The Roman Theater in Orange

From the Pont du Gard we traveled another half hour to the city of Orange (O’ráwnzh). I knew right away that I was going to like this city; there was a criterium bike race under way at the entrance to the town. Meg and I used to ride in small town bike races like this years ago. Orange is a regular town. It has some great Roman ruins but feels very much like the kind of place you might just live in. It lacks the touristy sheen. That was refreshing. That being said, it is also home to undeniably the most complete, best preserved Roman theater in all the world. There are only three Roman theaters remaining that still have their original stage sound walls, one in Turkey, one in Syria, and the other here in Orange France. So far that’s three big architectural “number ones” for France as far as Roman ruins go (Nimes amphitheater, Pont du Gard).

We listened to the information-packed audio guide and wandered around this amazing structure. It is a traditional Roman theater with a small stage and seating built into a semi-circle on a gently sloping hillside. The stage wall is about 130 feet tall and was originally decorated with columns. These columns were a recent find (within the past decade) and a few have been placed back on the stage. In the center of this stage wall, about 80 feet up, stands a marble statue of the emperor looking out at the crowds below. It’s a funny statue in that it has a removable head. When the emperorship changed, a new head was shipped to Orange and the old head discarded. From this stage wall an awning could be hung over the seating area to provide shade. And speaking of the audience, this place could seat over 10,000 people. It was organized in the same way as Roman amphitheaters, The wealthy ruling class got the front row seats; on one of the seats you can still see the carving of “EQ III” signifying that this section was reserved for the elite soldiers of the Equestrian Order. The working class took up the mid section, while the slaves and poor were allowed seats way at the top. There are hallways at the back of each level where spectators could buy refreshments at intermissions and use the bathrooms if needed.

I have incorrectly written about this place in the past tense, because like the amphitheater in Nimes, it is still in use. In the summer there are large theater events held here. Actually, it has remained in use continually since its original construction under Augustus back in the first century AD. First as a theater and later as a fort. At one point it became a city within the city of Orange housing several hundred people, their animals, and all of their businesses.

The Orange Roman Theater

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