Barbegal Aqueduct and Mills

Aqueduct in Arles

Barbegal Aqueduct
CC BY-SA 2.0 / maarjaara

The Barbegal aqueduct and mills, located near the commune of Fontvieille, close to Arles in the southern France region of Bouches-du-Rhône, stand as a testament to Roman engineering prowess and ingenuity. This remarkable complex, often hailed as “the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world,” features 16 overshot water wheels, representing the largest ancient mill complex discovered to date.

Strategic Location and Construction

Situated 12 kilometers east northeast of Arles, near Fontvieille, the Barbegal mills were ingeniously positioned where the Arles aqueduct approached a steep escarpment. This strategic placement allowed for the exploitation of the natural landscape to maximize the efficiency of the water mills. The complex was comprised of 16 water wheels arranged in two parallel sets of eight, cascading down the hillside. This arrangement not only showcased the Roman mastery of hydraulics but also their ability to integrate large-scale industrial operations within the natural environment.

Operational History and Output

Operational from the early 2nd century until the end of the 3rd century, the mills are estimated to have had an astounding output capacity of 4.5 tons of flour daily. This incredible production volume suggests that the Barbegal mills could have sustained a population of 10,000 to possibly 30–40,000 inhabitants of Arelate (the ancient name of Arles), providing a crucial supply of bread to the bustling Roman city.

Aqueducts and Water Management

The operation of the Barbegal mills was heavily reliant on a sophisticated water management system, underscored by the construction of two Roman aqueducts. These aqueducts were engineered not only to feed the mill complex but also to supply water to the city of Arles itself. They converged just north of the mills, where a sluice gate controlled the flow of water into the complex. This system ensured a steady supply of water, driving the water wheels from the top of the hill down to the base, and exemplifies the Roman ability to control and manipulate water flows for industrial purposes.

Architectural and Archaeological Significance

The remains of the Barbegal mills, including substantial masonry ruins of the water channels and foundations of the mills, as well as a staircase that winds up the hillside along which the mills were constructed, offer invaluable insights into Roman industrial architecture and technology. The site illustrates the extent to which the Romans were willing to go to harness natural resources, employing complex engineering solutions to meet the needs of their cities.


The Barbegal aqueduct and mills not only underscore the technological and engineering capabilities of ancient Rome but also reflect the Roman Empire’s sophisticated approach to urban planning and resource management. As researchers continue to explore and study similar ancient mill complexes, such as those in Rome and possibly in Amida (Mesopotamia), the Barbegal mills remain a prominent symbol of ancient ingenuity, reflecting the intricate relationship between humans and their environment in the pursuit of progress and sustenance.

The Barbegal Aqueduct and Mills appears in our Complete Guide to Visiting Arles!

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Visiting Barbegal Aqueduct and Mills



Address: Barbegal aqueduct and mill, Fontvieille, France
Duration: 20 minutes

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