Pont du Gard - Ancient Roman Bridge
Pont du Gard is an impressive ancient Roman aqueduct that
served as the main component of the 50km-long canal that
carried water between the spring at Uzès to the Roman colony of Nemausus
(Nîmes). Created 2000 years ago in the 1st century AD,
this aqueduct to this day remains the highest elevated Roman aqueduct of
all time, and together with Aqueduct of Segovia one that
was best preserved.
Built over the period of just around 15 years in 50AD using 30 million shelly limestones, Pont du Gard aqueduct has
the form of three arched bridges placed one atop of other.
The top of the bridge features water-carrying channel with a constant
gradient of just 2.5cm from one side of the bridge to another. The Roman
architects had access to very impressive construction techniques, which
enabled them not only to create this 50-kilometer Nîmes aqueduct network in
short period but also to have it loose only 17 meters in height over its
entire structure that passes via underground passages and through numerous
mountains. The overall gradient of the entire Nîmes aqueduct network is
just 1 in 18,241, which is much lower than many other Roman aqueducts.
Pont du Gard today stands 48 meters (160 feet) tall and 275-meter-long, but
in its original state, it was much longer at 360 meters (1,180 feet). Its
three-tiered arched design was revolutionary for its time, managing to span
Gardon river below it with a central arch that is 24.5m wide, a record for
any structure that was built in 1st century AD. The entire construction
featured 64 spans (6 in the lowest section, 11 in mid and
47 in highest), although the top section is today missing 12 of the arches.
Pont du Gard bridge is the most important showpiece structure of the 50km-long Nîmes aqueduct network that was created in 50 AD
The aqueduct was in use between 1st to 4th century AD,
with some part of the network remaining operational even to the 6th
century. By that point entire structure fell into disuse, and natural
clogging and lack of maintenance caused a buildup of natural material that
blocked the flow of water. Instead of falling to ruin like the majority of
the original Nîmes aqueduct network, Pont du Gard managed to survive due to
its ability to be used as a pedestrian bridge. Local lords
and bishops were required to preserve the bridge in the operational state,
collecting tolls and keeping this structure in the good state.
By 17th century bridge was still operational, but some of its stones were
damaged, missing or were looted. By the 18th century, this historic
aqueduct started gaining more and more attention from both the local
governments and the international community, and it eventually became a
popular tourist landmark. After the 18th century, several organized efforts
by the French state and local authorities led to restoration and
preservation of the Pont du Gard bridge structure. In 2000, Pont du Gard
was finally fully transferred into a site of historic heritage,
transferring pedestrian traffic from it and into a nearby visitor’s center.
The aqueduct and the scenic area immediately surrounding Pont du Gard are
protected by French “Monument Historique” (1840), French law (1930) and as UNESCO World Heritage Site (1985), where it was
described as a mark of masterpiece of human creation, in the same way as
Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China.
Today, Pont du Gard is one of the most popular tourist attractions in
entire southern France.
History Pont du Gard
The origins of the Pont du Gard aqueduct can be traced all the way back to
the early years of 1st century AD, when Roman emperor Augustus' son-in-law
and aide, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, was tasked with managing water supply
for Rome, Italy and all of its numerous colonies. In the position of the
senior magistrate (aedile), Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa formed plans, gathered
funding and organized work for the creation of several large aqueduct
networks, with Nîmes network being the largest and longest lasting. While
the old common consensus was that the work on the Nîmes aqueduct network
started around 19 BC, newer findings have confirmed that the majority of
the tunnels that were used to transfer the water from spring at Uzès to the
Roman colony of Nemausus (Nîmes) were built between 40 and 60 AD. This was
confirmed by several findings of worker coins that started circulation no
earlier than the reign of Roman emperor Claudius (41–54 AD). Modern
historians argue that the entire construction of the Nîmes aqueduct network
was set between 40 and 60 AD, has lasted around 15 years, and it used workforce that numbered between 800 and 1000 workers.
