Heading to Paris to see Roman ruins? Probably not. Unlike Pompeii, Lyon (the former capital of Roman Gaul, once called Lugdunum), and Rome itself, Paris isn’t especially noted for its ancient sites of pre-Christian heritage. Yet that heritage remains, with ruins above and below-ground that testify to a vibrant ancient civilization. Between 52 BC and the late 5th century, part of today’s French capital was the site of a modest Gallo-Roman city, then called Lutèce (Lutetia in English).
Lutetia was itself built on the site of a prehistoric settlement of the same name established by a Celtic tribe of fishermen, the Parisii— although recent archeological evidence points to the original Gallic settlement being centered in the nearby town of Nanterre, rather than on the Ile de la Cité in today’s central Paris.
Admittedly, it’s all a bit confusing. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in following the traces of Roman Paris, whether as part of a self-guided walking tour or virtually, keep reading– and consult the handy clickable map for locations and directions from one point to the next.
Map: Self-Guided Tour of Roman Paris
Note: there’s no one way to “do” this suggested tour, but I’d recommend either starting from the Île de la Cité/Parvis du Notre Dame, and gradually heading southward until you reach the remnants of the Roman Aqueduct. Alternatively, start in the south to see the Aqueduct remnants, then make your way northward through the Latin Quarter, ending at the Île de la Cité on the banks of the Seine.
Arenes de Lutèce
The majority of Gallo-Roman sites of note in Paris are found in the 5th arrondissement, in the area that now roughly encompasses the Latin Quarter. Most impressive among these (but also, oddly enough, the easiest to miss) are the Arènes de Lutèce, or Arenas of Lutetia.
Built in the 2nd century AD and designed to seat up to 15,000 people, the arenas served as sites for the performance of dramatic spectacles, gladiator combat shows, and plays in Gallo-Roman Lutetia.
According to historians, seating at the enormous arenas followed strict social hierarchies, with slaves and women only allowed to sit in the upper rows. Male citizens of Rome were given free reign over the choice seats near the stage.
But from the upper heights, views over the Seine and Bièvre rivers were a perk (the latter river still flows underneath the city, incidentally).
Following the fall of the Roman Empire and the Christianizing of Paris, the site was still occasionally used for performances, before being made into a ramshackle cemetery. By the 12th century, it was filled in during the construction of new fortifications surrounding the city– and subsequently forgotten.
Rediscovered in the nineeteenth century by a city planner named Théodore Vaquer, the Arenas were restored during the 1880s and 1890s, in part thanks to advocacy efforts from French author Victor Hugo.
Lush gardens were built around the site, and the arenas have been well-preserved and protected ever since. However, part of the original structure was never reconstructed, being occupied by a row of houses on Rue Monge.
Getting There/Location: Place Emile Male/ 49 Rue Monge, 75005 Paris (5th arrondissement), Metro Place Monge or Jussieu
Admission and tickets: Admission to the Arenas is free, and oddly enough, you’ll often find it oddly quiet here. For some reason, this is a site that tourists tend to overlook (perhaps, again, because Paris isn’t really associated with Roman ruins). But that’s just my hypothesis.
Roman Thermal Baths (Thermes) at the Hôtel de Cluny
Next on your self-guided tour of Gallo-Roman Paris, head northward to the superb Hôtel de Cluny-– the site of an arresting medieval Abbey, and the Musée National du Moyen-Age. Dedicated primarily to medieval art and civilization, the museum sits on the foundations of ancient Roman baths– an elaborate structure that can be both visited underground, and seen from street level (on the busy Boulevard Saint-Michel).
Constructed sometime at the end of the 1st century or towards the beginning of the 2nd century, these vast Roman baths occupied several acres of the present-day Latin Quarter, and were the rough equivalent of today’s spas and public recreation centers.
They were likely abandoned and left to fall into ruin sometime during the 3rd century, in the wake of invasions by Frankish and Germanic tribes. But you can still get a sense of their grandeur to this day, as you wander through the impressively intact frigidarium (cold room), with its enormous vault, and the adjoining caldarium (hot room), itself once decorated with paintings and mosaics.
The original structure also boasted a gymnasium (for sporting activities), tepidarium (room-temperature room, generally used to rest and relax after bathing), and a huge fountain.
Excavations at the site also revealed a series of drains and gutters that served to empty the pools of the frigidarium, flowing to a central drain that ran under what is now the Boulevard Saint-Michel.
Today, no water flows through the former thermal baths– unlike counterparts in Rome or in Bath, England. The space is mostly used for temporary exhibits, including on art, civilization, and daily life in Gallo-Roman Lutetia.
Make sure to visit the thermes as part of an exploration of the collections at the excellent Musée de Cluny (whose medieval art and tapestries are marvels in their own right).
Getting There/Location: Musée Cluny, 28 Rue du Sommerard, 75005 Paris (5th arrondissement), Metro Cluny-La Sorbonne or Odéon
Admission and tickets: Admission is included with the price of a ticket to the Musée Cluny/Musée National du Moyen-Age. See more info at the official website (Note: this museum is currently undergoing renovations and will re-open sometime in 2022.)
Montagne Sainte-Geneviève Hill (and Surrounds)
Roaming around the present-day Latin Quarter, centuries of history are immediately visible, from the medieval to the late 20th-century.
Most visitors know that the Quartier Latin rose to prominence thanks to the medieval Sorbonne Universty and the subsequent establishment of other universities in the area; and in the 20th century it was a major center of literary, artistic and intellectual life in Paris.
But one legacy in the area that literally remains deep underground, for the most part? The traces of Gallo-Roman Lutetia, which initially had its center on the hilly area known as the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève.
