Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur Section
Vaison-la-Romaine, roman ruins and medieval city
Vaison-la-Romaine, one of the jewels of Vaucluse
Vaison-la-Romaine is one of the cities with the highest concentration of Gallo-Roman ruins excavated to date in France.
One of the jewels of the department of Vaucluse, it is part of the Regional Natural Park of Mont Ventoux.
Located between the Rhone Valley and the Mont Ventoux, it lies at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail, among vineyards, olive groves and forests.
The river Ouvèze splits the city in two.
The Haute Ville, the medieval town, is perched on the rocky outcrop of the left bank; the lower town, on the right bank, developed from the mid 19th century onward over the ruins of the Roman city.
Vaison, 20 centuries of urban evolution
Vaison-la-Romaine was built, rebuilt and enlarged over the centuries on the same site, reusing or integrating antic vestiges.
The city is thus a superb illustration of urban evolution spanning more than 20 centuries.
Its privileged location, perched high on the rocky outcrop overlooking the Ouvèze, attracted men since time immemorial.
The excavations that took place in the early 20th century brought to light artefacts from the late Neolithic (7,000 to 3,000 BC).
They also uncovered vestiges of habitat and ramparts from the Iron Age (700 to 500 BC) on the left bank of the Ouvèze, at the foot of the Haute Ville.
And of course, they brought to light the vast Roman city that spread on the right bank, of which 15 hectares have so far been excavated.
Vaison, the City of the Voconces
In the 1st century, the city was called Vasio Vocontiorum - the Vaison des Voconces.
The Gallic Voconces built their capital on the rocky outcrop on the left bank of the river Ouvèze, near a sacred source dedicated to Vasio, the Goddess of Springs.
Vasio Vocontiorum evolved in Vaison - Veisoun in Provencal - a name the city kept until the archaeological excavations of the early 20th century.
Vaison became officially known as Vaison-la-Romaine!
Vaison-la-Romaine, the Gallo-Roman city
The Romans conquered Provence in the 2nd century BC.
They rewarded the Voconces, who sided with them, by making Vasio a federated city and not a colony!
As a result, Vasio Vocontiorum became one of the wealthiest cities of the Province Narbonnaise during the 2nd century AD.
In the 1st century, the Voconces – who by then had fully adopted the Roman culture - enlarged their city in the plain, on the right bank of the Ouvèze.
They built roads and large public monuments - baths, bridges, aqueduct, theater, bridge – that transformed their large agricultural estates into hamlets and villages that eventually merged into one city.
By the 2nd century AD, Vasio Vocontiorum stretched over nearly 75 hectares.
The barbarian invasions of the 5th century precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire and ruined this flourishing city, whose vestiges were excavated on the sites of Puymin and La Villasse.
Roman bridge of Vaison-la-Romaine
The Roman bridge is one of Vaison’s emblematic monuments.
The single arch bridge has a width of 9m, a 17.20m span and is anchored in the cliff with five semicircular arches.
It links the Ville Haute to the lower town - Ville Basse, and turned Vaison into an active river port from the Roman era throughout the Middle Ages.
Not only is this bridge still in use, but it survived several tragic floods; the latest one, in September 1992, caused the death of 47 people and the disappearance of 34.
This bridge, classified historical monument in 1840, is undoubtedly a superb demonstration of Roman civil engineering!
Vaison, seat of a diocese and part of the County of Toulouse
The fall of the Roman Empire led naturally to the decline of paganism and the emergence of Christianity.
In the 4th century Vaison thus became the seat of a bishopric.
From then on, the city developed on the right bank around the abbey, the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Nazareth (the mother church of the diocese of Vaison) and the episcopal palace.
In the early 12th century, an unusual situation occurred; the city became papal property, but was also integrated to the Marquisate of Provence which depended from the Count of Toulouse.
This dual ownership obviously led to territorial quarrels between the two parties!
The bishops ruled over the Ville Basse, the Counts of Toulouse over the Ville Haute where they built a wooden defense tower.
In 1195, Raymond VI replaced the tower by a stone fortress and fortified the surrounding city to assert its power.
The population deserted the lower town in the 13th century for the Haute Ville, which expanded throughout the Middle Ages.
The first settlements reappeared on the right bank during the 17th century, but urbanization took off in the mid 19th century due to the lack of building space in the Ville Haute.
The Haute Ville developed around the castle of the Counts of Toulouse; high perched on a rocky outcrop, it boasts exceptional views of the lower town and surrounding landscape.
The medieval city spread over 3 hectares; the fortifications were strengthened in the 15th century and a drawbridge accessed it.
Most houses, built with stones recovered from the Roman buildings of the right bank, border steep lanes that lead to the castle and its courtyard (bought by the City of Vaison in 1791), and to small squares and their fountains.
They also lead to the Cathedrale Sainte-Marie de l'Assomption or Cathedrale Haute that was classified historical monument in 1994.
This cathedral was built in the 15th century and regularly modified until the 18th century; it replaced the 12th century church, which has become too small to accommodate the population that flocked in the 13th century.
