Aqueducts Are Among Most Exceptional Achievements Of Ancient Roman Engineers

A. Sutherland -  - Among all the achievements of ancient engineering, Roman aqueducts belong to the most exceptional ones.

Engineers in the ancient Roman Empire knew that one of the most fundamental requirements for any town or city to exist is to supply it with water because it is a basic human need.

Aqua Appia - the first Roman aqueduct, constructed in 312 BC

In 312 BC, a Roman politician Appius Claudius Caecus ordered that an aqueduct be built to supply Rome with water. The aqueduct was one of two major Roman projects carried out during this period; the other was a road for military purposes. 

The city must have water to drink, cook, and clean, but it also must have all indispensable arrangements to remove unwanted water. Both ancient and modern Rome has been well supplied with the means for delivering water to the city and taking it away.

Ancient Romans were highly skilled engineers. By the early fourth century AD, Rome was being supplied by more than twelve aqueducts, which cooperatively could bring more than a million cubic meters of fresh water to the city every day! This massive amount of water was delivered to Rome’s inhabitants through a complex network of tanks and pipes and to about 1,500 public fountains, pools, and almost 900 public and private baths.

“With so many indispensable structures for so many aqueducts,” remarked Frontinus, “compare, if you will, the idle pyramids or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks….” wrote Sextus Julius Frontinus around AD 98, in his book called “De Aquis Urbis Romae” (About the Waters of the City of Rome).

Much of our knowledge of the Roman water supply system comes from this book. Frontinus was a prominent Roman civil engineer and the top official responsible for overseeing the water supply of Rome. In his book, he described Rome’s aqueducts.

Pont du Gard France

The multiple arches of the Pont du Gard in Roman Gaul (modern-day southern France). Source  

Usually, we think of the Roman aqueducts as a series of tall, impressive stone arches visible above ground. In fact, later aqueducts included some (less than 10 percent) sections carried on massive arches.

However, the first aqueduct named the Aqua Appia after its builder was located mostly underground. It took its water from some springs about 25 kilometers outside the city. It had a capacity of approximately 75,000 cubic meters of water per day, which was delivered to the area around Aventine Hill.

Frontinus tells us about the Aqua Appia that:

'For four hundred and forty-one years from the foundation of the City, the Romans were satisfied with the use of such waters as they drew from the Tiber, from wells, from springs...'

The next aqueduct, constructed in 272 BC and called the Anio Vetus, was 64 kilometers long. It was constructed out of booty obtained from the Roman military victory over King Pyrrhus of Epirus (318-272 BC) and, like the Appia, was mostly an underground channel.

It had a capacity of around 180,000 cubic meters per day and, as its name suggests, drew its water from the Anio River valley (the source of its waters – dates back to 272 BC), located to the east of Rome, and of the eventual 11 major aqueducts, no fewer than 9 of them would draw their water from this region, either from the Anio itself or from springs in the hills around it.

Segovia Aqueduct, Spain

The Aqueduct of Segovia is a Roman aqueduct in Segovia, Spain.The aqueduct was built of unmortared, brick-like granite blocks. source

The experiment with Aqua Appia was very successful and became an important part of life in Rome. By the third century AD, the city had eleven aqueducts that provided over one million people with water. Using a lot of water had become part of the lifestyle of Rome’s inhabitants. Here, for example, there were lots of public bathhouses. The eleven aqueducts had a total distance of approximately 800 kilometers, of which fewer than 50 km ran above ground on masonry support.

Together, the eleven aqueducts provided Rome with about one million cubic meters of water per day.

The aqueducts made it possible to live much better and easier. It was enough water for daily life and for fountains, toilets, public baths, flower gardens, and more. Aqueducts were also used to bring water to mines, mills, and agriculture.

Baths have also become social gatherings for the Romans. There were even gardens and libraries at larger such buildings, and water surrounded people, constantly pouring from the aqueducts.

However, the aqueduct itself was not a Roman invention, but the Roman engineers knew the principle of the aqueducts used by Greeks and Etruscans. The Romans were excellent engineers who proved to be really good at constructing aqueducts; they built much longer and larger structures than their predecessors. The construction of aqueducts spread to other places in Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia when the Roman Empire expanded further.

As the Roman Empire extended its range to other areas, "aqueducts appeared everywhere where the Romans appeared" (A. T. Hodge, Roman Aqueducts & Water Supply).

Written by – A. Sutherland  - Senior Staff Writer

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Expand for references


Hodge A. T. Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply

Coarelli F. Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide