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PONS (γέφυρα), a bridge. One central idea, round which many curious beliefs and pieces of ritual are grouped, is that the erection of a bridge is an impious act--an injury done to the god of the river, who, by the substitution of a safe method of crossing instead of the primitive fording or swimming, is robbed of a certain number of victims--travellers who without a bridge would have been drowned. This belief has existed among many different races at an early stage of their religious development, and, vaguely understood, still survives in many parts of Europe and Asia. In Greece, Albania, and other countries traditions even now exist of the offering of human sacrifices at the founding of a new bridge; and in many parts of the Moslem world the inhabitants look upon the erection of a bridge as an extremely impious act. Mr. J. G. Frazer, in the Journal of Philology, xiv. pp. 156-7, has collected a curious list of examples of this wide-spread belief. Thus, in Germany, when a man is drowned the people say, “The [p. 2.457]river-spirit is getting his annual victim” (see Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, p. 499); and in part of England the superstition exists that the spirit of the Ribble receives and is satisfied with a human victim every seven years (see Henderson, Folk-lore of the Northern Counties, p. 265). Thus, in ancient Rome, the most primitive duty of the pontifex or bridge-builder was to propitiate Father Tiber by regular annual sacrifices; and also by special extra sacrifices whenever the one early bridge of Rome, the Pons Sublicius, required repairs (see Varro, L. L. 5.15; Dionys. A. R. 3.45; and Plut. Num. 9). In early times human victims were offered annually by being flung into the Tiber from the Sublician bridge; but in later times thirty figures or dummies called ARGET, made of rushes, were solemnly thrown into the Tiber by the Pontifices and Vestal Virgins on the Ides of May, as is recorded by Ovid (Ov. Fast. 5.622):
Tune quoque priscorum virgo simulacra virorum
Mittere roboreo scirpea ponte solet.

Another notion, connected with the same class of ideas, is that a light and, as it were, temporary structure is less offensive to the rivergod than a more permanent bridge. Hence the primitive reason for building the Sublician bridge of wood, not fastened together with iron in any form, having, as Pliny records, its “contignatio sine ferreis clavis” (H. N. 36.100). Dionysius (3.45) goes further, and speaks of it as τὴν ξυλίνην γέφυραν, ἣν ἄνευ χαλκοῦ καὶ σιδήρου θέμις ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν διακρατεῖσθαι τῶν ξύλων: but in sacred matters the use of iron was often specially prohibited, as being a more recent invention than bronze, and therefore devoid of its hieratic associations (cf. Plutarch's Life of Numa). Thus the college of the Fratres Arvales were obliged to offer an expiatory sacrifice if ever an iron tool were used within the precincts of their sacred grove, near Rome (see Marquardt, Römische Staatsverwaltung, iii. p. 459; ARVALES). In a similar way the use of flint knives for sacrificial purposes survived long ages after the Stone period had passed away.

It should be observed that the Romans themselves had, by the first century B.C., forgotten what appears to be the main reason for the rules and ritual connected with their ancient bridge, and explain its unsubstantial character by the risk of attack; as had happened when Horatius Cocles with so great difficulty held the Etruscan army at bay while the bridge was being demolished. And this may possibly have been at one time a secondary reason for the same thing, though not the chief one.

The oldest bridge of which we have any record, that at Babylon, was also of wood, though built on stone piers. This, according to Herodotus (1.178-186), was built across the Euphrates to unite the two portions of Babylon by Queen Nitocris, c. 606 B.C. The piers were of large blocks of stone fixed with iron clamps, run with lead; and the river is said to have been temporarily diverted from its course during their construction. The superstructure was of wood, part of which was arranged so as to be removed every day at nightfall. The same queen also built a massive river embankment made of burnt brick.

Temporary floating bridges (σχεδίαι) for military operations appear to have been used in very early times, boats being used for the points of support, with cables of twisted flax (λευκολίνου) and papyrus (βυβλίνων), tightly strained by the help of windlasses, to support the intermediate planking. A bridge of this kind was thrown across the Thracian Bosporus by Darius; its engineer being a Samian Greek, named Mandrocles (see Hdt. 4.83, 85, 87, and 88). A similar bridge, constructed for Xerxes across the Hellespont between Sestos and Abydos, was immediately destroyed by a storm (Hdt. 7.34, 35). Xerxes decapitated its constructors, and ordered another bridge to be made of more careful construction. This was done by the help of 674 triremes and penteconters, moored by anchors, and united by six strong cables tightly strained from ship to ship. On these cables the roadway rested, made of thick planks covered with brushwood and earth beaten down. On each side was a high bulwark to prevent the horses from being frightened at the sea (see Hdt. 7.36). The Persian army crossed safely on this second bridge; and thus Xerxes was enabled to accomplish, for a time, his projected invasion of European Greece.

In Greece, partly owing to the insignificant size of the rivers, permanent bridges do not appear to have been constructed till after the Roman conquest. No remains now exist which can be attributed to the period of Hellenic autonomy. And yet it appears probable, from the mention of bridges by various Greek writers, that in some form wooden structures for crossing streams when swollen by rain were of no uncommon occurrence. Simple trestles with movable boarding are even now used in some parts of Italy for temporary emergencies; and most of the Greek bridges were probably structures of this light and unsubstantial class. The religious ideas already described may have tended to prevent any more solid structures from being erected in Greece during its most flourishing period.

Throughout the Roman dominions, especially during the Imperial period, stone bridges with wide-spanning arches of the most massive kind were erected in great numbers. Many of these bridges were of remarkable size, and show in a very striking way the great constructional skill of the Roman engineers. The bridge over the Acheron, which was a thousand feet in length (Plin. Nat. 4.1), and that which united the island of Euboea to the mainland, must have been striking examples of this. The Roman bridges were as a rule rather narrow in proportion: the central roadway for horses and vehicles was called the iter; at the sides were slightly raised foot-paths (decursoria), defended on the outside by a low parapet wall. In the more handsome bridges, such as the Pons Aelius in Rome, pedestals for statues or honorary columns were set at regular intervals along the parapet. The main arches were decorated with simple mouldings adapted from Greek buildings; and between them, over each pier, a smaller arch was very frequently introduced to relieve the pressure of water during flood-time. Rows of corbels were very commonly inserted at the springing of each arch, the use of which was to support the wooden centering while the arch was being [p. 2.458]built; thus doing away with the necessity of tall supports resting in the water. In most cases these corbels were not cut away at the completion of the bridge, but were left, so that repairs or rebuilding could be easily carried out. This very useful system was applied not only to bridges, but to all lofty arched structures, such as aqueducts or tall palaces, like that of Severus on the Palatine hill in Rome. In many cases a gate-tower was built as a defence at each end of the bridge: this was the case with more than one of the bridges in Rome, though no remains of these towers now exist.

The chief Roman bridges were built either of brick and concrete, or of solid stone masonry, carefully fixed with iron clamps and lead. In many cases, as for example in Rome itself, a hard “weather stone” was used for the facing, the inner masonry being of some softer and less expensive stone.

