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p936 Pons

Article by Anthony Rich, Jun. B.A. of Caius College, Cambridge
on pp936‑939 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

[right arrow]  This article starts with several paragraphs about Greek bridges; Roman bridges start here.

I feel compelled to add that the author of this article seems to have been a classicist rather than a student of archaeology or of engineering, and his article is thus in one respect seriously deficient, since it does not address the most interesting aspect of Roman bridges, i.e., their construction: neither the process nor the resulting articulation of these great works of Roman engineering. (I hope to remedy this defect on this site at some point, but that will be as difficult a page for me to write as for Smith; don't expect it soon.)

PONS (γέφυρα), a bridge. The most ancient bridge upon record, of which the construction has been described, is the one erected by Nitocris over the Euphrates at Babylon (Herod. I.186). It was in the nature of a drawbridge; and consisted merely of stone piers without arches, but connected with one another by a framework of planking, which was removed at night to prevent the inhabitants from passing over from the different sides of the river to commit mutual depredations. The stones were fastened together by iron cramps soldered with lead; and the piers were built whilst the bed of the river was free from water, its course having been diverted into a large lake, which was then restored to the usual channel when the work had been completed (Herod. l.c.). Compare the description given by Diodorus Siculus (II.8, vol. I p121, ed. Wesseling), who ascribes the work to Semiramis.

Temporary bridges constructed upon boats, called σχεδίαι (Hesyc. s.v.; Herod. VII.36; Aesc. Pers. 69, ed. Blomf., et Gloss.), were also of very early invention. Dareius is mentioned as having thrown a bridge of this kind over the Thracian Bosporus (Herod. IV.83, 85); but we have no details respecting it, beyond the name of its architect, Mandrocles of Samos (Herod. IV.87, 88). The one constructed by order of Xerxes across the Hellespont is more celebrated, and has been minutely described by Herodotus (VII.36). It was built at the place were the Chersonese forms almost a right angle, between the towns of Sestos and Madytus on the one side, and Abydos on the other. The first bridge, which was constructed at this spot, was washed away by a storm almost immediately after it was completed (Herod. VII.34), and of this no details are given. The subsequent one was executed under the directions of a different set of architects (Id. 36). Both of them appear to have partaken of the nature of suspension bridges, the platform which formed the passage-way being secured upon enormous cables formed by ropes of flax (λευκολίνου)º and papyrus (βυβλίνων) twisted together, and then stretched tight by means of windlasses (ὄνοι) on each side.

The bridges hitherto mentioned cannot be strictly denominated Greek, although the architects by whom the two last were constructed were natives of the Greek islands. But the frequent mention of the word in Homer proves that bridges were not uncommon in the Greek states, or at least in the western part of Asia Minor, during his time. p937The Greek term for a permanent bridge is γέφυρα, which the ancient etymologists connected with the Gephyraei (Γεφυραίοι), a people whom Herodotus (V.57) states to have been Phoenicians, though they pretended to have come from Eretria; and the etymologists accordingly tell us that the first bridge in Greece was built by this people across the Cephissus; but such an explanation is opposed to sound etymology and common sense. As the rivers of Greece were small, and the use of the arch known to them only to a limited extent [Arcus], it is probable that their bridges were built entirely of wood, or, at best, were nothing more than a wooden platform supported upon stone piers at each extremity, like that of Nitocris described above. Pliny (H. N. IV.1) mentions a bridge over the Acheron 1000 feet in length; and also says (IV.21) that the island Euboea was joined to Boeotia by a bridge; but it is probable that both these works were executed after the Roman conquest.a

In Greece also, as well as in Italy, the term bridge was used to signify a roadway raised upon piers or arches to connect the opposite sides of a ravine, even where no water flowed through it (τὴν γέφυραν, ἣ ἐπὶ τῷ νάπει ἦν, Xen. Anab. VI.5 §22).

The Romans were undoubtedly the first people who applied the arch to the construction of bridges, by which they were enabled to erect structures of great beauty and solidity, as well as utility; for by this means the openings between the piers for the convenience of navigation, which in the bridges of Babylon and Greece must have been very narrow, could be extended to any necessary span.

