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The Roman Aqueducts

Roman Aqueduct Bridge

Pont du Gard, Roman aqueduct bridge in southern France

In 152 AD a Roman engineer named Nonius Datus traveled to Algeria to inspect an aqueduct under construction in the city of Saldae. Part of the aqueduct's course went through a large mountain, and following Datus's earlier instructions workmen had been tunneling into this mountain from both ends, intending to meet in the middle. Upon his arrival, however, Datus found to his dismay that each section of the tunnel had been excavated beyond the half-way point, and the two ends had not met. The workmen, who had been hewing through solid rock for four years, were angry and despondent. The contractor blamed Datus, who had originally surveyed the tunnel and then left to work on other projects, while Datus accused the contractor of having made "blunder upon blunder [so that] each section of the tunnel diverged from the straight line."

Constant Water Flow

We will probably never know who was at fault in this curiously modern-sounding story of a construction fiasco. Lacking suitable pressurized piping, Roman aqueducts had to rely on gravity for a constant flow of water, and engineers such as Nonius Datus bridged ravines and tunneled through mountains to maintain the imperceptible downgrade—typically a few feet per mile—that was required in order for them to function properly. But bridges and tunnels were costly and sometimes risky ventures, and the Romans preferred to go around obstacles whenever they could. Though they are the most conspicuous parts of a Roman aqueduct, elegant arched bridges such as the Pont du Gard formed only a small part of the whole system. Most of the length of an aqueduct consisted of a simple stone conduit dug in the ground, lined with waterproof cement or lead to prevent leakage.


Will anybody compare the Pyramids, or those useless though renowned works of the Greeks, with these aqueducts?"

—Frontinus, Roman Water Commissioner, 1st century AD

The first Roman aqueduct was built in 312 BC and brought water to the city of Rome from the nearby Anio river. As the city's population grew over the next few centuries eight others were added, and by the 1st century AD Rome received hundreds of millions of gallons of water per day from its nine aqueducts—more water per person than many modern cities can provide. The later aqueducts are spectacular reworkings of nature (the largest was 56 miles in length) whose sheer scale ensures their place among the marvels of engineering in the ancient world.

The Public Baths and the Roman use of Water

The Romans considered the water from each of their aqueducts to be best for certain uses—one was unfit for anything except watering plants—and they rarely mixed them. Each aqueduct had its own distribution system consisting of settling tanks and lead pipes that connected it to public baths and fountains, industrial establishments, and a select few private homes and apartment houses. The water was unpressurized, so Roman apartment buildings had running water on the ground floor only. Most citizens had to get their water themselves at the public fountains, or buy it from the criminal gangs that monopolized the corrupt business of door-to-door water delivery in the city. Some Romans chose to secretly bore holes to connect their homes and shops to the distribution pipes; when Frontinius became Water Commissioner in the 1st century AD, he was appalled at the scale of such fraud and theft.


If we consider the distances traversed by the water before it arrives, the raising of the arches, the tunneling of mountains and the building of level routes across deep valleys, we shall readily admit that there has never been anything more remarkable in the whole world."

—Pliny the Elder, Roman author and statesman, 1st century AD

Most of the water from the aqueducts went to the public baths, or thermae as the Romans called them. Originally places to get clean, the Roman baths gradually evolved into enormous recreational complexes, containing hot and cold baths, swimming pools, saunas, gymnastic and exercise rooms, gardens, lecture halls, and libraries. Sumptuously decorated with frescoes, mosaics and sculptures, the baths were popular places to socialize and conduct business, and the Romans visited them on a daily basis.

By the middle of the 2nd century AD there were several hundred public baths in Rome, including those of the Emperor Caracalla, which covered an area of 27 acres, held 21 million gallons of water, and entertained 2,000 bathers at a time. Such vast complexes were noisy places; the philosopher Seneca complained of how horrible it was to have an apartment next to one, constantly hearing the grunts of the gymnasts as they swung their weights, the splashing of the swimmers, and the cries of the sausage vendors. Yet it was the increasing popularity of these "cathedrals of paganism" that largely drove the construction of magnificent aqueducts throughout the Empire. Such was the glory of Rome.

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Text taken from Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World — HarperCollins Publishers — Serialized in Games magazine — Recommended by the Archaeological Institute of America — A BookSense "What's in Store" Main Selection —  Maze puzzle art reproduced by the British Museum


We must also mention the Labyrinths, quite the most abnormal achievements on which man has spent his resources. One still exists in Egypt..."

—Pliny, Roman author, 1st century AD

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