A Roman soldier or a medieval nun: it’s hard for me to imagine which of them I would rather – or rather not – have been. However, according to a psychic friend of mine, I’ve been both in my past lives. Perhaps this explains why I feel so at home in Ventimiglia Alta. For the same reason a perfect day out is a trip to Frejus, which like Ventimiglia lies along the Via Iulia Augusta – the Roman Empire’s east-west highway. Situated in the south of France about 120 kilometres west of Ventimiglia, Frejus was a purpose-built Roman settlement, founded by Julius Caesar in 49 BC. In fact the town’s name derives from the Latin Forum Iulii or Julius’s Forum. In this respect Frejus differed from Ventimiglia which wasn’t a purpose-built town – the colonists simply took over and expanded an existing settlement inhabited by the Intemeli, a native Ligurian tribe. As the Roman Empire expanded, coastal Frejus gained a significant river port and ship building yards: many of the galleys which sailed to Actium against Anthony and Cleopatra were built here. The port and canals which linked it to the open sea have long since silted up as Frejus was built on a low plateau in the Argens River valley between the Massif de l’Esterel and Massif des Maures mountains: the town is now a good three kilometres from the sea and surrounded by extremely fertile agricultural land.
The Roman constructions which have survived the last 2,000 years are not only reminders of everyday life in one of the empire’s military outposts: they are also a thought provoking commentary on how such constructions can be adapted to fulfil a role in modern times.
The aqueduct brought the Roman town’s water supply from about 50 kilometres away – below are some of the remaining pillars and an arch – the channel through which the water flowed is visible at the top of each pillar. As with the other Roman constructions in Frejus, the aqueduct was built using the reddish-brown volcanic rock from the nearby Massif de l’Esterel.
The fourth photo of the aqueduct above is a fresco in the Archeological Museum, showing some of the joined up arches. The aqueduct is also clearly visible in the bottom left of the second photo of the model of Fréjus above,
The easy-on-the-eye perforated steel seating tiers which have been put up inside the Roman theatre are arguably an ideal way to keep this ancient space in use for putting on shows and performances, while at the same time respecting the Roman construction. The modern seating is completely detached from the original stonework which dates from the 1st century AD: wandering around between the new seating and the old it is still possible to capture an idea of how the theatre would have been 2,000 years ago. The column on the left of the second photo is where the original stage area would have begun. The theatre is clearly visible in the photo of the model of Fréjus.
In creating an entertainment venue in the Roman arena – rock concerts and bull fights are held here – vast amounts of concrete have very recently been poured directly onto the ancient stonework. The arena, which seated around 10,000 in Roman times, had over the centuries been reduced to about half its original height, although the complete elliptical shape had remained intact. By building the walls back up again to their full height with concrete and edging the seating structure in corrugated roofing, the millenniums-old, warm, red stonework has been dwarfed into sorrowful insignificance. Only a colour photo in one of the corridors reminds us of what a beautiful construction and tribute to Roman builders this was, until about 5 years ago.
Many thanks to Fabio and Daniela, Ventimiglia’s Archeological Museum, the International Institute of Ligurian Studies – Intemelia section, and all who organised this wonderful day trip to Fréjus, and to the staff of the museum and sites in Fréjus who welcomed us. Many thanks too to the young bus driver who coped so well with Ventimiglia’s difficult traffic system.