There are vestiges of the Roman Empire scattered across most of Europe, showcasing the talent of its craftsmen, artisans, and architects.
Whether it’s the tiniest gold earrings in a museum case, a villa with an intricately detailed mosaic floor, or an ancient amphitheater still in use today; all show skills well ahead of their time.
But few Roman antiquities demonstrate the astounding level of advanced knowledge and ingenuity like the famous aqueduct of Segovia, Spain. As SurveyHistory.com puts it:
“An inspection of Roman roads, aqueducts, canals, buildings, city layouts, and land subdivisions confirms their unexcelled proficiency in the use of crude surveying instruments as measured by modern-day standards.”
Roman soldiers may have grabbed all the glory for expanding the empire, but cities needed water. Without these clever engineers, their hillside-fortress cities would be high and dry – literally.
Not only did these ingenious aqueducts provide for basic water needs, but they also supplied large public baths, decorative fountains, and private villas. And the two things that made the water flow were Roman creativity and gravity. It really doesn’t take an engineer or surveyor to recognize what an achievement this was 2000 years ago, and in fact, the ancient marvel actually carried water to the city until the late 19th century.
The Rio Frio River, located in the mountains 11 miles from Segovia, was the source of the water. Most of the aqueduct ran underground, but in some places, like the deep valley at Segovia, bridge structures were built to channel the water. The challenge facing the builders was surveying, planning, and excavating a route, which followed the contours of the land at the precise gradient of slope; then ending up at the exact location and elevation to fill Segovia’s cisterns, bubble in their fountains, and splash in their baths.
The aqueduct is located at Segovia’s Plaza Azoguejo, which has to be one of the most impressive gateways to any historic center in Europe. It’s been such a prominent feature in the city that it’s Segovia’s coat of arms.
There’s some uncertainty of exactly when it was built, but the most popular opinion is around the end of first century AD under emperor Domitian or Trajan. The elevated section is 3,000 feet long, and at its highest point it stands 100 feet above the plaza. Its 166 graceful arches and 122 sturdy pillars make it a cohesive study in aesthetics as well as function. And as further proof of Roman brilliance, it was built entirely without mortar or cement.
Before arriving in Segovia, we had read that the bus from the AVE train station stopped at El Acqueducto, but we hadn’t seen photos. Needless to say, we were part of a tourist stampede at the bus stop as we dropped our luggage and whipped out our cameras to snap the perfect photo.
As we said in our intro post, Spain has a rich history and its conquerors have left indelible marks on its culture. The Aqueduct at Segovia is one of the best places in Europe to see an amazing legacy of ancient Rome, and just one of the reasons to visit this breathtaking hillside town.
James & Terri
My husband would go nuts over this! Amazing.
Cindy, if your husband is into the geek details, he should do a bit of online research into this aqueduct. It truly is astounding, and remains a thing of beauty even today. ~James
I am always amazed when I see structures like that. No cranes, no forklifts, no computers to figure the angles and placement. Just human power. Incredible!
I couldn’t agree more Laura. And one of the things I found most amazing is that it was built without mortar. Interestingly, I also read that this lack of mortar is one of the reasons it still stands, because it’s able to take minor earthquake shakes without collapsing. ~James
We visited an aqueduct in France when we there a few years back & were blown away by the ingenuity of these structures. May have to add this one to my list James!
Lynn, was that perhaps the Pont du Gard at Nimes? The aqueduct at Nimes and the Segovia aqueduct are the biggest and most famous in Europe. I’ve only seen photos of the Pond du Gard, but hope to make it there someday. ~James
Yes it was James. A gorgeous area to visit!
Impressive! They certainly built to last. I went to Salamanca instead of Segovia my last trip to Spain. Maybe next time… Have you seen the Pont du Gard in France?
Kathy, without mortar, this aqueduct is really just an elegant pile of stones, but there it stands after almost 2000 years. And the fact that it was still carrying water in the late 1800s is a testament to building structures that last. No, I haven’t seen the Pont du Gard, but it’s on the list. ~James
Interesting how the aqueduct became the identifier on their coat of arms. That’s how important architecture is. Beautiful photos, James.
Thanks Leslie. This is the main entrance to the old town so most visitors have to walk under this aqueduct to get into town. It really is one of the most impressive city entrances that I’ve seen. ~James
It so lovely.
Thanks for this interesting intro to Spanish early engineering feats. What is fascinating to us, in light of our international travels, is how often necessity of access to potable water became a driver for engineering achievements. In Sri Lanka where we live, the “ancients” built a country wide network of literally hundreds of man-made reservoirs that swell during the rainy season and provide continuous water across the country during the dry season. Same thing in Bali, where a 3000 year old investment in a sophisticated network of water tanks and irrigation routes still today works to distribute water across the land efficiently. Whether it is through the magnificent arch constructions that you photographed beautifully here, or through less visible sub-terranean corridors for water distribution, we must marvel at the ingeniousness of our forefathers… Thank you for this Segovian treat.
