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Nîmes was a stopping point in the South of France (Gaul) between Italy and Spain (Iberia) on the Domitian Way, a major Roman road, and has a history seemingly larger than the town itself, which is rather small. Nîmes, originally known as Nemausus, was a Roman colony at the time that the Emperor Octavius (later known as Augustus) defeated Marc Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 30 B.C.E. The Emperor had a coin struck, symbolizing his victory over the Egyptians, and symbols of North Africa were placed on that coin. Actually, the symbolism was deep. Octavius had an image of a crocodile chained to a palm tree, signifying the conquest. The crocodile and the palm subsequently became the symbols of Nîmes when Octavius rewarded his military leaders with land in Nîmes.

The colony prospered, building the largest ramparts along the Mediterranean, in addition to a major amphitheatre, rising straight out of the ground in true Roman fashion. We will get into the city in a moment, but first something outside vital to the inhabitants of Nîmes.


Located 18 km northeast of Nîmes, this "bridge of the Gard River" features three levels of arches. The first level actually is a bridge, wide enough for traffic in its time. The two upper levels form an aqueduct, taking water 50 km from the Springs of Fontaine d'Eure at Uzès to the residents of Nîmes. The Emperor Agrippa built it in about 19 B.C.E. Agrippa was the son-in-law of Augustus.

The arches stretch across the valley for a distance of 275 meters (902'). Interestingly, the Pont du Gard has been made famous again by its appearance in a Volkswagen Beetle commercial, in which the arched shape of the car is juxtaposed against the strong arches of the bridge.

The bridge / aqueduct was built with blocks of limestone weighing as much as 6 tons (12,000 lbs), fitted together without mortar, but secured with iron clamps.

You might wonder why it was necessary to bring water from a great distance and build a bridge spanning a river in the process. Why not use the river water for the city's needs? Well, there were no such things as pumps (no electricity) in Roman times. Water had to be brought from a height and dropped into a community, thus supplying not only the water, but pressure as well. Think of water tanks, which pop up all around the country in small communities. Their height supplies pressure. The height of the aqueducts was determined by the necessity to provide a continual slope to the piping carried on top of the aqueduct. Water will not flow uphill, unless there is a "head" higher at one end. This one drops 17 meters (56 feet) in its 50-kilometer passage (31 miles). A major engineering feat more than two thousand years ago.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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