Visit Cluny Museum in Paris to Find the Roman Antiquities

Tourists today tend to gravitate to its few remnants — the baths in the Cluny Museum, traces from when Paris was Roman. PARIS, or Lutetia, as it was known in ancient Gaul, was sacked, fortified and rebuilt by the Romans. Tourists today tend to gravitate to its few remnants — the baths in the Cluny Museum; the ruins of the Arènes de Lutèce, a second-century 15,000-seat arena; and ramparts under the square of the Notre Dame Cathedral (7, parvis Notre-Dame, Place Jean-Paul II).

But the collections of Roman antiquities at the Louvre, located in the Denon and Sully wings, on the ground floor and first floor, and the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, in a Paris suburb, should not be missed.

Even when the Louvre’s corridors are gridlocked with tourists, the Roman galleries of sculptures, sarcophagi, glass, silver and furniture are mostly empty, especially in the morning when the rooms are filled with natural light.

“It’s one of the best collections in the world and hardly anyone comes,” said Ludovic Laugier, a curator at the Louvre, as he led me through the collection. “I want to stop people and say, ‘Look, look at what you’re missing!’ ”

The Musée des Antiquités Nationales (Place Charles de Gaulle, St.-Germain-en-Laye) is even less frequented. The museum, originally a chateau rebuilt by Francis I in the 16th century, was founded in the 1860s by Napoleon III, a history and archaeology buff who was obsessed with ancient Rome.

On display are a multitude of objects from Roman daily life: agricultural and carpentry tools, cooking pots and utensils, gold jewelry, sewing needles, surgical instruments, hunting lances, coins, musical instruments and playing dice. For a woman’s toilette, I found hand mirrors, perfume bottles, tweezers, a scraper to wipe off sweat, even an applicator for face powder in the shape of a human finger.

Patrick Périn, the museum’s director, showed me his favorite statue: a crude, grim-faced Mercury, carved not in fine marble, but in limestone. “He is the ugliest thing, a typical Gaul, in rough Gallic dress, not a Roman,” Mr. Périn said. “But look at his kind face. I love him.”

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