Thanks Peta. We spent some time in Sri Lanka, and I didn’t hear about the water system. It’s interesting that while thousands of Europeans were dying of cholera due to contaminated water, cultures in SE Asia devised the effective systems you describe. ~James
Wonderful structure to highlight. Nice to see an aerial view for the first time.
Peggy, the aerial view really puts it into perspective. We saw the main section of the aqueduct, and saw pieces of it on our way in on the bus, but this aerial view really brings home how large the project was. Gotta love Google Earth. ~James
Great info here. I remember that this was one of the things In Spain that truly impressed my teenaged mind. I was kind of blasé about many sightseeing stops, but this one grabbed my attention then as much as it does now!
Lexie, I didn’t travel as a teenager, but I can picture myself thinking: “This is just another golden crucifix in another cathedral – big whoop.” But this aqueduct is so “in your face” it would have to be impressive to almost everyone; even a blasé teenager. ~James
What an amazing achievement. So much of what the ancients achieved boggles the mind. Once I get into the details of what they did and how I’m always blown away, whether it’s a huge aqueduct, or tiny intricate golden jewellery, or beautiful glass vials. Marvellous post J&T.
Thanks Alison. You and Don traveled in South America recently, so I’m sure that you heard all about the incredible astronomical findings of the Mesoamericans. This took very different skills than building aqueducts, but like many of these ancient technologies, it’s quite an achievement that, as you say, boggles the mind. ~James
I have heard of this and hope to see it one day soon. Traces of the Romans are everywhere. Have you read the book, Pompeii by Robert Harris? It has a lot of details about aqueducts and is told from the point of view of a young engineer who works on the aqueducts.
Darlene, yes I read Pompeii some years ago, but had forgotten the connection to Roman aqueducts. This sounds like an interesting re-read. Thanks for the reminder. ~James
It truly is astounding to think of the engineering feats of these ancient times. I especially love the perspectives you have chosen for your photos. My neck hurts from looking up. 😊
Sue, the wonderful thing about this aqueduct is how accessible it is. Luckily, the plaza is now pedestrianized so there’s no danger from cars driving through the arches (phew!). And on a clear day, its elegant design make it very photogenic. I can imagine the workers dropping in the final keystone and praying that the arch doesn’t tumble to the ground. ~James
These are marvelous engineering feats, was able to some of these and other engineering marvels during my travels to Italy and France.
Terry, another engineering and architectural spectacle that comes to mind is the Pantheon in Rome. I’m sure you must have seen it. The building’s dome is truly a marvel and way ahead of its time. ~James
Yes visited and studied it in Architectural History, a fantastic building.
Every time I can pass Segovia I stop, park the motorbike by the aqueduct and sit and enjoy a coffee whilst enjoying its magnificence.
Thanks for the comment Duncan and for dropping by the blog. There are many beautiful plazas in Europe, but this one has to be the most unique. And with all the tourist buzz, it’s a great place to people watch as well. ~James
Not only useful but beautiful too! You’ve raised some important points about the people we think of as “ancients” lacking the tools and technology that we take for granted today. So many times we admire their artistry and mosaics and overlook the sheer ingenuity, mathematical and engineering skills it took to build structures that stand to this day. Absolutely astonishing! Anita
Anita, until I saw this aqueduct I hadn’t really thought much about their construction. But, as a geologist, I’ve done a bit of surveying, and seeing the accuracy they achieved with the tools available to them is truly incredible. And to think that those elegant arches hold together without mortar – very cool. ~James
I’ve seen photos of the Segovian aqueduct before, but it never fails to blow me away. It’s not just the architectural marvel that it is, or the ingenuity in its construction, but the fact that IT’S STILL STANDING!!!! After all these centuries. Wow. Just wow!
btw – I love the perspective of your first photo.
Thanks Joanne. Yep, still standing and it carried water to Segovia until the late 1800s. Amazing! I read a few accounts that said one of the reasons it has survived is its lack of mortar. So if there’s a minor earthquake, the blocks can just jiggle around a bit. 🙂 ~James
Your detailed photos are quite interesting — not sure if my earlobes could support those earrings, but very sure I wouldn’t want to be a construction worker on an aqueduct. All are fascinating. Looking forward to seeing the Pont du Gard in a few weeks. Oh, those Romans. Leaving good stuff all over the place!
Rusha, I’m envious of your trip to the Pond du Gard. I’ve seen photos and it looks just as cool as the Segovia aqueduct. Anytime I googled the terms “aqueduct and Europe” these two came up. So you’ll be seeing one of the best, especially with its three tiers of arches. Those Romans knew their stuff. Enjoy your trip. ~James
Learned alot thanks
Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. The Romans certainly have a lot to teach us, even today. ~James
Wow! That is an impressive sight! I’m trying to imagine getting off a bus and staring up at this architectural feat. Amazing, the way it towers above everything else… Including the Google image truly shows how long and well-remained the aqueduct is. I wouldn’t mind seeing it in person one day. 🙂