Nîmes and the Pont du Gard

Masterpieces of Architecture and Technology


Augustus gives the gates and the walls of the colonia in the eighth year of his tribunician power.


Water has at all times been crucial to the existence and growth of Nîmes, set as it is in the semi-arid landscape of Provence in the south of France. The major year-round water source at the foot of the hill of Mont Cavalier had long attracted human settlement and was to become the focus of a major Roman complex, while the city’s most famous monument was the aqueduct known today as the Pont du Gard, bringing in water from the north. At the Roman conquest of Provence from 125 BC the site was already an important centre, signalled by a tall tower, the Tour Magne, atop the Mont Cavalier. Nîmes became a Roman colonia (settlement of legionary veterans) perhaps under Julius Caesar and certainly before 28 BC when coins were struck there referring to it as Col(onia) Nem(ausus). Coins of Augustus include a crocodile under a palm tree on the reverse, suggesting veterans of that emperor’s eastern campaigns were settled there.

Bronze coin of Augustus struck at Nîmes. On one side are the heads of Augustus and his general Agrippa; on the other is a crocodile chained to a palm tree, with Col Nem for Nîmes. The crocodile remains a symbol of the city.

Trustees of the British Museum.

During the reign of Augustus (31 BC–AD 14) Nîmes developed as one of the principal cities of southern Gaul, and some of the still visible monuments were constructed then. The inscription quoted above, dating to 16 BC, records the gift to the city of the circuit of walls, 6 km (almost 4 miles) long and incorporating the Tour Magne. A prestige project, this was far larger than the city needed simply to defend itself, and the principal gate, the ‘Porte d’Auguste’, which bore this inscription, was an architectural display piece. Within the walls the monuments included the temple now known as the ‘Maison Carrée’; an inscription on its façade dates its dedication of AD 2–3. One of the most perfectly preserved temples to come down to us from Roman antiquity, it sits on a podium and has a hexastyle (six-column) façade of the Corinthian order. It presumably formed part of a much larger complex.

The amphitheatre of Nîmes from the air, showing the two tiers of external arches and the surviving seating in the interior. The arena is still used for dramatic productions and for corridas (bullfights). In front of the amphitheatre are the foundations of a length of the Roman city wall.

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

At the same period the spring at the foot of Mont Cavalier, la Fontaine, was incorporated into a huge monumental and aquatic complex consisting of a large basin from which water was led round a probable altar-base and nymphaeum. To one side stands the well-preserved ‘Temple of Diana’, of uncertain function – it has been interpreted as either the substructure for something now disappeared or a library. The latest major monument to survive in the city centre is the amphitheatre, constructed towards the end of the 1st century AD. Measuring 133 m long by 101 m wide (436 × 331 ft) – very close to the dimensions of the amphitheatre of the rival city of Arles – it is estimated that it could have held up to 24,000 spectators. The architecture recalls that of the Colosseum at Rome and is in an exceptionally good state, thus preserving much detail, including how such a massive structure was drained of rainwater and the provision of sanitary arrangements for the large crowds.

Water is certainly the theme of the most famous of Nîmes’ monuments, the Pont du Gard, which carries an aqueduct from Uzès across the ravine of the river Gardon. Emblematic of what is now thought of as a ‘Roman aqueduct’, the bridge consists of three superimposed tiers of semicircular arches with a total height of 49 m (160 ft). The lowest tier of six arches cleared the river itself (the road bridge alongside is 18th century) and the second tier of eleven arches gained the height necessary to carry the topmost row of 47 small arches (35 survive) which carried the specus, the water-channel built of stone and lined with hydraulic concrete. Over 50,000 tons of limestone from a local quarry were used in the construction of the monument, the large blocks being fitted together mostly without the use of mortar or metal clamps. Long credited to the reign of Augustus, the bridge was in fact probably built after that time in the mid- to late 1st century AD.

The Pont du Gard from the air. The three superimposed tiers of arches, the topmost ones much smaller, carry the water-channel (specus) of the aqueduct over the steep valley of the river Gardon, northeast of Nîmes.

Colin Matthieu/hemis.fr/Getty Images.

Once it reached the city, the water was gathered in a still visible castellum aquae (water tower), from where it was piped to supply the public baths (nine are known) and for other uses. Though monumental, the bridge was a relatively clumsy piece of architecture, since intelligent use of concrete would have obviated the need to ‘stack’ tiers of arches. Moreover the water from Uzès was rich in calcium carbonate which precipitated out and ‘furred’ the specus, necessitating frequent cleaning to keep the aqueduct working. When this operation ceased in late antiquity so did the use of the aqueduct.

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