The width of the passage-way in a Roman bridge was commonly narrow, as compared with modern structures of the same kind, and corresponded with the road (via) leading to and from it. It was divided into three parts. The center one, for horses and carriages, was denominated agger or iter; and the raised footpaths on each side (decursoria), which were enclosed by parapet walls similar in use and appearance to the pluteus in the basilica. [Basilica, p199B.]

Eight bridges across the Tiber are enumerated by P. Victor as belonging to the city of Rome.

I. Of these the most celebrated, as well as the most ancient, was the Pons Sublicius, so called because it was built of wood; sublices, in the language of the Formiani, meaning wooden beams (Festus, s.v. Sublicium.) It was built by Ancus Martius, when he united the Janiculum to the city (Liv. I.33; Dionys. III. p183), and became renowned from the well-known feat of Horatius Cocles in the war with Porsenna (Liv. II.10; Val. Max. III.2 §1; Dionys. V. pp295, 296). In consequence of the delay and difficulty then experienced in breaking it down, it was constructed without nails, in such a manner that each beam could be removed and replaced at pleasure (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.23). It was so rebuilt by the pontifices (Dionys. III p183), from which fact, according to Varro (De Ling. Lat. V.83), they derived their name; and it was afterwards considered so sacred, that no repairs could be made in it without previous sacrifice conducted by the pontifex in person (Dionys. IIl.c.). In the age of Augustus it was still a wooden bridge, as is manifest from the epithet roboreo, used by Ovid (Fast. V.621); in which state it appears to have remained at the time of Otho, when it was carried away by an inundation of the Tiber (Tacit. Hist. I.86, who calls it pons sublicius). In later ages it was also called pons Aemilius, probably from the name of the person by whom it was rebuilt; but who this Aemilius was is uncertain. It may have been Aemilius Lepidus the triumvir, or probably the Aemilius Lepidus who was censor with Munatius Plancus, under Augustus, ten years after the pons sublicius fell down, as related by Dion Cassius (p423C). We learn from P. Victor, in his description of the Regio XI, that these two bridges were one and the same — "Aemilius qui ante sublicius." It is called Aemilian by Juvenal (Sat. VI.32) and Lampridius (Heliog. c. 17), but it is mentioned by Capitolinus (Antonin. Pius, c. 8) as the pons Sublicius; which passage is alone sufficient to refute the assertion of some writers that it was built of stone at the period when the name of Aemilius was given to it (Nardini, Rom. Ant. VIII.3).b1

This bridge was a favourite resort for beggars, who used to sit upon it and demand alms (Senec. De Vit. Beat. 25). Hence the expression of Juvenal (XIV.134), aliquis de ponte, for a beggar (cf. also Juv. IV.116).

It was situated at the foot of the Aventine, and was the bridge over which C. Gracchus directed his flight when he was overtaken by his opponents (Plut. Gracch. p842C; cf. Val. Max. IV.7, § 2; Ovid, Fast. VI.477).

II. Pons Palatinus formed the communication between the Palatine and its vicinities and the Janiculum, and stood at the spot now occupied by the "ponte Rotto."b2 It is thought that the words of Livy (XL.51) have reference to this bridge. It was repaired by Augustus (Inscrip. ap. Grut. p160, n1).

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The Isola Teverina in 1997:

  • The parapet on the left belongs to a modern bridge.

  • The Ponte Rotto ("broken bridge") is in the foreground just behind it, reaching neither bank.

  • The Tiber island is in the background, its banks freshly concreted: the pons Fabricius can be seen fairly well, on the right; the pons Cestius, less well, in the distant left.

