While bridges are structures essential to modern life, their origins date back to antiquity. Egyptians, Minoans, and Assyrians developed techniques to build bridges. However, it was with the Romans that bridge construction reached a degree of excellence that almost defies belief.
Bridges and bridge building were part and parcel of life in Ancient Rome. The Romans’ preferred expansion method was conquest and this required moving legions of soldiers across vast portions of land that were often interrupted by rivers.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practice makes perfect, as they say. And that’s exactly what happened with the Romans. There are so many rivers in Italy that building bridges became a common occurrence. Engineers and skilled workmen formed guilds that exchanged ideas and experiences. As the empire began its sprawling expansion, these guilds were dispatched to faraway lands, spreading their know-how in building design.
Bridges and the Roman Worldview
As an aside, there is an interesting hint of how important bridges were to the Roman worldview. You may have noticed that the pope’s Twitter handle is @pontifex. Well, this Latin word (which is also the forefather of the English word “pontificate”) and its modern derivatives are still used to refer to the catholic pope, but the term has pre-Christian origins. “Pontifex” for the Romans was he who built bridges (“pons” in Latin), and such person deserved so much consideration that the meaning evolved to designate the “Pontifex maximus”, or “great bridge builder”, the most important position in the ancient Roman religion.
Breathtaking Engineering Solutions
The Romans built wood bridges, but none of them survives. However, their masonry bridges are more than enough to astound with their breathtaking assembly of engineering solutions. The Romans discovered a natural cement, pozzolana, which they combined with the cofferdam technique to build piers in wide rivers with a soft bed. This technique called for driving a cofferdam, a watertight enclosure made of wood, into the riverbed. The area inside the cofferdam was dredged and then the space was filled up with concrete.
Most surviving Roman bridges were built on rock, but the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which is still one of the most famous bridges in Rome, stands on cofferdam foundations.
The circular arch is one of the characteristics that make Roman bridges immediately recognizable. This was taken to a magnificent degree in the Pont du Gard (see photo above). This structure was built by ancient Romans near current day Nîmes, in France. The bridge, that still stands to this day, comprises three tiers of semicircular arches, with the top tier raising more than 150 feet above the river, confirming that Romans took bridge building to unsuspected heights.
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