Ancient Roman aqueducts

Even though aqueducts already existed in the Near East for centuries before the construction of Rome's first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia in 312 BC, 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 which was quite remarkable for the time. It took many centuries for European towns and cities to see such a developed water system again following the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Ancient Roman aqueducts were constructed to bring water from far away springs and mountains into cities and towns. The water would supply the city's fountains, gardens, public baths, latrines and houses of wealthy Romans (which had latrines and baths). The water from the aqueducts would also have agricultural and industrial uses. For example, it would be used to irrigate lands, to power mills and other machines used in mining, etc.

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

Ancient Roman aqueducts were quite a feat of engineering. People from abroad or from villages would come to Rome and literally stand in awe in front of these giant arches stretching for miles. The technology involved in building these aqueducts was quite remarkable. Roman aqueducts did not use pumps but gravity alone. They were built with a slight downward gradient and sometimes stretched for over 100 kms (62 miles)!


aqueduct of segovia

The aqueduct of Segovia

Most aqueducts were built below the surface (0.5 to 1 meter or c. 3 ft below) but as they reached the valleys and the vicinity of cities, they would be above ground and bridge-like. Engineers would use tools such as the chorobates to check the horizontal level. Many of the pipes were made of lead. Romans then already knew about lead poisoning that is why ceramic and stone was often preferred over lead. The Romans introduced a number of innovations including the use of giant tanks built at intervals so as to regulate the supply of water and waterproof concrete.

Ancient Roman aqueducts were quite reliable and the many aqueducts still standing intact today (such as the Pont du Gard in France and the Aqueduct of Segovia in Spain) are a testament to their reliability. Aqueducts fell into disuse mainly because they were destroyed or they stopped being maintained following the collapse of Western Roman Empire.

The first aqueduct was commissioned in 312 BC, 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 (c. 10 miles) 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, the longest aqueduct in Rome, built in 144-140 BC. The Aqua Marcia ran for about 91 km (57 miles) underground and 10 km (6 miles) aboveground on arcades before reaching the city of Rome.

Many other aqueducts were built especially during the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century AD, 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. Ancient Roman 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.

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

Ancient Roman 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 ancient 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.

SOURCES

  • The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World (J.P. Oleson, Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • On Architecture (Vitruvius, Penguin Classics, 2009)
  • Ancient Water Technologies (L. Mays, Springer, 2010)
  • Gardens and Neighbors: Private Water Rights in Roman Italy (C. Bannon, University of Michigan Press, 2010)
  • Aqueducts of Rome (Frontinus, Harvard University Press, 1925)
  • Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply (A. T. Hodge, Bristol Classical Press, 2002)

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