Ancient Rome is famous for its cultural, political, and scholastic accomplishments. The city itself was an architectural marvel at the apex of the empire, and many landmarks of the past are still standing. Among these architectural landmarks are the ancient aqueducts that span ravines and rivers and stretch for miles underground. The multiple aqueducts delivered fresh groundwater to private gardens, public baths, and majestic fountains. Rome was uniquely positioned to build and maintain its enormous water extraction and delivery system. The freshwater available to the city was a huge cultural and economic boon to Roman citizens. Some of this ancient water infrastructure is operational to this day.
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Roman engineers were not the first to invent the idea of an aqueduct. There are documented examples of similar water delivery systems in other places. Of particular interest is qanat, which is the ancient technique of groundwater extraction that was used in Roman aqueducts. Several vertical shafts were dug out in a straight line on a slope of a hill or a mountain and connected at the bottom by a horizontal tunnel (Yazdi and Khaneiki 23). The first shaft in the sequence is dug deep into the groundwater so that it would flow through the bottom tunnel. The other wells serve as entrances for maintenance of the tunnel. The water flows out of it naturally, either because of a slight incline or because the groundwater is under pressure. The end of the tunnel leads to an irrigated field, an aquafer, or an aqueduct.
None of this was a groundbreaking discovery, as they have been used centuries before Rome adopted it. The reason why Rome was so successful in its implementation is that it was situated among mountains rich in groundwater, miles beyond the city walls (Rinne 194). Multiple aqueducts could tap multiple water sources, and the city’s affluence and political strength meant there were enough resources to build them. The high quality of water and its alleged health benefits were particularly notable, which were likely the result of regular maintenance and sediment filtration (Rodà). The abundance of water was seen as a virtue, for which many citizens were willing to donate money or materials.
The majestic arches that come to mind when Roman aqueducts are mentioned are more of an unfortunate necessity than the design. According to Rodà, the majority of an aqueduct lies underground, to keep the water from being contaminated or stolen. Only when there is no way to circumvent a ravine were the bridges constructed. The entire aqueduct between the qanat and the destination is built with a slight incline so that the water would stream downwards.
This gravity-based water delivery system required no power and no mechanisms, but building it was labor-intensive to follow the natural incline of the land. The qanats and the aqueducts also needed to be regularly maintained and cleaned, for which Rome employed aquarii, the ancient plumbers. After the water arrived at the city, it was distributed to public and private fountains, baths, and houses.
The key takeaway from the Roman aqueducts is that the availability of plentiful groundwater is the most crucial factor in creating a gravity-based extraction system. The second thing to consider is the resources to build the pipes and aqueduct bridges, which means sufficient metal and stone. Aqueducts and qanats were not the only way to provide water to an ancient community: Greeks used a system of basins to collect rainwater, and medieval Rome drew water from the river Tiber after aqueducts were destroyed (Angelakis 1625, Rinne 196).
Every community today needs to determine which strategy would suit the environment and available resources. Roman aqueducts were built because of their sentimental value, and because Rome was in a uniquely advantageous position to do so. Today, polymer and steel would probably be a preferable alternative to Rome’s stone and lead. It may even be more efficient to build a power plant and a water pump than dig a tunnel through a mountain.
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Angelakis, A. N. (2016). “Evolution of Rainwater Harvesting and Use in Crete, Hellas, Through the Millennia.” Water Science and Technology: Water Supply, vol. 16, no. 6, pp. 1624–1638.
Rinne, K. W. (2007) “Hydraulic Infrastructure and Urbanism in Early Modern Rome.” Papers of the British School at Rome, vol. 73, pp. 191-222.
Rodà, I. “Aqueducts: Quenching Rome’s Thirst.” National Geographic History. 2016. Web.
Yazdi, A. A. S., Khaneiki, M. L. Qanat Knowledge: Construction and Maintenance. Springer Netherlands, 2017.