Not only does it flank the cliff, but its base is part of the rampart.
It was closed in 1897 but not disaffected, and later became a parish church; restored in 2015, it now serves as a venue for cultural events.
The Roman city of the Right Bank
The Ville Basse, on the right bank of the Ouvèze, corresponds to the city that developed around the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Nazareth, the mother church of the diocese of Vaison.
In the 12th century, this city was regularly looted by order of the Count of Toulouse who disputed its ownership to the bishop of Vaison.
Very little remains of this medieval city deserted in the 13th century in favour of the Ville Haute.
The Ville Basse also corresponds to the Gallo-Roman city where excavations brought to light two major sites, Puymin and La Villasse.
The Gallo-Roman ruins of Vaison are among the most important in France.
About 15 hectares of this Gallo-Roman city, the north baths and La Maison du Paon - Peacock House are now excavated (the last two are not open to the public).
The rest of the antic city still lies under modern-day Vaison-la-Romaine.
Notre-Dame of Nazareth Cathedral
The cathedral stands south of the archaeological site of La Villasse.
It was built in the 13th century on the foundations of Roman monuments and reused some of their vestiges.
A superb illustration of Provençal Romanesque, it also boasts a series of Gothic architectural features.
It replaced a Merovingian chapel built around the 6th century.
The chapel was dedicated to St. Quentin, the patron saint of Vaison and bishop in the 6th century.
It was built in the 12th century on a necropolis of the 5th-6th century located west of La Villasse.
The chapel is renowned for its nave rebuilt in the 17th century and its stunning triangular apse; it became historical monument in 1840.
Puymin Roman site
The excavations that took place on the Colline de Puymin (hill) brought to light ruins of several patrician mansions with their porticoes, enclose gardens and worship places, a sanctuary and a theater.
La Maison de l’Apollon Lauré - House of the Wreathed Apollo unfolds on 2000m2; it takes its name after the white marble head of Apollo found among its ruins.
La Maison à la Tonnelle is even larger as it extends over 3000m2; it started as a modest farmhouse built in the 1st century AD.
It was entirely redeveloped in the following century and turned into a patrician mansion that spread over several levels.
The summer dining room stood in a large courtyard and was sheltered by an arbour (tonnelle), hence its name.
The excavations also uncovered a vast sanctuary; porticoes framed a garden that was laid out around a large pond and a central construction and faced a room and an altar.
This suggests that the sanctuary was dedicated to a Roman god or emperor, or even a local notable.
Replicas of Emperor Adrian and his wife Sabine's busts were placed in the excavated site.
Roman Theatre of Puymin
The theater was built in the 1st century AD on the Puymin hillside and could accommodate 7000 people.
It was most likely demolished after the fall of the Roman Empire (and decline of paganism); this would explain why many statues of emperors and Roman gods served to back-fill the machinery pits.
This would also explain why so many of its stones served to make the sarcophagi of the necropolis discovered under Saint-Quentin Chapel, as well as to build the medieval city's houses.
The thousands of artefacts and statues recovered from the prehistoric period to the Gallo-Roman era are now on display in Theo Desplan Museum*, in the centre of the site.
The theater was listed historical monument in 1862; it was restored and today serves for cultural venues.
The site of La Villasse corresponds to the patrician district of the Roman city.
A small dolphin marble statue was found in La Maison du Dauphin – House of the Dolphin.
The farmhouse was built in the 1st century when the area was rural; a century later it had become a prestigious urban mansion.
La Maison du Buste d’Argent - House of the Silver Bust was named after the silver bust of a wealthy Roman citizen.
The mansion had a ground area of 5000m2 and was the largest of antic Vaison!
The public baths and gymnasium built around 10-20 AD became part of the mansion later in the 1st century.
La Rue des Boutiques was one of the affluent district’s streets and was bordered with countless prestigious shops (boutiques).
Chateau de la Villasse
An impressive (and listed) alley of plane trees leads to the castle located to the north of the House of the Dolphin.
The residence of the Marquis de la Villasse was one of the few buildings that stood on the right bank of the Ouvèze until the mid 19th century, as the inhabitants of Vaison-la-Romaine still lived in the Haute-Ville.
It was at the heart of a large agricultural estate that unfolded on the archaeological site, and was converted to accommodate the many findings.
Vaison-La-Romaine, City of Art
As you can see, most of modern-day Vaison unfolds over the antic Roman city.
The Tourist office is located between Puymin and La Villasse; the 15-hectare archaeological site is an open air museum, and the Musée Theo Desplan, in its centre, exhibits all the findings.
The fully restored Roman theatre now serves as a venue for many cultural events and festivals (Festival of Vaison-La-Romaine and Les Choralies) exhibitions and conferences ... that turn Vaison-la-Romaine into a superb City of Art and History.
Department of Vaucluse
Coordinates: Lat 53.2734 - Long -7.778320310000026
Wikimedia Commons Photos: Laurelled Apollo House - Silver Bust House - Peacock mosaic - N.D. de Nazareth - Sanctuary - Theatre - Castle - Dolphin House - Rue des Boutiques - St. Quentin Chapel