Aqueducts, Water Supply and Sewers in Ancient Rome

Aqueduct of San Lazaro in merida
Peter Unger / Getty Images

Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow, a Brandeis classicist who has studied the Roman latrine, says, "There are no ancient sources where you can really learn about daily life.... You have to come upon information almost by chance."[*] That means it's hard to answer all the questions or to say with any confidence that this bit of information about the bathroom habits of the Roman Empire applies to the Republic as well.

With that caution, here is some of what we think we know about the water system of ancient Rome.

Roman Water Carriers - Aqueducts

The Romans are renowned for engineering marvels, among which is the aqueduct that carried water for many miles in order to provide a crowded urban population with relatively safe, potable water, as well as less essential but very Roman aquatic uses. Rome had nine aqueducts by the time of the engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus (c. 35–105), appointed curator aquarum in 97, our main ancient source for the water supply. The first of these was built in the fourth century B.C. and the last in the first century A.D. Aqueducts were built because the springs, wells, and Tiber River were no longer providing the safe water that was needed for the swelling urban population.[**]

Aqueducts Listed by Frontinus

  1. In 312 B.C., the Appia Aqueduct was built 16,445 meters long.
  2. Next was the Anio Verus, built between 272-269, and 63,705 meters.
  1. Next was the Marcia, built between 144-140 and 91,424 meters.
  2. The next aqueduct was the Tepula, built in 125, and 17,745 meters.
  3. The Julia was built in 33 B.C. at 22,854 meters.
  4. The Virgo was built in 19 B.C., at 20,697 meters.
  5. The next aqueduct is the Alsientina, whose date is unknown. Its length is 32,848.
  1. The last two aqueducts were built between 38 and 52 A.D. Claudia was 68,751 meters.
  2. The Anio Novus was 86,964 meters.[+]

The Drinking Water Supply in the City

Water did not go to all residents of Rome. Only the rich had private service and the rich were as likely to divert and hence, steal, the water from the aqueducts as anyone. Water in residences only reached the lowest floors. Most Romans got their water from a constantly running public fountain.

Baths and Latrines

Aqueducts also supplied water to public latrines and baths. Latrines served 12-60 people at once with no dividers for privacy or toilet paper -- only a sponge on a stick in the water to pass around. Fortunately, water ran through the latrines constantly. Some latrines were elaborate and may have been amusing. Baths were more clearly a form of entertainment as well as hygiene.

Sewer

When you live on the 6th floor of a walk-up with no latrine for blocks, the chances are you'll use a chamberpot. What do you do with its content? That was the question that faced many an insula dweller in Rome, and many answered in the most obvious way. They dumped the pot out the window onto any stray passerby. Laws were written to deal with this, but it still went on.

The preferred act was to dump solids into sewers and urine into vats where it was eagerly collected and even bought by fullers who needed the ammonia in their toga cleaning business.

The Big Sewer - The Cloaca Maxima

The main sewer of Rome was the Cloaca Maxima. It emptied into the Tiber River. It was probably built by one of the Etruscan kings of Rome to drain the marshes in the valleys between the hills.

Sources

[*]  http://my.brandeis.edu/profiles/one-profile?profile_id=73  "Classicist digs deep for truth about latrines, hygiene habits of ancient Romans," By Donna Desrochers 

[**][Water and Wastewater Systems in Imperial Rome Roger D. Hansen http://www.waterhistory.org/histories/rome/

[+]Lanciani, Rodolfo, 1967 (first published in 1897). The Ruins of Ancient Rome. Benjamin Blom, New York.

Also see Archaeology article on the Bridge and Roman Aqueduct of Nimes

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Gill, N.S. "Aqueducts, Water Supply and Sewers in Ancient Rome." ThoughtCo, Feb. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/aqueducts-water-supply-sewers-ancient-rome-117076. Gill, N.S. (2017, February 10). Aqueducts, Water Supply and Sewers in Ancient Rome. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aqueducts-water-supply-sewers-ancient-rome-117076 Gill, N.S. "Aqueducts, Water Supply and Sewers in Ancient Rome." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/aqueducts-water-supply-sewers-ancient-rome-117076 (accessed November 21, 2017).