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The golden man of Lillebonne

Match! Standing in the middle of Lillebonne
Match! Standing in the middle of Lillebonne

Our postcard prepared us for some impressive ancient ruins, but not for finding a huge amphitheatre in the middle of a small Normandy town.  Why in Lillebonne? And who was the golden man?

A quick bit of scene setting

Back when the Romans thought they ruled ­the land now known as Normandy, Lillebonne on the river Seine, was an important port.  Trading branched out in all directions. To the north with ‘Provincia Britannia’ to the south with ‘Lutetia’, now Paris, and far beyond.  Where rivers could not reach, good Roman roads took provisions, armies and art across Gaul.   Lillebonne saw the best the empire had to offer.

Wealth and wonder in Lillebonne

View over to the middle of Lillebonne town.

As the Seine bought thousands of visitors and traders from Italy, Africa, Asia, Lillebonne became prosperous.  Lillebonne always kept a little back for itself.

The exacting Roman traders and administrators of Lillebonne decided to create a perfect piece of Rome in their damp valley. They constructed lovely heated villas decorated with mosaics and statues.  In the centre of town a magnificent amphitheatre could entertain 3000.

But nothing lasts for ever. By the middle ages heated villas are not even a memory and Lillebonne’s fortifications are strengthened with stones from the vast theatre.

 Renewal and revelations


It took until the 19th century for anyone to take very much interest in Roman Lillebonne. By then the theatre had long lost it roof and years of mud filled in the spaces left by ancient rooms.  Scruffy cottages sprung up in the weed covered curve of its arena.

Then as a Roman legacy became fashionable the importance of Lillebonne’s heritage became clear.  So in 1818 an area of land around and including the theatre was purchased by the General Council of the Lower Seine.

Anything found within these lines would be property of the state.  Local archaeological enthusiast and priest Francoise Rever led the excavations under the respectful direction of Mons. Le Baron de Vanssay, the Prefect of the Department.

Unlucky for some

Mowing the theatre
Mowing the theatre

We aren’t sure if Francoise and M. Le Baron took local advice when marking out the government’s land but we do know that while Francoise unearthed some huge walls, the biggest most incredible archaeological finds happened just outside his authority.

On July 24 1823 labourers digging for clay on land adjacent to the theatre, owned by a Mr Timothy Holley, found shining metal in the soil.  They alerting Mr Holley.  Slowly and carefully a wonderful golden man emerged from the sticky earth.  He was found just 600 paces from the Roman Theatre.

A bronze, gilded young man.  An Apollo?

Gilded youth, at a price

The statue had some damage; right hand lost for ever, gilt patchy, yet archaeologists recognised in the fall of his hair, his smooth athletic life size figure, the strong influence of ancient Greece. No warrior, in his left hand this gilded youth would have held a Lyre.

Apollo of Lillebonne
Apollo of Lillebonne

Francoise willingly examined M. Holley’s discovery. He wrote a detailed paper and made rather a nice sketch (see links below).  M. Houton La Billardière, Professor of Chemistry at Rouen wrote a scientific account of it’s component parts.

M. Holley then offered to the French government, at some considerable cost, the golden man found so close to land that could have made him free.

They said no.

An expensive proposition

Before any negotiations could begin an Englishman, Mr Samuel Woodburn, approached Timothy Holley.  Samuel was an art lover who had turned his passion into a business.  He travelled the world hunting out treasures and by 1923 had become one of the biggest purveyor of antiquities in Europe.

With ‘the spirit of liberality and love of art which have uniformly characterised his purchases’ Samuel became the golden man’s owner. Samuel was confident that his own government would appreciate this golden Apollo and cover his considerable expenses…

In London the statue was put on public display and widely admired.  Trustees of the British Museum gave their strongest recommendation to the Treasury that the Nation purchase this shining marvel.

Some months went by and then the British Government said no.

We aren’t sure why.  Britain was at war with Burma but it was always at war with someone and that didn’t usually stop it purchasing exceptional works of art.  Was the price simply too high?  Were they fed up with paying Mr Woodburn’s finders fee? Did they not want to upset France, a country still raw from the death of Napoleon in 1821 and the loss of revolutionary dreams?

Hidden in London for nearly 30 years

Illustration of the amphitheatre from the Penny Magazine 0f 1840
Illustration of the amphitheatre from the Penny Magazine 0f 1840

Samuel Woodburn grumpily took the statue back from public display to his premises on St Martins Lane.  Years passed and the golden statue became a dusty rumour, its whereabouts known to just a few antiquarians. Samuel Woodburn was not inclined to put it on public show ever again.

He did relent a little to allow Charles Roach Smith, the renown antiquarian and amateur archaeologist, to arrange for an engraving of the statue for his latest publication ‘Collectanea antiqua; etchings and notices of ancient remains vol III’.  But the etching took a little longer than expected as in 1853 Samuel Woodburn died.

Shortly afterwards Charles visited St Martins Lane with the hope of examining the statue closely for his Collectanea.  He was startled to discover it had gone.  To France.

Back home and a bargain!

The closely guarded, resentfully owned golden man had been one of the first items sold by Charles’s executors.  A well know purchaser snapped it up for the knock down price of 1250 francs – the Louvre.

The Louvre quickly put it on display and Lillebonne’s golden man is still on view today.

 Remember Mr Holley? So does Lillebonne

An interpretation perhaps, rather than a replica…

And the extraordinarily fortunate Mr Timothy Holley?  He found quite a few pieces of ancient art on his land and is still remembered in Lillebonne ; Place Timothée Holley is the name of a small residential square.  It is of course just a few yards from the very wonderful amphitheatre in Lillebonne.

Some sources:

Roman translations: 

  • Juliobonna – Roman name for Lillebonne
  • Sequana – Roman name for the River Seine
Nicely mowed! Click on any of the photos to enlarge.

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