The Pont du Gard Withstands the Test of Time
“LONG after the Roman Empire had died, her aqueducts remained to be used and admired and to serve as an inspiration for builders of subsequent ages,” The New Encyclopædia Britannica explains. The Pont du Gard is not an exception to the rule. It is probably the most famous Roman vestige in France.
Roman aqueducts were not generally built for irrigating fields but to transport water to towns. These towns had public fountains, thermal baths, swimming pools, and water basins; and some of the larger cities even had sewage systems. Yes, Roman towns and colonies needed water—and plenty of it.
Rising nearly 160 feet [49 m] above the river Gard, the Pont du Gard is a bridgelike structure, the highest built by the Romans that supports a water channel. Although 902 feet [275 m] long, it is still only a small section of the complete aqueduct. The entire length of the water conduit was in fact 30 miles [49 km]. It was used to supply water for the Roman town of Nîmes. Like some other Roman structures of the same period, the aqueduct has largely withstood the centuries and testifies to the high-quality work standards of the Romans and to the expertise of their engineers. Huge blocks of limestone, some weighing as much as six tons, were cut and shaped in a nearby quarry at Vers. Interestingly, no mortar was used to join the blocks.
Building tiers of arches was necessary for several reasons. As soon as a structure reaches a certain height, it has to be made lighter, and the shape of the arches is designed to achieve this. But the Pont du Gard also had to bridge a river. In order to resist strong currents, the builders designed the bridge with a slight curve.
Although not appreciated by all the bridge’s admirers, some structural changes were nevertheless later undertaken. Its thick piers were cut into to permit horse-drawn carts to cross, and in the 18th century, the structure of the first floor was widened. A century later, Emperor Napoleon III, a conservationist before his time and interested in the site’s preservation, undertook the necessary work to restore the bridge.
Over two million people visit it every year. This tremendous interest has endangered the Pont du Gard, and various projects are under way to preserve the site. Whatever lies in store for it, this bridge demonstrates that a well-done job can withstand the test of time.