‘Very Beautiful … Narbonne’
‘pulcherrima … Narbo’ (Martial, Epigram 8.72.4)
Not to be outdone by the museum recently created at Nîmes down the road (CWA 92), Narbonne has now opened, in May 2021, a splendid new archeological museum of its own. Curiously entitled Narbo Via (‘Narbonne road’ in Latin), it is a spacious box-like building with overhanging flat roof, designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster. Its exhibition rooms inside, all on the ground floor, are tall, light, and airy. The objects have been magnificently cleaned; they are also beautifully lit and logically arranged in six sections, each with a separate theme. So Narbonne at last has an archaeological museum to be proud of, another go-to destination in the south of France for lovers of Roman archaeology. For too long the gloomy, cavernous, and cold chambers of the Archbishop’s Palace, seat of the previous Musée archéologique in the heart of the town, did not make for pleasurable visiting, however important the artefacts it contained. And the Musée lapidaire, Narbonne’s second museum of antiquities (inside a disused church), which changed little for well over a century, consisted of a chaotic jumble of stones piled one on top of the other.
Out of Italy
Narbonne’s foundation was one of the outcomes of Rome’s military intervention in the south of France when, in 125 BC, the Greek city of Marseilles, threatened by the local tribe of the Saluvii, appealed to Rome for help. The resulting campaigns – masterminded by various consuls, culminating in those of Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Quintus Fabius Maximus – resulted in the Roman takeover of a huge swathe of territory from Provence to the Pyrenees, creating a Roman-controlled corridor into Spain. A major trunk road, never far from the coast, quickly followed, and is called still today the via Domitia after its creator, Domitius Ahenobarbus. To consolidate Roman control, the colonia of Narbo was founded in 118 BC at a key point on this road, a virgin site on flat, well-watered ground with excellent agricultural potential, and close to the apex of a large, well-sheltered harbour. It was the first colony ever founded by Rome beyond Italian soil.
It is therefore wholly appropriate that the first item to greet the visitor to Narbo Via, in the entrance hall, is a milestone bearing Domitius Ahenobarbus’ name and the numeral XX (marking the number of miles from Narbonne where it was placed). This must date within a year of the foundation of Narbo, making it the oldest Latin inscription in Gaul. Immediately beyond, you have your first glimpse of a feature that makes Narbo Via unique among archaeological museums of the world: the so-called ‘wall of stone’.
The challenge of finding a new home for the contents of the former Musée lapidaire was colossal. Although nearly all lacking a precise provenance (many probably came from Roman funerary monuments outside the ancient town), they constitute an important part of Narbo’s legacy. All had been used as construction material in repairs to the city walls, especially during the reign of François I, King of France between 1494 and 1547. It is greatly to the credit of the local Commission archéologique et littéraire, guided by Paul Tornal, most passionate of advocates for the preservation of Narbonne’s antiquities, that when demolition of the walls started in 1868 he persuaded the municipal authorities not to destroy the Roman monuments but to put them to one side. Destruction of the walls continued until 1884, whereupon all the Roman stones were dumped in the former church of Notre-Dame de Lamourguier.
The new ‘wall of stone’ displaying them is 76m long and 10m high. There are lots of friezes, with varied subject matter (trophies of military weapons are especially common) and many inscriptions; Doric metopes often bear bulls’ heads; and acanthus spirals are frequent. The pieces, mostly limestone, weigh anywhere between 300kg and a ton, and there are 760 of them in the collection. But this is no static display. It is the museum equivalent of a modern academic library’s automatic retrieval system, because the stone blocks can be removed and whizzed around into different places within seconds – and were being so during my visit, to give visitors the chance of seeing in turn different stones at a more convenient viewing level. For a public museum space, it is an engineering marvel.
In 45 BC, Julius Caesar settled retired soldiers from the Tenth Legion in Narbonne, refounding it as colonia Iulia Narbo Martius; the frequent bull’s-head friezes mentioned above were perhaps a nod to him, since Taurus was his birth sign. Eighteen years later, Augustus stayed there during his radical reorganisation of Gaul. Narbo was chosen to be the capital of the new province of Gallia Narbonensis, which stretched from the Pyrenees to Antibes, and northward as far as Lake Geneva. He was no doubt responsible for funding some of the new building projects to make Narbo worthy of its newly elevated status: chief among these was surely the vast structure of the Capitolium, the temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva on the forum. Measuring 48m long and 36m wide, and a colossal 32m high, it was double the size of the well-known Maison carrée temple in nearby Nîmes, and unlike the latter it was built of marble – Carrara marble brought from northern Italy. Little survives of it today apart from scattered fragments, brought together now in the new museum, but they impress by their sheer size. Large numbers of craftsmen from Italy must have been present in Narbonne during the early years of Augustus’ reign, because local builders would have had no familiarity at the time with marble-carving. An altar to Augustan Peace, inscribed paci Aug[usti], is in this material. Sculpted on the sides are exquisite laurel trees, a familiar part of Augustan symbolism (they are associated with Apollo, the favourite god of the princeps): the altar would not have been out of place in Rome itself. The poet Martial, towards the end of the 1st century AD, described Narbo as ‘very beautiful’ (pulcherrima), and as late as the 5th century, when some of the urban infrastructure was crumbling, Sidonius Apollinaris still felt able to describe Narbo as ‘Little Rome’.
Unlike Nîmes and Arles, Narbonne has no wealth of surviving Roman monuments, the only exceptions being a stretch of Roman road and an underground cryptoporticus called the Horreum (‘granary’). No major public baths or the theatre, for example, have been identified, although inscriptions and reliefs suggest possible further temples. The amphitheatre is known to lie on the east side of the city, on the basis of some curved walls found in 1839. One piece in the museum illustrates an ‘entertainment’ that was offered there – the mauling of criminals by hungry bears (damnatio ad bestias) – while another text records that Fadius Syntrophus, an official in the imperial cult, offered a gladiatorial fight to mark the opening of a new market.
