The remains of first prehistoric and proto-historic habitation have been found in Orange, on the hill which thousands of years ago overlooked a vast marshy plain bordered by streams and by the Rhone River. A sacred spring gave its name, Arausio, to the site, which later became known as Orange. During the second Punic War in 218, Hannibal crossed the Rhône near Arausio with his armies and his famous elephants.
When the Massaliotes, founders of Marseille, called on their Roman friends and allies to help them against the Ligurian invasions, the fate of Provence and of Orange was decided. From being allies, the Latins became invaders, and settled in our region. The Cimbrians and the Teutons stopped their advance on the 6th October 105 B.C. – but the defeat suffered at Arausio would be avenged by Marius in 102 B.C.
After the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar in campaigns between 58 B. C and 50 B.C., Rome sought to reward its brave legionnaires by granting them some land and cities. Arausio thus became a military colony in about 35 B.C.
The newcomers set up a small capitol and a temple on the hill and at its foot, marked out a city following the typical Roman model. Two main north-south (Cardo) and east-west (Decumanus)axes were the base for a vast grid into which fitted streets, houses, ramparts, temples and prestigious monuments. Today, the baths and arena have disappeared, as have the ramparts. But the Arch, the Theatre and the great temple continue to remind us of the greatness of Rome, and of the importance of the Gallo-Roman town of Arausio - and of its impact on tourism !
Little by little Rome’s dominance faded. Christianity developed rapidly in Provence, and the first Bishopric was set up in Orange at the end of the 4th Century. A hundred years later, the Cathedral was built. However different invasions ruined the city, and the entire population was even deported in 509, though not for very long.
According to legend and popular 11th Century ballads, if not to history, Guillaume the Short-nose, a valiant warrior and Count of Toulouse who ended his days piously in St-Guilhem-le-Désert, conquered the city and became Count of Orange in the 8th Century. In memory of his deeds and of his fame, the city’s coat of arms has transformed his short nose into a small horn, and placed it on threeoranges…
The Orange earldom was passed to the Rambaud family of Nice. One of them, Raimbaud II, participated gloriously in the Crusade of 1096. After the earldom of Montpellier and Les Baux, Orange became a principality in about 1178.
In the 14th Century its university opened, and continued teaching until 1791. Under the lords of Chalon, in spite of frequent epidemics, Orange experienced a long period of relative calm from 1393 until 1530.
Then under the Nassau family (1539-1702), Orange took on a special role thanks to the personalities and importance on the European scene of William the Silent (Guilllaume le Taciturne, 1533-1584) and his successors. This was also the blood-soaked period of the Wars of Religion, and Orange, supporter of the Reformed Religion, was sacked several times, particularly in 1562.
The Nassaus were great builders. The fortress château they created on the hill was both prestigious and threatening, while the political and religious resistance of the princes was considered a major challenge to royal authority. Louis XIV, at war with William of Nassau, visited the Orange château in 1660 and immediately ordered its destruction ; all the fortifications and ramparts had to go. Only the great wall of the Theatre found favour in the royal eyes : “The most beautiful wall in my kingdom,” he is said to have declared. The Count of Grignan, son-in-law of the famous Madame de Sévigné, was put in charge of demolishing the fortress after a short siege in 1673.
By the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, Orange became fully French and only the title of Orange is transmitted down through the Nassau family, today still reigning in the Netherlands.
After the Nassaus’ departure, the Contis were instructed to manage the Principality and put it in order… large numbers of Jews and Protestants had to flee, often to Prussia and to Geneva. To make the situation worse, plague ravaged the city, particularly between 1720 and 1722.
By a decree dated 29th May 1731, the Principality of Orange was once againattached to the Dauphiné, then to the Bouches-du-Rhône, and later, on the 20th August 1793, to Vaucluse.
The horrors of the Revolution did not spare the city, and the religious centres were pillaged. Suspects were crowded into the Roman Theatre, converted into a prison. A total of 332, including 37 nuns from Bollène, Avignon and Caderousse, were dragged to the guillotine and beheaded on today’s Cours Aristide Briand.
When the former Emperor Napoleon spent the night in Orange on the 25th April 1814, on his way to exile on the island of Elba, the curious inhabitants disturbed his sleep.
After centuries of tumult, Orange, a city of tradesmen, craftsmen and winegrowers, quietly followed France’s destiny, strongly attached to republican institutions. The people warmly welcomed the building of the first local bridge over the Rhone in 1844, saw Dumas, Gautier and Mérimée in charge of historic monument inventories, and welcomed successively Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, and the Dutch sovereigns.
Grapevines, silkworms, workshops making brooms, shoes, pasta, ceramics… All these together with milling, weaving and sugar making were the main activities in the 19th Century. The arrival of the railroad in 1851 gave a new boost to commerce and to technical progress.
In 1869 the Chorégies were created, and immediately scored a huge success.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, new roads were cut through the town, including the rue de la République. The army came, then the Foreign Legion. Next, the large Caritatair force base was set up in 1937. In 75 years, Orange’s population rose from 10 000 to 30 000 inhabitants. New neighbourhoods have developed around the town, industries have grown in the industrial zone, primary and secondary schools, Palais des Princes, community hall, swimming pools, gymnasiums, town developments and urban beautification projects including a pedestrian zone in the heart of the city and a magnificent auditorium… all bear witness to Orange’s vitality.
A favourite tourist stopover on the wayto Provence, in the heart of the Côtes du Rhône wine region with a rich countryside, Orange is also a hub for regional development with its location on the junction of the Autoroute du Soleil (A7) and the Languedocienne (A9). Finally, the international fame of its Chorégies has given it renown in the opera world and throughout the summer months, draws artists and music-lovers from all over the world to its wonderful performances.
Texts by Mr Jean Boullé
Historian and former headmaster