Roman Technology – Watermill At Barbegal

The Ancient Romans are known for their feats in engineering and technology. Perhaps one of the most grandiose example of their sophistication is the Ancient Roman watermill at Barbegal. The complex is located just outside Arelate (modern day Arles, France) in the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis.

The Barbegal watermill dates from around the 1st-2nd century CE, and must have been an impressive sight indeed, being the cutting edge of Roman technology. The mill consisted of 8 huge pairs of waterwheels with grinding mechanisms attached to each wheel, milling grain into flour. The industrial scale of the mill represented a revolutionary advancement from small water- or animal-driven mills to huge feats of engineering capable of supplying around 4.5 tons of flour each day, enough to provide bread for the more than 10000 inhabitants of Arelate.

The city of Arelate was supplied with water by two separate aqueducts from the mountain range of Les Alpilles. The northern aqueduct originated near the village of Eygalières, while the southern (Caparon) aqueduct originated from sources near the village of Paradou. The two aqueducts met just north of the ridge above the watermill complex, diverting part of the water to power the gigantic water wheels. The joint aqueduct then curved west and supplied Arelate with drinking water, entering the city from the southeast.

The Ancient Romans were not the first to use hydropower, but they were first to use the technology on an industrial scale. The first surviving record of Roman use of a water wheel originates from Vitruvius in the 1st century BCE. The Roman use of water to power millstones is further demonstrated by a number of archaeological sites across the territories held by the Roman Empire.