IT WAS JULIUS CAESAR who gave the ‘city of the Parisii’ tribe’ the name Lutetia in the first-century BC. The Roman settlement of Lutetia broadly corresponds to today’s 5th Arrondissement, it extended roughly from the Rue Mouffetard in the east to the Rue de Vaugirard in the west and from the Boulevard Saint-Germain to a little beyond the Montaigne Saint-Geneviève.
Like all Roman cities, Lutetia was adorned with porticoed buildings, a forum, a temple, private dwellings, public baths, an impressive aqueduct to supply the settlement’s water needs and an arena for sports and entertainment.
The arena – the Arènes de Lutèce – was built as an amphitheatre around 200 AD and it could accommodate around 15,000 people, almost twice the population of the then city. It was a little unusual in that as well as theatrical productions, animal fights and gladiatorial combats, its sunken location meant that it could also be filled with water to accommodate aquatic sports and entertainment. Great mock sea battles were fought here.
The Arènes de Lutèce as it probably looked to the Romans
It didn’t last though. Lutetia was sacked by barbarian invasions and the Arènes de Lutèce fell into decay. The centre of the arena became a burial ground and the stones were pillaged to reinforce the city defences around the Île de la Cité. The construction of the Philippe Auguste wall in the thirteenth-century marked its final disappearance. The Arènes de Lutèce was out of sight and out of mind save for the name given to a neighbourhood quartier, les Arènes.
And it remained that way until Baron Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris in the mid nineteenth-century. During the construction of the Rue Monge some of the surviving remains of the arena were discovered by Théodore Vaquer, one of the unsung heroes of Parisian conservation. Haussmann though was all about the future with little time for the past and so he pressed on. He had the site bulldozed and built an omnibus station.
In the late nineteenth-century, further construction revealed more of the Arènes de Lutèce but by this time attitudes were changing. A strident public debate led by Victor Hugo and others got underway. Hugo wrote an open letter in which he said:
“It is not possible that Paris, the city of the future, should renounce the living proof that it was a city of the past. The arena is an ancient mark of a great city. It is a unique monument. The municipal council which destroys it would in some manner destroy itself. Conserve it at any price.”
Two of the animal cages
The campaign was successful and funds were dedicated to restoring the arena and establishing it as a public space, which was opened in 1896. And so it remains today.
Sounds of the Arènes de Lutèce:
In today’s Arènes de Lutèce there are no sights or sounds of animal fights, gladiatorial contests or great sea battles – instead there are people sitting on green benches doing nothing in particular or enjoying picnics or games of Pétanque, all accompanied by the ever present children playing football – and the occasional bird scarer.
This arena was built as a place of entertainment … and so it continues today.