The founding of Nîmes goes back to the sixth century BC. The Volcae Arecomici, a Celtic tribe, settled around a generous spring and built a sanctuary in its honour. Primitive shelter was gradually replaced by drystone buildings including the Tour Magne, a tall tower built on a hill and that later became part of the Roman ramparts. In 120 BC, the Volcae, who had a vast territory with 24 oppida, accepted the Roman legions without resistance. The Gallo-Roman town of Nemausa was about to come into existence.
The romanisation of Nîmes truly began in the first century BC. The town became a 'colony under Latin law' and magnificent monuments were built. The Emperor Augustus and his successors made it a town for the promotion of romanity in Gaul. Nîmes grew and its 7 km of ramparts enclosed 220 hectares. It was at it greatest in the second century, a perfectl stopping place on the Via Domitia that ran from Rome to Spain. The population is estimated to have been 25,000. Successive invasions in the third and fifth centuries AD and the arrival and settling of the Visigoths put an en to the prosperity of the town.
The town shrank and in the eighth century was a tenth of the size that it had been in Roman times. The population took refuge in the amphitheatre and made it a fortress because of increasing insecurity. The Roman ramparts were used as a quarry where everyone helped himself to stone. Some districts, like that of La Fontaine, were abandoned. Nîmes woke up from 1000 AD onwards. New city walls were built. Trade started again, thanks to vineyards, olives and sheep farming. For several centuries the water flowing through the town resulted in prosperity for tanners, dyers and sellers of cloth.
To understand the origin of the town’s coat of arms one has to travel to Egypt. In 31 BC, Octavius defeated Anthony and Cleopatra’s fleet in the battle of Actium, and ensured Roman control of the Empire. Caesar Augustus was born. A coin was struck in Nîmes to celebrate the event. On the reverse side was a crocodile chained to a palm tree surmounted by a laurel wreath, symbolizing the conquest of Egypt. The inscription “Col Nem”, the Colony of Nîmes, suggests that victorious legionaries had been granted land near Nîmes. But in fact Nîmes was simply the place where the coin was minted. Over the centuries, the people of Nîmes became attached to these relatively common coins. In 1535 they were authorized by king François 1 to adopt the palm tree and the crocodile as the town’s coat of arms. Since then the inhabitants have been extremely proud of their crest. Redesigned in 1986 by Philippe Starck, it can be found all over the town, even in the bronze studs set in the paving of the old town.
The Wars of Religion were violent in the sixteenth century. Protestants were kept out of public life and turned to trading. Their cloth production was soon exported within Europe and to the Spanish Indies. The city became prosperous and its looks improved.
A contrast between superb mansions and urban refurbishment. During the Age of Enlightenment, the Roman sanctuary of the Source was fortuitously discovered. It was decided to make it a major urban project. The silk industry converted to shawl production thanks to the first Jacquard looms introduced by Turion, a local Nîmes worker.
Nîmes was famous for textile manufacturing in the seventeenth century. Merchants traded mainly in woollen cloth and silk. The range manufactured broadened little by little. Cotton was imported and then indigo, a dye plant grown in Italy that was an economical source of a fine blue colour.'Serge de Nîmes' was developed, a cloth whose strength was conferred by oblique weaving with at least two threads. At this time , trading posts were set up all over the world. Nîmes negotiated exports of serge via traders in New-York. Thus 'bleu de Gènes' (Genoan blue) was anglicised phonetically and became 'blue jeans'. In the nineteenth century Levi Strauss, who made clothing for miners and gold prospectors, bought by chance a batch of cloth 'de Nîmes' (that became 'denim' cloth). This first batch bearing the number 501 was to give its name to the most famous trousers in the world. Strong, cheap denim jeans became universal in the USA and soon spread all over the world. They are now a symbol of freedom.
Competition from Lyons was fierce in the second half of the nineteenth century. Textile capital was very quickly re-invested in vineyards before money was lost. Winegrowing was enhanced by the Canal du Midi and transport of wine by rail from Nîmes. A new era of prosperity began. The district around the station was developed in a sumptuous manner and many private mansions were built. In addition, Nîmes became the centre for the transit of coal from the Cévennes to Beaucaire and the Rhône.
Nîmes, with a population of 150,000 is changing. As a result of deliberate efforts it has combined for nearly thirty years cutting-edge contemporary art and the riches of the past. The old districts are being renovated and the city is spreading towards the south. Architectural and town planning projects have been entrusted to the greatest international names—Norman Foster, Vittorio Gregotti, Kisho Kurokawa, Mieko Inoue, Jean Nouvel, Martial Raysse, Philippe Starck and Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Completed in 2013, the 'AEF' project designed by the architect and town planner Alain Marguerit is aimed at enlarging the historic centre by creating a continuous 8-hectare urban area covering the arena, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle and the railway station, making a twenty-first century forum.