Pontem perpetui mansuram in saecula mundi.
(I leave a bridge forever in the centuries of the world.)
Caius Julius Lacer
Lacer was a Roman engineer. He built a bridge across the Tagus River in what is now Spain for the Emperor Trajan round about 105 A.D. A bridge which still stands and is still in use nineteen centuries after its construction, despite attempted demolition in 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars.
Today the bridge is called Puente de Alcantara, or Bridge (Spanish) of the Bridge (Arabic). It is 194m/637ft long and 8m/26ft wide, spanning the river with six arches up to 58m/190ft high. Halfway across the bridge is a triumphal arch in honor of Trajan.
Built of granite blocks laid without mortar. One thousand nine hundred and seven years ago.
To say this bridge has stood the test of time is not only a trite kick-it-it’s-dead cliché, not to mention a sublimely ridiculous litotes (an understatement), but also the simple truth. Caius Julius Lacer’s epitaph has yet to be gainsaid.
They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore, do they?
The Romans took infrastructure seriously. Civil engineering is an integral part of what made them the masters of their world. Trajan also had a bridge built across the Danube. It was over a half mile long, stood on twenty piers of stone 150 feet high, 60 feet wide, and 50 feet thick, placed 170 feet apart (center to center), with timber arches. The bridge stood for over 150 years, until another Roman emperor, retreating across the Danube with barbarians pursuing his legions, had it destroyed. The lower Danube was not bridged again until the 19th century. The Mississippi was bridged for the first time at St. Louis in the 1880s; the Hudson at New York in the 1930s. Remember that the U.S. interstate highway system, instituted by Emp…President Eisenhower, originally had a military purpose, based on the strategic principle of maintaining your interior lines of supply and communication.
To build an empire, you need to build, and build well. We used to do that. Our current emperor may well be clothed in a fine suit, but the emperor has no infrastructure. A civil engineer and architect who worked for Augustus Caesar in the first century A.D., Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, wrote a sort of engineering and architectural manual and in it he named some job requirements. Vitruvius thought a civil engineer
…should be ingenious, and apt in the acquisition of knowledge. Deficient in either of these qualities, he cannot be a perfect master. He should be a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the sciences both of law and physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies.
Moral philosophy will teach the architect to be above meanness in his dealings, and to avoid arrogance: it will make him just, compliant and faithful to his employer; and what is of the highest importance, it will prevent avarice gaining an ascendancy over him: for he should not be occupied with the thoughts of filling his coffers, nor with the desire of grasping every thing in the shape of gain, but, by the gravity of his manners, and a good character, should be careful to preserve his dignity.
Our emperors and our ruling elite above all lack the moral infrastructure that the Vitruvius thought necessary simply to build a good bridge, much less to preserve our dignity as a nation or even the lives of ordinary citizens. We all leave our bridges, forever and amen, but our bridges are burning.
Note: This is a very slightly updated version of a post on the original Tent Show on Salonblogs. I am reposting on reading the news that the 2nd Street Bridge on the Ohio River here in Louisville will be closed temporarily in 2014 as part of a controversial and long delayed project to build new bridges to replace the aging spans currently in use. One of my myriad now and again obsessions is the history of bridges and their engineering. I am curiously fond of ricketty old bridges, particularly ricketty old overhead truss bridges, such as graced the blue highways of my childhood. I am very ambivalent about new bridges, and the subject of modern infrastructure. In the United States, not only do we neglect and tardily replace our existing and historical infrastructure (though I paradoxically dote on decaying bridges and other ruins) but I think those bridges, etc., currently being designed and built to replace the old are poorly planned and executed, based on faulty assumptions. My opinion is not solicited by the planners of plans, alas.