An extraordinary testament to the glory of the Roman Empire, the Ancient Roman Theatre of Orange, listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO, is the most well preserved Roman theatre in all of Europe.
Built under the reign of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century AD, it was the first of its kind in France. Still today, visitors will be struck by the grandeur of its imposing façade, or postcænum.
103 metres long, 1,80 metres thick and 37 metres high, King Louis XIV called it "the most beautiful wall in my entire kingdom". Relatively austere, the upper part of the wall presents rows of corbels. In the middle, the façade has no ornamentation. On the street level, there are three doors in the wall separated by arches: the royal door and the guests' door, all three leading directly onto the stage.
Conceived with the idea of spreading Roman culture and of keeping the population's mind off any ideas of political unrest, the theatre's interior, the cavea, could accommodate up to 9,000 spectators, seated according to their social status. Just above the half-moon shaped orchestra pit, the first rows of seats were reserved for the Equites, or knights. Merchants and Roman citizens took their seats in the middle rows. The highest (and most vertiginous) rows of seats were left to the prostitutes and slaves.
It is perhaps the stage itself that is the most extraordinary part of the theatre. It stretches over 61 metres, one metre high off the ground. Behind it, the stage wall, or scaenae frons, rises up 37 metres, still at its original height. Unlike the rest of the theatre, the wall is quite elaborate, with columns, friezes and niches that were once adorned with colourful marble mosaics and statues. The centre niche still holds a 3.5 metre high statue representing Augustus but which is believed to be the restoration of a statue of Apollo, the god of arts and music.
This wall is of great importance to the theatre: it projects a sound of unmatched quality and purity.
Aerial view of the Roman Theatre and the city of Orange
Aerial view of the Roman Theatre of Orange
Stage wall of the Roman Theatre of Orange
Side view at the Roman theatre and excavation site
Abandoned in the Middle Ages - since the Church thought that plays were too immoral - the theatre served as a defence structure and as a refuge for the population during the many wars over the centuries, even becoming encumbered with houses.
Its restoration was undertaken in 1825 under the aegis of Prosper Mérimée, director of Historic Monuments at the time. In 1869, the theatre began to present the "Fêtes Romaines" and some of the greatest actors in French classical theatre appeared there, including Sarah Berhnardt in "Phèdre" in 1903. The festival was then renamed the "Chorégies d'Orange" (the name comes from the tax imposed on wealthy Romans to finance theatrical productions) and in 1969 it adopted a purely operatic programme. Every summer the greatest names in opera sing in this sublime and historic setting.
The Roman Theatre of Orange has been listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site since 1981. Since 2007, the classification includes the Saint Eutrope Hill. From the top of this hill you have a bird's eye view of the theatre's interior. Good to know if you can't afford the price of a seat, quite expensive, for one of the performances!
Théâtre Antique d'Orange - Rue Madeleine Roch - 84100 Orange
+33 (0)4 90 51 17 60http://www.theatre-antique.com/