When you think of Roman ruins, it’s pretty likely that you think of, well, Rome. And it’s true that many of the most spectacular and well-preserved Roman sites are in the capital of the former empire. But Roman imperialism spread across most of Europe and the Mediterranean between the 1st century BCE and the 5th century CE, and a surprising number of remnants endure in Paris today.
Paris as we understand it did not yet exist during the early years of the Roman Empire. Instead, in 52 CE the Romans came upon a tiny Celtic settlement on what is now the Ile de la Cité (where Notre-Dame stands), renaming it Lutétia, or Lutèce. The island is where an underground labyrinth of Roman foundations was uncovered in the 1960s, during excavations for a carpark in front of the cathedral. The site is now a subterranean museum, the Crypte de Notre-Dame, where you can wander along suspended walkways just feet above these intriguing structures.
Slightly further afield, just south of the Seine in the Latin Quarter, the Musée de Cluny du Moyen Age gardens are home to les Thermes de Cluny Roman baths. Over the past few years, what had been reduced to foundations were reconstructed, and are now extensions of the museum, looking over the intersections of the boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain. I personally found them more striking as ruins, their stony contours in the earth only hinting at what they once were. But nonetheless, they’re a stunning architectural feature in a museum that’s overflowing with stunning architectural features. It may seem strange that reconstructed Roman remains are part of the city’s Museum of the Middle Ages, but I just see it as a testament to the many visible layers of history that comprise the city- and the fifth arrondissement in particular.
But the city’s most beguiling Roman remnant isn’t the Crypte or the Cluny, but a site hidden off the main streets, only a few hundred metres further afield. Not far from the Jardin des Plantes, down an alleyway you could easily miss, lie the Arènes de Lutèce, Paris’ very own answer to the Colosseum. Supremely modest when compared with Rome’s world-famous amphitheatre, les Arènes de Lutèce have their own kind of charm. The sweeping arena is clearly recognisable as a Roman structure; built in the 1st century CE, it could once house 15,000 people. Though it was filled in in the 13th century and faded from knowledge for hundreds of years, it was rediscovered in the 19th century and lovingly restored.
The amphitheatre thrived and died and was revived, and what I love most about it is how alive it feels today. This isn’t really a tourist attraction; instead, it’s where people come every day to play fetch with their dogs, soccer with their children and pétanque with their friends. The last time I visited was in early March 2020, in the days before the world went into lockdown. The rest of the city was nervous, rushing, confused. Here was a moment of peace and normalcy in the afternoon sun.
We think of Latin as a “dead language”, of the Roman Empire as ancient history. But despite the immense age of the Arènes de Lutèce, its true wonder lies in how it’s such a part of Paris life today.