Friday, August 28, 2015

Arles in Provence

Currently one group of player characters have stopped in Arles on their way to Marseille. When I have time, I create a file for the towns and cities that the PCs encounter or are likely to encounter during play. Some, like Amsterdam, Brussels, Lyon, Marseille, and of course, Paris can be quite long and detailed. I always try to get a map from around the time of the period. (Sadly I haven't been able to locate a good one for Arles.

I thought I'd share one of files to gauge interest. Let me know if you want to see more of these town and city write-ups.


Arles in the 17th century

0—57 m (0–187 ft)

avg. 10 m (33 ft)

Arles (French pronunciation: [aʁl]; Occitan: Arle [ˈaʀle] in both classical and Mistralian norms; Arelate in ancient Latin) is a city and commune in the south of France in the province of Provence. Arles is a major port and transship site on the Rhône. Citizens of Arles are known as Arlésiens. Arles is part of and includes a large part of the Camargue in its territory. The city has a long history, and was of considerable importance in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. 


The river Rhône forks into two branches just upstream of Arles, forming the Camargue delta. Because the Camargue is for a large part 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.

Ancient era

The Ligurians were in this area from about 800 BC. Later, Celtic influences have been discovered. The city became an important Phoenician trading port, before being taken by the Romans.

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 (Marseilles) 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."

Arelate was a city of considerable importance in the province of Gallia Narbonensis. It covered an area of some 99 acres (40 ha) (400,000 m²) and possessed a number of monuments, including an amphitheatre, triumphal arch, Roman circus, theatre, and a full circuit of walls. Ancient Arles 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 Rhône. Very unusually, the Roman bridge was not fixed but consisted of a pontoon-style bridge of boats, with towers and drawbridges at each end. The boats were secured in place by anchors and were 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 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 Roman Emperors frequently used it as their headquarters 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). At that time, the city were perhaps home to 75,000 - 100,000 people.[1][2][3][4]

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 in Arles. 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 Honoratus, then Saint Hilarius 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.[5]

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 executed 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.

Middle Ages

In 735, after raiding the Lower Rhône, Andalusian Saracens led by Yusuf ibn 'Abd al-Rahman al-Fihri moved into the stronghold summoned by Count Maurontus, who feared Charles Martel's expansionist ambitions, though this may have been an excuse to further Moorish expansion beyond Iberia. The next year, Charles campaigned south to Septimania and Provence, attacking and capturing Arles after destroying Avignon. In 739. Charles definitely drove Maurontus to exile, and brought Provence to heel. 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, Rudolph, Count of Auxerre (now in north-western Burgundy), founded the kingdom of Transjuran Burgundy (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 Rudolph II, who merged the two kingdoms into a new Kingdom of Arles. In 1032, King Rudolph 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 kingdom's territory 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 still retains this status.

Arles joined the countship of Provence in 1239, but, once more, its prominence was eclipsed by Marseilles. 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.

Jewish history

Arles had an important and evident Jewish community between the Roman era and until the end of the 15th century. Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, famous Jewish scholar and philosopher, was born in and active during the Middle Ages. Arles was an important Jewish crossroads, as a port city and close to Spain and the rest of Europe alike. The community lived relatively peacefully until the last decade of the 15th century, when they were expelled out of the city never to return. Several Jews did live in the city in the centuries after, though no community was found ever after.

Figure 1: Map of Arles

Main sights and Points of Interest

  • The Gallo-Roman theatre
  • The Arena (amphitheatre)
  • The Alyscamps (Roman necropolis)
  • Baths (Thermae) of Constantine
  • The cryptoporticus
  • Arles Obelisk
  • Barbegal aqueduct and mill
  • Cathedral of St. Trophime
  • Montmajour Abbey
  • Trinquetaille

The Gallo-Roman theatre was built at the end of the 1st century BC. The cavea held 10,000 people in 33 rows of seats. The majestic high wall at the back of the stage was decorated with columns and statues. From the 5th century onwards, the theatre area was occupied by houses and religious buildings.