III, IV. Pons Fabricius and Pons Cestius were the two which connected the Insula Tiberina with the opposite sides of the river; the first with the city, and the latter with the Janiculum. Both are still remaining. The pons Fabricius was originally of wood, but was rebuilt by L. Fabricius, the curator viarum, as the inscription testifies, a short time previous to the conspiracy of Catiline (Dion Cass. XXXVII. p50); which passage of Dion Cassius, as well as the words of the Scholiast on Horace (Sat. II.3.36), warrant the assumption that it was then first built of stone. It is now called "Ponte quattro capi". º The pons Cestius is, by some authors, supposed to have been built during the reign of Tiberius by Cestius Gallus, the person mentioned by Pliny (X.60; Tacit. Ann. VI.31), though it is more reasonable to conclude that it was constructed before the termination of the republic, as no private individual would have been permitted to give his own name to a public work under the empire (Nardini, l.c.). The inscriptions now remaining are in commemoration of Valentinianus, Valens, and Gratianus, the emperors by whom it was restored. Both these bridges are represented in the following woodcut: that on the right hand is the pons Fabricius, and is curious as being one of the very few works which bear a date during the republic; the pons Cestius on the left represents the efforts of a much later age; and, instead of the buildings now seen upon the island, the temples which originally stood there, as well as the island itself, have been restored.

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The Pons Fabricius in 1994.

p938 V. Pons Janiculensis, which led direct to the Janiculum. The name of its founder and the period of its construction are unknown; but it occupied the site of the present "ponte Sisto", which was built by Sixtus IV upon the ruins of the old bridge.

VI. Pons Vaticanus, so called because it formed the communication between the Campus Martius and Campus Vaticanus. When the waters of the Tiber are very low, vestiges of the piers are still discernible at the back of the hospital of San Spirito. º By modern topographists this bridge is often called "Pons Triumphalis", but without any classical authority; the inference, however, is not improbable, because it led directly from the Campus to the Clivus Cinnae (now Monte Mario), from which the triumphal processions descended.

VII. Pons Aelius, built by Hadrian, which led from the city to the Mausoleum [Mausoleum] of that emperor, now the bridge and castle of St. Angelo (Spart. Hadr. c19; Dion Cass. LXIX p797E). A representation of this bridge is given in the following woodcut, taken from a medal still extant. It affords a specimen of the style employed at the period when the fine arts are considered to have been at their greatest perfection at Rome.

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	VIII. Pons Milvius, on the Via Flaminia, now ponte Molle, was built by Aemilius Scaurus the censor (Aur. Vict. De Viris Illustr. c72 § 8),º and is mentioned by Cicero about forty-five years after its formation. Upon this bridge the ambassadors of the Allobroges were arrested by Cicero's retainers during the conspiracy of Catiline (Cic. in Cat. III.5).º Catulus and Pompey encamped here against Lepidus when he attempted to annul the acts of Sulla (Florus, III.23). Its vicinity was a favourite place of resort for pleasure and debauchery in the licentious reign of Nero (Tacit. Ann. XIII.47). And finally, it was at this spot that the battle between Maxentius and Constantine, which decided the fate of the Roman empire, took place (A.D. 312).

The Roman bridges without the city were far too many to be enumerated here. They formed one of the chief embellishments in all the public roads; and their numerous and stupendous remains, still existing in Italy, Portugal, and Spain, ºattest, even to the present day, the scale of grandeur with which their works of national utility were always carried on. Subjoined is a representation of the bridge at Ariminum (Rimini), which remains entire: it was commenced by Augustus and terminated by Tiberius, as we learn from the inscription, which is still extant. It is introduced in order to give the reader an idea of the style of art during the age of Vitruvius, that peculiar period of transition between the austere simplicity of the republic and the profuse magnificence of the empire.

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Tiberius' bridge in 1997: the face towards the Adriatic.

The bridge thrown across the bay of Baiae by Caligula (Dion Cass. LIX p652E; Suet. Cal. 19), the useless undertaking of a profligate prince, does not require any further notice; but the bridge p939which Trajan built across the Danube, which is one of the greatest efforts of human ingenuity, must not pass unmentioned. A full account of its construction is given by Dion Cassius (LXVIII p776B); and it is also mentioned º by the younger Pliny (Ep. VIII.4; cf. Procopius, De Aedificiis). The form of it is given in the annexed woodcut, from a representation of it on the column of Trajan at Rome; which has given rise to much controversy, as it does not agree in many respects with the description of Dion Cassius. The inscription, supposed to have belonged to this bridge, is quoted by Leunclav. p1041.6, and by Gruter, 448.3.

Sub jugum ecce rapitur et Danuvius.

