ANCIENT ROMAN AQUEDUCTS, SEWERS AND WATER SUPPLY

WATER SUPPLY IN ROME

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Aqueduct from Pools of
Solomon to Jerusalem
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The site of Rome itself was well supplied with water. Springs were abundant, and wells could be sunk to find water at no great depth. Rain water was collected in cisterns, and the water from the Tiber was used. But these sources came to be inadequate, and in 312 B.C. the first of the great aqueducts (aquae) was built by the famous censor, Appius Claudius, and named for him the Aqua Appia. It was eleven miles long, of which all but three hundred feet was underground. See Aqueducts Below. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

According to Listverse: The Romans “had two main supplies of water – high quality water for drinking and lower quality water for bathing. In 600 BC, the King of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus, decided to have a sewer system built under the city. It was created mainly by semi-forced laborers. The system, which outflowed into the Tiber river, was so effective that it remains in use today (though it is now connected to the modern sewerage system). It continues to be the main sewer for the famous amphitheater. It was so successful in fact, that it was imitated throughout the Roman Empire.” [Source: Listverse, October 16, 2009 <=>]

“The channels of the aqueducts were generally built of masonry, for lack of sufficiently strong pipes. Cast-iron pipes the Romans did not have, lead was rarely used for large pipes, and bronze would have been too expensive. Because of this lack, and not because they did not understand the principle of the siphon, high pressure aqueducts were less commonly constructed. To avoid high pressure, the aqueducts that supplied Rome with water, and many others, were built at a very easy slope and frequently carried around hills and valleys, though tunnels and bridges were sometimes used to save distance. The great arches, so impressive in their ruins, were used for comparatively short distances, as most of the channels were underground. |+|

“In the cities the water was carried into distributing reservoirs (castella), from which ran the street mains. Lead pipes (fistulae) carried the water into the houses. These pipes were made of strips of sheet lead with the edges folded together and welded at the joining, thus being pear-shaped rather than round. As these pipes were stamped with the name of the owner and user, the finding of many at Rome in our own time has made it possible to locate the sites of the residences of many distinguished Romans. In Pompeii these pipes can be seen easily now, for in that mild climate they were often laid on the ground close to the house, not buried as in most parts of this country. The poor must have carried the water that they used from the public fountains that were placed at frequent intervals in the streets, where the water ran constantly for all comers.” |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Water Supply in Roman Towns

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Some houses had water piped in but most homeowners had to have their water fetched and carried, one of the main duties of household slaves. In large towns the poor must have carried water for household use from the public fountains in the treets, where the water ran constantly for all comers.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Water Supply. All the important towns of Italy and many cities throughout the Roman world had abundant supplies of water brought by aqueducts from hills, sometimes at a considerable distance. The aqueducts of the Romans were among their most stupendous and most successful works of engineering. The first great aqueduct (aqua) at Rome was built in 312 B.C. by the famous censor Appius Claudius. Three more were built during the Republic and at least seven under the Empire, so that ancient Rome was at last supplied by eleven or more aqueducts. Modern Rome is well supplied by four, which are the sources and occasionally the channels of as many of the ancient ones. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Mains were laid down the middle of the streets, and from these the water was piped into the houses. There was often a tank in the upper part of the house from which the water was distributed as needed. It was not usually carried into many of the rooms, but there was always a fountain in the peristylium and its garden, and a jet in the bathhouse and in the closet. The bathhouse had a separate heating apparatus of its own, which kept the room or rooms at the desired temperature and furnished hot water as required. |+|

“The necessity for drains and sewers was recognized in very early times, the oldest at Rome dating traditionally from the time of the kings. Some of the ancient drains, among them the famous Cloaca Maxima, were in use until recent years.” |+|

Ancient Roman Aqueducts

The Romans built over 200 aqueducts in Italy, North Africa, France, Spain, the Middle East, and Turkey. A few of them still carry water today. One Roman official boasted, "Will anybody compare the idle Pyramids . . . to these aqueducts, these many indispensable structures?"

The Romans built aqueducts with a slope of 10 feet for every 3,200 feet of length. When people think of aqueducts, they think of long above-ground arches, but in fact most aqueducts were underground. Of the 270 miles of aqueduct built by the magistrate Frontinus, only 40 miles were above ground. Most aqueducts consisted of tunnels or pipelines with a very shallow downward slope so the water would naturally flow from an elevated source down to the city it supplied. Large aqueducts could supply water for several towns.

