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Ancient Roman Aqueducts

The Roman civilization adopted, fostered, and devised a great many inventions, ranging from government and art to literature and public works. Among their greatest achievements was the aqueduct system that provided running water to their cities and outlying areas, an engineering marvel that dates back to the year 312 B.C.E.

Ancient Roman Aqueducts

Ancient Roman Aqueducts History

Rome was built on the shore of the Tiber River, one of the longest rivers in Italy. The combination of the riverside location with local natural springs provided much needed water supply to the early settlers. As Rome grew from a village to a city, its population boomed and began to strain the natural water supply. Rome's engineers solved that problem with the construction of aqueducts that brought water into the city from far-flung locations.

The design of the aqueducts was ingenious because the water ran gently through a series of concrete channels and into catch basins that filtered the sediment from the water. Multi-tiered viaducts ran through the low-lying areas, allowing gravity to guide the water down towards the city. From the catch basins, the water would flow through terra-cotta pipes into reservoirs that eventually carried the water into leaden pipes. The water would then spill into cisterns that serviced homes and Roman baths. Other aqueducts were constructed to carry water to mining and industrial sites.

The construction of the aqueducts was an enormous expense that spanned over 500 years before its final completion. But, realizing the importance of fresh, available water, the Roman emperors directed thousands of man-hours to cutting through mountains and constructing stone aqueducts to bring water into the city. In some places, the vaulted and arched aqueducts were over a hundred feet high and stretched 11-12 miles.

Distribution of Waste Water

Sewage and wastewater was exported from the city via the Cloaca Maxima, a drainage system that emptied downstream into the Tiber River. The aqueduct system allowed Rome to always have flowers and vegetation in bloom, providing rich water resources to a wealthy city with a population that, at its height, is estimated to have numbered over one million people. This population would not have been possible, if not for the aqueduct system.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The fall of the western Roman Empire began in the sixth century as the Goths attacked the city of Rome around 537 A.D. The siege of Rome lasted for years as the barbarians blocked trade into the city, intent on starving them out. The final blow to Rome came as the Goths destroyed some of the aqueducts. Other aqueducts that were not destroyed fell into disrepair as the Romans lacked the organization and skilled labor needed to maintain them properly.

On top of the occupation by the Goths, the population of Rome began to dwindle without access to fresh, reliable water.

Remnants of the ancient Roman aqueducts can still be seen in and around the Italian city today. They represent the engineering feats of the Roman Empire at its height.