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It will be observed that the piers only are of stone, and the superstructure of wood.

The Conte Marsigli, in a letter to Montfaucon (Giornale de' Letterati d'Italia, vol. XXII p116), gives the probable measurements of this structure, from observations made upon the spot, which will serve as a faithful commentary upon the text of Dion. He considers that the whole line consisted of 23 piers and 22 arches (making the whole bridge about 3010 feet long, and 48 in height), which are much more than the number displayed upon the column. But this is easily accounted for without impairing the authority of the artist's work. A few arches were sufficient to show the general features of the bridge, without continuing the monotonous uniformity of the whole line, which would have produced an effect ill adapted to the purposes of sculpture. It was destroyed by Hadrian (Dion Cass. l.c.), under the pretence that it would facilitate the incursions of the barbarians into the Roman territories, but in reality, it is said, from jealousy and despair of being able himself to accomplish any equally great undertaking; which is supposed to be confirmed by the fact that he afterwards put to death the architect, Apollodorus, º under whose directions it was constructed. º

The Romans also denominated by the name of pontes the causeways which in modern language are termed "viaducts." Of these the Pons ad Nonam, now called ponte Nono, near the ninth mile from Rome on the Via Praenestina is a fine specimen.

Amongst the bridges of temporary use, which were made for the immediate purposes of a campaign, the most celebrated is that constructed by Julius Caesar over the Rhine within the short period of ten days. It was built entirely of wood, and the whole process of its construction is minutely detailed by its author (De Bell. Gall. IV.17). An elevation of it is given by Palladio, constructed in conformity with the account of Caesar, which has been copied in the edition of Oudendorp and in the Delphin edition.

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Vegetius (III.7), Herodian (VIII.4, 8), and Lucan (IV.420) mention the use of casks (dolia, cupae) by the Romans to support rafts for the passage of an army; and Vegetius (l.c.) says that it was customary for the Roman army to carry with them small boats (monoxuliº) hollowed out from the trunk of a tree, together with planks and nails, so that a bridge could be constructed and bound together with ropes upon any emergency without loss of time. Pompey passed the Euphrates by a similar device during the Mithridatic war (Florus, III.5). The preceding woodcut, taken from a bas-relief on the column of Trajan, will afford a general idea of the general method of construction and form of these bridges, of which there are several designs upon the same monument, all of which greatly resemble each other.

When the Comitia were held, the voters, in order to reach the enclosure called septum and ovile, passed over a wooden platform, elevated above the ground, which was called pons suffragiorum, in order that they might be able to give their votes without confusion or collusion.c

Pons is also used to signify the platform (ἐπιβἄθρα, ἀποβάθρα) used for embarking in or disembarking from, a ship.

"interea Aeneas socios de puppibus altis
Pontibus exponit."

Virg. Aen. X.288

The method of using these pontes is represented in the annexed woodcut, taken from a very curious intaglio representing the history of the Trojan war, discovered at Bovillae towards the latter end of the 17th century; which is given by Fabretti, Syntagma de Column. Trajani, p315 (see further, Hirt, Lehre der Gebäude, § x).

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Thayer's Notes:

a The strait between the island of Euboea and the Greek mainland is known as the Euripus. It is never more than 1.6 kilometers wide; at one point it narrows to 40 meters. That surely didn't take a Roman to bridge it; and in Antiquity, it was already giving its name to desultory rivulets or trenches in people's gardens or in the amphitheatre, as well as in the Campus Martius in Rome.

b1 (The Pons Aemilius and the Pons Sublicius were one and the same)

b2 (The Pons Palatinus stood at the spot now occupied by the "ponte Rotto"):

This whole passage — notice the argumentative tone that has crept into the text of Smith's article — is now very much a minority opinion. The modern consensus is that they were different bridges, and that the Ponte Rotto (shown in my photo above) is what's left of the Aemilius. See the article Pons Aemilius in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome.

c For the voting process, see the article Suffragium in this same dictionary, and the further references given there. For the ovile, see the article Ovile in Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. For legislation about the pons suffragiorum, see Smith's very brief entry Lex Maria.

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Page updated: 4 Sep 13