Thursday, December 15, 2011

Roman Around

It's been a while, so I was happy to find an e-mail from E in my in-box the other day asking if I'd be interested in going to Ambrussum with him and J. J's had dental surgery, and hasn't been in much of a mood to go out, but her interest in Greco-Roman times around here finally got her out to look at the oppidum over in Murviel-lès-Montpellier the other day, and that coincided with E's interest in the Via Domitia, the Roman road which connected Nîmes with Cadiz starting around 120 BC. Wikipedia lists 11 oppida in France, but I'd always heard that Ambrussum was the good one. Boy, was it ever.

It didn't take long to get there. "Gee, this is hardly a trip," J said as she got out of the car. We'd headed down the A9 to Lunel, taken the exit, and followed the signs to the parking lot. (Hint: if you go, drive slowly once you're off the A9, because the signs come quickly and aren't obvious). The place was deserted, despite the fact, which E had discovered, that it was free until the end of the year. It was warmish, sunny, and a fine day to see what was going on here.

Oppida were rest stations for travellers, stationed about every 15 km along the Via Domitia. You could get a change of horses, a bath, blacksmith and wheelwright services, a meal, and a room. If you were a postal courier, you could pick up the mail for delivery down the line. Up the hill, there was a settlement with protective walls and shops where you could buy supplies. My guess is that Ambrussum was a pretty cushy place to be stationed. On the other hand, it was abandoned around 100 AD, possibly because of flooding from the river.

Of course, like all places that had to be dug out of the ground, it doesn't photograph all that well. Here, for instance, is the inn, and if you look hard, you can make out, over there on the left, the four guest rooms.

Just past this, a path heads uphill, and as you approach the gates of the settlement (or, rather, where they stood) it gets paved:

(Shoes included for scale. Yeah, right.)

Once up the hill, you're in the oppidum's community, and according to the archaeologists who are still working there, there are entryways to where shops and other services once stood. If the reconstructions are accurate, the houses up here were pretty nice, with the living quarters ringing a shaded courtyard.

The hilltop has ramparts facing away from the Via Domitia towards the Gallic settlements. The Gauls were at peace with the Romans during the time the oppidum at Ambrussum was occupied, but hey, they were French, so the Romans figured they had to keep an eye on them anyway.

And it's true that you're high enough up here: there's a real panorama visible from this part of the settlement, with a nice view of Pic St. Loup and other mountains, and one of the signs said that 180º from this view, you could sometimes see the snowcapped Mt. Ventoux over in Provence, but not yesterday. That's okay; the Languedoc mountainscape was real nice.

I think that's l'Hortus on the left close in, but I wonder what that sharp peak right-center is. Notice also that the A9 is right there, following the ancient route of the Via Domitia. Those Roman engineers knew the best way to get places, and there's no reason to change it now.

Down the hill lies the Vidourle River, with the famous Roman bridge providing access to the site from the Via Domitia. It started being knocked down by the locals in the 14th century, and the river has finished most of the job. If you wonder why, look at the size of that log hanging off the thing: that arrived just recently, and possibly with some force.

This Roman bridge is perhaps more famous than the other ones in the area because before the second arch fell apart in the 19th century, Courbet painted it.

Which puts Ambrussum on another Languedoc tourist route, the Courbet Trail.

As I said, this was free, but normal admission is only €4, and well worth it. There's a museum where you start your trip (and buy your ticket) and it's loaded with information both on the site in Roman times and its excavation and preservation, largely at the hand of the 19th century's platoon of gentleman archaeologists, many of them medical doctors who liked to go digging on weekends. In the museum, you learn that this site was occupied since Neolithic times, and even had some Greeks messing around it -- there's a shard of Attic pottery that was found on the grounds.

And J was, as she admitted, wrong: although it only took about 20 minutes to drive here from central Montpellier, the hike around the hill and the riverbank took a couple of hours. On a warm winter day with plenty of sunshine it was pretty easy going, but I'd say that if you're going in the summertime, you should bring some water along (and take it out: they're pretty militant about not littering this site, and I'm totally in agreement), because that hilltop's going to be nice and hot.

E's already talking about going to another oppidum down by Béziers, and that sounds good to me. And while this nice weather's not going to hold forever, there'll be enough of it to take advantage of it when it appears. Stay tuned.

(Oppidum d'Ambrussum, open daily except Monday, February-December, 2pm-5:30pm October-March, 2pm-5:30 Tues-Sat, 10am-12:30pm and 2:30-5:30 April-December, 9am-12pm and 3pm-7pm July and August.)


  1. Hi Ed

    This is one of my regular trips with visitors. The lower city was abandoned due to flooding and is a long term dig site. It vwas replaced with the top city which originally had 20+ towers and a wall round it.

    If you get the chance go to Lattes ( ) and Loupian (another oppidum with house / mosaics in place).

    For a long day trip try this : .

  2. Thanks, Peter, but as for Lattes:

    Do try to keep up with the class!

    Seriously, though, thanks for the tips. I'll pass 'em on to E&J.

  3. Oops ... !

    Some more places if you are passing nearby :

    "Le village de l'age de cuivre de Fontbouisse" and local Fontbouisse culture :

    Other oppidums :

  4. Very cool stuff; I've forwarded it to our captain for future expeditions. Although your Latin teacher must be whirling in his/her grave: it's "oppida." Neuter plural. (Why can I remember that and not where I left my glasses..?)

  5. Hmm

    I studied Latin for 2 years and I should have known that ...

  6. Mr. Ward,
    My name is Tim, an american living in the Loire.
    I only learned today of your blog, and have found my winter reading!
    What a joy, I have been a fan for years.
    Happy Holidays to you and yours!


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