Saintes the Roman

The arch of Germanicus

The arch of Germanicus

Saintes was firstly Roman, Mediolanum Santonum, the  capital of Aquitaine, built on the territory of the Santons, a Gallic people. The visitor will not remain unaware of that for long when coming face to face with the Arch of Germanicus (18-19 AD) on the right bank. This monumental gate was built in front of the bridge that crossed the Charente, at the end of the Via Agrippa, linking the Atlantic Ocean to Lyon and on to Rome. It was a mark of the wealth of the Romanised elite and the power of the town, drew the main east-west axis around which it was organized and recalled the special bond that bound it to the Empire. The votive arch was dismantled when the old bridge was demolished in the 19th century, then rebuilt and restored thanks to Prosper Mérimée. It is still worthy of a visit.
On the left bank, the ancient city holds another considerable surprise. At the bottom of a small valley can be found the remains of the Amphitheatre (41-54 AD). We descend into the arena with emotion, taking the stairs that lead to the stands, just like the spectators who flocked there in the first centuries of our era. Set in part on the natural backdrop, it is one of the oldest and best preserved of the Three Gauls and could accommodate nearly 20,000 spectators. Its evocative power brings forth images of gladiators in combat, of men and beasts and the ordeal of the condemned.
The amphitheatre

The amphitheatre

The rampart

The rampart

The Gallo-Romans also left more intimate traces here and there in the city. The Baths of Saint Saloine hint at their predilection for baths and the exhibits in the archaeological museum, located in the place Bassompierre, have become familiar objects : tools, keys, powder boxes, amulets, pottery and other evidence of daily life. Close by, the lapidary museum, housed in a former abattoir in the style of an Italian villa, is equally fascinating. In the 3rd century, when the Roman Empire was under attack, Mediolanum, hitherto an open city, reduced its boundaries and retreated behind a rampart. Its lower courses are made of blocks of stone from public monuments, steles and mausoleums. Now reconstructed in the museum, these funerary inscriptions and decorations reflect a period of peace and prosperity but their fate was heralded changing times. A vestige of this rampart can be seen in the place des Récollets.