Under the later Roman Empire the city of Rome possessed the following bridges:--

    1. The Pons Sublicius, so called from the sublicae or wooden beams of which it was constructed. Till the second century B.C. this was the only bridge in Rome: some of the sacred rites which were connected with it have already been described. According to tradition, the Sublician bridge was originally erected by Ancus Martius, its special purpose being to connect the main city with the long walls which led from the right bank of the river up to the isolated fortress on the Janiculan hill, where the church of S. Pietro in Montorio now stands. The approach to the bridge on the other side was close by the Porta Trigemina, just inside the line of the Servian wall. No traces of it now exist: the ruined piers visible in dry summers by the Marmoratum, under the Aventine hill, belong most probably to the “bridge of Probus,” the last mentioned in the Catalogue of the Curiosum. The epithet roboreo, used by Ovid in the passage quoted above, shows that even in the time of Augustus the bridge was still of oak. In A.D. 69 it was carried away by a flood (Tac. Hist. 1.86), and appears not to have been rebuilt. The mistaken notion that the Pons Sublicius was identical with that known as the Pons Lapideus or Aemilius arose from the misunderstanding of a passage in Plutarch (Plut. Num. 9), and from the statement of the spurious Publius Victor, whose catalogue is a mediaeval forgery. The Roman bridges appear to have been a favourite resort for beggars (see Senec. de Vita beata, 15): hence Juvenal (14.134) uses the phrase aliquis do ponte, as meaning a beggar (cf. Juv. 4.116).
    2. The first stone bridge in Rome, called on that account the Pons Lapideus, was also known as the Pons Aemilius. It was begun in 179 B.C. by M. Fulvius Nobilior and the censor M. Aemilius Lepidus, when the conquest of Etruria and the defeat of Hannibal had put an end to all fears of invasion. It was not, however, completed till the time of the censors Publius Scipio Africanus and L. Mummius (Achaicus): see Liv. 40.51; Juv. 6.32; and Plut. Num. 9. The Fasti Capranici describe it as being “ad theatrum Marcelli;” and the Cosmographia of Aethicus as “ad Forum Boarium.” These indications, and the recent discovery of an ancient basalt-paved road leading up to the mediaeval Ponte Rotto, show that the last-named bridge occupies the site of the Pons Aemilius. The three arches which still exist of the “broken bridge” appear not to be older than the thirteenth century; the present bridge having been mainly rebuilt after its destruction by a flood during the pontificate of Honorius III., 1216-1227. In 1598 about half was swept away by another flood, and the gap is now bridged over by a modern iron structure. The name Palatinus, as applied to the Pons Aemilius, appears to be a mediaeval invention.
    3. The Pons Fabricius, which unites the Insula Tiberina to the left bank of the river, was built in 62 B.C. by L. Fabricius, one of the curatores viarum, as is recorded in inscriptions deeply cut in large letters across the face of its arches. Part is now illegible, but the full inscription (repeated over both arches) is given by Pirro Ligorio in his MS. notes on Ancient Rome, c. 1570 (Bodleian, Cod. Canoniciani Ital. 138): L. FABRICIVS C. F. CVR. VIAR. FACIVNDVM COERAVIT EIDEMQVE PROBAVIT; and in smaller letters over the intermediate arch for stormwater, Q. LEPIDVS M. F. M. LOLLIVS M. F. COS. S. C. PROBAVERVNT. This last inscription records its restoration by the consuls Q. Aemilius Lepidus and M. Lollius in 21 B.C. Like the other existing bridges of Rome, this is built of peperino and tufa, faced on both sides by massive blocks of travertine, which is also used for the corbels at the springing of each arch. A fragment still exists of the parapet namely, a marble pilaster