LA Study Tour with Jack
Aqueducts and Wastewater Systems of Rome
by Michael Cote, MRP 2010


The history of Rome is one of constant expansion, and water infrastructure was a critical and essential enabler of that expansion. For centuries Rome was a small agrarian village among hundreds throughout Italy. And yet it was access to water that helped build and concentrate power that led to a length of continental domination next to none. This article briefly outlines the history of Roman water and sewer infrastructure.

The Roman Arch was actually adopted from the Etruscans, and design of the aqueduct from the Greeks.

There are three distinct periods of Roman history - the Monarchy (753-509 BC), the Republic (509-31 BC), and the Empire (31 BC – 312 AD). The Monarchy is characterized by Etruscan rule, with a string of seven moderate kings, a strong Pagan society, and an agrarian and a cultural context that was somewhat, though not fully, matriarchal. The Republic formed after what many historians refer to as the Roman revolution, where the populous overthrew the Etruscans. The Revolution in truth was fueled by a combination of a weak Etruscan King, Tarquin the Proud, and the invading northern Celts. For it was the Celts that helped create the Roman mindset to expand to infinity as a form of self-protection (Aldrete 2004; Virga 2007). The Republican period also witnessed a maturing of the city of Rome. There was intense expansion of roads and infrastructure, as well as fuller development of the arts and architecture that we relate to today. It was also a time of rule following the first set of written, rather than arbitrary or commonly understood, laws and policies. The laws' intent was to build-up the city, keep order and nurture the populous' moral countenance. After the fall of the Etruscans, the Romans (now in expansion/self-preservation mode) absorbed the Greek states and unified much of Italy and the surrounding states. The final period of Roman history was the era of Empire. Roman persistence at expansion and thirst for wealth led to the conquering of twenty-five modern countries that spanned all of the Mediterranean boundaries from the Middle-East to Britannia. By the late 3 rd century AD, there were 60 million “Romans.” The Empire began to dissolve around 300 AD due to a complex combination of invading northerners, shifts in political power, a division of the Empire's boundaries into two halves (East and West), and the adoption of Christianity (Gill).

Roman Drinking Water and Sewer Systems

“Water – it confounds easy management; it's heavy and difficult to move uphill; it's unwieldy and cannot be easily packed or contained; and it's fragile, easily becoming contaminated.” James Salzman

Drinking water

The Romans used the stolen practical aspects of conquest for self-enrichment. The Roman Arch, for instance, was adopted from the Etruscans and the aqueduct from the Greeks. They borrowed and improved upon former civilizations' innovations routinely, all the while imposing Roman assimilation. The most effective Roman technique for expansion was cultural-conversion by force - systematically obliterating the language, literature, art, philosophy, and science of the vanquished. New Roman citizens were obtained by employment in the army, binding the conquered masses to agricultural lands, or compelling them to join engineering teams to build roads, fortifications and other infrastructure. These new citizens were also offered a cut of future booty. It is within this context that the residual benefits of acquiescing to Roman power resulted in the promise of a higher quality of life, a life that would come from such basic human rights as the right to clean water and use of public latrines and bath houses (Virga).

Aqueduct engineering did comprise of arches and channels, however, less than 5% of all Roman aqueducts were above ground.

As the realm grew, so did Rome. Among many other growing pains from urbanization, drinking water supply became strained. Old springs, wells and cisterns of the community began to dry or become contaminated. The Roman government started to act. In 312 BC, Appius Claudius was charged to build Rome's first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, (who also built the great Via Appia at the same time). Aqua Appia was a subterranean channel fed by a spring. Nothing remains of this aqueduct, and it's speculated it was paved over in 1887 (Platner). Most aqueducts were underground covered-channels. With so many enemies, an exposed drinking water supply was extremely dangerous and expensive. Once the water reached the city proper, it was elevated over arches for delivery throughout Rome. By the late Republican era, 11 aqueducts served the City's nearly 1 million inhabitants. The largest aqueducts were Anio Novus and Aqua Claudia . Anio Novus was a 52 mile aqueduct built around 50 AD. Aqua Claudia was a spring fed, 46 mile, partially raised system that failed on several occasions. Like the Aqua Appia, these two were largely subterranean. Less than five-percent of aqueducts stood on arches. When Novus and Claudia arrived into central Rome the water was raised on architectural arches. Sections of these aqueducts still stand today.

Fortified Rome, 350 AD. Major Aqueducts served government buildings, baths, fountains and latrines throughout the city.

Most Roman water infrastructure was built following centuries-old Greek techniques, which were channels cut through the hillside. These early water infrastructures were made via the cut and cover method: a trench was dug near a water source such as a lake, spring or stream. The trench was lined with stone and concrete, then capped with stone or vaults. Along the channel route were various access points to clean debris such as sticks and leaves. Aqueducts had several distribution end-points. They either filled massive cisterns or constantly flowed (and therefore flushing) baths, latrines and streets. In later stages of urban development (e.g. the mid-to-late Empire era), private residences tapped the aqueducts with lead pipes. The subterranean channel technique was not new and the Greeks most likely learned it from Turkey . Called a qanat , channeling and tunneling to divert water dates back over four thousand years. A qanat is essentially an underground tunnel that begins at mountain foothills below the water table. The tunnel gradually carries water downhill to its end destination. Qanats are still built today throughout the Middle-East, Near-East and parts of Africa. There is speculation that the Turks most likely learned qanat from the Chinese, but history of Chinese aqua-culture is still emerging (Hansen).

