The Segovia Aqueduct

Written on October 15, 2009 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Last Saturday, some IE students and I enjoyed a visit to the Aqueduct in Segovia, which entailed a brief, if brisk, walk up from campus. It is generally true that once we live under the shadow of a monument – be it the Eiffel Tower, St Paul's Cathedral or Graceland – its significance and power to move or impress us is diminished. Somehow though, the towering arches of the Segovia Aqueduct remain immune to this kind of indifference to the everyday.

The extraordinary 1st Century Aqueduct that runs through the base of Segovia is not only the most prominent feature of the local landscape, it is one of the most prominent features of the Spanish monumental landscape in general. For almost two millennia, the aqueduct has served as a lapidary statement of the power, prosperity and technical accomplishment of the Roman Empire that spawned its creation. Built of unmortared granite blocks, the grandeur of its soaring arches is reinforced by the elegant simplicity of its arched geometric design.

The Segovian aqueduct was finished in all probability under the reign of Trajan, the first Spanish-born Emperor of Rome. It conducted fresh water from the nearby River Frío to the city, which was situated at a crossroads between two Roman roads that extended North to Simancas (Septimanca, near Valladolid), and south-east. As a result, the aqueduct was situated at a spot where North-South and East-West trading routes converged.   


A recent suggestion by Juan Francisco Blanca García is, in this light, rather intriguing. García observed that the city probably had a more-than-sufficient freshwater supply for the local population. The construction of the aqueduct was, in his view, less about the immediate necessity of ensuring potable drinking water than it was about the establishment of "the Roman style and the reinforcement of Segovia as an administrative center and a source of "Romanness" for the surrounding territory.

That would make sense. It was observed by numerous authors of the Roman Empire that aqueducts were expensive and time-consuming. At the same time, the supply of aqueduct-supplied freshwater had become a symbol of Imperial power. It is probably no coincidence that the construction of the aqueduct in Segovia coincided with the intense scrutiny to their construction generally, reflected in the famous work by Frontinus De Aquaeducto, which was written at the express request of the Emperor Nerva.

At the same time, even if García's observation is correct, the construction of a water supply superfluous to existing need says volumes about the confidence of Rome at the start of the Pax Romana. This was a forward-looking gesture that foresaw in the heart of Roman Spain a thriving city that would grow into its infrastructure as a matter of course such being the confidence in the political authority and the economic draw of the Empire.

Monuments tell us volumes, of course, about the civilizations that built them. For two thousand years, the Segovia aqueduct has been impressing visitors as a visible reminder of the power that could – and did – promote its construction.

Thanks to all those who came to enjoy both the aqueduct and the cañas that followed!


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