Corseul’s Roman Roots

Temple of Mars

While I love the sea and spending our weekends walking along the coast, sometimes a trip inland can bring its own surprises.  Corseul is only a 30-minute drive inland from Dinard, yet it feels a world away.  As you drive through the farms and surrounding countryside on your way there, it’s hard to imagine that at one point in its history, Corseul was a bustling and important stop to many travelers!  At the height of its power in the 2nd century, Corseul was home to 5,000-6,000 people and a regional capital!  While today’s Corseul is home to a little less than 2,000 people, you can still get a taste of Roman Gaul in its ruins.  Originally known as by its Roman name Fanum Martis, the town’s name changed to Corseul to reflect the Gallic tribe living there, the Coriosolites.

Corseul Village Center

We drove to Corseul after reading about the Roman ruins in the local newspaper and I have to admit that I was expecting something grandiose.  The town center contains the remains of the Roman market.  Laura and Elise were not impressed; not being archeologists, neither were Anthony and I.  While I realize I’m not being fair to the site’s historic value, it’s not always easy to look at the foundations of an ancient building and bring it to life.  That said, there are explanations next to the foundations which help to know what you’re looking at.  For the truly passionate, you can stop by the Mairie (town hall) and check out the mini-musuem (four rooms) on the second floor.  The rooms showcase artifacts from the village and its surrounding area.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit the museum, if you’re visiting and curious, the exhibits are free.

Sanctuary Ruins

Far more impressive are the remains of the Roman Temple to Mars at Haut-Bécherel (about 1.5 km outside of the town center on a small hill).  The temple/sanctuary was built at the end of the first century and used through the third.  Its fate echoes that of Corseul as a whole.  Corseul’s importance declined in the 4th century as Rome shifted its focus to the growing city of Alet (today’s Saint Servan in Saint Malo).  In the 11th century, the vast majority of the temple was torn down and “recycled” into building material for Léhon Abbey (near Dinan).  Over the centuries, temple stones also fell victim to local farmers and townspeople in search of stones for their homes and other buildings.

Approaching the Cella

Today, the remanent of the “cella,” the main room of the temple, still dominates the site.  The cella was the most intimate party of the sanctuary and housed the statue/image of the deity or deities honored by the temple.  Originally, 20 meters high during Roman times, the cella’s walls still measure an impressive 10.6 meters!  Looking out from the cella, you can see the temple courtyard–250×200 meters!  If you follow the outline of the ruins, you can begin to trace out and imagine the temple’s former size.  Younger children can run around the site and “trace” the temple’s outline for themselves–Laura and Elise made a game out of it and didn’t want to leave.  Like in the town center, information panels provide background information to visitors.  Parking is free and you can drive right to the temple.  The local tourist office has several self-guided walks around Corseul and the surrounding countryside.  While we chose to drive (little children and walking up hills don’t always work well together), adults or families with older children looking for a bit of exercise could probably make a loop from the town center to the temple and back.  Would I recommend Corseul?  With reservations–if you’re looking for a change of pace, something different to see and an afternoon break from the seaside, yes.  If you’re expecting the Roman Forum in Brittany, you’ll risk being disappointed.  It’s all about knowing what you want.  We came with one set of expectations and still enjoyed ourselves; of course, when the weather is this lovely, how can you not enjoy being outside and exploring?


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