Orange is justly famous for its Roman Arena, known as the Theatre Antique, and the Arc de Triomphe on the opposite side of the town. The Romans first arrived in 35BC and soon provided Aurisio, as it was known to them, with its two most visited sights of today.

Aurisio was founded as a retirement colony for veterans of the Roman Army who had served under Augustus during his campaigns against Marc Antony – yes, retirement communities were first thought of in Roman times. Aurisio became the seat of a bishop towards the end of the 3rd century AD and hosted two important synods, in 441 and 529. The Second Council of Orange was important for its condemnation of what later came to be called the Semipelagianism heresy relating to the salvation of Man.

After the Romans left, Charlemagne made Orange the seat of the Counts of Orange. When William the Silent, count of Nassau, with estates in the Netherlands, inherited the title Prince of Orange in 1544, the principality was incorporated into the holdings of what became the House of Orange-Nassau and the title passed to the Crown of Holland. One of William the Silent’s descendants, also called William, became King of England in 1688 along with his consort Mary. This William was crowned as William III and won the battle of The Boyne in 1690 defeating the Catholic former James II. This is how Protestants in Northern Ireland became known as Orangemen. It seemed ironic to me that when I was visiting Orange, the marching season had just begun in Northern Ireland and that these two things were connected albeit in a tenuous way.

The Theatre Antique has a vast curtain wall, the outside of which is visible from the town centre. It is the only theatre in Europe to have preserved this wall in its entirety. This theatre is quite possibly the best preserved Roman theatre in the entire world and would have held different entertainment to that seen at the Arena in Nimes. Here at Orange plays, musical shows, and comedy would have been on offer, sometimes throughout the day. Audiences could have been as high as 10,000 and, as at Nimes, the social order of Roman times was preserved in the theatre – the nearer the front you were, the more important you were. Across town, the triple-arched Arc de Triomphe commemorates the victories of the Second Legion over the Gauls in the third-to-last decade before the birth of Christ. The Arc is in the middle of a large traffic island allowing visitors some peace to inspect the carvings of the Roman victors, which seem to be better preserved than those of the vanquished Gauls.

In Orange I tried Steak tartare, a meat dish made from finely minced raw beef served with onions, capers and other seasonings including pepper. It was truly delicious and ideal for a hot day, though I did feel guilty for trying it as I am normally a vegetarian and never touch cooked meat.

 

This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker