Grand: in the footsteps of Constantine the Great

‘Basilica’ of Grand.

Those who enter the village of Grand in the Vosges completely unprepared, will perhaps wonder how on earth it ever got its name. With a population of less than 400 souls, Grand is anything but grand. But the name Grand has nothing to do with the French adjective for ‘large’. It probably derives from Grannus, a Roman-Celtic deity that was worshipped here in Antiquity. Grand was an important settlement in those days, as is demonstrated by several archaeological finds. It had a ‘basilica’ (the term is controversial) with a floor mosaic covering 232 square metres and an amphitheatre that could accommodate about 17,000 spectators. Moreover, remains of baths and a floor heating system (hypocausta) have been found, while back in Antiquity some 300 water wells were drilled and underground galleries several kilometres long were created. Furthermore, Grand was a walled town back then. The walls had several gates and eighteen circular towers. Lastly, it was likely here in Grand that the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) experienced his first vision in 310.

Apollo Grannus and Andesina

Each and every description of the history of Grand is based on a combination of archaeological evidence and many assumptions and interpretations. In other words, much is still uncertain regarding this history. In a brochure that I was given in the village, Grand was rightly called an “ancient city full of mystery”. What we do know for sure is that in Antiquity the town was situated in the territory of the Leuci, a Gallic tribe that had its most important settlement at Tullum, present-day Toul. The Leuci got on well with the Romans: Julius Caesar reports that they provided his army with corn during his Gallic War (58-50 BCE).[1] This they did together with the Lingones and Sequani, who lived further to the south. At the time the territories of these tribes were threatened by the Germanic warlord Ariovistus.

Floor mosaic in the ‘basilica’.

Nothing is known about the history of Grand before the Roman conquest of Gaul. The town stood on a remarkable site, i.e. on a dry limestone plateau without a river in sight. Unlike, for instance, Andematunnum (Langres), which is some sixty kilometres further to the south, Grand is also quite far from the main Roman roads. And yet ancient Grand must have been of major importance. This is not only proven by the aforementioned ‘basilica’ and the amphitheatre, but also by the fact that Grand is mentioned on the Peutinger Table. It is in any case very likely that Grand must be equated with the town of Andesina on that map. Andesina has been depicted much larger than, for instance, Andematunnum or Vesontio (Besançon). It has been estimated that it had a population of perhaps 20,000 people.

So why was Grand/Andesina so important? The most plausible explanation is that the town had a famous sanctuary dedicated to the aforementioned deity Grannus. He was associated with both the sun and water, and the Romans equated him with Apollo. Moreover, it was believed that Apollo Grannus possessed the power to heal people. While on campaign against Germanic invaders in 213, the Roman emperor Caracalla was said to have been plagued by both mental and physical problems. According to the historian Cassius Dio, the emperor sought help from Apollo Grannus, Aesculapius and Serapis, but not one of these gods was interested in providing Caracalla with relief.[2] Is it possible that Caracalla visited the sanctuary in Grand during his campaign? Some historians were ready to assume that in the past, but nowadays they generally believe the emperor’s visit took place in Faimingen in the south of modern Germany, which also had a temple of Apollo Grannus. It follows that the cult of Grannus extended well beyond Grand. Another place of worship was located in present-day Aachen, which was known as Aquae Granni during the early Middle Ages. It is not inconceivable that the name Aquae Granni is actually older, although that cannot be proven at the moment.

Andesina on the Peutinger Table.

On the Peutinger Table, Andesina is depicted as a hot spring or a bath enclosed by four walls. This appears to be the standard symbol for settlements that were known for their mineral baths. If you check the map, you will notice five more of these symbols to the left of Andesina, and these are all accompanied by the word aquis (‘waters’, as in the aforementioned Aquae Granni). The most famous of the five is probably Aquae Calidae, present-day Vichy. By the way, the symbol is also used for the castellum of Praetorium Agrippinae in the Netherlands, but as far as I know no one ever found a well or baths there (I happen to live around the corner).

The French architect and archaeologist Jean-Claude Golvin (1942) has made a beautiful reconstruction drawing of Grand, showing what the town might have looked like in Antiquity. The drawing can be viewed here. Much of Golvin’s reconstruction must be correct. The walls, ornamental gate and circular towers have either all been confirmed by archaeology or are at the very least plausible. Along the Chemin de Remparts one can for instance still see the remains of a tower. The strange circle around the town may be the pomerium, the sacred boundary of Grand/Andesina. The circle is still highly visible if you check out Grand from above using Google Maps.

Church of Sainte-Libaire.

Golvin’s drawing also features the ‘basilica’ and the amphitheatre, a bath house and a tall column which must have once supported an equestrian statue of Jupiter (recovered and now in the Musée lorrain in Nancy). An image of the statue can be seen here. Judging by the drawing, visitors and pilgrims came in from the east, passed through the ornamental gate and then entered a walled courtyard, with colonnades on three sides. The sacred well of Grannus was supposedly located in this courtyard, and the drawing features two splendid temples, the larger of the two presumably dedicated to Grannus (and the smaller perhaps to Jupiter). Unfortunately this is the point where problems arise. In spite of much research and many excavations, so far no traces of these temples have been found. A logical spot to look for traces was the present church of the village, which is dedicated to Sainte-Libaire, a local saint who was said to have been martyred in 362 during the reign of Julianus the Apostate (361-363). The main reason to search here was, of course, the fact that Christian churches were often built over pagan sanctuaries. However, geophysical research has not led to the discovery of a single trace of foundations or walls.

Does this mean that the temple of Grannus is a myth? Let us not jump to that conclusion too quickly. The orator who spoke of the visit of the emperor Constantine (see below) called this temple the templum toto orbe pulcherrimum, or “the most beautiful temple of the whole world”. The Latin word templum does not just means ‘temple’, it is also the generic term for a sacred space. Geophysical research has demonstrated that the church was built on particularly soggy ground, so possibly over a large mass of water. This also explains the instability of the church of Sainte-Libaire. When we visited Grand in the summer of 2019, the building was closed and had to be propped up in several places (see the photo in this post). In the Celtic and also in the Germanic world it was not uncommon for water sanctuaries to consist of sacred lakes into which valuable objects were thrown as offerings to the gods. We know there were such lakes in Tolosa (modern Toulouse), as they were looted in 106 BCE by the Roman consul Quintus Servilius Caepio. It is not impossible that the small village church was built over a water well or little lake instead of a classical Roman temple. However, at the moment this is all just speculation.



The museum of the ‘basilica’ has a couple of items on display that are said to serve as additional evidence for the presence of a cult of Apollo Grannus in Grand. Unfortunately these items require a firm dose of interpretation, as the texts they contain have seldom been preserved in their entirety. See for instance an inscription, found in 1964, that has the letters NNO REGI ILLA. Archaeologists interpreted NNO as [GRA]NNO, “for Grannus”, but obviously the Latin language offers other options as well. Next is an inscription, found in 1935, with the text SOMNO IVSSV[S], “commanded in his sleep” or “commanded in a dream”. This text has been associated with pilgrims spending the night around the sacred well, for instance in the presumed colonnades surrounding the water (see Golvin’s drawing). The French historian Albert Grenier (1878-1961) saw the inscription as compelling evidence, but the museum is quick to put it into perspective. After all, deities were quite capable of commanding sleeping people outside sanctuaries. A third piece of evidence is an inscription containing no more than the letters APO E SA, found in 1947. Experts like to read it as APO[LLINI] E SA[CRVM] (“to Apollo and sacred”), which provides the link to Apollo, who – it was already noted – was the Roman equivalent of Grannus.

Perhaps the strongest evidence is a bronze tag of the former slave Fidelis, who claims to have fulfilled a vow to Apollo. Here we at least have Apollo’s name in full: APOLLINI. So to sum up: because of the presence of, among other things, the ‘basilica’ with its large mosaic and the amphitheatre, it is certain that Grand was important in Antiquity. It is furthermore very plausible that Grand can be equated with Andesina on the Peutinger Table, and that the town was famous in Antiquity because of its sanctuary of the god Apollo Grannus. This theory does still have a few loopholes. Archaeological traces of the sanctuary have yet to be demonstrated and the archaeological evidence we do have is anything but perfect. But as all scholars of Antiquity know: absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. There can be little doubt that more archaeological research will be conducted in the near future. We will certainly hear more from Grand then.

Inscription with the text SOMNO IVSSV[S] and bronze tag of the former slave Fidelis with the word APOLLINI.

Constantine’s visit in 310

Goddess of plenty.

Upon the death of his father Constantius Chlorus in July of 306, Constantine had become emperor (Augustus).[3] Initially he only ruled over the western Roman provinces in Britannia, Germania, Gaul and Hispania. In September of 307 he married Fausta, the daughter of the former emperor Maximianus (286-305), who had abdicated two years previously. Maximianus’ son Maxentius, in his turn, had come to power in Rome on 28 October of 306 thanks to the praetorians. He went on to rule over Italy and parts of North Africa, re-appointing his father as emperor. The father-son relationship later fell apart, and Maximianus was forced to flee to the territories controlled by his son-in-law Constantine. When the ungrateful old man began rebelling against Constantine there, the latter was force to act. Constantine broke off his campaign in Germanic territory and hastened south. In 310 Maximianus was strangled on Constantine’s orders.

Around the same time, so in about 310, Constantine presumably visited the sanctuary of Apollo Grannus in Andesina. This may have been shortly before or after the emperor dealt with his father-in-law. A panegyric (panegyricus), recited for the emperor by an orator in Augusta Treverorum (Trier) in 310, provides us with the evidence that Constantine visited the sanctuary. At the time the emperor celebrated his quinquennalia, his fifth year on the throne. The orator declared that Constantine “left the main road to visit the most beautiful temple – templum toto orbe pulcherrimum – in the whole world”.[4] There Apollo and Victoria, the goddess of victory, were said to have appeared to the emperor. Although the panegyric does not actually say so, it is generally assumed that the aforementioned Apollo was none other than Apollo Grannus, so it must be concluded that Constantine left the main road in Gaul, running north-south, to visit Andesina. There he subsequently had a vision of the god, or – alternatively – saw him in a dream.

Mosaic of a leopard.

The only way the orator could have known that Constantine had seen Apollo was that the emperor had told him so. It is also possible that he had heard it from people in Constantine’s entourage. The panegyric continues: “But why do I say ‘I believe’. You HAVE seen him [Apollo] and you have recognised yourself in the image of Him who would rightfully gain control of the whole world”.[5] It is obviously no longer possible to establish whether Constantine really had a vision or dream, or whether he simply made it up for political reasons. Judging by his coins, between 306 and 310 the emperor had mostly worshipped the gods Hercules and Mars. In 310 he had begun using the image of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, on his coins instead. In Apollo Grannus he must have seen a manifestation of the Sun. Although the emperor took many pro-Christian measures after his victory over the aforementioned Maxentius in 312 and possibly already considered himself a Christian by then, he continued to mint bronze coins with images of Sol until 318 and gold coins until 325. The vision in Grand is mainly interesting because it was a precursor to the Christian vision that the emperor is said to have experienced later, during the war with Maxentius. The latter vision is of course much more famous. Information about it is provided by authors such as Lactantius and Eusebius, whose stories are, by the way, anything but similar.[6]

The ‘basilica’

In 1883 the archaeologist Félix Voulot (1828-1883) discovered a splendid floor mosaic in Grand that covered a surface of 232 square metres. The mosaic presumably dates from the second half of the second century CE. The building in which it was located had an apse and was called the basilica of Grand. However, many modern scholars seriously doubt whether it was really a basilica, i.e. a building which housed the law courts. If the building was not a basilica, then what was it? Alternative interpretations are that it served as a room for the cult of Apollo Grannus, as a temple or even a school building. It has even be suggested that the ‘basilica’ was not a public building, but the reception room of a private building. So to sum up, we do not really know its purpose and will perhaps never find out.

Floor mosaic in the ‘basilica’.

The beautiful floor mosaic is also difficult to interpret. A large part of it consists of geometrical patterns. Four wild animals have been depicted around the central scene or emblema. These animals are a bear, a wild boar, a tiger and a leopard. These animals may be interpreted in a number of ways. They are often connected to the games that were held in the amphitheatre of Grand, where they would have fought either against each other or against gladiators. The four animals are also sometimes linked to the four seasons. Since bears and wild boars were native to Gaul, but leopards and tigers had to be imported, one may also see the presence of these four animals as a symbolic amalgamation of indigenous and exotic elements.