Aqueducts were necessary to keep water flowing into the popular Roman baths and fountains. When Rome was at its height it contained between 1,200 and 1,300 public fountains, 11 great baths, 867 lesser baths, 15 nymphaea (monumental decorated fountains), two artificial lakes for mock naval battles---all kept in operation by some 38 million gallons of water a day brought in by 11 aqueducts.

Tom Kington wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Rome's emperors had the aqueducts built quickly, employing thousands of slave laborers. In the 1st century, Claudius completed his 60-mile effort in two years. The structures are unusually solid, with cement and crushed pottery used as building material. One of the aqueducts, the Aqua Virgo, is still in use today, keeping Rome parks and even the Trevi fountain supplied. Others were damaged by invading German tribes in the waning days of the empire. The ingenious use of gravity and siphons to accelerate water up slopes has stood the test of time: Aqueducts built in the 20th century to supply Los Angeles with water relied on the same methods.” [Source: Tom Kington, Los Angeles Times, January 01, 2014]

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aqueduct in Pont du Gard, France

History of Roman Aqueducts

The Romans didn't make the first aqueducts. The Assyrians built the first aqueducts and paved roads. Aqueducts provided water for lavish gardens that covered the size of football fields. Parts of the most famous pre-Roman aqueducts, built by King Sennacherib for Nineveh around 700 B.C., are still visible in the north of Iraq.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The site of Rome itself was well supplied with water. Springs were abundant, and wells could be sunk to find water at no great depth. Rain water was collected in cisterns, and the water from the Tiber was used. But these sources came to be inadequate, and in 312 B.C. the first of the great aqueducts (aquae) was built by the famous censor, Appius Claudius, and named for him the Aqua Appia. It was eleven miles long, of which all but three hundred feet was underground. This and the Anio Vetus, built forty years later, supplied the lower levels of the city. The first high-level aqueduct, the Marcia, was built by Quintus Marcius Rex, to bring water to the top of the Capitoline Hill, in 140 B.C. Its water was and still is particularly cold and good. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“The Tepula, named from the temperature of its waters, and completed in 125 B.C., was the last built during the Republic. Under Augustus three more were built, the Julia and the Virgo by Agrippa, and the Alsietina by Augustus, for his naumachia. The Claudia, whose ruined arches are still a magnificent sight near Rome, and the Anio Novus were begun by Caligula and finished by Claudius. The Traiana was built by Trajan in 109 A.D., and the last, the Alexandrina, by Alexander Severus. Eleven aqueducts then served ancient Rome.

Aqueduct-making went into a period of decline after Constantine became emperor and moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople. After Rome was sacked by the Goths in 537 "Rome went without water for 1,000 years." This was an exaggeration. Rome didn't go without water completely but a lot of materials from aqueducts were looted to make other things.

Modern Rome is considered unusually well supplied with water from four, using the sources and occasionally the channels of as many of the ancient ones. The Virgo, now Acqua Vergine, was first restored by Pius V in 1570. The springs of the Alexandrina supply the Acqua Felice, built in 1585. The Aqua Traiana was restored as the Acqua Paola in 1611. The famous Marcia was reconstructed in 1870 as the Acqua Pia, or Marcia-Pia.

Aqueduct Building

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Roman aqueducts were designed by arcitecti , libratores and paumbarii (hydraulic engineers with different specialties), and built by familia aquaria , or "water family," (educated slave workmen), who were also in charge of guarding the routes and plastering, cleaning, installing and inspecting the lead and terra-cotta pipes. In one report, 7000 workers were employed on a single aqueduct. Archaeologist Guiseppina Satorio told Smithsonian: "Just like a superhighway” they needed “bridges across valleys, tunnels through obstructing hills, curves up and around and down hill to avoid steep changes."

Aqueducts contained "wells" for ventilation and leaked like sieves. As a rule they had a downward slope of five centimeters for every 100 meters of length. Arches were sometimes built to slow water down so it didn't bust the lead tubes that carried the water underground. People illegally tapped into aqueduct pipes and diverted water to their gardens and baths.

Arches or bridges with the aqueduct above ground were built in places where a valley interrupted the aqueduct's route. Early aqueduct bridges consisted of a single tier supported by broad arches. Later double-tiered aqueduct bridges, and even triple tiered ones were built to supplement existing single tier aqueducts or from scratch.

