In 1837 at the request of the then Inspector General of Historical Monuments, Prosper Mérimée, a list of monuments in each department was drawn up. In 1840, the first list of its kind in France was completed and the amphitheatre in Fréjus was included. It is one of the oldest in Gaul (of the thirty listed). The amphitheatre in Fréjus was partially excavated in 1828 and completely opened up in 1960 after the Malpasset disaster.
It is difficult to date the monument. Certainly built after the Coliseum in Rome (80), based on some general criteria: structure, design of the facade, stamped bricks, it could date from the end of the 1st century AD.
It is outside the town, backing onto the side of the hill, which was certainly done in order to save materials.
It had a capacity of 12000 spectators, as against 5000 today. Its exterior dimensions were 112.75 m by 82.65 m and the arena itself was 69.37m by 39.17 m, height 21 m which makes it smaller than Nîmes’ but larger than Nice’s.
The facing of the monument was in green sandstone from the Estérel Massif. There are still traces of the quarries used today at La Baume, on the road to Bagnols in the forest. Unfortunately the facade has completely disappeared, as well as the upper tiers.
The arches on the galleries are based on 2 rows of bricks (many are marked “CASTORIS”, the name of the manufacturer). Some of the arcade walls and radiating walls in sandstone still remain.
Two large openings on the main axis and a small lateral one opened onto the arena (“arena” in Latin means “sand”).
During excavations a cruciform pit in the centre of the arena whose function has not been determined, was found. To protect spectators from the sun, a “velarium” – a sort of awning attached to a series of supports, often made of wood – was stretched above the seating area.
Jules Formigé, chief architect of historical monuments in the early twentieth century, said that the columns on the Cloister of Fréjus were sawn out from the white marble slabs that decorated the podium, large wall surrounding the arena.
Under the seating area are the entrances from the “carceres” (cells) – hence the word “incarceration”- which were used to hold the gladiators.
The entertainment included gladiator fights (munera) and hunting and killing wild animals (venatio), even fighting between gladiators and animals or just between animals (bestiari”) – giving the root of the word “bestiary” – and naumachia that refers to entertainment representing naval battles.
The ruins were celebrated by Victor Hugo during his visit to Fréjus in 1839 – (En Voyage, Volume 2). He writes about the amphitheatre: “I was in the same place where 2000 years ago lions, gladiators and tigers writhed. Now the tall grass around me is grazed peacefully by a herd of lean horses…”
Subsequently, the monument gradually deteriorated, being used as a bastion, stone quarry, and even a rubbish dump. For centuries the monument acted as a quarry, which partly explains the multiple restorations or consolidations that are visible today.
Following the restorations in the 19th and 20th century, a conservation and development project was set up. Events and corridas take place there, although since 2010 killing has been forbidden in the Fréjus arena.
After further archaeological excavations (2005 – 2008), Francesco Flavigny, chief architect of the Historical Monuments, decided to stop the deterioration and give the building back its coherence and return it to its original function as a place of entertainment. In his words: “The purpose of this project is for the building to become usable again and at the same time stop any further deterioration in the structures… A protective envelope that will hover over the ruins but not will not hide anything is being considered.”