A short visit to Forum Julii, aka Fréjus

Fréjus is a remarkable town in Provence, southern France. Or should I say in Gallia Narbonensis? For its small size, it is steeped in history, dating back to a Roman colony founded by one of Julius Caesar’s lieutenants (the Roman name of Forum Julii stands for Julius’ market and owes its name to its strategic economic position between Marseille and Antibes, both important trading posts). Of the old Roman town, many landmarks still stand, albeit more or less ruined, among which are the amphitheater and the arena.

Saint Leontius cathedral of Fréjus with the octagonal baptistery. It is to the east of the nave but not on its axis. Its rectangular base measures a mere 11m. Much of its elevation has been reconstructed.

Today me and my dad drove to the historical town for an avant goût of its treasures. Since we’ll be here for a whole week, we only slalomed through the narrow streets of medieval Fréjus only to reach the cathedral square on a scorching midday sun. Once inside the cathedral, our attention was seized by the astonishing fifth century baptistery that places Fréjus among Gaul’s important paleochristian centres. Indeed, the episcopal city is mentioned back in 374 AD but the original building was erected in the first half of the fifth century AD by Saint Leontius (419-488), whose name the present cathedral still bears.

This photo of the baptistery was taken through a glass panel so please don’t comment on the ghost(ing). The remains of the baptismal font structure are still visible.

Another jewell of the groupe épiscopal are the cathedral cloisters. One remarkable thing about this site is that it differs from the monastic cloisters that since the Benedictines became a permanence of architectural monasticism. Whereas the abbey cloisters were a space given to the exercise of contemplation and monastic tranquility, these cloisters had much of a secular twist. The charpente was redone in the middle of the 14th century and provided with paintings of a very worldly nature. One can now see figurative painted panels featuring animals (a whole bestiary is thereby represented), knights, lay patrons, secular activities and a whole deployment of singular imagination. In the middle of this portique, the well seems as old as the complex itself although I haven’t been able to find anything on it.

Monastic serenity? Think again. Burgesses were allowed through these cloisters as much as the cathedral canons. The place must have been boisterous, much to the discontent of visiting monks.

With very limited photographic capabilities, I could only produce this. I’m not sure how much the uninstructed eye can make of these painted panels. Click on this photo to show a better instance of them.

The well in the middle of the cloister garden is not so common outside these secular precincts. Abbeys usually had a more detached place reserved for drawing water. They would not allow the quietude of the inner monastery to be disrupted by monks on hydro-duties.

We left the building and made for the arena where a group of various re-enactors were rehearsing for the evening show. As I’ve been told, there was to be un spectacle de lumière et d’animation. Among this group of clumsy enthusiasts, I could spot the LEGIO VI FERRATA, which was an awkward sight since we all know that this legion was stationed in Judaea, too far away from Fréjus to have come visit the veterans of the LEGIO VIII AUGUSTA which had been the wiser choice for an amateur historical demonstration.

This petty legion is supposedly visiting from Judaea. They would soon march and keep a steady pace with exclamations in Latin.

There were these medieval re-enactors just across from some Napoleon aficionados that had a hard time carrying out the commander’s orders.

The next étape carried us through a roundabout where one could catch a pretty nice glimpse of the aqueduct ruins. Water was being channeled from 50km away where two springs were being diverted into the aqueducts at an altitude of 500 meters above sea level, something which carries with it the unmistakable Roman trademark. The upper part of the aqueduct has now gone but the massive pillars are still there, in plain sight. Driver would not frown upon my dad for slowing down and going twice around the roundabout for me to have the benefit of a clear line of sight.

The aqueduct pillars. They look more like a launch pad than a water bridge. The upper part must have given the construction a fierce look.

We ended up yearning for more. Besides, we haven’t seen the arena. In a future post, perhaps.

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One thought on “A short visit to Forum Julii, aka Fréjus

  1. Fifth century is indeed quite old. It is amazing that they have preserved it so well. The oldest baptistery I have visited is the 9th century one in Serravalle (north of Italy), close to Varano de’ Melegari. But this one is from the patristic period! And that fabulous piece of Roman architecture. Do let us see the whole arena.

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