Today, the Panthéon dominates the hill, overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg and the horizon beyond it. The centuries-old buildings of the Sorbonne and the modern Saint-Etienne-du-Mont church are just blocks away, also built on the hill during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period, respectively.
But hundreds of years prior to the medieval period, Gallo-Roman architects erected sophisticated streets and buildings on and around the hill, chosen as a primary site for development due to its height and thus ability to protect from flooding.
It was here that the Roman-era Forum of Lutetia once loomed, the center of life in the (relatively minor) Gallo-Roman city of under 10,000 people.
If you stand at the entrance to Luxembourg Gardens and gaze across the Boulevard Saint-Michel and upward, towards the Panthéon, imagine for a moment that in its place is a monumental esplanade, supported by porticoes and busy shops crawling with merchants and shoppers.
Historians believe that the Gallo-Roman Forum, stretching between today’s Boulevard Saint-Michel , Rue Saint-Jacques and rue Soufflot, was larger (and wider) than today’s Panthéon. It featured both above-ground space and vast undergroud galleries, perhaps used by merchants.
A basilica and temple (the latter likely dedicated to the Roman Emperor), once stood on the complex, and there would likely have also been a covered market, basilica, courts of law, and possibly a curia (place of assembly). Archaeologists have found a few vestiges of the temple, noting that it had classical features (columns, capitals, and a pediment).
Discoveries of ancient life and customs in the area are still ongoing. Recent excavations in the area have revealed significant traces from Lutetia, including one 2006 dig on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève that unearthed an old Roman road and objects of daily life.
The dig, which concentrated on a stretch of the present-day Rue Saint-Jacques, unearthed foundations of houses dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries. Some of the more sophisticated among these showed evidence of luxurious homes with paved, private baths– ones that were even heated. Archaeologists also found fragments of wall paintings.
Getting There: The easiest way to reach the Montagne Saint-Genevieve area is to get off at the Luxembourg RER stop nearby the Jardin du Luxembourg, and ascend the hill towards the Panthéon. Alternatively, take the Metro to Cluny-la-Sorbonne and walk (arounud 5 minutes). You can make your first stop the Musée and Thermes de Cluny, in the second case (see more above).
Archeological Crypt at Notre-Dame/ Île de la Cité
Moving northward towards the banks of the Seine, the Île de la Cité is another important site in ancient Paris. Notre-Dame Cathedral was, unsurprisingly, built on a site of great importance to the civilizations that preceded medieval Christianity.
A Gallo-Roman “Temple to Jupiter” is believed to have once stood at the site of the current-day Gothic cathedral.
This is evidenced in part by the discovery, in the early 18th century, of a monumental Roman column called “The Pillar of the Boatmen”, excavated from the Île de la Cité in close reach of Notre-Dame, and now displayed in the frigidarium section of the Roman bath ruins at the Musée Cluny (see more above).
It’s widely considered to be Paris’ oldest existing monument, and features elaborate inscriptions in Latin.
The Archaeological Crypt at Notre-Dame, opened to the general public in 1980, is an underground network below the Parvis (square) that reveals the foundations of successive buildings erected at the site, from the Gallo-Roman period to the 20th century.
As you make your way through the ancient and early medieval ruins within the crypt– discovered between the late 1960s and early 1970s– you’ll get a much better sense of the layers of history that remain beneath the Cathedral and the Île de la Cité.
In the early first century AD, the Île de la Cité was created by joining together several small islands on the Seine through networks of bridges. The Roman colony of Lutetia built on the developments initiated by the Celtic Parisii tribe.
In the mid-third century, Germanic tribes invaded Lutetia, and it became an important defensive site for the Roman Empire. The Île de la Cité gained fortified walls in the early 4th century, making it the new city center; the left-bank (now Latin Quarter) settlements were gradually abandoned in favor of the Île de la Cité.
This strategic choice led the area between the two banks of the Seine to become the political and religious center of Paris during the Middle Ages, when Notre-Dame Cathedral was constructed.
Getting There & Location: 7 Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004 Paris (4th arrondissement); Metro: Cité or Saint-Michel
Aqueduct of Lutetia
Over the past few decades, construction of a new residential area and green space in southern Paris, the “ZAC Alesia”, has led to the accidental discovery of parts of a vast Gallo-Roman aqueduct system: one that stretched northward around the present-day Latin quarter and south towards Montparnasse. It is believed to have been about 16km/10 miles long.
The remnants of the aqueduct– built in the 2nd century AD, probably abandoned by the 4th century, and excavated as recently as 2000– are a bit underwhelming to witness. The ruins are obscured in many places by buildings and metro station overpasses, so it’s hard to get a “holistic” sense of what the efficient water-moving system looked like during Antiquity.
Most of the sections that were excavated are protected by glass or metals bars, which makes them even more inaccessible (and hard to photograph without getting an annoying glare).
Still, if you’re interested in getting a peek at the remnants of Roman Paris, it’s still worth a trip to the southern tip of Paris to see them. Follow it up with a trip to the nearby Catacombs, for a bit of adventuring underground.
Getting There: Part of the aqueduct can be seen at 42, Avenue Reille, 75014 (14th arrondissement); Metro Alesia. From here, walk five minutes west to see another section at Rue de l’Empereur-Valentinien. Free for all.
More on Roman Paris
For more on the city’s ancient past, a trip to the Musée Carnavalet is in order. The free museum, operated by the city of Paris, is dedicated to the capital’s history, stretching from the pre-Christian period to the 20th century.
At the Carnavalet, detailed models (such as the one above that reconstitutes the Lutetia Forum), objects of daily life, religious iconography, statues, and other artifacts bring the Gallo-Roman period in Parisian history back to life.
Occasionally, temporary exhibits at the museum offer an even more detailed look at the period.