Despite the river Tiber and a small number of springs, the natural water supply was not sufficient for the city of Rome, particularly at its greatest expansion.
The first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was built by Appius Claudius who was Censor for 18 months around 312BC (AUC441). He also commissioned the first military road – the Via Appia. At first both public works were heavily criticised in the Senate for their high cost. However, their social and strategic value later went unquestioned as even their construction alone proved a good source of stable employment for many plebeians with all the consequential benefits. Both undertakings bear his name.
The aqueduct runs along an underground tunnel from about the 7th mile of the Via Prenestina (one of the Consular roads of Rome) before reaching a reservoir called a “castellum” near the city’s Porta Capena gate. When fully functional it carried some 75000 cubic meters of water per day into the city around the heavily populated Aventine hill. A section of this aqueduct can still be seen running across the top of the Porta Maggiore gate of Rome.
This point was particularly favourable as a water entry point to the city due to its relative topographical height above the rest of the urban area. Other aqueducts arriving to Rome at this point include Anio Vetus (275BC), Aqua Marcia(144), Aqua Tepula (125), Aqua Iulia (33BC), Aqua Virgo (19BC), Aqua Claudia and Aqua Novus (52AD). These last two are some 70kilometers in length and bring water all the way from Tivoli. Porta Maggiore is itself the result of a number of arches from these aqueducts which were included within the Aurelian defence walls of the city.
Other aqueducts were built during the next 500 years until the year 226AD, totalling eleven in all just for the city. Most of the water was drawn from the hills to the south of Rome and from the area east of the city, near Tivoli. A couple drew water from the north, around the Volcanic lake of Bracciano.
The water drawn by the aqueducts entered the city through their own form of Triumphal monument called the mostra “the show”. The mostra was a particularly pompous fountain which was usually directly connected with the castellum. Although not of ancient Roman origin a famous mostra is the Trevi fountain. Similarly to the Trevi fountain, two of the best known fountains of antiquity were themselves mostre. One, the Julia fountain, is still partially visible in the square in front of Rome’s central railway Termini station. The other was known as the Meta Sudans and was situated next to the Colosseum near to where the arch of Constantine stands. From here the water was distributed throughout the city for public use, as well as supplying large villas, fountains and public baths.
The water system was so evolved as to cater for public lavatories also. Emperor Vespasian was responsible for the introduction of these lavatories throughout the city. This was not only aimed at hygiene but also at improving state finances as he introduced fines for soiling, as well as charging for use of the toilets. The public toilets were built as a large room with a number of toilet seats, with holes, built into the walls. A continuous stream of water ran under the seats to the sewers. Users of the toilets could then wash at a fountain situated in the same room – just like a modern public toilet (except for the lack of privacy)! The association with toilets ensured that the name Vespasian has never been popular for one’s children.
The barbarian invasions which brought an end to the Roman Empire of the West resulted in the eventual breaking of the aqueducts in order to cut the city’s water supplies. The Goths, led by Vitiges cut them in the year 537AD forcing the dwindling population of the city to rely on the river Tiber for several hundreds of years thereafter.
Restoration and renovation of the aqueducts only began with the Renaissance during which period a large number of fountains and water displays were added to embellish the city. The total number of aqueducts gradually increased until it was brought back up to eight by the early 1950’s.