, which is something rarely found during this type of excavation.

A closeup of the mosaic tile floor in the reception room of one of the domus townhouses recently uncovered in Nimes. (INRAP)

A closeup of the mosaic tile floor in the reception room of one of the domus townhouses recently uncovered in Nimes. ( INRAP)

The reception room featured geometrically-decorated and intricately-designed floors. Black tiles laid in honeycombed shapes covered some sections of the concrete, while the center of the room was occupied by an interlocking set of marble squares arranged according to the principles of an art technique known as opus sectile, creating a colorful mosaic of three- and four-sided shapes. It was determined that this section of the floor featured marble samples imported from different provinces in the Roman Empire, showing that its patron had spared no expense when building this luxurious structure. 

Throughout this room, the archaeologists found piles of crumbing painted plaster pieces, which at one time had been attached to the domus walls. These red-and-black plaster fragments also featured regular geometric designs, of the type favored by Roman elites in the first century AD.

Other impressive features discovered in this building included an underfloor hot-water heating system, and a courtyard that contained a basin coated with shiny white marble.

The famous and visually spectacular Nimes Pont du Gard aqueduct. (Benh LIEU SONG (Flickr) / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The famous and visually spectacular Nimes Pont du Gard aqueduct. (Benh LIEU SONG (Flickr) /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Visiting The Remarkable City of Nimes: The French Rome

The discovery of the two opulent domus townhouses adds further depth and texture to the city’s already rich and impressive Roman architectural profile. It has often been said that Nimes was the most Roman of all cities on the periphery of the empire, and it is  the spectacular architecture of the city  that is largely responsible for this designation.

The city of Nimes (Nemausus in ancient times) features some of the best-preserved Roman architecture found anywhere in the world. Here are just some of the wonders that visitors seeking a taste of ancient Rome can see, if they’re willing to spend a few hours on a walking tour of Nimes:

  • Arena of Nimes . This large 144,300 square-foot (13,400 square-meter)  amphitheater in central Nimes has been maintained in a remarkably pristine state. Capable of hosting up to 24,000 people, it was built in approximately 70 AD, at nearly the same time as the Colosseum in Rome. 
  • Maison Carrée . As the only Roman temple found anywhere in the world that has been preserved in its entirety, the  Maison Carrée  is a truly unique structure and a singular tourist attraction.
  • Remnants of the City Wall . While the expansive defensive wall the Romans built around the city is no longer intact, many of its stone ramparts and circular towers are still standing. This includes the imposing Tour Magne, which is 110 feet (33 meters) tall.
  • Porte de France and Porta Augusta . These are the city’s only surviving arched gates, which allowed visitors to enter imperial-era Nimes through the exterior wall. Porta Augusta was commissioned directly by Augustus himself, and features four separate entrances.
  • Jardins de la Fontaine . This tranquil plaza is home to multiple fountains and statues, as well as the still-flowing nymphaeum the Romans built as a shrine to the nymphs of spring.
  • Temple of Diane . While this impressively constructed edifice is reputed to be a temple dedicated to Diane, the Roman goddess of the moon, closer inspection has revealed that it was most likely a library.
  • Le Castellum Aquae . This basin is the terminating point for water that arrived through the city’s aqueduct system, via the famed  Pont du Gard  (a spectacular aqueduct bridge located several miles outside of Nimes). The Castellum Aquae includes 10 supply channels that would have diverted water to public fountains, bath houses, and the homes of the elite throughout the city, and is one of only two such structures that have been preserved anywhere in the world (the other is in Pompeii).

The walking tour can be concluded with visits to the  Musée Archéologique  and Musée des Beaux Arts , which house vast collections of smaller artifacts that have been collected at various excavations in Nimes over the years.

The Arena of Nimes which is among the best-known Roman amphitheaters not in Italy. (Andim / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Arena of Nimes which is among the best-known Roman amphitheaters not in Italy. (Andim /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When in Rome … Or Even When Not In Rome

The city of Nimes was strategically located, just 20 miles (35 kilometers) or so from the  Mediterranean. Even more importantly, it was intersected by the Via Domitia, the critically important through road that connected Rome with Hispania.

At its peak during the imperial era, a thriving Nimes would have had a population of between 50,000 and 60,000 people, making it an ideal place to sponsor building and urban development projects designed to display the greatness and the genius of the Roman Empire.  

The residents of the newly discovered domus townhouses in Nimes would have seen and experienced a lot during their time in this bustling city. Despite the separation in distance, their attitudes and perspectives personified the culture and standards of Rome, and that is especially reflected in their aesthetic and architectural choices.

Top image: The excavation in central Nimes where the two opulent Roman domus townhouses were recently discovered. Inset, close up of the mosaic.            Source:  INRAP

By Nathan Falde

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