A funny thing happened on the way to the Airbnb. As we dragged our suitcases along the cobblestones in the French city of Nimes, we saw a gladiator on a cellphone. The helmet-wearing warrior, looking straight out of ancient Rome, winked at my kids and kept marching toward the amphitheater.
Three hours by train from Paris, sun-soaked Nimes is home to some of the world’s most immaculately preserved Roman monuments. And for the past nine years, the city has staged a spectacle that would make Augustus proud. In the same packed amphitheater where people jeered and cheered at gladiatorial combat two millenniums ago, the Great Roman Games brings 500 re-enactors from all over Europe for a three-day event.
This year’s sold-out spectacle was particularly buzzing because of the amphitheater’s new neighbor: the Musee de la Romanite. The $65 million museum is devoted to the civilization of ancient Rome and its legacy in Nimes. It was the brainchild of Mayor Jean-Paul Fournier, who has championed a contemporary urbanism that showcases the city’s heritage.
Brazilian-French architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc beat out more than 100 others with a bold building draped in an undulating glass facade she has likened to a pleated toga. The Musee also has a restaurant (overseen by Michelin-starred chef Franck Putelat) with a view. You can admire the amphitheater from there or from the rooftop terrace.
Following the city’s original Augustan ramparts, the museum’s inner “street” is open to the public, so that visitors can freely enter the monumental 55-foot atrium, adorned with the temple pediment from the sacred spring where the pre-Roman settlement of Nemausus was founded. Inside, visitors will find cool 3-D renditions and virtual tours of ancient Gaul. But perhaps the highlight is the archaeological garden. Free to enter, it’s designed as a plant museum, with species chronologically arranged. The landmark museum is a cornerstone of Nimes’ campaign to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Nimes came to my attention in 2006 via my first French friend, a Nimoise by the name of Marielle. As a Latin nerd, I found the city’s monuments mesmerizing, but it was the passionate personality of the place that won me over.
Consider Pétanque, the game also known as boules. In Nimes, this is not a leisurely, pastis-soaked diversion, but a ferociously competitive sport that requires great skill, passion and calculation.
Attendance at one of the biannual ferias (festivals) quickly immerses a visitor in the loud and exuberant traditions of the city. In addition to the Great Roman Games, the amphitheater hosts rock concerts, tennis tournaments and la corrida, or bullfighting. This was a draw for Ernest Hemingway, who used to camp out and write at the Hotel Imperator.
In the alleyways, cafes spill onto the sidewalks, and rowdy diners linger late into the evening. During the Games, some restaurateurs dress in togas and serve Roman-inspired meals. The atmosphere is so contagious that my gleeful 5-year-old took off through a narrow street, running smack into a dinner table, crashing its carefully arranged wine glasses to the cobblestones.
All I could manage is a shocked apology. But the waiter was too worried about Cecilia’s possible injury, giving her a kiss and shooing me away when I tried to pick up the shattered glass.
This love of kids is everywhere in Nimes. “There must be a mistake,” we gestured to the waitress over the bill’s two-euro price for two children’s meals at the lively La Bodeguita. “No, that’s our owner’s policy,” she replied with a grin, bringing ice cream sundaes topped with glow-stick bracelets.
But Spartacus was the real point of our trip. Glancing at our tickets, the word “vomitoire” gives us pause. Does this mean our stomachs will reel at the sight of gore? Thankfully, we learn that this ancient term merely describes the interior stone corridors that efficiently “spew” people to their seats.
We’re transfixed. Emperor Hadrian is seated in pomp and circumstance, the crowd shouts a prayer to Jupiter (“Jovis Optimus, Jovis Maximus!”), horses race while 12,000 spectators cheer on their riders. Bread scented with orange blossoms is tossed out — just like the “bread and circuses” fed to the audience millenniums ago.
My daughters are particularly awed by the female gladiators, whose swinging punches and action-packed combat cause a cloud of dust to rise in the ring. Not to mention the pageantry of the Spartacus story, told in eight episodes.
But above all, it’s the historic accuracy that’s awe-inspiring. The costumes are assembled with the same materials used in ancient Rome. The volunteers and paid actors have trained rigorously for six months.
In her brilliant book “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” Mary Beard writes that Spartacus’ famous slave war “remains one of the most glamorized conflicts in the whole of Roman history.” But modern accounts have “wanted to make Spartacus an ideological hero, even one who was fighting the very institution of slavery.” Instead, most evidence suggests that Roman slaves simply wanted freedom for themselves.
The Great Roman Games tell the story in such an intense way that my older daughter Jane, wide-eyed with wonder, asks me questions for days afterward. And I overhear Cecilia reciting the prayer to Jupiter in her bedroom, raising little palms upward to the heavens.