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Rome's Eleven Aqueducts as an Example of a Successful Water Supply System

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There is no need to talk about the importance of water and its place in human lives. Every live being require to consume water for one of their primal needs: thirst. However, importance of water does not end with one primal need, it is a pillar stone for our entire system. A blacksmith needs it to cool forged goods, a farmer needs it to produce agriculture goods, a pot maker needs it to shape pots during production process, etc. This why, humans always placed their cities carefully, because a city needs a stable and continuous water resources. Naturally, a city starts to grow in terms of both population and area, sometimes this situation makes water resources insufficient. When this happens cities must find a solution to possible dangers to come. Since it is impossible for ancient people to carry large amount of water every day, over tens of kilometers, they needed to create system which brings water to them. Aqueducts were/are the solution for this problem. They built by many different civilizations and societies in many different locations. One of those societies was Romans, throughout their existence they built so many aqueducts from Turkey to England. In this paper city of Rome’s eleven aqueducts will be explained and while doing so general information about aqueducts will be given.

What Is Aqueduct and Usage of It

Aqueduct is the combination of Latin words ‘aqua’, which means ‘water’, and ‘ducere’, which means ‘lead’ (ANON, 2021). As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, they are means to fulfill a city’s or a settlement point’s water needs. Naturally, many people think the agriculture practices and the human body’s water need when they think about the ‘a city’s water need’. However, as Roman Architecture and Author Vitruvius said, “There is an infinite number of practical needs which all depend on the water’s power” (Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, p.226). What Vitruvius said is true because, beside from agriculture and consumption, water has an important place in the daily roman lives. For example, hygiene was something cared for in Rome. In Roman city Herculaneum, there were two, at least according to findings, different types of bathhouses, one for the riches and one for the poor (Raddato, 2020). Naturally, due to water place in Roman Culture, usage purpose of the aqueducts exceed agriculture. Beside from agriculture, Romans took water into city for hygiene, consumption, live-stock caring, crafting and agriculture, aqueducts also were means to carry the filthy water out of the city. This usage purposes can categorize under different usages due to advancement made in the distribution system; private, public, recreational and imperial purposes.

Construction of Aqueducts and Technical Traits

As it will be seen in the next few paragraphs, some aqueducts carry the water over 90-100 kilometers. So, naturally it is not an easy job to create such mechanism which contains a specific amount of water pressure during the carrying process over low and high part of terrain. Beside from the preserving the pressure, aqueducts must be built resistant to water damage because they carry water huge amount of nonstop water. Clearly this type of system and construction requires a solid engineering work. Gravity was most helpful asset to achieve stableness in a such system. But the gravity’s affect must be calculated because, too steep flow of water could ruin the channel over time and too stagnate flow could ruin drinkability of the water.

There are three types of aqueducts in Roman Architecture: surface channel type, bridge type and siphon type. Major part of the aqueducts was surface channel style, which placed 0,5 to 1,0 meters under the ground (Deming, 2019). These were easier to build compare to other two types because it follows the shape of the terrain. During the building process, there must be a single air shaft in every 18,2 meters (20 yards) because in case of problem, someone could be able to go down there and fix the problem. That is why these channels, built, generally, about 0,9 meters (1 yard) wide and 2,4 meters (2,5 yard) height. However, sometimes shape of the terrain is not very stable and filled with valley and summits. In this kind of terrains, it is hard to follow terrain with simple surface channel style. This is where bridge and siphon types used. One way of passing over a valley is the siphons. They consisted of a downward aligned and an upward aligned channel. Before water flow started to follow downward channel, it started to accumulate in an artificial reservoir. This reservoir helps the water gain some momentum, when water started to flow downward with momentum it gains from high ground, so that it can climb up the upward channel and continue its flow to city (Layton, 2008). Second way of passing over a valley is the bridge type, which clearly the most aesthetic and known type of aqueduct. Their aesthetic comes from their usage of arches beneath the aqueduct for foundation purposes. In order to build these high arches, Romans first used wooden patterns and later removed them with the placement of stones. Highest bridged type aqueduct is the one called Pont du Gard, which is 50 meters high. However, since it is not in Rome, it will not be in this paper but still worth mentioning (Layton, 2008). As I mentioned before the importance of gravy in building process, in order to adjust it properly engineers of the time, used a balance device called ‘chorobate’. In order to achieve level of durability, stones and the cements use in the channels were special made. This special cement was made of volcanic sand and lucky for Rome, modern day Italy is filled with volcanic structure, as it is known from Herculaneum and Pompeii’s fate (ANON, 2021). However, waters journey to Rome, or any other is one thing and the waters distribution journey inside the city is another. The distribution system in the Rome was very advanced because there were many steps. After water reaches the city, it was either preserved in huge water tanks or continue to go civil buildings via lead pipelines, so that everyone can access it whenever they want. The reason of this twenty-four hours ongoing water flow is the water rights in Rome. In Rome water was a human right.

