The week before we left Canada, our microwave died with a guttural groan and a burnout electrical stench. “Oh, well,” we said. “We’ve had it twelve years. It doesn’t owe us anything.” This attitude seems more than a little ironic in light of the Roman ruins (and not so ruins) that we’ve been touring – structures thousands of years old, some of them still in use.
In Orange, we discovered Le Theatre Antique, a 10000-seat Roman amphitheatre, the only one in Europe with its acoustic wall intact. Built in the first century A.D., the performances staged there were intended to “Romanize” the population, and so were free of charge to every social class – nobles and craftsmen, slaves and criminals. The original statue of Caesar Augustus continues to overlook the stage and the audience members, just as it did in Roman times. If you think that you’ve seen this statue in your own European travels, you probably have: the standard issue statue bodies were shipped out around the Roman Empire, and only the heads were changed as each new leader came to power. As Rick Steeves riffs in his book on Provence, imagine Barack Obama’s head on George Bush’s body (or in an Albertan context, Alison Redford’s bob and pearls on Ralph Klein’s corpulence).
After the Roman Empire fell, Christian leaders closed the amphitheatre, barbarian invaders plundered it, and Orange’s soldiers and citizenry used it as a defensive post and refuge during various religious wars. However, the amphitheatre stood strong. It was revived as a performance venue during the nineteenth century, and has been in use ever since. Plays, poetry readings, operas, symphonies and rock music have found a home there: we saw archival film footage of a very young Elvis Costello (before his time in black-rimmed, geek chique glasses) and a skinny, long-haired Mark Knopfler, smirking behind his guitar, when they performed at the theatre in 1979 and 1981 respectively.
After wandering the theatre’s shady upper corridors, its archways providing natural frames for the rooftops of Orange, we crossed the street to the history museum where other antiquities are on display: Among my favorites were the decorations that warned grave robbers away from mausoleums, indicating the nasty fates that awaited them if they disturbed the dead. We finished our Roman ruins tour of Orange by driving out to view their own Arc de Triomphe, built in the second century BC to commemorate Caesar’s subjugation of the Gauls.
The next day, just up the road in the town of Vaison La Romaine, we toured 15 hectares of archaeological ruins, the most of any place in France. We found another, still-in-use amphitheatre, although it is half the size of Orange’s and no longer has its acoustic wall. The other artifacts spread throughout the town include the foundations of sprawling Roman houses and commercial centres. As we listened to explanations of what we were seeing, courtesy of our English language audioguides, I marvelled at walking where, centuries ago, women and men ruled and were ruled, slept, bathed, cooked, ate and drank. I imagined the thrill of the early 20th century archeologists, unearthing columns, sculptures, cookware, and murals. What fascinating work to piece together the discovered puzzle bits into a coherent, engaging story that would connect the lives of ancient Romans with those of 21st century travellers from around the world.