Stones for the creation of Pont du Gard aqueduct bridge were sourced from
the quarry that was located only 700 meters from the bridge itself.
After Roman Empire
Nîmes aqueduct network remained in regular use between 1st and 4th century
AD, but the fall of Roman empire and arrival of several waves of invaders
managed to disrupt the region and almost totally remove the maintenance
efforts that kept the water tunnels free from clogging and being
structurally safe. With each passing decade after that, parts of aqueduct
network started being compromised, eventually leaving only parts of the
waterways in active use in 6th century AD. By that point, Nîmes aqueduct
network stopped being operational over its large part, clogged with
encrustations, plant rot, debris and losing water via destabilized
construction. Some evidence, however, suggests that pieces of the network
continued to be used for water transport even up to the 9th century.
While the natural decay and looting compromised Nîmes aqueduct network,
French authorities and local governors managed to preserve the Pont du Gard
aqueduct bridge because it was actively tolled as the only fast and reliable way to traverse the Gardon river valley, and those funds were used for its maintenance.
Another factor that contributed to the lack of additional damage to the
bridge was the fact that it was not located in the highly populated area of France. Builders of Pont
du Gard placed it on the location that best-suited transport of water, and
not near any major roads or settlements. This reduced the amount of foot
and cargo traffic in the area, enabling the bridge to avoid the high stress
of constant public use.
Even with that, for centuries Pont du Gard remained the only safe passage
point over that part of Gardon River, and slowly and surely, pieces of it
started falling off, being looted or removed away (most notably by local
monks who used its stonework for construction).
Damage in the 1600s
The rights of the maintaining the bridge were given by French king to
seigneurs of Uzès, and later to Bishops of Uzès. They tolled the bridge and
were responsible for its maintenance.
Pont du Gard stood in good health for over 16 centuries, but that era came
to an end during the 1620s war between French Royalists and Huguenots. When
Henri, Duke of Rohan and leader of the Huguenots elected to use this bridge
for transporting a large part of his artillery, he ordered the partial
destruction of the structure of the bridge. Because there was no space for
artillery to be carried across the bridge on its lowest deck, Duke ordered
cutting off a third of the thickness of the one side of the second row of
arches. This alteration enabled passage of artillery, but it also
dramatically reduced the carrying capacity of the entire bridge. In the
years following this alteration, the lowest level of Pont du Gard bridge
become passable for larger carts, but the compromised stability of the bridge started worrying
architects and surveyors, who feared that bridge could potentially fall if
any of its remaining core structural parts become damaged.
Henri Pitot’s Bridge
One of the possible solutions for preservation of the Pont du Gard aqueduct
bridge arose in early years of 18th century. The local authorities
commissioned the restoration of the bridge that would reinforce the damaged
arcs, strengthen the piers that were badly damaged, replace the missing
stones, and repair various parts of all levels of the bridge. The most
notable addition was the 1743-1747 construction of the new bridge that was located just next to the arches
of the lowest level of the bridge. Devised and realized into reality by architect and engineer Henri Plot This new side-bridge was intended to be used by
foot and cart traffic, displacing much of the weight by passengers and
cargo from Pont du Gard to this new bridge.
While this side-bridge reduced the strain from Pont du Gard, many of the
locals and numerous worldwide authors criticized the move, citing that this
new structure has ruined the look of the original bridge and the scenic
environment around it. The most vocal and notable critic of Henri Pitot’s
bridge was famous French novelist Alexandre Dumas who commented that “it
was reserved for the eighteenth century to dishonor a monument which the
barbarians of the fifth had not dared to destroy."