Aqua Claudia, built by Caligula 38AD, was a spring fed, 46 mile, partially raised system that failed on several occasions
Qanat - Middle-Eastern Channels informed Roman Aqueduct building.

By 300 AD, the Roman Empire had a system of over 600 (known) aqueducts that supplied cities with water of varied quality. Private houses received the best quality water, which was usually sourced from underground springs. Lesser supplies (e.g. from lakes) were routed to farms for irrigation and latrines for flushing. Rivers and streams served public fountains, bath houses and latrines (Matthews). Some Roman aqueducts still stand as far away as France today.

Wastewater and Sewers

At over 2500 years old, the Cloaca Maxima is one of the world's oldest functioning wastewater and stormwater systems. Built by the Etruscans around 500 BC, it was originally constructed as a trench and canal system to drain a sandy marsh in order to build a large portion of downtown Rome known as the Forum Romanum (the Forum). It's hard to believe that the democratic center of Roman government was once a Mediterranean swamp.

Goddess Cloacina. In Roman mythology, Cloacina was the goddess who presided over the Cloaca Maxima. Titus Tatius, who reigned with Romulus during the Monarch era, erected a statue to her. She was originally derived from Etruscan mythology. As well as controlling sewers, she was a protector of sexual intercourse in marriage. Regardless of her original source, she later became identified with Venus.

After the Forum was built and streets were paved, the Cloaca Maxima converted de facto to wastewater and sewerage treatment. Bath houses, latrines, fountains and public buildings and road runoff discharged directly into the Cloaca Maxima, which emptied directly into the Tiber River. The largest Roman streets had large drainage openings along the sides that constantly flowed with water from excess aqueduct water. The public literally would dump their private latrines into these openings and the flowing water would flush it away. On dry days (or more likely when the aqueducts were broken), the drains would clog. Rains would quickly dispense of any build-up due to the City's steep slopes and engineered (e.g. graded and sloped) roads.

The structure of the Cloaca Maxima ranges in size from 5'x5' to 11' x 12' and is made of hewn stone, concrete and masonry. Over the centuries, it was diverted, covered, vaulted, and redirected many times over. In his thesis, University of Texas graduate student John N. N. Hopkins observed that “The Cloaca's masonry vacillates between archaic, mid-republican and early imperial stone and concrete walls and vaults”(Hopkins). Thus, identifying the historic record of when and by whom the Cloaca Maxima was repaired and altered has become a major challenge.

Above: Roman latrines were elongated rectangular platforms with several adjacent seats. Some had partitions, but most of them did not. They were ofter co-ed, as were the baths. Water from the aqueduct system flowed continuously in troughs beneath the seats. The sewage dispensed into the sewers and eventually to the Tiber River.

Left: Sea sponges fastened to the end of sticks, called “spongia,” were used to wipe. Common types of sanitation were fig leaf, moss, sponge stick and, for most Romans, the left hand.

It is widely mistaken that the Cloaca Maxima served most of Rome's wastewater and stormwater needs. There were very few private connections to the outlying sewers and major improvements didn't come until the 1840s, some seventeen-hundred years later, when many Roman streets were converted from large-stone-pavers to smaller, smoother cobblestones. Most households used chamberpots that were emptied into vats that were kept under the stairs. The vats would later be emptied into nearby cesspools or streams, or sometimes dumped right in the streets. Today the Cloaca Maxima is mostly a relic and tourist attraction. However, robust parts of the underground channel remain functioning in downtown Rome, near the Tiber River. It still treats storm and sewage overflows during very heavy rain storms.

Most households used chamberpots that were emptied into vats that were kept under the stairs.

By the first century AD, the city had a functioning city waster and sewer commissioner, Sextus Juilus Frontinus. With a large labor crew of slaves and military prisoners, he mapped, maintained and repaired the aqueducts and sewer systems. He later became Governor of Roman ruled Britain. If the name Frontinus is familiar, it is because he was foremost a distinguished aristocrat and Army general who wrote many books on the history of Rome. His most famous book being De aquaeductu , which was an official report to the emperor that covered the history, laws, engineering and politics of Roman aqueducts.


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Hansen, Roger D. 1999. “Karez (Qanats) of Turpan, China.” . Accessed April 4, 2009.

Hansen, Roger D., 1983. “Water and Waste Water in Imperial Rome. Water Resources Bulletin . 19:263-269.

Hopkins, John N. N. “The Cloaca Maxima and the Monunmental Manipulation of Water in Archaic Rome.” Excerpts, The Waters of Rome, March 2007. Issue Number 4.

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