During the Gallo-Roman era, Durocortorum, as it was then known, was the capital of Gallia Belgica, the second largest city after Rome itself and the last civilized city of the north. Mention is made by Pliny of the ‘federal Remi’ amongst other Gallic nations, thus highlighting its alliance (foedus) to the Romans and notable legal status. The 18th century historian and travel writer Thomas Nugent refers to Civitas Rhemorum in his travelogue, The Grand Tour (1749).
Vestiges of ancient Roman edifices and artifacts are still visible in modern-day Reims today and my years in the city have often been traced out by proximity to these. The most famous of these ancient sites - La Porte de Mars - dates back to the 3rd century AD and is indeed at the end of my street, no less.
As confinement rules only allowed for exercise within a kilometre radius, with parks and grounds closed, the Porte was an obvious focal point, all the more so as it has recently been revealed to the public after years of renovation work.
Since 2015, its massive form had been covered up for conservation purposes, emerging in 2019 from its cocoon lattice of tarpaulins and boards on Les Hautes Promenades like a giant, squat pupa, surrounded by a newly-planted array of meadow-themed plants and shrubs.
The past importance of Reims is highlighted by the fact that La Porte de Mars – some 33 metres in length - is the widest arch of the Roman world. It was one of four built at each cardinal point of the city limits of Reims.
These arches punctuated the cardo or 'heart' in Roman urban planning that covered an oval-shaped area and led onto the different Roman roads. Porte de Mars was at the northern entrance of the cardo maximus - the main or central north–south-oriented street - with La Porte Bazée (Porte de Bacchus) at the other end, at the southern point.
Perpendicular to the cardo maximus, lay the decumanus major – the east-west access – with La Porte de Vénus and La Porte de Cérès ; both were destroyed in 1755 and 1798 respectively. The two axes intersected at the Place Royale of the city. Contrary to common opinion, none of these imposing edifices were triumphal arches (reserved to Rome) but entrance monuments of monumental proportions !
Evidence of the heavy passage of carts, chariots and carriages is visible today in the ruts worn into the stone slabs at the base of the central archway. Porte de Mars was named after the god of war, in reference to a nearby temple dedicated to Mars but was built in honour of Augustus at the end of the 2nd century, when the city began to thrive under a period of peace ; pax romana.
The journey over the centuries to the present day has, of course, been far from peaceful, as one would expect over a one-thousand – seven – hundred-year time span ! The Porte de Mars has not only witnessed the numerous upheavals that the city has undergone, it has been the object of momentous change too. Strangely enough, its survival today is largely down to the most extreme of these.
As I was looking at it during lockdown, I thought about the stories it could tell about life in the city from the time of its construction. As you look at the carved stonework, you wonder about the lives of those who carried out this work ; who these individuals were, what their experiences and aspirations were…
We all believe ourselves to be so unique, with an existence that is incomparable to those of the beings around us, let alone those of our ancestors, but the sheer age and size of such an edifice puts a different perspective on this. Our time here is in fact so short and perhaps even insignificant, even though modern existence largely glosses over this and is geared towards a 21st century decadent take of carpe diem as opposed to a dour memento mori acknowledgement of life. The ability of COVID-19 to take lives and above all, to sweep our modern-day sense of security and our notion of individuality seems to a be a blunt reminder that no civilisation is immune to the unsentimental force of Nature, and never has been.
Even during the darkest hours of the current crisis, it seemed as if the spring sun was at its brightest and most persistent. Squinting up at the arch, against the glare of daylight and the dazzling blue sky, I tried to travel in time ; anything to get away from the present-day reality of relentless télétravail. Even in the early evening this was no mean feat; the sunlight was softer, but looking up without getting a crick in the neck was harder.
Of the original sculpted decoration of the arch, much has been lost and that which remains is severely damaged. The pillar of the last archway - facing outwards towards le faubourg de Laon - initially appears to be relatively well conserved but is in fact the result of restoration work. Nevertheless the fragments of fluted Corinthian columns give us some indication as to the appearance of the whole. Our understanding of the rest of the decor depends largely on the architectural studies and drawings from the 19th century.
The vaulted forms of the inside curve of the arches – the intrados -represent Gallic harvest scenes, set out in medallions over the calendar months, yet only a few details can be clearly indentified today. The remains of other medallions illustrate scenes and symbols from ancient mythology ; the Roman wolf feeding Romulus and Remus, Leda with Zeus turning into a swan, and repeated swastika patterns symbolizing the lightning bolts of the king of the gods.
All four great arches of Reims survived the subsequent invasions of pillaging Vandals and Huns during the Late Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the need for fortification meant that they were incorporated into the city ramparts and employed as gateways in the 4th century. The arches even survived the conversion to the Christian faith when Clovis became the first Catholic royal of the Occident in 498. However the Porte de Mars was later to be walled into the vast fortified Medieval archbishops' château of 1228.
No trace remains of the château today – except for the Roman arch itself - as the building was destroyed at the very end of the 16th century on the order of Henri IV. The top part of Porte de Mars was later unearthed in 1677, finally revealed in its entirety in 1816 and freed from the ramparts decades later. Despite surviving a somewhat perillous path over time, its future was still not secured when it finally re-emerged from its earthen cache. Concerns linked to urban planning and financial considerations, no doubt, meant that the Porte de Mars was seen as a cumbersome vestige of the past by certain council dignataries who had the power to decide on its fate. Without the intervention of the novelist Prosper Mérimée – the author of Carmen – who was actively involved in the conservation of historical architecture, Porte de Mars might have been lost forever. It was listed as a classified historical monument and under the rémois architect Narcisse Brunette, restoration work was undertaken.
Amazingly, the monument came through the years of the First World War with little damage - miraculous given the extent of the destruction of the city as the ‘martyr of the French nation’. It even emerged unscathed from the WW2, which is more than can be said for the war memorial for WWI that is on the far side of Place de la République, victim to devasting bomb damage.
In spite of its current display, restoration work on Porte de Mars is due to be resumed next year, again with the backing of the Fondation du Patrimoine, and the monument will be hidden from public view once more in its long history. The spatial planning of the walkways of Les Hautes Promenades from the arch to the city centre, has proved to be a great success as stretches of concrete parking spaces have given way to picnic areas amongst greenery that has even managed to create a feeling of urban countryside throughout the seasons, attracting all generations of the general public in the process.
The area surrounding the other vestige of the Roman Empire – the cryptoportique - was likewise the object of urban re-organisation some 25 years ago. The site of this underground gallery and warehouse (horreum), built in the 1st century, has become the focal point for many musical performances today. The Place du Forum, has been vastly improved by its transformation from former coach drop-off point to elegant square, with espalier trees and the café terrasses and I spent several happy years living in its pleasant atmosphere.
Now of course, we are out of confinement ; the vehicles generating a continual background thrum to my life here are back on the roads, the eerily empty lockdown trams are filling up again and the Hautes Promenades are open to the public once more, all watched over by the Porte de Mars – until it goes into hibernation yet again. Let's just hope that we will not follow suit with another period of lockdown...