However, even with the moving of the traffic to the side bridge, the Pont
du Gard continued to deteriorate. Its damaged arches, loss of stonework and
slow erosion slowly but surely made the bridge more and more unsafe,
leading surveyors of early 1800s to believe that the collapse of the bridge
Renovations of Napoleon III
Considerable attention fell on the Pont du Gard bridge after Napoleon III,
nephew of the first Napoleon, visited this site in 1850. Seeing the bad
shape of the bridge, he felt compelled to commission large restoration
project funded by Ministry of State that would restore the aqueduct bridge to its former glory. The
project was led by the architect Charles Laisné who
oversaw the restoration process between 1855 and 1853. This included
filling of piers with concrete to make them more durable, improving
drainage, replacing many eroded or missing stones, and separating the water
channel of the bridge from the rest of the aqueduct network (thus
protecting it from further water damage). The top of the bridge and the
water conduit were restored, enabling visitors to climb up via newly
installed stairs all the way to the aqueduct and observe it in relative
All this made the Pont du Gard bridge even more appealing to tourists, who
started visiting this area of France with increased frequency. Pont du Gard
was also declared to be a “Monument Historique”
by the French government in 1840.
In recent history, Pont du Gard managed to survive several floods (even the
massive 1958 flood that submerged entire first level of the bridge
underwater) and was subjected to several restoration projects that
consolidated its piers and arches.
Today, the area of the bridge is protected by the government, and tourist
can engage numerous activities both on and near the bridge. This includes a
local museum focused on the history of the bridge, child area, cinema, open
air route, temporary exhibition, history trails through nature and other
In 2004, Pont du Gard was the first historical object that received the
label of “Grand Site de France” by the Ministry
of Ecology and Sustainable Development.
Architectural details (Description of the bridge)
Pont du Gard was built over the valley of Gardon river in southern France. Its original
construction was augmented with a side-bridge structure that dramatically
widens its base level, placing a decking that could be used by both on-foot
and cart traffic. Today, two millennia after it was originally constructed
by builders of Ancient Rome, Pont du Gard still stands 49 meters tall above
the level of the river, and 247 meters across the Gardon valley. The width
of the bridge was originally smaller, but the 18th-century side-bridge
expanded it to 9 meters. On the top, the aqueduct bridge remains 3m wide,
with each of the rising levels of the bridge receding above the main piers.
The entire bridge structure is estimated to be weighing around 50,400 tons of limestone, mortar, and clamps. The volume
of the bridge could fit inside 21,000 cubic meters, and some of the
heaviest blocks of stone are estimated to be weighing around 6 tons. All
the stone that was used for constriction of this bridge was excavated from
the nearby quarry that is located just 700m in the downstream direction.
All the stones were precisely cut to perfectly fit one with another
, which enabled builders not even to use mortar. The mere
friction between perfectly cut and aligned pieces of heavy stone provided
enough binding power to keep entire bridge stick together.
Because of its lack of use of mortar, the Ancient Roman designers rarely
used this kind of approach to creating large aqueducts or structures since
it required very large amounts of stone to be cut and precisely placed.
Later aqueduct structures used much less stonework that was held together
with binding properties of very effective mortar. This enabled them to
create larger, taller and more slender arches that could be placed on less
Pont du Gard features three distinct bridge levels, all with their number
of arches that are constructed independently one from another to provide
better structural support and flexibility. The number of arches, the
thickness of piers and height of arches differs for each level, and is as
– 6 arches that go up to 22m in height, piers are 6m thick.
– 11 arches that to up to 20m in height, piers are 4m thick.
– 35 arches (originally 47) that go up to 7m in height, piers are 3m
The top of the upper level of the bridge houses a water conduit (specus)
that is 1.2m wide and 1.8m high. While the rest of the bridge features
crude stones that were not decorated, the specus conduit itself was
precisely cut and polished to perfection. The walls of the conduit itself
were made out of masonry, and the floor was done from concrete, and the
entire structure was covered with a stucco made from small shards of
pottery and tile, painted over, and covered with a maltha texture. This
process ensured that the water conduit remained smooth, durable and
perfectly safe for long-term water exposure.