Other inscriptions on display give a hint of the city’s cosmopolitan population (of an estimated 35,000 in total), and the wide range of trades and professions of those who lived there. We have Marcia Donata who hailed from Milan, and L Aufidius Vinicianus Epagatinus, also from Italy (from Fondi in Lazio), who married a local woman and served twice as one of Narbo’s aediles (junior magistrates). Lucius Suestilius, probably also Italian and a freedman (former slave), was an eye doctor (medicus ocularius), while another freedman, Sextus Statius Rufio, was a hairdresser (tonsor). We also hear of the salt producers, the Salonii, and of Philomusus, who traded in vials (ampullarius), among others. More elaborate are the tombstones of Publius Gallonius Capito, a juggler (pilarius), which features in stone relief representations of the balls used in his act, and that of the baker Marcus Careieus Asisa, who chose to show off his flour mill powered by a mule (or is it a donkey?), while his pet dog sits patiently alongside.
The wealth of Narbo in its prime is also demonstrated by elaborate decor from private homes. Some are chance finds from rescue excavations old and new, like a floor in white mortar decorated at intervals with random marble pieces – a style common in late Republican Pompeii – but enlivened with panels of tessera mosaic. Dated to the last quarter of the 1st century BC, it shows in its choice of black tesserae for a pair of griffins an awareness of the new black-and-white mosaic figure technique only just coming into fashion in Rome itself at about the same time. Occupying a large hall at the very heart of the museum is a vast intact pavement of c.AD 200, which impresses by its size; at its centre is a roundel featuring the drunken Bacchus. But our knowledge of private homes at Narbo comes above all from those at Clos de la Lombarde, a site due to be consolidated and opened to the public at some point in the future when excavations are finally concluded. Two of the houses there, the Maison au grand triclinium and the Maison à portiques, respectively covering 700m² and 975m², are of especially impressive size. In this quarter, too, a taste for black-and-white mosaics and then marble flooring caught on early; but particularly remarkable is the survival here of extensive areas of painted wall plaster, now transferred to the museum. One room in the Maison à portiques, from the second half of the 1st century AD, featured a white-ground design, following a fashion first started by the emperor Nero in Rome; and when the nearby dining room was redecorated c.AD 200, it displayed the same type of combination of figured panels and elaborate architectural framework familiar from the painted walls of houses at Pompeii well over a century before.
Another section in the museum, which includes several reliefs depicting ships or their cargo, illustrates Narbo’s importance as a major trading port. There is a wealth of artefacts to document it, from lead, copper, and glass ingots to amphorae from all over the Mediterranean and a massive anchor, its timber parts all preserved, weighing 368kg and standing 3.85m high. There is even a sailor’s intact felt cap. These and other remarkable finds come from a major research project that has revolutionised our knowledge of Narbo’s harbour in recent years. By the time of the middle Empire, work concentrated on protecting the mouth of the Aude – the river that links Narbonne with the sea – from silting up. Two long jetties were built, each some 2km long – timber-framed and then filled with medium-sized stones quarried for the purpose. A late Roman extension (c.AD 400) of one of these jetties even embraced the sunken remains of a ship that had suffered in some earlier misfortune. Surprisingly, its cargo had not been completely salvaged at the time, and some of its amphorae were still on board. The quay-builders covered it with stones, including many robbed from Narbo’s now decaying public buildings; a slice of Corinthian capital from the Capitolium is among them. By the late 4th century, keeping the harbour going was clearly more important than respecting what had once been the star attraction of the urban landscape.
A Christian city
By then Narbo was a Christian city, and that is the focus of the last part of the new museum’s displays. There was already a bishop by the mid-3rd century, and by the mid-4th century figured Christian sarcophagi were arriving from Rome for wealthy adherents of the new faith. In AD 414, the city even hosted the magnificent wedding of Galla Placidia, daughter of the emperor Theodosius I and half-sister of Honorius, to the Visigothic king Athaulf, who was to be murdered a year later. Her mosaic-encrusted chapel in Ravenna is, of course, a jewel of late antique architecture. Later in the 5th century, Bishop Rusticus rebuilt Narbonne’s cathedral, after fire had destroyed its predecessor, and a massive door lintel from it with a long inscription dating to AD 445 dominates the room. It was perhaps in this church that the marble model was displayed of the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine in Jerusalem. The model was doubtless an object of veneration by the faithful who were unable to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is the only example of its type anywhere in the western Mediterranean.
I have just one quibble with Narbo Via. The texts are laudably in English and Spanish, as well as in French. I cannot speak for the accuracy of the Spanish, but whoever translated the English captions from the French knew nothing about archaeology. Cupids (amours) are called ‘Loves’, shippers are described as ‘naviculars’, mobilier (which in an archaeological context means simply ‘material’) is translated always as ‘furniture’, and so on. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, a person shown at the centre of a sarcophagus with arms outstretched in the act of early Christian prayer (the orant pose) is described as a ‘prayer wheel’. It is a great pity that the museum did not ask a (native) English-speaking archaeologist to check the texts and make sure they made sense, and I express the hope that this blemish at Narbo Via can and will be speedily removed.
Further reading A Léoty, Narbo Via: le guide (Narbonne: EPCC, 2021; 208pp, €18); also Narbo Via (Connaissance des Arts, hors-série 992, n.d. ; 42pp, €10). Both of these publications are in French.
All images: R J A Wilson.