The Arènes de Lutèce are some the most important remains from the Gallo-Roman era in Paris. Lying in what is now the Quartier Latin, with its exuberant city life, the amphitheatre seated 15,000 and was used to present both gladiatorial combats and artistic ventures for more tender sensibilities. Not that there is much to indicate Romans had those.
Constructed in the 1st century AD by the Romans in what is now Paris (formerly known as Lutèce in French or Lutetia in Latin), the Arènes de Lutèce were later turned into a cemetery. As they were built upon in the 13th century, their location was gradually forgotten. The stadium was discovered and restored in the 19th and 20th century.
The amphitheatre was constructed in the 1st century AD, of course after the Romans conquered Gaul. (For in depth information on that please refer to the Asterix stories.) When Lutèce was sacked during the barbaric invasions of 280 A.D., some of the structure’s stone work was carted off to reinforce the city’s defences around the Île de la Cité. Subsequently, the amphitheatre became a cemetery, and then it was filled in completely following the construction of wall of Philippe Auguste (ca. 1210).
Centuries later, even though the surrounding neighbourhood (quartier) had retained the name Les Arènes, no one really knew exactly where the ancient arena had been. It was discovered by Théodore Vaquer during the building of the Rue Monge in the 1860s, when the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus sought to build a tramway depot on the site.
Spearheaded by the author Victor Hugo and a few other intellectuals, a preservation committee called la Société des Amis des Arènes undertook to save the archaeological treasure. After the demolition of the Couvent des Filles de Jésus-Christ in 1883, one-third of the arena was uncovered. The Municipal Council dedicated funds to restoring the arena and establishing it as a public square, which was opened in 1896.
After the tramway lines and depot were dismantled in 1916 and line 10 of the Paris Métro was constructed, the doctor and anthropologist Jean-Louis Capitan (1854-1929) continued with additional excavation and restoration of the arena toward the end of World War I. The neighbouring Square Capitan, built on the site of the old Saint-Victor reservoir, is dedicated to his memory. Unfortunately, a portion of the original arena – opposite the stage – was lost to buildings which line rue Monge.
The amphitheatre is considered the longest of its kind erected by the Romans. The sunken arena of Arènes de Lutèce was surrounded by the wall of a podium 2.5 metres high, surmounted by a parapet. The 41.2-metre-long stage allowed scenes to alternate between theatrical productions and combat. A series of nine niches improved the acoustics.
The stadium had five cubbyholes situated beneath the lower bleachers. Three of them appear to have been animal cages that opened directly into the arena. The bleachers surrounded more than half of the arena’s circumference. Slaves, the poor and women were relegated to the higher tiers – while the lower seating areas were reserved for Roman male citizens. For comfort, a linen awning sheltered spectators from the hot sun. Circus acts showcased wild animals. From its vantage point, the amphitheatre also afforded a spectacular view of the Bièvre and Seine rivers.
Standing in the centre of the arena one can still observe significant remnants of the stage and its nine niches, as well as the grilled cages in the wall. The stepped bleachers are not original, but historians believe that 41 arched openings punctuated the façade. Just imagine the Arènes de Lutèce at their prime, crowded with people cheering, the scene dripping with gladiator blood and sweat. This is showbiz, baby.