What Today’s Construction Industry Can Learn from the Past
In a dusky room in Judea, a discontented rebel plots the overthrow of his Roman overlords. To inspire the gathered crowd, he asks, “What have the Romans ever given us?”
Unfortunately, this was not a scene from history (as you may have gathered), but Monty Python’s film Life of Brian. Reg’s fellow rebels quite unhelpfully provide a long list of Roman accomplishments, including the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine and public order. It turns out that the Romans have done quite a lot. This is especially true when it comes to construction.
The Pont du Gard near Nîmes in Southern France is one of the world’s best-preserved examples of Roman construction ingenuity. Constructed in the first century AD, the bridge still stands as a testament to the Roman building accomplishments that shaped ancient towns–and still form part of our daily lives. So, as the construction industry of today, is there anything that we can learn from the Romans?
50,000 Tons of Limestone and No Mortar
From its engineering to the construction process, the way that the Pont du Gard was built is incredible even by modern standards. The bridge was constructed in the middle of the first century, possibly between 40 and 60 AD. It’s unknown whether the patron was a single rich individual or the city of Nîmes itself, but the idea was to provide water for the Roman colony of Nemausus (modern-day Nîmes) and its 60,000 citizens.
Construction involved a huge project team–and local expertise was at its heart. The overseer hired a large team of contractors who came from the region. These managers recruited local technicians and architects, who could draw on their in-depth understanding of the natural resources and landscape in the area.
Amazingly the Pont du Gard was constructed largely without the use of mortar or clamps. The soft limestone blocks were cut to fit perfectly together, held by the power of friction alone without any need for mortar. Evidence of the sophisticated collaboration required during construction is clear from the inscriptions remaining today on the stonework, as builders left instructions and messages for each other.
Altogether the bridge contains an estimated 50,400 tons of limestone. It forms part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 31-mile system carrying water from a spring at Uzès. The scale of the coordination and the use of innovative construction techniques are as impressive as many modern large-scale projects, especially when you consider that the Romans lacked the project management tools we use today.
9 Million Gallons of Water–And a Transformed City
The sophistication of the Pont du Gard doesn’t end with its construction. Once completed, the structure was part of an incredibly complex operation. The aqueduct delivered 40,000 m3 of water a day, the equivalent of nearly 9 million gallons, to the people of Nemausus. Its sheer size required a significant number of staff to maintain, supervise and develop the structure; the ancient town had what was effectively its own Roman utility company. There was even legislation to ensure that the aqueduct was fully funded and could meet the needs of the city.
Just as today, water was an essential resource for a growing population and it transformed the lives of the citizens of Nemausus. Living standards improved dramatically; better sanitation meant improved health, while fresh water was available to city residents for cooking and cleaning. Importantly water could also be delivered to the surrounding fields, to enable the agriculture needed to feed the growing populace.
This infrastructure also underpinned the cultural life of the city. With the aqueduct, the Romans could create baths, which quickly became the heart of social life. Both rich and poor citizens could go for a daily bath, to keep clean and meet with friends and peers. The aqueduct allowed the creation of at least six public facilities, improving the quality of life throughout Nemausus.
Across the city, water also transformed the urban environment. Town planners could create fountains, pools and flowerbeds, altering the appearance of the streets and providing a more pleasant place to live. The Pont du Gard underlines how a feat of engineering can have a lasting, positive impact on citizens’ lives and shape a civilization’s culture – just like the best construction projects today.
But What Else Have the Romans Ever Given Us?
Pont du Gard is just one example of the incredibly ambitious construction projects that the Romans used to transform their lands. If you lived in Roman Britain, you could have enjoyed underfloor central heating (called the hypocaust)–an innovation that many homeowners today would aspire to.
If you lived in ancient Chester, grand city walls provided protection against attackers like the free Welshmen over the border. Even driving through the UK today, you can follow the ancient Watling Street all the way from London to Shropshire, under the new name of the A5.
How the Romans Inspired Innovation in Construction
Many of the building innovations developed by the Romans were lost with the collapse of the empire and would not be seen again for hundreds of years. As we pass through another age of innovation with the adoption of digital technology, the Romans’ accomplishments are a reminder of what can be accomplished with bold, innovative and complex projects–and of course the latest tools and technologies.
Pont du Gard was used for four centuries and still stands today, just as the Roman legacy continues to shape our world. In many ways the Romans have also given us a brilliant example to follow in the world of construction, with the reminder that our projects can change lives for decades (and even centuries) to come.