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February 16, 2009

Wikipedia: Arles

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Coordinates: 43°40′41″N 04°37′46″E / 43.67806°N 4.62944°E / 43.67806; 4.62944

Commune of Arles

The Roman arena in Arles


Map highlighting the commune of

Coordinates 43°40′41″N 04°37′46″E / 43.67806°N 4.62944°E / 43.67806; 4.62944
Country France
Region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Department Bouches-du-Rhône
Arrondissement Arles
Canton Chief town of 2 cantons: Arles-Est and Arles-Ouest
Intercommunality Agglomeration community of Arles-Crau-Camargue-Montagnette
Mayor Hervé Schiavetti (PCF)
Elevation 0–57 m (0–190 ft)
(avg. 10 m/33 ft)
Land area1 758.93 km2 (293.02 sq mi)
 – Density 66 /km² (170 /sq mi) (2005)
INSEE/Postal code 13004/ 13200
1 French Land Register data, which excludes lakes, ponds, glaciers 1 km² (0.386 sq mi or 247 acres) and river estuaries.
2 Population sans doubles comptes: residents of multiple communes (e.g., students and military personnel) only counted once.
Arles, Roman and Romanesque Monuments*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Ruins at the Roman theatre.
State Party  France
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv
Reference 164
Region** Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1981  (5th Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Arles (IPA[aʁl̥]; Provençal Occitan: Arle [ˈaʀle] in both classical and Mistralian norms) is a city in the south of France, in the Bouches-du-Rhône department, of which it is a subprefecture, in the former province of Provence.



The Rhône river forks into two branches just upstream of Arles, forming the Camargue delta. Because the Camargue is administratively part of Arles, the commune as a whole is the largest commune in Metropolitan France in terms of territory, although its population is only slightly more than 50,000. Its area is 758.93 km2 (293.02 sq mi), which is more than seven times the area of Paris.


For the Ecclesiastical history see Archbishopric of Arles

Roman Arles

Arles was established by the Greeks as early as the 6th century BC under the name of Theline. It was captured by the Celtic Salluvii in 535 BC, who renamed it to Arelate. The Romans took the town in 123 BC and expanded it into an important city, with a canal link to the Mediterranean Sea being constructed in 104 BC. However, it struggled to escape the shadow of Massalia (Marseille) further along the coast.

Its chance came when it sided with Julius Caesar against Pompey, providing military support. Massalia backed Pompey; when Caesar emerged victorious, Massalia was stripped of its possessions, which were transferred to Arelate as a reward. The town was formally established as a colony for veterans of the Roman legion Legio VI Ferrata, which had its base there. Its full title as a colony was Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelatensium Sextanorum, “the ancestral Julian colony of Arles of the soldiers of the Sixth.”


Roman Arelate was a city of considerable importance in the province of Gallia Narbonensis. It covered an area of some 99 acres (400,000 m²) and possessed a wide array of monuments, including an amphitheatre, triumphal arch, Roman circus, theatre and a full circuit of walls. It was closer to the sea than it is now and served as a major port. It also had (and still has) the southernmost bridge on the Rhone. Very unusually, the Roman bridge was not fixed but used a pontoon-style bridge of boats, with towers and drawbridges at each end. The boats were secured in place with anchors and by being tethered to twin towers built just upstream of the bridge. This unusual design was a way of coping with the river’s frequent violent floods, which would have made short work of a conventional bridge. Nothing now remains of the Roman bridge, which has been replaced by a more modern bridge near the same spot.

The city reached a peak of influence during the 4th and 5th centuries, when it was frequently used as headquarters for Roman Emperors during military campaigns. In 395 it became the seat of the Praetorian Prefecture of the Gauls, governing the western part of the Western Empire: Gaul proper plus Hispania (Spain) and Armorica (Brittany).

It became a favorite city of Emperor Constantine I, who built baths there, substantial remains of which are still standing. His son, Constantine II, was born there. Usurper Constantine III declared himself emperor in the West (407–411) and made Arles his capital in 408.

Arles became renowned as a cultural and religious centre during the late Roman Empire. It was the birthplace of the sceptical philosopher Favorinus. It was also a key location for Roman Christianity and an important base for the Christianization of Gaul. The city’s bishopric was held by a series of outstanding clerics, beginning with Saint Trophimus around 225 and continuing with Saint Honoré, then Saint Hilary in the first half of the 5th century. The political tension between the Catholic bishops of Arles and the Visigothic kings is epitomized in the career of the Frankish St Caesarius, bishop of Arles 503–542, who was suspected by the Arian Visigoth Alaric II of conspiring with the Burgundians to turn over the Arelate to Burgundy, and was exiled for a year to Bordeaux in Aquitaine, and again in 512 when Arles held out against Theodoric the Great, Caesarius was imprisoned and sent to Ravenna to explain his actions before the Ostrogothic king.[1]

The friction between the Arian Christianity of the Visigoths and the Catholicism of the bishops sent out from Rome established deep roots for religious heterodoxy, even heresy, in Occitan culture. At Treves in 385, Priscillian achieved the distinction of becoming the first Christian burned alive for heresy (Manichaean in his case, see also Cathars, Camisards). Despite this tension and the city’s decline in the face of barbarian invasions, Arles remained a great religious centre and host of church councils (see Council of Arles), the rival of Vienne, for hundreds of years.