crowned by a quadruple head, Janus quadrifrons, from which the bridge takes its modern name of the Ponte dei quattro capi. The pilaster is grooved to receive an open bronze screen or cancellus, which formerly filled up the intermediate spaces between the pilasters. This bridge is shown on the reverse of a contemporary denarius, c. 62 B.C., with the legend L. FABRICIVS, and a snake to indicate the proximity of the Temple of Aesculapius on the Tiber island. It is also represented on a bronze medallion of Antoninus Pius (see Froehner, Med. Rom. p. 52; also D. C. 38.45). During the Middle Ages this bridge was often called the Pons Judaeus, from its proximity to the Ghetto or Hebrew quarter.
    4. The Pons Cestius, which joins the Insula Tiberina to the right or Janiculan side of the Tiber, was probably built by L. Cestius, Praefect of the City in 46 B.C. (see D. C. 37.45). On one of the large marble slabs which form the parapet is a long inscription recording the restoration of the bridge in A.D. 370 by Valentinianus, Valens, and Gratian. The Pons Cestius consists of one arch only, with an opening for flood-water on each side of it. At present it is called after the adjacent church of S. Bartolommeo, which probably stands on the site of the Temple of Aesculapius.
    5. The Pons Aelius, modern Ponte di S. Angelo, was built in A.D. 135 by Hadrian to connect his mausoleum and circus with the Campus Martins (see D. C. 69.23; and Spartian, Hadr. 19). It is shown on bronze coins of Hadrian dated from his third consulship. The Einsiedeln MS. gives its dedicatory inscription, which is now lost, IMP. CAESAR DIVI TRAIANI PARTHICI FILIVS DIVI NERVAE NEPOS TRAIANVS HADRIANVS AVG. PONT. MAX. TRIB. POT. XVIIII. [p. 2.459](A.D. 135) COS. III. P. P. FECIT. The name of the bridge was derived either from Hadrian's family name Aelius, or else from his son Aelius Caesar, who died before his father. The five arches of this noble bridge are of peperino faced with travertine; near it, along the left bank, are extensive remains of the ancient embankment wall, built of massive blocks of peperino, now doomed to destruction for the sake of the new quay. This is the bridge mentioned by Dante, Infer. 18.28-33, as being thronged with pilgrims in the Jubilee year 1300.
  • 6. The Pons Aurelius, mentioned in the Notitia, was probably on the site of the modern Ponte Sisto. The date of its foundation is not known, but Marlianus (Topogr. Rom. cap. cxxi.) gives an inscription (now lost) which recorded its restoration in the reign of Hadrian. The names Janicularis and Antoninianus, which are sometimes given to this bridge, appear to be inventions of the mediaeval topographers. This is possibly the bridge which, in a recently discovered inscription, is called the Pons Agrippae; see Bull. Com. Arch. Rom. 1888, p. 92.
  • 7. The Pons Neronianus or Vaticanus was begun by Caligula and completed by Nero, to give access to the Horti Agrippinae and the great circus which stood by the present Basilica of St. Peter. The foundations of its piers still exist, and are visible in summer a little way below the Pons Aelius. It is probable that this is the bridge to which the title Pons triumphalis was sometimes applied.
  • 8. The Pons Mulvius, modern Ponte Molle, is about a mile and a half outside the Aurelian wall of Rome, higher up the river, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber. It was built by the censor M. Aemilius Scaurus, 109 B.C. (see Aur. Victor, de Viris illust. 27.8). It was on this bridge that Cicero arrested the ambassadors of the Gaulish Allobroges during the Catiline conspiracy (Cic. in Cat. 3.2). And in A.D. 312 it was the scene of the utter defeat of Maxentius by Constantine. As at the present day, the Pons Mulvius was under the Empire a favourite pleasure resort for the lower classes of Rome (see Tac. Ann. 13.47).