Aqueducts Before Rome

Even though, Romans made so many groundbreaking additions the aqueduct systems in general, they are not the ones that invented it. Before Romans, usage of aqueducts can be seen so many parts of the world, especially in the east of Rome. In different civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians used the aqueducts in their irrigation systems (Betz, 2020). A similar system called ‘qanat’, which aims to extract trapped water supply under the mountain, used by Persians, today’s Afghanistan, China and western parts of the Egypt (ANON, 2021).

Earliest example of stable long distance water carriage system and also considered as the first one, built in Ancient Mesopotamia by Assyrian Empire in 9th century BC. Naturally, during that time, these water leads did not have the complexity of the Roman engineering. So, they were basically direct lines between the settlement point and the water source. As time passed in Ancient Mesopotamia, Babylonians picked the flag and added some complexity to these aqueducts in 8th century BC. Eventually in 7th century BC, Babylonians managed to extend their aqueduct to Nineveh over a 280 meters long valley by building a bridge (Cartwright, 2012).

After the advancement on aqueduct in Mesopotamia, some aqueducts started to seen in 7th century BC Greek. The first examples of Greek aqueducts were not very big in terms of carried water, because it designed as communal fountains. Just like in Mesopotamia, as time passed, people got used to this new system and started to advance it. In 6th century BC, different city states, such as Athens, Samos and Megara got their long-distance (1 to 3 kilometers long) water lines. In 4th century BC Greek aqueducts started to seen in various spots of Asia Minor (Cartwright, 2012).

Eleven Aqueducts of Rome

Throughout, Roman Republic and Roman Empire eleven different aqueduct, which all carries water resource from different sources around the city, built. Because of different reasons, during the Roman Kingdom era there was not a need of such water systems. Less population, less area, Tiber River’s safety. However, as time passed, population and the layout of Rome increased, poorly though sewage system started to pollute Tiber River were created a necessary requirement for the new water sources (Roda, 2016). Thirty years after the Samnite War (343 BC), water insufficiency was undeniable and Rome must take an action. So, in 341 BC, according to Roman Author Frontinus’ records 441 years after the foundation of city, first aqueduct Aqua Appia built (Dembskey, 2009). After this first step following ten aqueducts came along: Aqua Anio Vetus, Aqua Marcia, Aqua Tepula, Aqua Julia, Aqua Virgo, Aqua Alsietina, Aqua Claduia, Aqua Anio Novus, Aqua Traiana and last one Aqua Alexandria.

As it is already mentioned Aqua Appia is the first built aqueduct in Rome. It built by the mutual work of two different Roman Censors and also named after one of them, Gaius Plautius Venox and Appius Clauduis Caecus. Censors were basically government officials who responsible of maintaining public moral and government’s any financial issues. Aqua Appia’s length is total of 16 kilometers and 4 kilometers of those 16 was passed on bridges. It carried water from an eastern source and entered to city between Caelian Hill and Aventine Hill (Dembskev, 2009). Since it is the first aqueduct of Rome is relatively shorter than the other ones, but it is longer than the its predecessors in Mesopotamia and Greece.

Second aqueduct is the Aqua Anio Vetus, which built in 272 BC with the money and capital from the spoils of Pyrrhic War. It takes its name from the carried water’s source, River Anio (Dembskey, 2009). Just like Aqua Appia, it placed in the eastern side of the city. Architectural traits of the aqueduct are very important because, it is 81 kilometers long and it place 260 meter above of the sea level. The length jumps between Aqua Appia and Aqua Anio Vetus, should not be ignored because, as far as I think, it is a resemblance of their ambition. An ambition rises from victory in Pyrrhic War and the technological advancements.

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Third aqueduct is the Aqua Marica was an eastern, 91 kilometers long aqueduct. Since it is already seen in the second aqueduct, Romans got the gist of building long distance aqueducts. However, most interesting thing about this aqueduct is the, its building years. According Roman historian Livy, this water lead wanted to build in 179 BC by two censors Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior. But the route of the aqueduct was passing through on the private property of Marcus Licinius Crassus, who did not give permission (Dembskey, 2009). Naturally, built of the aqueduct delayed until Crassus changed his mind, which is 144 BC.

Fourth one is the Aqua Tepula and this aqueduct had two unique traits. First one is the, Aqua Tepula is the aqueduct in Rome that carries warm water (around 16 Celsius) for 18 kilometers, which comes from either in Alban Hills or Marciana Valley, due to a disparity between scholars. Second one is the, it is the only aqueduct that completely re-done with a different route. The original Aqua Tepula built in 125 BC and later in 33 BC it re-done by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a Roman general and architect.

Until 33 BC Aqua Tepula stayed as the newest aqueduct. In 33 BC, Agrippa who re-done Aqua Tepula, also made the fifth and the last aqueduct of the Roman Republic, Aqua Julia. According to Evan James Dembskey, the reason behind this 100 year of stop in the late Republic is the political and social problems (Dembskey, 2009). Since Agrippa, re-done Aqua Tepula and built Aqua Julia in the same year, he placed them near each other. However, due to this placement, at some point in their channel, both waters mixed up and got separated again. This mixture continued until Emperor Augustus, repaired the channels in 11 BC. Beside from stopping mixture, Augustus also expanded the width of the Aqua Julia, which became able to carry 48,000-meter cube water in a one-day period.

Under the rule of Augustus, Agrippa built his third aqueduct, in 19 BC. Agrippa built, Aqua Virgo 14 year after Aqua Julia, this aqueduct to provided proper amount of water supply to Campus Martius, while this aqueduct was building by Agrippa and approached city by the north, Campus Martius was also building by Augustus (Dembskey, 2009). Beside from being the product of Augustus and Agrippa’s mutual works, this 20,5-kilometers-long aqueduct is one of the aqueducts of Rome that are still functional.

Seventh aqueduct of the Rome was the Aqua Alsietina, even though this aqueduct receives its water supply from the northern lake of Alsietina, it enters the city from the west. In order to enter the city, Aqua Alsietina starts from Lake Alsietinus, which is 207 meters above the sea level, and follows 33 kilometers of route. It assumed that this aqueduct built in the 2 BC, which makes it the second aqueduct under Augustus’ rule. The water got from the Alsietinus lake was not drinkable but Augustus still built the aqueduct. According to Frontinus, the reason behind why Augustus completed this water lead is to finish his Naumachia Stage (Dembskey, 2009). Naumachiae was a type of entertainment that performed with battle ships. It was first held in Rome after Ceaser’s victory in 46 BC. Naturally, this entertainment purposed naval battle requires a special place to held in. This is why, Lake Alsietina’s condition was a perfect fit to Augustus’ Naumachiae goals (Munoz-Santos, 2017).

After an actionless (in terms of Aqueducts) ruling period of Tiberus, his predecessor Caligula took a step to build eighth aqueduct, which is Aqua Claudia, in 37 AD. Unfortunately for Caligula, Aqua Claudia finished in 41 AD, during the rule of Emperor Claudius, who clearly gave his name. After the second, third and nineth aqueducts of Rome, it is the fourth longest aqueduct of Rome, because its length is 69 kilometers and 14 of those 69 built on arches (Dembskey, 2009). Due to its massive size, some of it still standing in modern day Rome.

Just like, Aqua Claudia, Aqua Anio Novus, started during the rule of Caligula (38 AD) but finished in rule of Claudia (52 AD). With its 87 kilometers length this aqueduct is the second longest one in the Rome. However, its built time worth to it perform because in term of water carriage power, with its 200,000-meter cube daily transfer there was no match for it.

After the successful and sufficient water carriage amounts, tenth aqueduct did not build in next 57 years. When Emperor Trajan’s rule started, he started the build of Aqua Traiana, which highly influenced by Emperor’s name. Since, Frontinus died in 103 AD and this aqueduct ended in 109 AD, there was not so many studies (Dembskey, 2009). Just like, Aqua Tepula, this 56-kilometers-long aqueduct built twice, but unlike Aqua Tepula, it followed the original route with minor changes. The reason behind the re-done is that, Emperor Trajan aimed to distribute water to all 14 districts of Rome but due placement of the aqueduct, it was impossible.

Eleventh and the last aqueduct that built in the Rome is the Aqua Alexandrina. Like the others before this aqueduct follows the tradition of being named after emperor. This last aqueduct builds by Emperor Alexander Severus in 226 AD., which built for Emperor Alexander’s aims to advance Thermae of Nero. After the completion of this 22 kilometers long aqueduct and the advancement on thermae, Alexander re-named it as; Thermae Alexandriane (Dembskey, 2009). Aqua Alexandrina continued to stays active for five centuries between 3th and 8th century.


To conclude, it is clear that water has a very important place in daily Roman lives and the problem of sufficient water is not something easy fix by settling near water. Due city’s requirements, such as more population, more territory needs more stable water. This why achieving an optimal level of stable water system is hard. However, Rome and its eleven aqueducts display a successful water system which takes 500 (give or take) to complete. Rome’s journey about water can be followed by the years between aqueducts and the complexity of the systems. For example, Rome’s first aqueduct build after a war as simple and short system. This shows that as city grows it requirement for stable water increases and in order to fulfill this requirement, they built their first simple aqueduct. Later when they understand the system, their second aqueduct was way longer. Another example can be the Roman Republic’s chaotic years. During those years, there not many aqueducts because there were other problems. Nonetheless despite all of these fluctuated years of Rome, I think it (Rome) managed to create the perfect system for itself. My thought about this becomes the years differences between nineth and eleventh aqueducts. Aqua Anio Novus (nineth) was the strongest aqueduct and it finished in 52 AD. 57 years after its completion Aqua Traiana built and stayed as a last aqueduct for over 100 years. So, it is clear that sufficiency of each aqueduct pushes the need for others, because everyone supplies a more sufficient water supply than the previous one.

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