Pont Du Gard - Is This Mighty Engineering Feat in Danger of Collapse?
Some of the most remarkable Roman remains are its roads, amphitheaters, and bridges. Perhaps the most awe-inspiring of all their aqueducts is the astounding Pont du Gard found in Nimes, France. This city is so rich in Roman architecture, it is known as the most Roman city outside Italy. Today, this remarkable structure is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Little wonder it is one of France’s most popular tourist destinations each year.
The History of Pont Du Gard, France
The construction of this aqueduct dates to the First Century AD. The Roman emperor Augustus' son-in-law, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, was appointed to the role of supervising the water supply for Rome and its many colonies. Agrippa financed and oversaw the construction.
The Pont du Gard was part of the Nimes aqueduct network which was then a Roman colony. It is believed that it took approximately 5 years to build and involved 1000 workers. Modern historians now believe that the structure was completed during the reign of Claudius (c 60 AD). Roman legionnaires possibly contributed to the construction of the structure as it was common for Emperors to use soldiers on public works during peacetime. The majority of the stone was taken from a local quarry.
The water channel of the Pont Du Gard, ancient Roman aqueduct (travelview / Adobe Stock)
The Pont du Gard was crucial to the agriculture of Nimes which led to prosperity of the region. It was also a crucial trade center. The structure transported water until after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and was still in operation when Visigoths ruled the area.
During the Middle Ages, the Pont du Gard was used as a bridge and for centuries it was the only safe route across the Gardon River valley. Local lords and bishops would charge a toll for its use. This practice helped to preserve the structure and it was not dismantled for its stone as happened to so many other Roman structures.
In the 1620s, the Huguenots (French Protestants) and Royalists (Catholics) went to war in the region. The bridge was partially destroyed to allow Huguenot artillery to cross the river valley. In the 18 th century, a new bridge was built nearby, and the authorities did all they could to conserve the site. Napoleon III launched a project to oversee its preservations in the 1860s. The Pont du Gard managed to withstand several major floods in recent decades.
The Roman amphitheater in Nimes, one of the largest in the empire (lamax / Adobe Stock)
The Pont Du Gard and the Testament to Roman Engineering
The structure is composed of three tiers of arches made from limestone that is often dazzling in the hot southern French sun. This ancient structure is 140 feet (42m) high.
Five stone piers are located at water level. The first tier consists of 6 arches measuring between 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 m) wide. The Pont du Gard’s second tier has eleven arches all of equal length and height. The third and upper tier consists of 35 smaller (15-foot) arches, which supported the channel which carried the water. Most of the structure was built without using mortar.
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Only the top of the structure was constructed from blocks held together by mortar. The aqueduct has a gradient of one inch, a testament to the genius of Roman engineering. Once the Pont du Gard could transport 40,000 cubic meters of water to the center of ancient Nimes. Although it originally extended for 31 miles (50km), most of the aqueduct system that was connected to the Pont du Gard has disappeared. Investigation of the aqueduct has shown that the structure is tilting a little more each year and may one day collapse.
A highway bridge has since been added to the structure alongside its base, which can be crossed.
Visiting Pont Du Gard in Nimes
The heritage site is located not far from Nimes, in south-west France which has many historic Roman monuments.
It is not far from the beautiful town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard. It is advisable to book in advance to visit the bridge/aqueduct. The scenery around the site is astounding and there are great bike trails in the vicinity of the monument. Private tours of the Pont du Gard are available.
Top image: Pont Du Gard, Nimes, France Source: Emperorosar / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan
Fabre, G., Fiches, J. L., & Paillet, J. L. (1991). Interdisciplinary research on the aqueduct of Nimes and the Pont du Gard. Journal of Roman Archaeology, 4, 63-88
Fiches, J. L. (2013). Pont du Gard. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History
Hauck, G. F. (1986). Structural Design of the Pont du Gard. Journal of Structural Engineering, 112(1), 105-120