A very large number of fine stone bridges still exist throughout the greater part of the Roman empire, in various states of preservation. One of the most perfect in Italy is that at Ariminum (modern Rimini), consisting of five massive stone arches, as is shown in the annexed cut. An inscription on it records that it was begun by Augustus and completed by Tiberius.

The bridge over the Nera, at the modern town

Bridge at Rimini.

of Narni, to the north of Rome, though partly destroyed, is still a very noble piece of engineering. The arches are more than 100 feet high, and their spans are of unusual width. The combined aqueduct and bridge which crosses the river Gard near Nîmes (Nemausus), commonly called the Pont du Gard, is remarkable for its size and stately height, consisting of three superimposed tiers of arches, still well preserved, to a height of 190 feet. Another fine Roman bridge still exists near Brioude, over the Allier; it consists of one arch with a very wide span, and 70 feet high from the water to the soffit of the arch.

In Spain remains exist of a very magnificent bridge across the Tagus at Alcantara, which when perfect consisted of six arches, reaching nearly 200 feet in height and 670 feet in length.

The temporary bridges of the Romans, built for military purposes, were no less remarkable for the engineering skill shown in their construction. Julius Caesar describes (Bell. Gall. 4.17) a wooden bridge which he constructed across the Rhine in the almost incredibly short space of ten days. It was supported on a series of double piles, formed of two baulks of timber, each 18 inches square (in section), pointed at one end, and driven into the bed of the river by machines called fistucae; they were set in a sloping direction, so as to resist the force of the current. A corresponding parallel row of piles was driven in at a distance of 40 feet, thus forming a very wide roadway for the Roman army. The crosspieces were 2 feet thick, and were supported by cross struts so as to diminish the bearing. A

Caesar's Bridge over the Rhine.
a) Rough joists.

b) Wattle-work.

c) Roadway of earth.


[p. 2.460]little higher up the stream a third row of piles was fixed to support “fenders,” to secure the main structure from injury in case the enemy set heavy trees to float down the river and strike


against the supports of the bridge. Fra Giocondo of Verona, Palladio, and other architect-scholars of the sixteenth century have published drawings of this bridge, devised from Caesar's description; but not as a rule with much success (see Giocondo's edition of the Commentaries, dedicated to Giuliano de' Medici in 1510; and Palladio, Architettura, Venice, 1570, lib. iii. cap. 6).

Other temporary bridges were supported on floating casks (dolia or cupae): see Herodian, 8.4, 8; and Lucan 4.420. Vegetius (3.7) states that it was customary for the Roman army to carry with them small boats or “dug-outs” (monoxyli), hollowed out of a tree-trunk, together with planks, ropes, and nails to form the roadway. During the Mithridatic war Pompey crossed the Euphrates on a bridge of this kind (Florus, 3.5). [RATIS]

The annexed woodcut, from a relief on Trajan's Column, shows the construction of this sort of

Bridge on boats. (From Trajan's Column.)

floating bridge. Another relief on the same column shows a more permanent kind of military bridge, which was constructed by Trajan across the Danube (Dio Cass. lxviii. p. 776, and

Part of the Bridge across the Danube. (From Trajan's Column.)

Plin. Ep. 8.4). This bridge consists of stone piers supporting very skilfully designed trusses of wood, framed like a low-pitched roof. Much ingenuity is shown by the way in which the engineer has spanned wide spaces with short pieces of timber. The engineer who designed this bridge was the celebrated Apollodorus of Damascus, whose criticism on Hadrian's design for the Temple of Venus and Rome by the Sacra Via is said to have irritated the emperor so much that he put the critic to death (see D. C. 69.4).

There appears to be no truth in this story: on the contrary, it is evident that Hadrian had the good sense to adopt the suggestions of Apollodorus. According to Dio Cassius, Hadrian demolished Apollodorus' bridge on the pretence that it might facilitate the incursions of the barbarians into the Roman provinces, but really from jealousy at the success of so great an undertaking. This latter supposition is probably quite untrue.

The reverses of many first brasses of the Empire have representations of important bridges: as, for example, one of Gordianus III. with the bridge over the Maeander at Antiochia ad Maeandrum in Caria (see Head, Num. Hist. p. 520).

The word pons was also applied to any sort of wooden gangway, such as the pons suffragiorum by which the file of voters at the Comitia passed into the enclosure (ovile or saepta); and also to the movable gangway used to give access to the deck of a ship: hence in modern Italian ponte has come to mean the deck itself. (See Mayerhöfer, Die Brücken in alten Rom, 1884; Zippel, Jahrbücher für klass. Phil. 1886, p. 481; Becker, De Romae vet. muris, &c., 1842; Jordan, Topog. der Stadt Rom, 1875-80; Piale, Antichi Ponti in the Atti d. Pont. Acad. 1831. Urlichs, Codex Rom. topog. 1871, gives the various Regionary Catalogues, with lists of the bridges in Rome.


hide References (17 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (17):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.178
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.186
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.83
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.85
    • Herodotus, Histories, 4.87
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.34
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.35
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.36
    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 3.2
    • Tacitus, Annales, 13.47
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 1.86
    • Lucan, Civil War, 4.420
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 4.1
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 8.4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 40, 51
    • Plutarch, Numa, 9
    • Ovid, Fasti, 5
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