In 125 BC, the major Greek port city of Massalia (now Marseille) in the hellenized region of Southern Gaul, threatened by incursions from the Celto-Ligurian tribes of the Provencal hinterland, called for help from its Roman ally. The Senate sent its armies and within a few years, they had subjugated the local populations from Southern Gaul to the Pyrenees. Rome now controlled the vast area linking Italy to Spain.
To secure these strategic territories and ensure control of their trade routes, in 118 BC, the Senate ordered the construction of a thoroughfare, the Via Domitia, and the foundation of the first Roman colony outside of Italy. Two thousand Roman citizens were settled on a prime location of the lower Aude Valley, in immediate proximity to the Mediterranean coast. Colonia Narbo Martius, the present day Narbonne, was born.
A Turbulent History
As the capital of the Narbonnaise Province, Narbo Martius became a major merchant port of the Roman Empire. It experienced its heyday in the first two centuries AD, when it spread across nearly 240 hectares (590 acres) upon which rose the various monuments typical of the large Roman city: forum, temples, amphitheater, thermal baths, market. However, among the many temples that Narbo Martius must have had, only the great sanctuary discovered in the 19th century on the site of Narbonne’s high school is known to us. Located in the heart of the original Roman city and looking over the forum, it is now identified as its Capitol —the temple dedicated to the three deities Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
Unfortunately, the structures of the ancient city almost completely disappeared over the centuries of Narbonne’s turbulent history, starting with the general decline of the empire in the 3rd century. Then in the 5th century, it fell into the hands of the Visigoths before being conquered by the Arabs in 719 and looted by the Vikings in 859. Through the successive reconstruction efforts, the remains of the Roman past became a convenient stone quarry for centuries of builders. Consequently, although no complete Roman monument has survived, many fragments of architecture that illustrated the splendor of the city have been preserved.
Reviving a Lost City
Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists and virtual reconstitution specialists, it is possible to experience what Narbo Martius looked like in the Narbo Via museum, open in May 2021 at the eastern edge of the city. Upon entering the airy, light-filled reception area, the eye is immediately drawn to the spectacular backbone of the building: a soaring gallery lining the entire back wall, covered by a monumental (76 by 10 meters or 250 by 32 feet) storage device, custom designed to showcase the remarkable lapidary collection of Narbo Via. This unique lapidary wall consists of 760 blocks of carved limestone weighing on average 400 kilograms (900 pounds) each. Originally funerary blocks that evoked the profession or the trade of the deceased, they were ‘harvested’ from Roman necropolises and systematically repurposed throughout the middles ages into the successive fortification walls of the city.
Past the wall, almost 2,800 square meters (29,000 square feet) of exhibit space bring together the collections of two previous local museums as well as recently discovered finds from various excavation projects around the city. With over 580 artifacts, the overall exhibition itinerary helps revive the lost city of Narbo Martius. One part focuses on elements of former monuments and statuary, another features individual funerary steles, sarcophagi and monuments that honored local personalities.
Narbo Martius Revisited
Another high point of the visit is the spectacular 3D, virtual reality stroll through the Roman city, which brings into vivid focus the various themed collections presented throughout the museum. Thanks to the evocative power of three-dimensional reconstitution, visitors can experience the various emblematic landmarks of Narbo Martius: the city and its Capitol, the domus of the Clos de la Lombarde, the thermal baths, the amphitheater. At the center of the route, an immersive projection room with a 180 degree panoramic screen takes viewers to the key places of the Narbonnaise capital, from the port of Narbo Martius to the heart of the city and along by the Via Domitia.
Now five meters below ground level in the heart of the modern city, the Horreum (or warehouse in Latin) is a network of galleries leading to a series of small storage rooms built in the 1st century BC. Used for storing grain, wine and oil, it constituted the foundations of a building, most likely a market hall that has since disappeared. The Horreum remained in partial use as private cellars until it was declared an historic monument in 1961. It was finally open to visitors in 1975. Its well preserved walls are evidence of the architectural expertise and know-how of the ancient Romans.
The Clos de la Lombarde
Along with Horreum, the archaeological remains of the Clos de la Lombarde are one of the only visible – and visitable – Roman sites in Narbonne. Located in the northwestern area of the contemporary city center, the site was revealed in 1910 with the fortuitous discovery of a sarcophagus in a privately owned urban garden plot. However, active excavations didn’t begin until1973, when they then promptly offered a wealth of information about an aristocratic urban neighborhood in the Late Antiquity. Archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse.
Archaeological research has shown that the area was occupied from the end of the Roman Republic (circa 27 BC) until the 5th century. It consisted of a large residential quarter along parallel streets, some flanked by porticos (covered colonnades), which were wide enough to conduct business and build small shops. The artisans must have done their work in the adjacent houses. Remains of water conduits and drains have also been found.
An Opulent Neighborhood
Among the many remarkable finds, the ‘House with the Large Triclinium’ with a surface of 705 square meters (7,600 square feet) and consisting of several units is a typical aristocratic mansion of the 2nd century AD. Three units had access to the garden, one had direct access to the street, and a spacious 90 square meters (970 square feet) room has been identified as the triclinium (dining hall) Remarkable wall paintings and a floor covered with multicolored marble were found here.
The House of the Genius dates back to the 1st century BC and has a surface of 975 square meters (10,500 square feet). It features an atrium and a peristyle and is comparable to the houses found in Pompeii. Here the living quarters were open to a garden surrounded by porticos, while the atrium, entrance hall and triclinium played a public function. Many rooms in this luxurious mansion had fine floor mosaics of black and white stones. The walls were decorated with equally splendid frescos. Among these were representations of a winged Victoria, of a genius carrying a cornucopia and pouring a libation, and of an Apollo with a laurel wreath (the protective deity of the emperor Augustus).
The mansions were abandoned in the course of the 3rd century, and a church was built on top of them in the 4th century. This Paleo-Christian basilica, the first known christian church in Narbonne, covered part of the House of the Genius. Underneath, the crypt and traces of a baptistery have been found, together with several sarcophagi. After the 5th century, the religious building was abandoned and the area went into decline.
A visit of the site is especially meaningful after seeing the mosaics and paintings originally found here at the Narbo Via museum.
Good to Know
- Getting Around — Much of the city centre can be covered on foot. There is also a free shuttle bus (the Citadine – lines 1 and 2) that services the various points of interest every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday from 7:40 am to 7:20 pm.
- Narbo Via, 2, avenue André Mècle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from May 2 through September 30, and 11:00 am to 6:00 pm from October 1 through April 30. It is closed on Monday and national holidays. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 68 90 28 90, e-mail..
- The Horreum, 7 Rue Rouget de Lisle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from May 2 through September 30 and 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm from October 1 through April 30. It is closed on Monday and national holidays.
- The Clos de la Lombarde — 28, rue Chanzy, 11100 Narbonne, is open to visitors for guided visits on Saturday mornings only, at 9:45 am and 10:45 am. Contact: e-mail.