Set at the apex of the Rhône delta in Provence, Arles has long been a crucial gateway between the Mediterranean and the heartlands of western Europe. By the 6th century BC it was a busy Phoenician trading port, and over the centuries it drew Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, Franks and Saracens. To explore its early history, visit the Musée Départemental Arles Antique. Among its treasures are a magnificent 31-metre-long Roman barge raised from the bed of the Rhône, and statues and inscriptions of eastern cults – Cybele, Mithras, Isis – imported from the farthest reaches of Roman territory.

Signs of 500 years of Roman rule, beginning in the first century BC, are everywhere. Most impressive is the amphitheatre; like Rome’s Colosseum, it was built around AD 70, but is better preserved. After the empire collapsed, Arles suffered frequent raids; the amphitheatre became a fortified mini-town, with four defensive towers built into its walls, probably in the eighth century. You can see marks on its stonework made by the beams of hundreds of dwellings built inside, removed in the early 19th century.

In Roman times, the amphitheatre staged gladiator fights and animal combat; bullfights have been held here since its 19th-century restoration. The Roman Theatre nearby is more refined, though much less well preserved: after the Roman period it was used as a stone quarry and its stage became a nunnery’s garden. Two giant columns of exotic stone still stand, reminders of its original grandeur and the arrival of Roman high culture in this provincial city.

The forum was the heart of Roman Arles. Today, only fragments of its structures still stand, built into the walls of the Place du Forum. However, you can grasp its original scale at the Cryptoporticus, a c90-metre-long, three-sided subterranean stone arcade on which the forum’s portico was built – a breathtaking testament to Roman engineering.

Arles became an important administrative centre later in the Roman period when the frontiers were under pressure, and the Baths of Constantine signal its continuing prosperity into the fourth century. In medieval times this complex was converted into a palace for the counts of Provence, but you can still see the remains of a pool and hypocausts.

Elsewhere, a section of the Roman walls still stands, and on Boulevard Émile Combes you can see where the aqueduct brought water into the city. Follow the aqueduct’s route a few kilometres east to Barbegal to see the remains of the complex of 16 Roman watermills, built in the second or third century AD, that could grind enough wheat to feed more than 10,000 people daily.

Arles has long been famous for its Roman cemetery, the Alyscamps, established outside the city walls alongside the Aurelian Way. It became sought after for Christian burials in the fourth century after Christ reputedly appeared here, an incident marked by the Chapelle de la Genouillade. Though fractured by railways built in the 19th century, an atmospheric avenue lined with late Roman tombs was preserved, inspiring paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

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By the 12th century Arles was the second-largest city in Provence, and in 1178 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was crowned King of Burgundy at the Church of St Trophime; its 12th century west door and cloister are masterpieces of Romanesque art.

Arles’s backstreets are lined with grand medieval houses in a state of elegant and evocative decay

Arles’s political significance declined in the Middle Ages. The mouth of the Rhône silted up, trade and commerce moved elsewhere, and Arles became a backwater and fell into decline. In the 19th century, the sense that Arles was untouched by the modern age appealed to poets and artists. Wandering the backstreets, lined with grand medieval houses in a state of elegant and evocative decay, it is not difficult to see the attraction. Discover Arles’s later cultural and artistic heritage at Musée Réattu, housed in an old priory of the Knights of Malta with a wonderful late-medieval facade, and Museon Arlaten (due to reopen in 2019), founded by the poet Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914) to preserve Provençal lifestyle, folk art and costumes.

Arles in nine sites

1: Musée Départemental Arles Antique - Fascinating archaeological museum housing a 31-metre Roman barge

2: Roman Amphitheatre - First-century-AD venue for gladiatorial fights and animal combats

3: Roman Theatre - Home of Roman high culture

4: Cryptoporticus - Vast array of subterranean arches built to support the portico of the Roman forum

5: Baths of Constantine - Fourth-century Roman baths complex with remains of a pool and hypocaust

6: Alyscamps - Atmospheric Roman necropolis that inspired Vincent van Gogh

7: Church of St Trophime - Imposing 12th-century Romanesque church with exquisitely carved west door

8: Musée Réattu - Art by Arles-born Jacques Réattu, Picasso and others in a historic priory

9: Museon Arlaten - Treasury of Provençal cultures

Bijan Omrani is a historian and author of Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul (Head of Zeus, 2017)

This article was taken from issue 11 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in August 2018