The Arènes d'Arles or the Arles Amphitheatre is a two-tiered Roman amphitheatre that measures 136 m (446 ft) long, 109 m (358 ft) wide, 21 m (69 ft) high, and features 120 arches. It has an oval arena surrounded by terraces, arcades on two levels (60 in all), bleachers, a system of galleries, drainage system in many corridors of access and staircases for a quick exit from the crowd. Built around AD 90, it ranks among the great amphitheatres and could hold 20,000 spectators. Gladiator fights and animal hunts took place here until the end of the 5th century. During the Middle Ages, the building became a fortress town with four towers, sheltering within its walls two chapels: one in the centre of the building and another one at the base of the west tower, 212 houses, and a public square built in the centre of the arena.

The Alyscamps is a large Roman necropolis, which is a short distance outside the walls of the old town of Arles, France. It was one of the most famous necropolises of the ancient world. The name comes from the Provençal Occitan word Aliscamps, who comes from the Latin Elisii Campi (that is, in French, Champs-Élysées; in English Elysian Fields). They were famous in the Middle Ages and are referred to by Ariosto in Orlando Furioso and by Dante in the Inferno.

Roman cities traditionally forbade burials within the city limits. It was therefore common for the roads immediately outside a city to be lined with tombs and mausoleums; the Alyscamps was Arles' main burial ground for nearly 1,500 years. It was the final segment of the Aurelian Way leading up to the city gates and was used as a burial ground for well-off citizens, whose memorials ranged from simple sarcophagi to elaborate monuments.

The Alyscamps continued to be used after the city was Christianised in the 4th century. Saint Genesius, a Roman civil servant beheaded in 303 for refusing to follow orders to persecute Christians, was buried there and rapidly became the focus of a cult. Saint Trophimus, possibly the first bishop of Arles, was buried there soon afterwards. It was claimed that Christ himself attended the ceremony, leaving the imprint of his knee on a sarcophagus lid.

The area became a highly desirable place to be buried and tombs soon multiplied. As early as the 4th century there were already several thousand tombs, necessitating the stacking of sarcophagi three layers deep. Burial in the Alyscamps became so desirable that bodies were shipped there from all over Europe, with the Rhône boatmen making a healthy profit from the transportation of coffins to Arles.

In 1040 the site became the Saint-Honorat priory, one of the required stops on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and the site continued to be used well into medieval times, although the removal of Saint Trophimus' relics to the cathedral in 1152 reduced its prestige. During the Renaissance the necropolis was systematically looted, with city councillors giving sarcophagi as gifts to distinguished visitors and local people using funerary stones as building material.

The Baths of Constantine were built beside the Rhône during the 4th century as part of a multi-building complex. Still visible today are the hot rooms, the pools, and the ventilation system for the hot air circulating within the walls through tubuli (hollow tiles) and between the piles of bricks (hypocausts). The walls, consisting of alternating rows of bricks and small worked limestone blocks, are built around a semi-circular apse which was lit by three high round-arched windows, and covered with a magnificent quarter-sphere vault (cul-de-four). Towards the south were located the warm baths, the cold baths, and the palaestra (gymnasium).

The Cryptoporticus of Arles, dating from the 1st century BC was built as foundation for the forum, which has since been replaced by the Chapel of the Jesuit College and the City Hall. Three double, parallel tunnels arranged in the form of a U are supported by fifty piers. Masons' marks on the stonework indicate that it was built by Greeks, probably from Marseille. Similar structures in Narbonne, Reims, and Bavay were used as granaries. The cryptoporticus at Arles is, however, too damp for prolonged storage and may have served as a barracks for public slaves.

The Arles Obelisk is a 4th-century Roman obelisk, erected in the center plaza in front of the town hall. The obelisk was first erected under the Roman emperor Constantine II in the center of the spina of the Roman circus of Arles. After the circus was abandoned in the 6th century, the obelisk fell down and was broken in two parts. It was rediscovered in the 14th century and re-erected on top of a pedestal. The obelisk is made of granite from Asia Minor. It does not feature any inscription. Its height together with its pedestal is 20 m.

