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 of the ancient Roman aqueducts was the “Aqua Appia”. It was build by Appius Claudius who was Censor for 18 months around 312BC (AUC441). He also commissioned the first and most magnificent of the military roads of Rome – the Via Appia. Both of these public works were heavily criticised in the Roman Senate for their high cost. Their social and strategic value later went unquestioned as even their construction provided the benefit of acting as a good source of stable employment for many plebeians. Both undertakings bear his name.
How big were the Roman aqueducts?
The Aqua Appia aqueduct runs along an underground tunnel from about the 7th mile of the Via Prenestina – one of the Consular roads of Rome to the north of the city – 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 water aqueducts arriving to Rome at this point include Anio Vetus (275BC), Aqua Marcia(144), Aqua Tepula (125), Aqua Iulia (33BC), 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 Emperor Aurelian’s defense walls of the city around 270-275AD.
The 11 aqueducts of Rome and their fountains
Other aqueducts were built during the 500 years between 312BC-226AD, making a total of eleven. 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, a Roman fountain 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, in large Roman villas, fountains, public baths and even toilets.
Water for public toilets was big business
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 economic value was further increased by conveying the urine to laundry sites where it was used to wash clothes, yes, urine was used for washing clothes and even to whiten your teeth!
The public toilets were built as a large room with a number of toilet seats similar to those of today but made of stone, 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 ancient Roman aqueducts were sabotaged during the barbarian invasions and restored in the Renaissance.
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 Roman 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.