The Ruins of Palais Gallien in Bordeaux

Palais Gallien’s main façade

photography by: Zairon/ Wikimedia Commons

Reading time: minutes

Often dubbed as the wine capital of the world, Bordeaux is first and foremost renowned for its sprawling vineyards and dining scene. However, aside from its role as a pilgrimage site for oenophiles, Bordeaux also harbors a medley of hidden historical treasures. Among which are the Ruins of Palais Gallien, the skeletal remnants of a Roman amphitheater, where gladiators and lions ferociously fought to death nearly two millennia ago.

Long before the modern-day city of Bordeaux became the global epicenter of wine culture, it thrived as a Roman stronghold named Burdigala. It was during that era that the town evolved into a commercial and military center, whose streets were dotted with numerous monuments and lavish buildings. While much of that ancient grandeur was eventually lost in the ensuing wars, an extant relic of the region’s Roman past still lingers to these days, well-hidden behind a cluster of residential buildings.


Dating all the way back to the 2nd century AD, Palais Gallien or what remains of it was once an amphitheater that could accommodate a whopping 20,000 spectators, twice the town’s population at the time. During its heyday, the place played host to a plethora of spectacles and performances, yet it was the mortal combats between gladiators and fearsome animals that drew the largest crowds.


A measly ten years after its celebrated inauguration, the building was ravaged by the Frankish invasion of Gaul, somewhere between 275 and 276 AD. The Franks set the arena ablaze, causing it to burn continuously for two days. The relentless inferno reduced most of the wooden infrastructure to ashes, sparing only the resilient stone walls.


In the following centuries, the semi-ruined structure underwent a series of modifications, during which it served as a 16th century fortress, a lair of thieves and harlots in the 17th century, and later, as the French Revolution unfolded, it took on a grimmer role as a place of execution, where individuals linked to the French royal elite – nobles, aristocrats, and others, met their fate at the guillotine.


Afterwards, Palais Gallien was used as a makeshift quarry, from where stones were taken to erect a handful of edifices throughout the city. Its historical value was recognized only in 1840, when the ruins were listed among the first French national monuments.


Although only a small portion remains today, it was once an imposing structure comparable to the amphitheaters in Arles or Nimes. The current state of the site, with two metal balustrades preventing access for preservation purposes, still allows for excellent views from all sides. Conspicuous by its monumentality is a massive gateway, standing tall alongside several arches. Interestingly, remnants of walls are now integrated into the neighboring houses, with some even extending into their basements.