Of the emblema only about a third has been preserved, which makes interpreting it very hard. It is usually assumed that we see a scene from the comedy Phasma by the Greek playwright Menander (ca. 342-290 BCE). This assumption, however, has a small problem: Phasma too has only been partially preserved. We still have 56 lines from the first act, another 65 fragmentary lines from the rest and a few testimonia in other sources. From what we have, the plot of the comedy can be reconstructed fairly well. Phasma means ‘ghost’ or ‘apparition’. The title refers to the secret daughter of the stepmother of the protagonist Pheidias. The stepmother tries to keep her daughter – the product of a rape – hidden, and when Pheidias by chance sees the young woman, he believes her to be a ghost or a goddess.[7] It is possible that precisely this moment has been depicted in the emblema, but it is difficult to draw firm conclusions, and there are alternative interpretations. Some experts claim that we may also be seeing a scene from the work of the Latin playwright Plautus or his colleague Terentius.


The amphitheatre

Given the presence of a theatrical scene in the ‘basilica’, it seems fair to assume that Grand/Andesina had a theatre. However, as yet no archaeological evidence of a theatre has been found. There is of course ample evidence that Grand/Andesina had an amphitheatre, as its immense remains can still be admired on the east side of town. The amphitheatre dates from the end of the first century CE. It was subsequently embellished at the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century. During its construction excellent use was made of the terrain, as the cavea – the part providing the seats for the spectators – was built against the slope. The cavea was split into three sections. The higher a spectator got, the worse the view of the spectacle down in the arena. What is remarkable is that most spectators had seats on one side of the arena only, i.e. on the south side. Only the lowest section of seats, for the most prominent spectators, went all the way around the arena. This type of amphitheatre is therefore often referred to as a demi or semi (‘half’) amphitheatre. Apparently the construction is unique to Roman Gaul.

Amphitheatre of Grand.

I already mentioned that the amphitheatre could accommodate about 17,000 spectators, a number that could have been almost twice as large if a full cavea had been built on the other side of the arena as well. The amphitheatre is 148 metres in length and 65 in width. By comparison, the Colosseum in Rome has a length of 188 metres and a width of 156. From the second half of the fourth century the amphitheatre gradually fell into disuse. The rise of Christianity, which condemned the bloody games in the arena, was largely responsible for this development. In the Middle Ages, the amphitheatre had become a stone quarry, a site where the inhabitants of Grand acquired their building materials. In the eighteenth century the building from Antiquity was rediscovered. The first descriptions of its remains were made, and it was concluded that it must have once been an amphitheatre. The first excavations, executed between 1820 and 1823, were led by Jean-Baptiste-Prosper Jollois (1776-1842). Jollois was actually an Egyptologist: he had accompanied Napoleon during his campaign in Egypt.


Ancient arches of the modern stands of the amphitheatre.

It was not until 1963 that the first scientific excavations were conducted. These were completed in 1981, by which time the whole amphitheatre had been brought to light. Parts of it are currently covered with wooden benches, which were placed here as part of a restauration that was completed in 1995. When we visited the amphitheatre in the summer of 2019, a couple of ferocious cardboard gladiators had been set up in the arena. They looked a bit silly, but did give an impression of the types of gladiators that used to fight here. We saw a secutor, retiarius and murmillo. The fourth gladiator was more difficult to identify. Judging by his short sword he may have been a thraex.


[1] De Bello Gallico 1.40.

[2] Cassius Dio 78.15 (ὁ Ἀπόλλων ὁ Γράννος).

[3] Galerius, who had been Augustus together with Constantius Chlorus, only recognised him as Caesar, a sort of junior emperor. In the so-called Tetrarchy there we always two Augusti and two Caesares.

[4] My translation into English from the Dutch translation in Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 231.

[5] See the Dutch translation in Singor, p. 232.

[6] In about 314 Lactantius wrote that Constantine had had a dream. Eusebius, writing in 315-316, does not mention any dream or vision, but in his Life of Constantine of ca. 340 he writes about a vision of a cross above the sun and the Greek text toutoi nika, “conquer in this sign”. After the vision Christ was said to have appeared to Constantine in a dream. Eusebius claims that the story he recounts in his Life of Constantine was told to him by the emperor himself. See Singor, p. 261-264.

[7] Ariana Traill, Women and the Comic Plot in Menander, p. 65-66.


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