Because the purpose of the entire bridge is to passively transport water
via slight difference of gradient, only the specus section bridge has the
needed drop of height that facilitates the flow of water. This is achieved
2.5 cm difference in the height of specus between two sides of the bridge. The rest of the bridge is almost perfectly leveled and structurally
sound, with the slight lean being present in the upstream direction of
river Gardon. Initially, this was believed it was done to better protect
the aqueduct bridge against floods, but recent findings discovered that
this bend was a result of the heat expansion of one set of stones that
caused entire bridge to permanently sway in an upstream direction a little.
Created without the use of mortar, Pont du Gard helped deliver 200,000 cubic meters of water each day
The Nîmes aqueduct and Pont du Gard
Large and wealthy colony Roman city of Nemausus (Nîmes) that housed 50
thousand inhabitants faced a water issue from its inception. The
engineering effort to bring water to it required aqueduct builders to turn
their sights on the northern mountainous region that featured several
springs, as the other directions around the city were unsuitable (either
due to lack of sources of water, or because of low plains that could not
facilitate natural flow of water toward the city).
The chosen source of water for the city was springs of the Fontaine d'Eure near Uzès, which were
located 20km from the city via air route. The aqueduct
structure itself had to snake over the much longer route,
circumventing large foothills of the Massif Central and
taking around 50km of the passageway to reach the city finally. The area in question was harsh and filled with natural obstacles such as
hills, gorges, dense vegetations and deep valleys. Roman architects
frequently chose not to drill single large tunnels through mountains (in
this case they would need up to 10km of almost straight tunnel to
circumvent harsh terrain), so they picked a rough V-shaped route for their
aqueduct structure that would start at 76m above sea level and then gradually slope down only 17m during the
entire 50km passage to the city. In the end, much of the aqueduct ended up being placed inside tunnels, in
fact, the aqueduct is underground in 35 of the total 50km
of the entire structure. The aqueduct's gradient varies depending on
terrain, but it averages to 1 in 3,000, which is much lower than many other
aqueducts that were built by Romans (famed aqueducts in Rome had ten times larger gradient). On
the Pont du Gard bridge itself, the gradient is 1 in 18,241 (2.5cm drop in
Pont du Gard aqueduct bridge was famed for its beauty
since the moment it was created. The high appeal made it one of the premier
tourist destination in France, including a spot on the famed traditional
tour around the country “Compagnons du Tour de France” that many Frenchmen
strived to achieve during their lifetimes. The popularity of the bridge
skyrocketed in the 18th century after a side-bridge was constructed to it,
enabling tourist to personally traverse across the bridge. French
government reacted quickly to rise in tourist activity, making Pont du Gard
and the surrounding scenic environment protected as a cultural site.
Over the history of France, many of their monarchs strived to associate
themselves closer with surviving symbols of strong Roman imperial power,
which included both collectible antiquities and preservation of famous
structures. This includes visits of Charles IX of France in 1564, Louis XIV
in 1660, and Louis XVI who commissioned various pictures of Pont du Gard
that were placed in his new dining room at the Palace of Fontainebleau.
Patronage of Louis XVI was also essential in gathering funds for the 1850s
bridge restoration which enabled Pont du Gard to survive to this day.
Tourists and regular travelers could visit and pass over Pont du Gard
side-bridge all the way up to 1990s. The ever-increasing foot and vehicle
traffic congestion over 1743 road bridge brought numerous problems to the
preservation of the bridge. This also included the ever-increasing
occurrence of building illegal structures near the bridge (mostly tourist
shop). This all ended in 1996 when General Council of the Gard and French
Government executed a plan to clear the surrounding area around the bridge, and restore it to the previous natural glory. The
redevelopment included the closing of the bridge to the general traffic and building
of the nearby museum that provided much additional information and
historical context for this large structure.
Today, two millennia after it was originally created, Pont du Gard is one of France’s top five tourist destinations, with more than 1 million people visiting it every year.