Culture : Exploring Roman Provence by Edwin Mullins
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Wandering across Provence and Languedoc in search of the Romans it comes as no surprise that they were here for 600 years. It can feel as though they never actually went away. Their monuments and astonishing engineering feats still dominate our landscape and several of our cities – bridges, aqueducts, amphitheatres, temples, baths, triumphal arches and stretches of road that bisect the countryside. Their amphitheatres are perfect for bull-ﬁghts, their theatres for concerts and operas, while their roads are the basis of the ones we drive on today.
The real surprise is how much of their legacy remains relatively unknown, offering a rich reward to anyone who enjoys exploring. This was exactly my experience when researching for a new book on the subject. Once I’d ‘done’ the Nîmes and Arles amphitheatres, the Pont du Gard and a few other well-known landmarks, I could begin in earnest. One of the ﬁrst discoveries was the water-mill of Barbegal, lying to the east of Arles. My wife and I followed the long crumbling aqueduct which once brought water to Arles from the Alpilles. Then it seemed to divide. One arm has long vanished, but the other continued as a narrow cleft carved through the hillside. We walked through it in single file, wondering where it might lead. Suddenly it opened out into what looked like a ski-jump, with a mass of broken walls scattered down the hillside and the plain of the Crau spreading out far beyond.
This we discovered was where the water course divided into two, cascading in parallel channels down the steep slope with no fewer than eight water-wheels on either side which once ground the corn for the entire population of Arles. It has been described as the ﬁrst example of food production on an industrial scale. There is little left to photograph except rubble, but the imagination can still have a ﬁeld-day; and in the wonderful new museum of antiquities in Arles there is a model of what it would have been.
Another exploration took us westwards into Languedoc to follow the Via Domitia. At one point, near the present-day town of Gallargues, the road had to cross the turbulent river Vidourle, which frequently ﬂooded. The Roman answer was to construct a bridge of eleven stone arches, four of them spanning the river itself. Today the bridge of Ambrussum consists of just one surviving arch in midstream like a crouching giant. The ﬂoodwaters of nearly two millennia have removed all the other arches, though in the mid-19th century we know there were still two because the celebrated artist Gustave Courbet painted a picture of it, now in Montpellier’s Musée Fabre.
Much of the Romans’ genius lay in discovering ways of making water do exactly what they wanted. The Pont du Gard is the most famous example; yet a less-known testimony to their skills is hidden away in the city of Nîmes itself, known as the Castellum. It is a circular stone basin which could pass as a child’s sand-pit, but with a large number of holes radiating outwards. From each of these holes pipes once distributed water to all parts of the city - to public baths, fountains, private houses, sacred pools. The Castellum was the ﬁnal piece in a breathtaking feat of engineering which brought water 35 miles from springs further north, via the Pont du Gard, with a drop of no more than 56 feet from source to city – under two feet a mile! In other words, stone by stone, arch by arch, this tiny differential needed to be accurately calculated and measured with equipment about as sophisticated as a child’s ruler and a piece of string. The Romans truly made engineering an art form.
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The sun is out, bank holidays are in, we all want to go and explore, although this can sometimes be ruined by the dreaded mistral (p14). But let’s not spoil things. How about a visit to St Jean du Fos (p20) or if you’re feeling more urban, a nice shopping day in Avignon with a healthy tea break (p23) or a visit to an art gallery in Nîmes? (p17) If you’re feeling extra energetic like me, how about entering the Pont du Gard race on 30 June to raise money for a fantastic local charity? Also in this issue, the remarkable story of a simulated space mission by Claire (p18) and a very funny article by Bernice on her pathological inability (or so she says) to learn languages (p22).