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October 17, 2012


Arènes de Lutèce

by soundlandscapes

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.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post, the historical info was right on point and the ambient sounds of the area really describe the feel of it. I like how the arena is such a hotbed for afternoon pick-up soccer matches; it seems like such a 21st-century answer to the battles of old that took place on the same ground.

    I wonder sometimes if a future Parisian populous will one day decide to reconstruct the arena, and I’m curious if that would add to the area or end up hurting it. For me personally, I’d love to see it spruced up a little bit (but not too much).

    • Oct 18 2012

      Thanks Corey, pleased you like it.

      I agree that it’s good to see the arena being used by the public for entertainment. It’s such a great space though, I think it’s a shame that more organised entertainment doesn’t take place here. Maybe one day …

  2. Oct 18 2012

    A perfect location for one of your soundpieces!

    I’ve never been able to work out if anything from the original arena still survives, or if it is just a 19th century approximation in roughly the same spot. It does seem a shame that it isn’t used a bit more often for entertainment purposes though, perhaps for theatrical performances or cinema screenings.

    • Oct 18 2012

      Thanks Adam.

      My understanding is that parts of the wall, including the animal cages and the remains of the stage, are original but the seating is a 19th century recreation. Maybe someone could help us with this.

      I agree that it’s a shame it’s not used more for entertainment. The acoustics are really good even today and so it lends itself to theatrical productions in particular. It would be really good to see it come to life again in the way it was intended – but maybe not with the animal and gladiatorial fights!

  3. Oct 21 2012

    Thank goodness for Victor Hugo! You’ve captured such a great range of sounds here, all of them reverberating within the outdoor space. Now we need to fill it up with water and do some hydrophonic recordings.

    • Oct 21 2012

      Filling it up with water today I think would be a challenge, but who knows, maybe one day! The prospect of a hydrophonic recording of a sea battle really appeals to me though.

  4. Nov 11 2019

    Reblogged this on Die Goldene Landschaft.


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