Pont du Gard: Artistry and Functionality

Several months ago I visited the Colosseum in Rome. I expected to be impressed by this grand, ancient structure. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’m delighted by the ancient Roman ruins throughout France, especially by the functional arenas in Nimes and Arles and the crytoportico beneath Arles’ City Center. Throughout southern France aqueducts, ruined walls, and magnificent stone monuments pay tribute the Roman influence on their French neighbors.

After living among these ruins and still-functioning structures of the ancient Romans for a year, I was surprised by the Pont du Gard.

Set in a remote area, the ancient Roman bridge/aquaduct rises from an otherwise tranquil and beautiful landscape. And perhaps this adds to the awe it inspires. Nearly 1,000 feet long and 164 feet high, the three-tiered structure spans the River Gardon, which reflects its majestic display of arches.

This artistic tribute to Roman architecture served a functional purpose for nearly five centuries. It is the best preserved and most impressive portion of a 31-mile aquaduct built in the middle of the 1st Century A.D. to supply water to the fountains and baths of Nemausus, known today as the City of Nimes. In studies of Roman aquaducts, it has been discovered to be one of the empire’s highest capacity water systems. In later centuries, rich landowners garnished income by charging tolls to those who traversed the river using the lower level.

The interior walls of the aquaduct were coated with lime, pork grease, and the juice of unripe figs to insure a smooth and easy flow of water.

Records do not name the original architect, although some have attributed the building of the pont to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a general in Octavia’s army and a close friend of the future Emperor. After his successful military career, Agrippa returned to Rome and became responsible for improving the city’s physical infrastructure, including repairing aquaducts and building fountains. More recent excavations have led researchers to believe, however, that the aquaduct of Nimes was built later, around 40-60 A.D., because the water utility bypassed certain tunnels known to have been built by Augustus.

For the future monarchs of France, the pont became a way to associate themselves with the former greatness of the Roman empire. Napoleon III ordered renovation to the bridge. Charles IX of France and Louis XVI included visits to the Roman structure on their tours of France.

The bridge inspired artists and many writers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

“One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, “Why was I not born a Roman!”

This olive tree at the base of the Pont du Gard is believed to be approximately 1,000 years old.

Today the bridge is one of France’s most visited ancient sites. Visitors can walk the bridge to view the handicraft of masons and laborers who quarried the yellow limestone from the river banks and stacked, rather than mortared, precisely cut stone. The site surrounding the pont is beautifully and naturally preserved. Several miles of carefully cultivated land allow explorers to revisit the agricultural history of the Mediterranean and see others parts of the aquaduct, most of which was built underground. Approaching the bridge on foot, don’t miss the giant olive trees, estimated to be approximately 1,000 years old.

Pont du Gard is a World Heritage Site and a Grand Site de France.

Watch this short video about the Pont du Gard.