Saturday, 30 May 2020

Ancient Roman Bridges and Arches

The Romans knew that crossing rivers was often the most difficult part of a journey by road. People might get wet or lose possessions when crossing, and if the river was particularly full there might be a long delay.

Fords could be built up where the river was wide and shallow. Large quantities of stone and rock would be dumped into the river to form a firm foundation. On top of this was laid a flagstone surface, like an underwater road.

Bridges were more effective where rivers were deeper or narrower. A narrow stream could be crossed by a single stone arch, which supported a humped road surface above.

Wider rivers had to be crossed by bridges with more than one arch. Each arch was supported midstream by an artificial tower built up from the riverbed.

First the engineers hammered a circle of wooden stakes into the riverbed to form a watertight compartment. The water was pumped out and workmen dug out the riverbed to remove loose mud and reveal a firm surface.

A stone tower, called a pier, was then built up to stand about 3 metres above the river surface. The tower was usually wider and stronger at and below the water surface so that it could withstand floods.

On important roads the bridge was completed by building a stone arch between each pier. On less important roads wooden beams connected the piers. The road surface was then built on top.


The Romans sometimes built large arches over roads. These had no practical purpose, but were ornamental structures built to mark boundaries or commemorate famous events.

At Richborough in Kent there was a vast arch over the road that led up from the docks to the fort. This was the main military port for Britain. All soldiers entering or leaving Britain had to march through this arch.

In Rome a series of triumphal arches were built over the sacred road. These stone arches were decorated with carvings of battles and campaigns won by the general who was being honoured in the triumph (see page 202).

 Photo shows :
The Roman bridge Pont Julien in southern France is a three arched bridge built in 3 BCE over the Calavon river on the Via Domitia, an important Roman road that connected Italy and Spain through the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis.

Ancient Greek Architecture

In the Mycenaean Period  the Greeks erected strong defensive walls of stone, though most houses and other structures were made of wood. The skills of stoneworking were lost in the Dark Age.

Until about 650bc the Greeks built all their buildings out of wood or brick, using thatch for roofs. A few roughly shaped stones were used for foundations and around doorways.

When the Greeks began to build in stone they based their designs on that of the wooden structures that were being replaced. For instance temples had stone columns based on pillars carved from single tree trunks.

The Greeks used stone architecture at first only for temples, but later it was used for all types of public buildings. Gateways, tombs and government offices all began to be built in stone.

There were three basic types, or orders, of Greek architecture. Some buildings were built using just one order, others used two or even all three.

The Doric order was developed in mainland Greece around 650bc. The columns had no bases and a plain square capital. The space above the columns had small sculptures.

The Ionic order appeared in Ionia around 600bc. The columns stood on square bases and had capitals in the shape of rounded scrolls. The space above the columns had a toothed decoration with( ) out sculptures.

The Corinthian order developed later and was more elaborate. The columns stood on large bases and were topped by capitals carved in( )to the shape of stylised acanthus leaves. The space above the columns was carved with a long, continuous sculpture.

Sometimes a column would be carved into the shape of a woman and became known as a caryatid. This was most usual in buildings of the Doric order.


Most stone buildings were square because those were easier to build. However a few temples, called tholos, were round.

What makes you free-born?

The British are a free people. It has long been a proud boast of the British that they are free to do what they like without interference from the state, so long as they do not indulge in criminal behaviour. The concept of the ’free-born man’ is an old one in Briton and goes back many years.

In origin the term comes from the English medieval period. At the time when not all people were free. Some were slaves, others servants tied to their employers by unbreakable contracts. Many more, however, were serfs tied to the land which they worked. For the great landowners their wealth derived from the agricultural produce of their property,( not from the land itsel Take out?). That produce was created by the farm workers who tilled the soil, so it was vital for the landowners that there were men to do the work. These serfs were forbidden to leave the farms, to work for anyone else or even to marry or pass their property on to their children without the permission of their lord.

It can be seen that in such circumstances to be free, instead of tied to the land, was  a great benefit for anyone with a bit of ambition. The majority of the people who were free in medieval England were townsfolk. Earning their living through a trade, such as weaving or tanning, these people had the liberty to search for work wherever it could be found. There were freemen in the country as well. These were families who paid cash rents for lands instead of performing service or doing work for the lord. They could move elsewhere without permission and start paying rent to another lord. Some of these free people were serfs who showed some talent at a trade and were set up in business by their lords in return for a share of their profits. More social standing was had by those who were free-born, that is, were the children of free parents.

The Peasants Revolt of 1381 was largely a protest against the impositions suffered by serfs. The longing to be free was strong by this time. The Essex rebels were quite clear as to what they wanted. Their demands included the abolition of serfdom and the chance to pay a cash rent instead of doing service. Although the Revolt was put down by royal troops, the peasants had been articulating the changing demands of an economy which was moving away from feudalism towards capitalism. Within a century the old legal ties which bound serf to land had effectively collapsed throughout Britain. The people had become free in a legal sense.

They were also free in other ways too. Because the medieval concept of freedom conferred responsibility on the small number who were free, it had always been assumed that the state would leave these people to live as they wished so long as they did not become criminals or traitors. This attitude persisted into later ages as the British believed themselves to be a much freer and more libertarian society than those in neighbouring countries on the continent. The impositions heaped on the French peasants which led to the French Revolution were unknown in Britain, as were the dues and duties of peasants in the German states and elsewhere.

Likewise the fact that European constitutions grant to citizens their human rights is a direct product of the fact that the feudal dues remained in place until the era when the majority were literate and could write. People clamoured for rights and liberties previously denied them by the state, and insisted these were written into the new constitutions being drawn up. The result being that in legal terms, most Europeans see rights and freedom as something granted to the individual by the state. In Britain the opposite applies. British law and custom sees freedom as something which belongs to the individual. The state is only allowed to trespass on that freedom when it passes a specific law forbidding certain actions, which them become crimes. The British eccentric, so beloved of foreigners, is thus simply a Briton who has chosen to exercise his freedom as he sees fit, and his fellows respect his freedom to do so.

From its origins as a much prized status within medieval society, freedom and free-born have developed into a whole outlook on life among the British which can at times baffle outsiders.