Pont du Gard

It is apparently 22.7 Kms from Nimes to the Pont de Gard so it was only a short drive from our morning stroll around Nimes to our next stop. The Roman Aqueduct over the River Gard was nominated in 1985 as of World Heritage importance and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. The Pont du Gard is an acknowledged masterpiece of engineering that lasted for at least four centuries carrying water from the hills around the town of Uze to the Roman city of Nimes. Water was carried to a shallow, circular basin 5.5m in diameter in Nimes where it was directed off to other destinations in the city such as les Quais de la Fontaine that we had visited earlier in the day. When the distribution basin was excavated by archaeologists, they also found pipes that connected to the Roman Arena that enabled the Romans to hold mock water battles there

Roman Aqueducts were normally built mainly through underground tunnels but to bring water to Nimes in this manner would have been unfeasible due to the heavily vegetated and hilly countryside. At least one tunnel, 8-10 km long, would have been needed at one point. The direct distance between Uzes and Nimes is around 20 Kms but the Romans needed their aqueduct to be around 50 meandering kilometres long to ensure the slope of the aqueduct was practical. The source of the water was the Fontaine d’Eure (see map on left) and it was only 17m higher than the receiving basin at Nimes. This meant that the gradient of the aqueduct had to be very slight over the 50 kms to carry the water to Nimes. The accuracy and ingenuity of the Roman engineers illustrated by the Pont du Gard still amazes modern tourists. A visit to the museum nearby illustrates the complexity of this engineering, particularly with its wooden models of how the huge stone blocks were raised up to the second and third tier of the bridge and placed exactly, without mortar or clamps.

On our visit to the beautiful Roman Temple in Nimes earlier in the day, we discovered that it was originally dedicated to the sons of Marcus Agrippa, the son in law and aide to Augustus Caesar. History has generally given credit for the construction of the Pont du Gard to Agrippa as he had the complex job in the early years of the new Roman millennium of managing the water supply to Rome and its colonies. Agrippa apparently visited Nimes in 19 CE. However, archaeology in Nimes undermines this theory setting the construction sometime between 40 and 60 CE, probably during the reign of Claudius.

Above: Images of the water channel at the top of the Pont du Gard, the photo on right is from 1891.

Ingenious as the Pont du Gard was in supplying water to Nimes from 50 km away, it had inbuilt deficiencies that meant it wasn’t a system that would last forever. This aqueduct can be seen as an appropriate metaphor for the Roman Empire as well. It was a stunning technological solution for supplying water over long distances, however there were inbuilt problems for both the Pont du Gard and the Roman Empire that meant both would stop functioning sometime after the fourth century. The limestone stone blocks used in the construction of the aqueduct over time led to increasing calcification of the water supply and in the stone channel itself. This chemical process plus the vegetation that slowly found its way through the gaps in the stone blocks meant that the aqueduct had to be continuously checked and cleaned. When this maintenance stopped due to local social conditions, the flow of water slowly ground to a halt over the centuries. Without labouring the metaphor of weeds and calcification too much, the end of the waterflow through the Pont du Gard can be seen as coinciding with the arrival of the Goths from the East that slowly closed off the functioning of the Western Roman Empire as well as its brilliant achievements in providing water supplies to its declining cities.

But the Pont du Gard was so well built that although it stopped channeling water to Nimes, it survived through the centuries by being used as a bridge to allow a convenient pathway for locals crossing the Gard River. Local Lords and bishops spent some money on maintaining the Pont as it was a source of income for them. The engraving below by Charles-Louis Clerissau illustrates the condition of the bridge in 1804. Serious damage had been done to the Pont du Gard in the early 17th century when it was severely damaged by an army carting its artillery across it. A new bridge was built next to the arches on the lower level between 1743-47 and this can be seen in use in the engraving. By the early 19th century, the Pont du Gard was at serious risk of collapse from erosion and loss of stonework but local and state authorities began a series of repair works that have continued on into the 21st century. Eventually the road attached to the side of the lower level became free of road transport. Curiously in the 20th century, the Pont du Gard came under threat from nature with three severe floods threatening the piers and arches of this World Heritage aqueduct.

We spent considerably time walking along the banks of the River Gard and inspecting the Pont du Gard from all angles. It was then time to head to the Visitor Centre that was opened in 2000. It was an excellent accompaniment to our tour of the site with many ingenious displays on how the Pont du Gard was constructed. However the day was disappearing so it was time to hit the road and finish our day’s journey at the wonderful city of Avignon.

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