In places where valleys intervened, Romans tried to utilize cheaper alternative to the bridges and arches. Using U-shaped pipelines known as “inverted siphons," they often routed the flow down into a valley and back up again, relying only on the pressure at the receiving end of the pipe to power the water back up the opposite hill. This required the mouth of the pipe where the water emerged to be at a lower elevation than the source. Many major U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles, still rely on similar technologies to supply water to their residents. Gravity is still the cheapest and most renewable source of energy; ninety-five percent of the water used in New York is still delivered by gravity. [Source: New York Times]

How a Roman Aqueduct Works


aqueduct pipe

Rabun Taylor wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Ancient aqueducts were essentially man-made streams conducting water downhill from the natural sources to the destination. To tap water from a river, often a dam and reservoir were constructed to create an intake for the aqueduct that would not run dry during periods of low water. To capture water from springs, catch basins or springhouses could be built at the points where the water issued from the ground or just below them, connected by short feeder tunnels. Having flowed or filtered into the springhouse from uphill, the water then entered the aqueduct conduit. Scattered springs would require several branch conduits feeding into a main channel. [Source: Rabun Taylor, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 2, March/April 2012]

“If water was brought in from some distance, then care was taken in surveying the territory over which the aqueduct would run to ensure that it would flow at an acceptable gradient for the entire distance. If the water ran at too steep an angle, it would damage the channel over time by scouring action and possibly arrive too low at its destination. If it ran too shallow, then it would stagnate. Roman aqueducts typically tapped springs in hilly regions to ensure a sufficient fall in elevation over the necessary distance. The terrain and the decisions of the engineers determined this distance. Generally, the conduit stayed close to the surface, following the contours of the land, grading slightly downhill along the way. At times, it may have traversed an obstacle, such as a ridge or a valley. If it encountered a ridge, then tunneling was required. If it hit a valley, a bridge would be built, or sometimes a pressurized pipe system, known as an inverted siphon, was installed. Along its path, the vault of the conduit was pierced periodically by vertical manhole shafts to facilitate construction and maintenance.

“Upon arrival at the city’s outskirts, the water reached a large distribution tank called the main castellum. From here, smaller branch conduits ran to various districts in the city, where they met lower secondary castella. These branched again, often with pipes rather than masonry channels, supplying water under pressure to local features, such as fountains, houses, and baths.

Roman Aqueduct System

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Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The channels of the aqueducts were generally built of masonry, for lack of sufficiently strong pipes. Cast-iron pipes the Romans did not have, lead was rarely used for large pipes, and bronze would have been too expensive. Because of this lack, and not because they did not understand the principle of the siphon, high pressure aqueducts were less commonly constructed. To avoid high pressure, the aqueducts that supplied Rome with water, and many others, were built at a very easy slope and frequently carried around hills and valleys, though tunnels and bridges were sometimes used to save distance. The great arches, so impressive in their ruins, were used for comparatively short distances, as most of the channels were underground. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“In the cities the water was carried into distributing reservoirs (castella), from which ran the street mains. Lead pipes (fistulae) carried the water into the houses. These pipes were made of strips of sheet lead with the edges folded together and welded at the joining, thus being pear-shaped rather than round. As these pipes were stamped with the name of the owner and user, the finding of many at Rome in our own time has made it possible to locate the sites of the residences of many distinguished Romans. In Pompeii these pipes can be seen easily now, for in that mild climate they were often laid on the ground close to the house, not buried as in most parts of this country. The poor must have carried the water that they used from the public fountains that were placed at frequent intervals in the streets, where the water ran constantly for all comers.” |+|

Each aqueduct in Rome had an elaborate display fountain, with a plaque commemorating the emperor who paid for it. The beautiful fountains built in many Roman cities were largely there for practical rather than decorative purposes. Water that splashed on the pavement and evaporated produced a cooling effect that operated under the same principals as refrigeration. Fountains also relieved the pressure produced by the momentum of water running downhill that was powerful enough to burst pipes.

Famous Roman Aqueducts

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The first Roman aqueduct, over 16 kilometers miles in length, was built in 313 B.C. from a spring outside Rome to Rome. One of the most magnificent aqueducts was built in 145 B.C. to carry water 90 kilometers from a valley near Tivoli to Rome. Substantial remains of the Aqua Claudia, begun by the emperor Caligula in A.D. 38 and completed by Claudius in A.D. 52, still stand outside of Rome. The aqueduct traveled for more than 60 kilometers from its source and provided the city with an ample water supply.

