During the vast and rapid expansion of the Roman Empire, water was a crucial theme. Water was as integral to Roman culture as the roads, fortifications, temples, and amphitheatres for which it is so acclaimed.
Reliable supplies of clean water were imperative to the survival and growth of Rome and other cities in its ever-widening network of colonies. This need drove the Romans to develop sophisticated hydraulic systems that could transport water over long distances and varying elevations: the aqueducts.
How the Romans Became So Clever at Building Aqueducts
Roman aqueducts, like skinny superhighways on elevated arches cutting through the countryside and urban spaces, can still be seen in many parts of the world, from France and Spain to Israel and Turkey to North Africa. Well, these amazing structures were a sort of superhighway in their day, but for water, an elegant thoroughfare for a precious resource in the ancient world.
The Ancient Romans became experts in hydraulic engineering through centuries of practical experience and experimentation. Their understanding of mathematics and engineering was formidable, but they also drew upon the knowledge and expertise of other cultures, namely the Greeks and the Persians, who had developed advanced hydraulic technologies.
Full of intellectual curiosity, the Romans also carried out their own experiments and research to better understand the principles of hydraulics. They conducted tests on the flow of water using models and simulations, and they studied the properties of different materials, such as lead and stone, to determine their effectiveness as carriers.
The Fascinating Process of Building an Aqueduct
The Roman aqueducts were a product of three essential elements: careful planning, innovative engineering, and a lot of skilled labor.
Of course, locating the water source was the first step in the planning. It was not uncommon for the source to be a fair distance from the water’s final destination; forty or fifty miles was not uncommon. After conducting a detailed survey of the land to document the elevation changes and determine the most efficient route, engineers would use mathematical formulas to calculate the slope of the aqueduct.
The slope was paramount. This is where we really see evidence of Roman engineering genius. If the water moved too slowly, it could stagnate and there wouldn’t be enough pressure for it to do its job when it reached the city. If it moved too quickly, it could damage the ductwork system under the city or even the aqueduct itself.
Once planning was complete, construction began with excavation of the ground. Workers would create trenches into which they would lay a bed of large stones — the foundation for the piers of the arches.
The construction of the iconic arches that would support the aqueduct came next. Romans were particularly brilliant when it came to the use of arches as a structural support (all we need do is look at the Colosseum for proof of this). Skilled masons would cut and fit stones together in a precise manner that eliminated the need for mortar. This technique created a stable structure that could support a tremendous amount of weight and stress. The structures were also extremely durable; rather, incredibly durable, seeing as many are still standing and in good condition after two thousand years.
Ancient Rome’s Obsession with Clean Water
Water in Ancient Rome was not only used for drinking but also supplied its public baths and fountains, which were an important part of Roman civilization. Rome was full of fountains, even in ancient times (some historians estimate as many as seven hundred). The majesty of the public baths can still be seen in such colossal ruins as the Baths of Caracalla. It is estimated that 750,000 gallons (2.8 million litres) of water flowed through the Baths of Caracalla every day. That’s a whole heap o’ water, about the equivalent of 25,000 people filling up a modern bathtub every day!
Roman obsession with clean water is evidenced by the fact that aqueducts typically had settling pools along their routes, typically close to the distribution point. These pools served to slow down the flow of water so that sediment and other impurities could settle to the bottom. Some aqueducts even had filtration systems of sand or charcoal to purify the water.
Where to See Aqueducts in Rome Today
The best place in Rome to see an impressive stretch of aqueduct above ground is Parco degli Acquedotti. The remains of several aqueducts can be found in this expansive park, but it’s the Claudian Aqueduct that steals the scene.
In the historical center of Rome, the double-arched entry gate at Porta Maggiore gives viewers a snippet of ancient aqueduct awesomeness. The archway was a decorative support for two aqueducts, the Claudian and the Anio Novus, that flowed through the structure one above the other in Ancient Roman times.
The Legacy of Water Lives On
The Roman aqueducts are without a doubt one of the most impressive feats of engineering in human history. Supplying fresh water to millions of Roman citizens in ancient times, Rome’s amazing legacy of water carries on today in a never-ending flow that can be seen all over The Eternal City, from its simple water spigots that dot the streets for the refreshment of pedestrians to its magnificent fountains like Trevi Fountain — still fed by the Aqua Virgo aqueduct — that remind us of the glory of Rome past and present.
DriverInRome would be pleased to chauffeur you around Rome or anywhere else in Italy. Check out our airport transfer + 3-hour tour of “Unusual Rome” that features the Park of the Aqueducts!