Ancient Roman Aqueducts

Rome was the first civilization to use water so extensively in its cities. Romans had fountains, public and private baths, restrooms (latrines) and a developed sewage system. This was quite remarkable for the time. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, European towns and cities didn't have such a developed water system until centuries later.

Aqueducts were constructed to bring water from far away (often a spring) to cities and towns. The water would then be used to supply the fountains (that people used for water), the gardens, the public baths, the latrines and houses (as many houses had their own latrines and baths). The water from the aqueducts would also have agricultural and industrial uses: it would be used to irrigate lands, for mining, milling, etc.

The aqueducts would keep the cities clean thanks to a developed sewage system. They would also keep the people clean: Romans of all classes would bathe in public baths and it was not uncommon then to bathe everyday. The workday lasted 6 hours and many Romans would go to the public baths in the afternoon to relax and socialize.

How ancient Roman aqueducts were built

The aqueducts were quite a feat of engineering. People from abroad or from villages would come to Rome, see these giant arches stretching for miles and be really impressed! The technology involved in building these aqueducts was quite remarkable. The aqueducts didn't use pumps but gravity alone. They were built with a slight downward gradient and sometimes they stretched for over 100 kms! Engineers would use tools such as the chorobates to check the horizontal level.

aqueduct of segovia

The aqueduct of Segovia

Most aqueducts were actually built below the surface (0.5 to 1 meter below) but as they reached the valleys and the vicinity of cities, they would be above ground and be bridge-like. Many of the pipes were made of lead. Romans then already knew about lead poisoning that's why ceramic and stone was often preferred over lead. There were also giant tanks built at intervals so as to regulate the supply of water.

The aqueducts were quite reliable if one takes into account the fact that some are still intact today (like the Pont du Gard in France and the Aqueduct of Segovia in Spain). The reason why they stopped being used is that many were destroyed or that they stopped being maintained after the collapse of Western Roman Empire.

The first aqueduct was commissioned in 312 B.C. , the Aqua Appia, when Rome had a shortage of water. People then relied on local springs, public and private wells, and cisterns on rooftops which collected rainwater. The Aqua Appia relied on a spring located 16.4 kms from Rome and supplied the city's main trading center and cattle market. The second aqueduct to be built was the Old Anio which was commissioned 40 years later. The third one was the Aqua Marcia built in 144-140 B.C. . It was the longest aqueduct in Rome.

Many other aqueducts were built especially during the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century, Rome had eleven aqueducts. The quality of water supplied by the aqueducts could vary: some were known to supply excellent quality water while others were prone to muddy water especially after heavy rain. Aqueducts had to be maintained as some leaked over the years or debris accumulated in the conduits. There were access points at regular intervals on the underground conduits. There was also the problem of illegal tapping.

Aqueducts for private, agricultural and industrial uses

Private users had pipes connected from their property to the aqueduct. They had to have a license and they were charged a fee based on the width of the pipe. The pipes would have inscriptions with information on: the manufacturer of the pipe, the fitter, the subscriber and his entitlement. Illegal tapping was commonplace though. Aqueduct officials or workers were often bribed so that pipes could be widened or illegally connected to the aqueduct. Illegal tapping could be punished by the seizure of assets. But the law was rarely applied. Very wealthy Romans would buy water access rights to springs and build their own aqueducts connecting a spring to the villa!

roman lead pipe

Roman lead pipe with inscriptions - Science Museum

Aqueducts were also used in agriculture. Farmers who did not have access to a spring or a river could purchase a license to draw a specific quantity of water. The water would be used to irrigate the land but also to water the livestock. The license was quite hard to get though, especially in the countryside. Illegal tapping could be punished by the seizure of assets (the land or the produce from the land) but the law was rarely applied as increased production from the farms kept food prices law. Rather than seizing assets, the authorities would tax the produce of the farms.

Aqueducts also had industrial uses especially in mining. Channels would be cut into the ground at a steep gradient so as to deliver large quantities of water at high pressure to the mines. The water would be used to wash away the rock and expose the ore (what we call “hushing”) and to operate machines such as water-powered wheels that would power stamps and trip hammers that were used to process the ore. Evidence of such mines can be found in Rome, Athens, Spain, in Dolaucothi in Wales and in Barbegal in Fontvieille, France.

Incredible facts about Roman aqueducts
  • Roman aqueducts supplied over 1 million cubic meters of water a day when Rome had a population of circa 1,000,000. This is over 120% of the current supply of the city of Bangalore today which has a population of 6,000,000.
  • The water quality could vary depending on the aqueduct, some aqueducts were known to provide excellent quality water.
  • Romans could purchase a license to connect their property to an aqueduct (the cost of the license was in part based on the width of the pipe).
  • Illegal tapping and the bribing of aqueduct officials (especially by wealthy Roman citizens) was common.
  • Some very wealthy Romans had their own aqueducts which were directly connected to springs.
  • Aqueducts were used to power machines such as stamps and trip hammers.

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