Roman Theatre of Orange

Roman Theatre of Orange

A place of History

The Roman Theatre of Orange is without doubt one of the finest remnants of the Roman Empire. Exceptional evidence of Ancient Rome and part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is the best preserved theatre in Europe. It owes its fame in particular to its magnificent stage wall, amazingly well-preserved and unique in the Western world. A venue for shows in Roman times, it continues in this role today, to the delight of music lovers the world over.

-36 Arausio

-36

Arausio

The Colonia Iulia Secundanorum Arausio was founded on the land of the Tricastini, a mixed Celtic-Ligurian tribe.

-36 Arausio

Orange (Arausio in Latin) was founded in -36 by the veterans of the 2nd Gallic Legion of Caesar. This legion had arrived in the region following the conquest of Gaul led by Julius Caesar, which ended with the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC.

The town of Arausio was built according to the classical layout of Roman towns—in a chequerboard pattern with two main perpendicular axes: the cardo maximus, which extended from the north to the south of the town, from the Triumphal Arch to the Theatre, and the decumanus maximus, which crossed the town from East to West. The forum was located at the junction of these two axes.

Roman towns contained various public monuments. They generally had a theatre, a forum, a temple, a circus, a triumphal arch, and thermal baths. Arausio’s Triumphal Arch was built circa 21–26 CE, in the north of the town to commemorate the exploits of the veterans of the Second Gallic Legion.  It was one of the largest monuments of its kind in the Roman Empire.

100 Construction of the Theatre

100

Construction of the Theatre

The Antique Theatre in Orange was constructed in the first century CE during the reign of Augustus. It was built with local stone: yellow limestone and white limestone. It is one of the best conserved theatres dating from the Roman Empire.

100 Construction of the Theatre

The theatre was built into the hill of Saint Eutrope. Along with the theatre in Arles, this was one of the first large public buildings built in Gallia Narbonensis at the beginning of the Empire.

When it was first built, the wall of the theatre was lavishly decorated with multi-coloured marble slabs, with statues in niches, friezes and columns. The only architectural decoration of the theatre, it did not change during performances, therefore certain mobile elements and accessories were installed to create the illusion of movement, space and perspective.

100 Construction of the Theatre

The Theatre in figures

The Antique Theatre in Orange is truly impressive due to its grandeur and imposing facade. King Louis XIV once described the imposing facade as ‘the most beautiful wall in my kingdom’.

61

metres
is the length
of the stage

3,55

meters
is the height
of the statue
of Augustus

103 meters long x 37 meters high

are the dimensions
of the stage wall

10 000

spectators
The theatre could accommodate 10,000 spectators

76

columns
Originally, there were 76 columns on the stage wall
391 The decline of the Theatre

391

The decline of the Theatre

The theatre, viewed in the same way as the temples as symbols of paganism and depravation, closed in 391. Subsequently, the town was invaded by the Barbarians, who ransacked the theatre.

391 The decline of the Theatre

In 391, Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official State religion. Cults and pagan pleasures were quickly banned. Temples were demolished or converted into churches. Amphitheatres, games and theatres were closed and left to ruin, and in many cases were looted and used as a source of stone for construction. The city of Orange experienced a similar fate. It was designated a diocese. While it remained standing, the theatre was now closed.

Throughout the 5th century, Barbarians continued to attack the Empire. The Visigoths took the town of Orange in 412. They looted and vandalized its monuments. The Roman theatre was no exception to this wave of destruction. Its stone steps were used to make sarcophagi, the decorative elements of the stage wall were torn down, the statue of the Emperor destroyed and the theatre of the roof set on fire. 

900 Orange at the heart of history

900

Orange at the heart of history

In the Middle Ages, the Theatre was completely forgotten and no longer used for performances. It was abandoned by the population and deteriorated.

900 Orange at the heart of history

William of Gellone, the Count of Toulouse and a relative of Charlemagne’s, was granted the county of Orange after he won back the city from the Saracens. His coat of arms, decorated with a black horn, was the origin for the emblem of the city which depicts a horn above three oranges. His successors made Orange a principality and the theatre once again began to host performances organized by the Church and travelling theatre companies.

In the 16th century, Orange, ruled by Protestant princes, became involved in the religious wars of the period. The city was pillaged and the inhabitants fled to escape persecution. Sometime later, the princes of Orange succeeded in restoring peace to the city. This period of calm, which lasted for more than 100 years, allowed the city to develop and the population expanded rapidly. Due to a lack of space, locals began to construct homes within the confines of the theatre. Against the backdrop of the stage wall and the stands, a veritable residential quarter sprung up, traversed by a street.

In 1789, makeshift prisons were set up in the thick walls of the theatre and in the basilicae, the towers flanking the stage. These were primarily used to house large numbers of prisoners during the Revolution.

