In Obscure Paris/ Paris

Arènes de Lutèce: Inside Paris’ Roman Theatre

In Search of Roman Paris: Ancient & Historic Roman sites in Paris, France
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Tucked away somewhere between the Jardin des Plantes and the world-famous Sorbonne University you’ll find a little lane. Stroll along the sun-dappled gravel path and you’ll soon emerge into the heart of one of the most historic spots in the city. The Arènes de Lutèce date back to a time when Paris was known as Lutetia (Lutèce in French) and once seated some 15,000 spectators. Here’s a quick history and how you can visit for yourself…

This hidden gem of Paris is easily one of my favourite spots in the 5th arrondissement of the city. And not just because there are fewer tourists and visitors than at many of the more famous attractions in the area. Instead, the Arènes de Lutèce is not even known by Parisians themselves and are truly tucked away, hidden on all sides by quintessentially Haumssmannian apartment blocks.

Address | Arènes de Lutèce et square Capitan, 49 rue Monge, 75005 Paris 

In Search of Roman Paris: Ancient & Historic Roman sites in Paris, France

A quick history of the Arènes de Lutèce

Located in the Latin Quarter, a district so-called because during the Middle Ages students of the Sorbonne University would converse with one another solely in Latin, the Arènes de Lutèce is easily one of the oldest monuments to be found in the Parisian arrondissement.

Nearby, there are several other vestiges of Roman Paris to be spied, including the ancient Roman Baths close to the Musée de Cluny and the stretch of straight road that was once hailed as the main thoroughfare through the Ancient Settlement of Lutetia.

The Arènes de Lutèce itself was likely constructed between the 1st and late 2nd Century CE, though there’s no concrete evidence of the exact date! At its completion, the amphitheatre would have been 132 m long by 100 m wide and been created entirely from local stone. However, the arena didn’t stand for long, for it was destroyed during the 3rd century, with the stone taken for use of other local projects.

Today, it’s still possible to spot the stage where actors would have stood and performances would have taken place. In a somewhat shocking twist of history, the arena was actually lost for close to two millennia. You see, during Medieval Times, the rapid expansion of the city meant that only the faintest traces of the amphitheatre were left, that of its name. The rest of the Roman amphitheatre remains were covered in dwellings.

During this time, the area was known as ‘Clos Aux Arènes’. And it wasn’t until excavations by Théodore Vaquer in 1869 when the amphitheatre was rediscovered during renovations of the Monge area. Though the public wanted the arena to be restored following the rediscovery of the Arènes de Lutèce (a project led by Victor Hugo), the present park was not opened to the public until 1917.

In Search of Roman Paris: Ancient & Historic Roman sites in Paris, France

How to visit the Arènes de Lutèce

Today, little of the original structure remains save for its shape. Indeed, the only actual Gallo-Roman remains to be found in Paris today are those at the Thermes de Cluny. As such, the arena is free to visit and explore during opening times (which tends to be during daylight hours, meaning that the amphitheatre’s hours of operation change throughout the year).

You should know before you go that while much of the arena was restored, it’s still impossible to gauge the sheer size of the amphitheatre as some of the original space remains buried away underneath Rue Monge. Around a third of the original amphitheatre remains uncovered today. Visit during the weekend and you’ll likely see a local football match going on!

Otherwise, the flat sandy spot makes for the perfect location for playing boules, a popular French sport that was likely invented in the Provençal city of La Ciotat. There are actually three entrances to the park, though the easiest to find is also nearest the metro station of Place Monge (line 7).

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