Nyon's Aqueduct

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Water, source of life and key element of the Romans' art of living

Throughout history, humans always chose to live near a water point; for survival, agriculture, trade or even protection. During Roman times, water was sought after, worshipped, channelled or even showed off, as was the case in the roman colony of Nyon. Aqueducts, monumental fountains and baths were the symbol of the Empire’s skills, wealth and lifestyle. A role model for everyone to follow.

The Romans went to the baths every day to wash, have a chat with friends, relax, hold meetings, listen to gossip, work out… These infrastructures needed an enormous amount of water that wells and cisterns could not provide. They needed a special conduct to fulfil their needs: aqueducts. In Rome, a very crowded city with several public baths and latrines (toilets), water was brought from the sources of Tivoli, 20 km away. By the 3rdc., the capital had eleven aqueducts.

A specialised service, led by the curator aquarum, in charge of water supply, with a large team (up to 700 employees), managed the maintenance and suppression of frauds of these conducts. The first curator aquarum was Agrippa, August’s right-hand man, in 33 BC. He oversaw the construction of public baths (free of charge, which was quite an event), aqueducts, fountains and the renovation of some facilities and sewers. It was a matter of public maintenance that was meant to embellish the capital, satisfy its people and establish the authority of the man who was going to be the first emperor.

The Colonia Iulia Equestris (Nyon), built in Rome’s image, probably acquired its aqueduct in the 1st c. AC. Let’s have a look at this example, of which a scale model, exhibited in the Museum, shows its construction.

In order to build such a conduct, the first thing to do was to find a natural spring, of good quality and at a higher altitude than the city, so the water would flow thanks to gravity. Nyon’s water came from Divonne-les-Bains, 10 km away.

Several sections of the aqueduct were found during archaeological digs throughout time. The last ones were held in the Cossy neighbourhood, where the layout of the aqueduct is no longer visible, but its route signalled by a line in the football pitch’s grass.

The conduct was underground, more or less 50 cm under the walking level. Water flowed on a tile pavement covered by an arch (typical roman architectural element which supports heavy loads). The arches and bridges (like the “Pont du Gard”) were long to build and expensive, so aqueducts were preferably underground (which, incidentally, is better for the water, protecting it from dirt, theft, frost and evaporation).

In the model, we can see the workers bringing stones, preparing the tiles and mortar before starting to build the structure. What looks like a well is actually an opening that gave access to the conduct for cleaning and repairs.

Throughout its course, the slope was precisely calculated ; steep enough for the water to naturally flow, but not too steep in order to avoid high pressure that would weaken the structure. Today, its course disappears after the “route de St-Cergue” but, back then, it continued to the city and ended in a water tower.

After that, the water went in priority to the fountains and public latrines, then to the baths and industries and lastly to the citizens who could afford private pipes and the related fee. Public fountains were also used to fight fires, quite common in densely populated cities where lighting, cooking, heating and industries needed fire.

In the city, the pipes were often made out of stone, wood or terracotta, because metal was very expensive. Lead pipes were also used, but weren’t as dangerous as one might think.  For lead to be harmful, water has to stagnate, whereas in the aqueduct water streams at a steady pace. Furthermore, limestone settles rapidly in the pipes, thus insulating metal from water. 

Finally, all this water had to be evacuated because the streets were flooded with the overflow coming from fountains and buildings. Discharge pipes took waste water to a main sewage. In Nyon, this pipe is hidden under today’s “Grand Rue”. The water’s course ended in the Geneva Lake.

Sometimes, the useful and noteworthy constructions were the most inconspicuous. The invisible underground aqueduct underlines the excellent skills of the roman civil engineers. It allowed the cities to grow.

A roman author wrote: “With these grand structures, so numerous and indispensable, carrying so many waters, who indeed would compare the idle Pyramids or other useless, although renowned, works of the Greeks” (Frontinus, de aquaeductibus urbis romae, XVI, 1). To understand his text, one must know that Frontinus was curator aquarum and that his treaty explained every aspect of his work. Being the benchmark in this area, he was assigned to this job by the Emperor himself, and is therefore lobbying for himself.

Of course, aqueducts, baths, latrines and sewers helped the rise of the civilisation and the Roman Empire by improving daily life, hygiene, security and industry. This civilisation left traces beyond Europe and is still celebrated for its mastery of various subject areas; asking us to continually reflect upon our own skills.

Sylvie Gobbo
Guide and auxiliary at the Roman Museum of Nyon, archaeology graduate

Something to read:

  • Collectif, Musée romain de Nyon Colonia Iulia Esquestris, un site, un musée, Gollion, Infolio, 2019.
  • Frontin, Les aqueducs de la ville de Rome, texte établi, traduit et commenté par Grimal P., Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1944.
  • Bonnin, J., L'eau dans l'Antiquité: l'hydraulique avant notre ère, Paris, Eyrolles, 1984.
  • Malissard, A., Les Romains et l'eau: fontaines, salles de bain, thermes, égouts, aqueducs..., Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2002.


For children

Learn all about the Nyon aqueduct and try to find the water's course throughout the city!

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