The world's longest ancient aqueduct was 141 kilometers miles and ran from the springs of Zaghouan to Djebel Djougar in present-day Tunisia. Built by the Romans during the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), it originally had a capacity of 7 million gallons a day. In 1895, 344 arches still survived. The Aqua Marcia, the third longest of the original 11 aqueducts of Rome, carried spring water 90 miles from east of Rome to the Capitoline hill.

The highest aqueduct bridge is Pont du Gard, in Nimes, France. It still stands today and is about 40 meters (160 feet) tall, the equivalent of a 16-story building. One of the best preserved aqueducts, in Segovia, Spain, still carries fresh water to the city. Both were built over rivers. Pont du Gard has three tiers and is made from blocks of limestone that were pieced together without mortar. The aqueduct took 15 years to build and runs for 50 kilometers between Uzes and Nimes.

According to UNESCO: “The Pont du Gard was built shortly before the Christian era to allow the aqueduct of Nîmes (which is almost 50 kilometers long) to cross the Gard river. The Roman architects and hydraulic engineers who designed this bridge, which stands almost 50 meters high and is on three levels – the longest measuring 275 meters – created a technical as well as an artistic masterpiece.” Henry James wrote: "You are very near it before you see it: the ravine it spans suddenly opens and exhibits the picture.” The three tiers of the monumental bridge he said were "unspeakably imposing."

Pliny the Elder on the Sewers and Aqueducts of Rome

Pliny the Elder wrote in “Natural History” (A.D. c. 75): “Frequently praise is given to the great sewer system of Rome. There are seven "rivers" made to flow, by artificial channels, beneath the city. Rushing onward like so many impetuous torrents, they are compelled to carry off and sweep away all the sewerage; and swollen as they are by the vast accession of the rain water, they reverberate against the sides and bottoms of their channels. Occasionally too the Tiber, overflowing, is thrown backward in its course, and discharges itself by these outlets. Obstinate is the struggle that ensues between the meeting tides, but so firm and solid is the masonry that it is able to offer an effectual resistance. Enormous as are the accumulations that are carried along above, the work of the channels never gives way. Houses falling spontaneously to ruins, or leveled with the ground by conflagrations are continually battering against them; now and then the ground is shaken by earthquakes, and yet---built as they were in the days of Tarquinius Priscus, seven hundred years ago---these constructions have survived, all but unharmed.” [Source: Pliny the Elder (23/4-79 A.D.), “The Grandeur of Rome”, from Natural History, III.v.66-67, NH XXXVI.xxiv.101-110,(A.D. c. 75) , William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 179-181, 232-237]

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Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

Pliny the Elder wrote in “Natural History” XXXVI.xxiv.121-123: “But let us now turn our attention to some marvels that, if justly appreciated, may be pronounced to remain unsurpassed. Quintus Marcius Rex [praetor in 144 B.C.] upon being commanded by the Senate to repair the Appian Aqueduct and that of the Anio, constructed during his praetorship a new aqueduct that bore his name, and was brought hither by a channel pierced through the very sides of mountains. Agrippa, during his aedileship, united the Marcian and the Virgin Aqueducts and repaired and strengthened the channels of others. He also formed 700 wells, in addition to 500 fountains, and 130 reservoirs, many of them magnificently adorned. Upon these works too he erected 300 statues of marble or bronze, and 400 marble columns, and all this in the space of a single year! In the work which he has written in commemoration of his aedileship, he also informs us that public games were celebrated for the space of fifty-seven days and 170 gratuitous bathing places were opened to the public. The number of these at Rome has vastly increased since his time.

“The preceding aqueducts, however, have all been surpassed by the costly work which has more recently been completed by the Emperors Gaius [Caligula] and Claudius. Under these princes the Curtian and the Caerulean Waters with the "New Anio" were brought a distance of forty miles, and at so high a level that all the hills---whereon Rome is built---were supplied with water. The sum expended on these works was 350,000,000 sesterces. If we take into account the abundant supply of water to the public, for baths, ponds, canals, household purposes, gardens, places in the suburbs and country houses, and then reflect upon the distances that are traversed from the sources on the hills, the arches that have been constructed, the mountains pierced, the valleys leveled, we must perforce admit that there is nothing more worthy of our admiration throughout the whole universe.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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