The Wandering Classicist’s Guide to Paris

By Emily Peacock

 

As an Open University Classics graduate it is probably no surprise that I am a hopeless obsessive of all things antiquity-related. I have the pleasure to live in Paris, and I have spent the last few years taking full advantage of the wealth of ancient history on my doorstep. There are many interesting Roman cities in France outside of Paris, especially the absolutely phenomenal small city of Nîmes in the south, which hosts an annual week-end long Roman Games in an amphitheatre, and the town of Saintes in the west, which has a curiously ramshackle approach to restoring its ruins. Both of these are well worth a visit for those Classically inclined, as are many other Gallic sites scattered across the country (not sure if the Parc d’Astérix, counts but it is a great day out!). However, because Paris is my daily stomping ground I have a few suggestions which could form a weekend getaway in the city of light, if the Eiffel tower feels at least 1600 years too young!

 

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The Sorbonne University and rooftops of the Latin Quarter

 

My number one suggestion for a Classics-themed stay in Paris is to make a bee-line for where the Romans founded their city of Lutetia, which is in an area now known as the Latin Quarter. This part of the Left Bank is home to multiple well-preserved ruins, but also many traditional Parisian cafés (with traditional waiters…) and is a lively student area, so you can’t go wrong (except in the eyes of said traditional waiters!).

The Latin Quarter contains one of the most impressive Roman baths outside of Italy. The Thermes de Cluny are visible from the street, but well worth the price of an entry ticket. The frigidarium is so well preserved you can almost hear the splashing about of Celts and Romans alike. The walls still have some marble and mosaics visible, and the vaulted room now houses a small but captivating collection. This includes a beautiful set of columns combining Celtic and Roman art, demonstrating just how blended the two cultures became. The archaeological site is now part of the Cluny Museum, which is also the national museum of the Middle Ages and is home to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. This slightly idiosyncratic setup makes a visit to the museum feel like a wander through time.

 

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The Thermes de Cluny

 

Only a short walk away from the baths there is the Arènes de Lutèce, a gem which is so well hidden it took me a whole year of basically living on top of it before I found out it even existed! It is a theatre from the 1st Century AD, which was lost for most of history before being rediscovered in the 1860s when local demolition was underway to build a tramway. It was saved from tram-shaped destruction by the efforts of Victor Hugo and friends, who managed to sway public opinion towards restoration. Now it is a quiet public park with French families playing pétanque where there used to be gladiatorial combat.

 

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It’s easy to mistake the entrance for a private courtyard at first glance

 

You may often find me in the stalls of the amphitheatre puzzling over Latin grammar, for which I may be guilty of being a little too cliché because the area gained the moniker Quartier Latin due to the Sorbonne University being founded in the neighbourhood in the 12th Century, and Latin being the language of the lessons.

The Sorbonne, which still holds an imposing position in the landscape of Paris and the minds of the French, does a week-long Classical History summer school which may look good on a CV, and is certainly a lot of fun. The Greco-Roman programme is fantastic, with a focus on philosophy and art in antiquity. Although that particular programme is solely in French, they do also have a more general cultural programme in English which comes highly recommended. Clearly not a suggestion for a weekend getaway – but if you’re not one for a beach summer holiday it may be worth checking out what they have planned for next summer.

 

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The imposing neoclassical entrance to the Sorbonne University

 

Paris has been continuously inhabited since the Parisii tribe who were based on the Île de la Cité, the city’s central island which now hosts Notre Dame. The Parisii were forced to put up with their new noisy neighbours, the Romans, who settled on the Left Bank nearby. The fact Parisians have been dealing with noisy neighbours ever since means there are layers and layers of archaeology which have barely been excavated. This gives rise to dreams of taking a pick-axe down to my basement to see what wonders I might uncover as I dodge the rats – and perhaps after a morning of walking round the sites of the Latin Quarter, as you take a break on a sunny terrace, you might also find yourself itching to know what Gallo-Roman history there is yet to discover.

Outside of the Latin Quarter, there is, of course, the Louvre. The collection of art and artefacts from Greece, Rome, and frankly everywhere else on Earth, is truly incredible. Thankfully the Greco-Roman halls are not on the ‘all-stars’ route which cuts through the museum directly headed for Mona Lisa and her famous friends. This means it is usually possible to gaze at the many statues of pouting Antinous without getting whacked over the head by a selfie stick. The sheer quantity of art and artefacts both makes the Louvre unmissable and makes it a trip for those courageous of heart. I always come away feeling a little guilty for not paying enough attention to objects which could hold pride of place as a star exhibit in a smaller museum, but which get a little lost in the endless cases of the former palace. Nonetheless the Louvre is world renowned for good reason, and it is an undeniably beautiful setting in which to try and spot funerary representations of Hippolytus and Phaedra.

 

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This Phaedra from 290 CE also looks like she’s getting a little weary of the crowds

 

 

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Cupid and Psyche by Canova, amongst other star inhabitants of the museum

 

Wandering around the city, it is impossible to miss the neoclassical architecture of so many imperious buildings such as the Palais Bourbon, which is now the home of the Assemblée Nationale, and the Pantheon, which is a mausoleum for the country’s most distinguished dead. This act as a reminder that the influence of the Classical world can still be seen above ground all over the city, even if it’s only possible to see actual ruins in the Latin Quarter. An amble around the Roman sites of the left bank, and a power-walk through the Louvre might even leave enough time left in a week-end getaway to admire the Eiffel tower as the sparkly lights turn on in the evening. It does have a certain je ne sais quoi!

 

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Looking up at the Pantheon, also in the Latin Quarter, for a reminder of the Romans below

 

Emily Peacock is a recent OU graduate. Find her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/_et_in_arcadia_ego_/.

 


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