1825 The resurrection of the Theatre

1825

The resurrection of the Theatre

A renewed interest in antiquity gained ground in Europe and there was a general desire to rediscover the heritage of past civilisations.  

1825 The resurrection of the Theatre

Prosper Mérimée, then inspector with the French heritage body known as Monuments Historiques, implemented an extensive restoration campaign. This consisted of clearing away the constructions built in and around the stage area and the lower tiers. The Roman theatre was finally restored to its former glory much to the delight of the public.

Partially restored, in 1869 the theatre hosted for the first time the ‘Fêtes Romaines’. Three well-known public figures, Anthony Réal, Félix Ripert and Alphonse Bernard were the key members of the organizing committee. They managed to attract more than 10,000 spectators for the performance of Méhul’s Joseph and a cantata in praise of the Romans, called Les Triomphateurs. The event was an immediate success.

In 1902, the ‘Fêtes Romaines’ are renamed the ‘Chorégies’ and became an annual event. Plays, operas, ballets, and symphony concerts would all be performed within this remarkable setting. Celebrities performed here: in 1903, the great Sarah Bernhardt interpreted one of her more memorable roles in Racine’s Phèdre.

1920 Archaeological discoveries at the site

1920

Archaeological discoveries at the site

In the twentieth century, several successive excavation campaigns unearthed many elements that shed light on the history of the monument and helped with its restoration.

1920 Archaeological discoveries at the site

Excavations uncovered the remains of a temple and its altar, built on a large stone floor, in the centre of a hemicycle. At one time surrounded by a semi-circular portico of 52 columns, some archaeologists believed these ruins to be the remains of a circus or a stadium. It is today believed that the theatre and the semi-circular building constitute an Augusteum, dedicated to the cult of the emperor.

In 1931, excavations carried out by Jules Formigé have cleared the columns that may currently be seen at the site, but which had disappeared over the years.

1971 An international aura

1971

An international aura

1971 An international aura

In 1971, the French Ministry of Culture designated Avignon the centre of theatre, and Orange the centre of the lyric arts and symphony concerts. This was the beginning of the new ‘Chorégies’, inaugurated by Carlo Maria Giulini and Montserrat Caballé. The presence of internationally-renowned artists and groups reinforced the theatre’s growing international reputation. 

As part of a large European tour organized by Miles Copeland, the ‘Startruckin Tour’, some of the biggest names in rock music performed on the stage of the Théâtre Antique d’Orange over the course of three days. Many of the artists included British rock stars. The French magazine, Paris Match, compared Orange 75 to Woodstock.

Certainly one of the finest legacies of Imperial Rome, Europe’s best preserved theatre has been included on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites since 1981. It is renowned for its magnificent stage wall, amazingly preserved and unique in the Western world.

2002 Culturespaces becomes a delegate

2002

Culturespaces becomes a delegate

The Municipal Council of the City of Orange entrusted Culturespaces with the management, running and promotion of the Théâtre Antique d’Orange and the Musée d’Orange in 2002. Every year, Culturespaces organizes, in collaboration with the city, a rich programme of cultural events, including concerts, re-enactments of the Roman Legions, etc.

2002 Culturespaces becomes a delegate

2006 A new stage roof

2006

A new stage roof

The plans for creating this huge 1000-m² glass canopy were finalised in 2004 and the roof was completed in 2006 to protect the wall from deterioration due to bad weather.

2006 A new stage roof

The Romans built a wooden structure that supported a roof but it was destroyed by a huge fire that ravaged the theatre in the 4th century. Rather than attempt to roughly reconstruct the original wooden structure, Didier Repellin, head architect of Monuments Historiques, decide to move more towards modern architecture. 

As a result, this contemporary cover of glass and steel effectively protects the stage wall, highlights it and also integrates scenery for shows.

2009 The promotion of the Theatre

2009

The promotion of the Theatre

Every year, Culturespaces organises—in conjunction with the city authorities—numerous events and implements large-scale projects that highlight the Theatre and its history.

2009 The promotion of the Theatre

2009, the multimedia visit “The Ghost of the Theatre”
Renamed “From Romans to Chorégies” this visit takes the audience on a fabulous journey through time. Internationally recognised or more unusual, the actors who have trodden the boards here now reappear thanks to the magic of multimedia. 

2019, virtual reality is coming to the Antique Theatre in Orange 
The historic monument have been digitally reconstituted, providing visitors with a 360° virtual tour via virtual reality headsets. You are invited to immerse in the heart of Roman antiquity, providing with an intense immersive experience. Taken back to the first century BCE, you can see the construction of the theatre, from the founding of the town of Arausio to its inauguration.

2019, les Augustales 
Culturespaces sets up an entertainment program at the Théâtre Antique d'Orange to introduce the public to the Roman Civilization. The visit is punctuated with activities around the Romanity to revive the life of the theater district, social, political and religious center of the city of Arausio.

2009 The promotion of the Theatre