The Barbegal aqueduct and mill is a Roman watermill complex located on the territory of the commune of Fontvieille, near the town of Arles, in southern France. The complex has been referred to as "the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world". The site is on a Roman aqueduct that was built to supply drinking water from the mountain chain of the Alpilles to the town of Arles, France (then called Arelate) on the Rhône River. Twelve kilometers north of Arles, at Barbegal, near Fontvieille, where the aqueduct arrived at a steep hill, the aqueduct fed two parallel sets of eight water wheels to power a flourmill. There are two aqueducts which join just north of the mill complex, and a sluice which enabled the operators to control the water supply to the complex. The mill consisted of 16 overshot waterwheels in two separate descending rows built into a steep hillside. There are substantial masonry remains of the water channels and foundations of the individual mills, together with a staircase rising up the hill upon which the mills are built. The mills apparently operated from the end of the 1st century until about the end of the 3rd century.

The Cathedral of St. Trophime (Saint Trophimus) 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. The bishopric of Arles was founded in 330. It was promoted a metropolitan archdiocese in 460. Gaspard du Laurent has been archbishop since 1603.

Montmajour Abbey formally the Abbey of St. Peter in Montmajour (French: Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Montmajour), is a fortified Benedictine monastery. Construction started in the 10th century on what was originally an island five kilometers north of Arles. The abbey complex consists of five sections:

  • hermitage, 11th C, includes Chapel of St. Peter;
  • cloister, 12th and 13th C;
  • adjacent Chapel of the Holy Cross, 12th C;
  • fortified Monastery of St. Peter, 14th C;
  • Tower of Abbot Pons de l'Orme, 14th C;

The abbey is noted for its 11th–14th-century graves, carved in the rock, its subterranean crypt, and its massive unfinished church. It was an important pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. During the Wars of Religion, the abbey was occupied by soldiers of the Catholic League in 1593 and the monks were forced to move to Arles for two years. On their return, they found the monastery ruined.

Trinquetaille is a quarter of the city located in Arles-Ouest on the west or right bank of the "Grand Rhône". This position at the top of the Rhône delta makes it part of the Camargue. In the Middle Ages it was the site of an important fortification, the base of the House of Baux. Trinquetaille Castle was raised in 1161 during the Baussenque Wars, but was rebuilt.


A feria is an annual local festival in Spain and southern France, characterized by bullfights, bull running in the streets, bodegas (outdoor bars or cellars with festive music) and bands. Bull fights are conducted including Provençal-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, during the fera, Arles also holds Spanish-style corridas (in which the bulls are killed) with an encierro (bull-running in the streets) preceding each fight. Participants in the corrida dress in white with a red sash and/or head scarf.

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

Notable people

  • Genesius of Arles, a notary martyred by Maximianus in 303 or 308
  • Saint Caesarius of Arles, bishop who lived from the late 5th to the mid 6th century, known for prophecy and writings that would later be used by theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Samuel ibn Tibbon (c. 1150 - c. 1230), famous Jewish philosopher, doctor, and translator.
  • Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir (1286 – died after 1328) a Jewish philosopher and translator from a famous Provençal family of Jewish scholars.
  • The medieval writer Antoine de la Sale was probably born in Arles around 1386.

See also

  • Archbishopric of Arles Gaspard du Laurent is the archbishop of Arles from 1603–1630.
  • Saint-Martin-de-Crau is a small, low density commune. Inhabitants are called Saint-Martinois.
  • Communes of the Bouches-du-Rhône department lists other communities around Arles.
  • Travel in the South of France:

Main Source:

  • Wikipedia:

Link to Aix-en-Provence


  1. Very cool! Lots of detail for breathing life into the place. Great job!

  2. Thanks. I'll look at what others I have that I can post

    What's new with your pistols?

  3. Heh. I have a few irons in the fire, but a lot is waiting to see how the kids' schedule shakes out for this year. Plus I have some Roll20 related projects I'm hoping to tackle in the short term. September may look lean, but in reality is very busy. I'm hoping to get the Sirens up next week though.