Cloister of Saint Trophimus.

Medieval Arles

Arles was badly affected by the invasion of Provence by the Muslim Saracens and the Franks, who took control of the region in the 8th century. In 855 it was made the capital of a Frankish Kingdom of Arles, which included Burgundy and part of Provence, but was frequently terrorised by Saracen and Viking raiders. In 888, Rodolphe, Count of Auxerre (now in north-western Burgundy), founded the kingdom of Bourgogne Transjurane (literally, beyond the Jura mountains), which included western Switzerland as far as the river Reuss, Valais, Geneva, Chablais and Bugey.

In 933, Hugh of Arles (“Hugues de Provence”) gave his kingdom up to Rodolphe II, who merged the two kingdoms into a new Kingdom of Arles. In 1032, King Rodolphe III died, and the Kingdom was inherited by Emperor Conrad II the Salic. Though his successors counted themselves kings of Arles, few went to be crowned in the cathedral. Most of the territory of the Kingdom was progressively incorporated into France. During these troubled times, the amphitheatre was converted into a fortress, with watchtowers built at each of the four quadrants and a minuscule walled town being constructed within. The population was by now only a fraction of what it had been in Roman times, with much of old Arles lying in ruins.

The town regained political and economic prominence in the 12th century, with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa traveling there in 1178 for his coronation. In the 12th century, it became a free city governed by an elected podestat (chief magistrate; literally “power”), who appointed the consuls and other magistrates. It retained this status until the French Revolution of 1789.

Arles joined the countship of Provence in 1239 but suffered its prominence being eclipsed once more by Marseille. In 1378, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV ceded the remnants of the Kingdom of Arles to the Dauphin of France (later King Charles VI of France) and the Kingdom ceased to exist even on paper.

Modern Arles

The Place Du Forum in Arles today.

Arles remained economically important for many years as a major port on the Rhône. The arrival of the railway in the 19th century eventually killed off much of the river trade, leading to the town becoming something of a backwater.

Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh (September 1888). It depicts the warmth of a café in Arles.

This made it an attractive destination for the painter Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there on 21 February 1888. He was fascinated by the Provençal landscapes, producing over 300 paintings and drawings during his time in Arles. Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Cafe, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhone, and L’Arlésienne. Paul Gauguin visited van Gogh in Arles. However, van Gogh’s mental health deteriorated and he became alarmingly eccentric, culminating in the infamous ear-severing incident in December 1888. The concerned Arlesians circulated a petition the following February demanding that van Gogh be confined. In May 1889 he took the hint and left Arles for the asylum at nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Main sights

Arles has important remains of Roman times, which have been listed as World Heritage Sites since 1981. They include:

  • The Roman theater
  • The arena or amphitheater
  • The Alyscamps (Roman necropolis)
  • The Thermae of Constantine
  • The cryptoporticus (open to the public – €3.50 Dec 2008))

The Church of St. Trophime (Saint Trophimus), formerly a cathedral, is a major work of Romanesque architecture, and the representation of the Last Judgment on its portal is considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture, as are the columns in the adjacent cloister.

Capital of column in St. Trophime cloister.

The town also has an outstanding museum of ancient history, the Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques, with one of the best collections of Roman sarcophagi to be found anywhere outside Rome itself. Another museum is the Museon Arlaten. However, perhaps surprisingly given the town’s importance to van Gogh, none of his works are on display in Arles.


Marble portrait bust (allegedly of an aged Caesar), found in the Rhone River near Arles, France.[2]

Main article: Arles portrait bust

In September-October 2007 divers led by Luc Long from the French Department of Subaquatic Archaeological Research, headed by Michel L’Hour, discovered a life-sized marble bust of an apparently important Roman person in the Rhone River near Arles, together with smaller statues of Marsyas in Hellenistic style and of the god Neptune from the third century AD. The larger bust was tentatively dated to 46 BC. Since the bust displayed several characteristics of an ageing person with wrinkles, deep naso-labial creases and hollows in his face, and since the archaeologists believed that Julius Caesar had founded the colony Colonia Iulia Paterna Arelate Sextanorum in 46 BC, the scientists came to the preliminary conclusion that the bust depicted a life-portrait of the Roman dictator: France’s Minister of Culture Christine Albanel reported on May 13, 2008, that the bust would be the oldest representation of Caesar known today.[3] The story was picked up by all larger media outlets.[4][5] The realism of the portrait was said to place it in the tradition of late Republican portrait and genre sculptures. The archaeologists further claimed that a bust of Julius Caesar might have been thrown away or discreetly disposed of, because Caesar’s portraits could have been viewed as politically dangerous possessions after the dictator’s assassination.

