Last Updated on 9th July 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
You may well have heard the names ‘Lutetia’ or ‘Lutetia Parisiorum’ before, or most likely ‘Lutèce’ as it is so-called in French. However, what you may well not know is that this was one of the first names of Paris, given to the now-French capital during the Gallo-Roman period. And if you’re a history buff like me, then you’ll be delighted to know that vestiges of Ancient Lutetia can still be seen today. Here’s a guide to exploring Roman Paris!
Introducing Lutetia: The Roman Paris you’ve never heard of
But first, a little history… In the first Century BCE, the Roman armies arrived at a plot of land which was rich in nutrients and sliced through by a winding river, that we now know as the Seine. Occupied by the Parisii, as well as other Gallic tribes, after a series of bloody battles (which saw significant losses on both sides), the Romans eventually took control of the land.
The Roman heart of Lutetia was not Île de la Cité (as you might expect from its strategic and easy to defend location in the middle of the river) but instead where the Paris Pantheon now stands today. The name transitioned slowly from Lutetia to Parisii, and by the end of the third century, the name was well on the way to becoming the ‘Paris’ we all recognise today.
Also worth noting is that Lutece was never a particularly important city and its population certainly never hovered above around five thousand residents. This is stark in contrast to vast Roman cities like Lyon or Narbonne in Southern France.
Île de la Cité: Rue de la Colombe & The Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame
Tucked away on Île de la Cité, steps away from the impossibly beautiful Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole and not far from iconic Notre Dame, Rue de la Colombe is so-called for a pair of doves who are alleged to have fallen in love during the Middle Ages.
Île de la Cité itself is one of two major natural inhabited islands in the middle of the River Seine and is where the true story of Paris began. As such, walk along Rue de la Colombe and you’ll find traces of the former Roman ramparts on the ground at around Number 5 (i.e. next to the bar of No. 4).
Nearby, the Crypt of Notre Dame promises even more tantalising discoveries. For under the parvis, which is now home to Paris Point Zero, the crypt offers not only a glimpse into the world-famous cathedral but also the chance to see the ancient building stones and foundations of Roman Paris.
Thermes de Cluny (The Roman baths), Musée de Cluny, Latin Quarter
Situated behind an iron grill and located in the Latin Quarter (during the Middle Ages, students of the nearby Sorbonne would converse with one another solely in the Latin language, hence the name), at a first glance the crumbling walls look like there’s little to see.
However, the Abbey and College of Cluny were actually constructed around the Roman baths, which themselves date all the way back to the 2nd Century. Rediscovered at some point during the 12th or 13th Centuries, now the former bathhouses are part of Musée Cluny, a historical hub dedicated to the city’s medieval history.
If you want to experience the history of the baths, which are also known as the Thermes de Cluny, then it’s worth noting that the baths are among some of the best preserved in Europe. This is mostly due to the vaulted room (frigidarium) which can be seen on a visit to the museum.
La Rue Saint Jacques, Latin Quarter
One wander among the Haussmanian architecture of Rue Saint Jacques, and you’d never hazard a guess that you’re actually walking along what is likely the same route the Cardo Maximus (the Main Street of Lutetia), as well as the beating heart of medieval Paris.
The entire Gallo-Roman settlement was built on the grid system and what is now Rue Saint Jacques would have connected the Seine to the road which led to Spain. Nearby Boulevard Saint Michel would also have been one of the most important roads in Roman Paris.
Arènes de Lutèce, Latin Quarter
If you’ve ever studied the Classical World, then no doubt you’ll have seen images of the most famous amphitheatre in the world, The Colosseum in Rome. Amphitheatres were also popular in the Hellenic world, and last month I was lucky enough to visit the Kourion Amphitheatre in what is now Cyprus.
However, what you may not know is that many smaller Roman towns also had their own theatres. Toulouse, Arles, and even London (then known as Londinium) all had their own amphitheatres. Lutetia also had one on the fringes of town, that of the Arènes de Lutèce.
As one of the larger theatres in Gaul, the Arena could probably seat around 15,000 residents, more at a push. In a somewhat shocking development, due to a series of events, including an invasion and the expansion of the medieval city, the Roman Paris amphitheatre was actually lost for close to two millennia, only rediscovered during the 19th-century!
Following Roman rule, the amphitheatre was used for various purposes before being lost to the world until the mid-19th-century. Much like nearby Notre Dame Cathedral, it was Victor Hugo who was critical in instigating the push to save the Arenes de Lutece from complete destruction.
Today, the former amphitheatre is also located in the Latin Quarter and is known as the Arenes de Lutece. Most popular among teenagers wishing to play ball games like football, little remains of the original construction, though the outline can still be seen. What you see now is just a third of the original size!
Place de la Sorbonne, Latin Quarter
For those familiar with the Latin Quarter, the imposing architecture of La Sorbonne university likely needs no introduction. The beautiful Richelieu era Chapel and 19th-century style buildings merit a visit of their own accord.
However, if you’re looking for Roman Paris, then it’s worth noting that Place de la Sorbonne (an area now populated by small bars, restaurants, and filled with students) is where extensive archaeological digs have taken place. After all, a dig in the early 2000s revealed two houses, a slice of Roman road, and an old cellar.
Musée Carnavalet, Le Marais
And if all of these Roman sites in Paris were not enough, and you want to get a feel for how Roman Paris evolved into the Paris we all know and love today, then you should head to the Musée Carnavalet. Located in the Le Marais district of the city.
Housed within a former mansion, you can’t go wrong by dedicating a couple of hours to uncovering the mysteries of the history of the city… For more information on Le Marais, here’s a free and self-guided walking tour!