Athena Review Vol.1, no.4

Sites and Museums in Roman Gaul: Fréjus

As reported by Tacitus (Agricola, 4) "...the old and famous colony of Forum Julii" [later shortened to Fréjus] was founded in 50 BC by Julius Caesar for veterans of his 8th Legion. Forum Iulii Octavanorum Colonia Pacensis Classica, as Fréjus was first named, also became a naval base at a harbor begun by Caesar in 49 BC after the conquest of Massalia. A letter to Cicero from the 40's BC gives the first mention of Forum Julii. It is also named in the 2nd-3rd century AD Antonine Itinerary, showing its location along the Via Aurelia which served as the town's decumanus, or main east-west street (fig.1). Cornelius Julius Agricola, who would go on to conquer northern Britain for the Romans, was born in Forum Julii.

[Fig.1: Map of lower Rhône and Provence, showing Gallo-Roman sites (Athena Review).]

The port: The focus of early Fréjus was its Roman military port (now silted in). By 31 BC Octavian transferred here the fleet he captured from Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. The 17 hectare harbor was artificial, built on a pre-existing swamp, and connected to the sea by a canal. The entrance was marked in the SW corner by a turret named Augustus' Lantern at the mouth of the harbor. The solid tower with its six-sided pyramid may be seen preserving its original height of 10 m. In 1986 portions of docks (now under a parking lot) were discovered by the Porte Dorée, a 2nd century AD structure which itself contains remains of the frigidarium of the Roman bath. Also associated with the port was a barracks block in which was found local military issue coinage from the 20's BC, and Italian pottery showing occupation up to AD 69. At this point, Misenum in Italy became the primary Roman Naval base, replacing Forum Julii.

Two official residences (domus) were situated around the harbor, and three round towers from the city's fortifications remain on the Butte St.-Antoine, one of two artificially flattened hills overlooking the harbor. Another to the southeast of the Porte de Rome, named La plateforme, contains a large official domus, an admiral's residence elegantly outfitted with mosaics along with associated granaries and cisterns. Excavations by Février from 1960-1963 found that it was occupied from ca. AD 10 through the late 2nd century.

City wall: The Roman town itself comprised almost 40 hectares surrounded by a two-mile-diameter wall some 2.5 m thick. The semi-circular west gate, the Porte des Gaules along the Via Aurelia, has one surviving tower. This gate was begun with round towers, but after the foundation was complete the design was altered. Near the east gate, the Porte de Rome, are the best preserved sections of the city's wall. A necropolis has also been identified outside the walls along the Via Aurelia, and to the north at the Pauvadon.

The aqueduct: Fresh water was brought to Forum Julii from hills some 40 km to the northeast. Upon reaching the city wall, the aqueduct turned to the north, employing the wall to support the channel. A row of mammoth stone piers from the aqueduct (fig.2) can be seen upon entering the city near the Porte de Rome. Although not as completely preserved as the aqueduct-bridge at Pont du Gard, the Fréjus aqueduct is impressive.

The Theater: Also near the Porte de Rome and the aqueduct is the ancient Theater of Forum Julii.  Dated by its architectural style to the early 1st century AD, its dimensions (72 x 30 m) are smaller than theaters at Arles and Lyon. While today's poor preservation makes it difficult to estimate the capacity of its seats, their orientation was clearly to the south to minimize the impact of north winds, known in Provence as the mistral.

The Amphitheater: Just outside the city walls to the west are the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. Measuring 114 m by 82 m, the central floor or arena was almost as large as those at Nîmes and Arles. The amphitheater was able to seat at least 12,000 spectators in three sections of tiered seats. Its architectural style suggests it postdates the reign of Vespasian (AD 79).

[Fig.2: Roman aqueduct piers at Fréjus (photo: Athena Review).]

Medieval Fréjus: The town has a 13th century, early Gothic cathedral built around earlier structures, with the north aisle dating back to the 11th century, and a 12th century cloister. Modern repairs uncovered sections of Roman wall and mosaic. Doors of the cathedral date from 1530, while the painted pine ceiling of the cloister survives from the 1400's. Attached to the cathedral is an octagonal baptistry from the 5th century AD, shortly after Fréjus was founded as a bishop's see. This baptistry, restored in the 1920's by J. Formigé, contains eight columns of black granite.

The Musée Archéologique, located within the cloister of the Fréjus cathedral, is currently undergoing renovations and (as of Spring, 1998) its collections are being updated. The Museum has displays and documentary evidence on the history of Fréjus. Artifacts from the Gallo-Roman period include milestones, a marble head of Jupiter, a double-faced head depicting Bacchus and a faun, and a mosaic with a leopard at the center.

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