Historians and archaeologists not affiliated with the French administration, among them the renowned archaeologist and expert on Caesar and Augustus Paul Zanker, were quick to question whether the bust is a portrait of Caesar.[6][7][8] Many noted the lack of resemblances to Caesar’s likenesses issued on coins during the last years of the dictator’s life, and to the Tusculum bust of Caesar,[9] which depicts Julius Caesar in his lifetime, either as a so-called zeitgesicht or as a direct portrait. After a further stylistic assessment Zanker dated the Arles-bust to the Augustan period. Elkins argued for the third century AD as the terminus post quem for the deposition of the statues, refuting the claim that the bust was thrown away due to feared repercussions from Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.[10] The main argument by the French archaeologists that Caesar had founded the colony in 46 BC proved to be incorrect, as the colony was founded by Caesar’s former quaestor Tiberius Claudius Nero on the dictator’s orders in his absence.[11] Mary Beard has accused the persons involved in the find to have wilfully invented their claims for publicity reasons. The French ministry of culture has not yet responded to the criticism and negative reviews.



The Arlésiens (citizens of Arles) were noted for distinctive traditional dress which is now worn publicly at certain festivals and occasions.

A famous photography festival takes place in Arles every year, and the French national school of photography is located there. The major French publishing house Actes Sud is also situated in Arles.

The film Ronin was partially filmed in Arles.

Bull fights are conducted in the Roman amphitheater, including Provencal-style bullfights (courses camarguaises) in which the bull is not killed but rather a team of athletic men attempt to remove a tassle from the bull’s horn without getting injured. Every Easter and on the first weekend of September, Arles also holds Spanish-style corridas (in which the bulls are killed) with an encierro (bull-running in the streets) preceding each fight.

Arles’s open-air street market is a major market in the region. It occurs on Saturday and Wednesday mornings.

  • The Provençal poet Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914) was born near Arles.
  • Jeanne Calment (1875-1997), the oldest human being whose age is documented, was born, lived and died in Arles.
  • Anne-Marie David, singer (Eurovision winner in 1973)
  • Christian Lacroix, fashion designer, was born in Arles.
  • Djibril Cissé, footballer for Sunderland and France
  • Genesius of Arles, a notary martyred under Maximianus in 303 or 308.
  • Juan Bautista, matador.
  • Mehdi Savalli, matador.
  • The medieval writer Antoine de la Sale was probably born in Arles around 1386.
  • Home of the Gipsy Kings, a music group from Arles.

Twin towns

Arles is twinned with:

  • Flag of Russia Pskov, Russia
  • Flag of Spain Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
  • Flag of Germany Fulda, Germany
  • Flag of the United States York, Pennsylvania, USA
  • Flag of Spain Cubelles, Spain
  • Flag of Italy Vercelli, Italy
  • Flag of Mauritania Sagné, Mauritania
  • Flag of Greece Kalymnos, Greece
  • Flag of the United Kingdom Wisbech, United Kingdom
  • Flag of the People's Republic of China Zhouzhuang, China
  • Flag of Belgium Verviers, Belgium

See also

  • Archbishopric of Arles
  • Montmajour Abbey
  • Trinquetaille
  • Saint-Martin-de-Crau

Sources and external links

  • This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.
  • Tourist office website
  • Arles heritage website(in French)
  • Town council website (in French)
  • Early history
  • Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence antiques
  • The Complete Works of Van Gogh, Arles
  • Photogallery of Arles
  • A Few Views of Arles in Old Postcards
  • Information and photos from ProvenceBeyond website


  1. ^ Wace, Dictionary)
  2. ^ The identification as Julius Caesar is strongly disputed (see below).
  3. ^ Original communique (May 13, 2008); second communique (May 20, 2008); report (May 20, 2008)
  4. ^ E.g. “Divers find marble bust of Caesar that may date to 46 B.C.”, CNN-Online et al.
  5. ^ Video (QuickTime) on the archaeological find (France 3)
  6. ^ Paul Zanker, “Der Echte war energischer, distanzierter, ironischer”, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, May 25, 2008, on-line
  7. ^ Mary Beard, “The face of Julius Caesar? Come off it!”, TLS, May 14, 2008, on-line
  8. ^ Nathan T. Elkins, ‘Oldest Bust’ of Julius Caesar found in France?, May 14, 2008, on-line
  9. ^ Cp. this image at the AERIA library
  10. ^ A different approach was presented by Mary Beard in that members of a military Caesarian colony would not have discarded portraits of Caesar, whom they worshipped as god, although statues were in fact destroyed by the Anti-Caesarians in the city of Rome after Caesar’s assassination (Appian, BC III.1.9).
  11. ^ Konrat Ziegler & Walther Sontheimer (eds.), “Arelate”, in Der Kleine Pauly: Lexikon der Antike, Vol. 1, col. 525, Munich 1979; in 46 BC Caesar himself was campaigning in Africa, before later returning to Rome.

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