January 1st, 2014

Roman aqueducts weren’t built in a day

We all know those Roman aqueducts, the arched wonders of the ancient world. But did you ever wonder what happened afterward, on the way to Rome (where all roads led, as well)?

For example, I had not known until I read this article that the bulk of the famed Roman aqueduct system was underground:

“The famous arched, over-ground aqueducts we see today are just the tip of the iceberg; 95% of the network ran underground,” says Marco Placidi, head of the speleologists group [engaged in mapping the system], which is sharing its results with Italy’s culture ministry.

Slaking the thirst of the fast-growing imperial capital meant linking it to springs many miles from the city. The ancient Roman engineers were equal to the task, supplying a quantity of water that modern engineers didn’t manage to match until the 1930s.

One of the aqueducts is still in use today. Now, that’s infrastructure! And others might have survived as well, had not the German tribes dealt them some parting blows back in the fall-of-the-empire days. The system was built with incredible solidity.

14 Responses to “Roman aqueducts weren’t built in a day”

  1. Ann Says:

    Yeah, the Romans were great engineers. But it sure helped to have a lot of slaves available to do the heavy lifting.

  2. waitforit Says:

    Okay, Ann, why don’t you go back in time and castigate them.

    Oh, wait, right. You haven’t got the ability to determine it was then not now.

    Don’t you have some sort of rainbow meeting to go to. They will hear your objection and assure you that you are good and give you hugs and love you and you will feel good about yourself which is the ultimate thing.

    Shit. The Romans had slaves!

    This is a good one. Yeah. Try how the Greeks treated women.

    When are you going to wake up, Ann?

  3. Doom Says:

    Ventotene (Pandataria) has an interesting catchwater system. When they found it, then dug (some or all of) it, out they found that it still works quite well. They were the first to develop concrete that cured underwater, that is known, and to my knowledge. The recipe went missing for centuries after. I just know about Pand because… well… when women went bad for an Roman emperor, life got hard. And that is where it often ended, often permanently. I suppose being a bad girl was allowed, but… up to the emperor in how that could be played out.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    Yea, it was underground. I remember one story that a military general used the underground aqueduct to escape his enemies and sneak up on some people.

  5. Ymarsakar Says:

    At the time, I didn’t think of it as a water system. I thought of it as a sewer system.

  6. Oldfyer Says:

    I believe that during much of human history there were only two states for losers in war or battle; dead or slave. Those with access to wealth might be held hostage for ransom. And, of course, wars and battles were constant.

    So, there is no reason to second guess or single out the Romans.

    Clearly, there were no EPA, EEOC, or other bureaucratic obstructionists in the path of Roman architects and engineers.

  7. david foster Says:

    Water from aqueducts was also used in some cases to drive waterwheels for milling purposes…although the Romans never developed waterpower as intensively as it was developed in the Middle Ages, probably in part due to the availability of slave labor.

  8. Don Carlos Says:

    The Roman achievement is one of engineering which we today could not hope to imitate without surveyors’ optics, GPS, computers, soils analyses- none of which the Romans had.
    That is where the emphasis lies for me, and I will not be deflected by Ann and her slave distraction.

  9. blert Says:

    David Foster….

    Beg to inform you that the Romans we astonishing in their cleverness WRT hydro-power.

    In particular, they were established masters of water driven engines mining — and even used a variation of hydraulic mining to excavate gold ores in Spain.

    One of the biggest aqueducts still standing was solely dedicated to a gold mining operation. It terminates in the middle of nowhere… the Romans had taken the entire mountain away. It took them forever to do so, but it was a paying proposition.


    There is survivor-bias built into all Roman buildings known: only the better efforts are still standing.

    There must have been no end of lesser attempts that are lost to the ages.

    Vibration and heat are the great destroyers of things mechanical. Aqueducts should have neither.


    As for Roman roads…

    It’s only recently that digging has revealed that the barbarians built most of the Roman network — before they were conquered. Some barbarian roads have been discovered outside the outer limits of the Roman Empire. Some have been found directly underneath the Roman period roads!

    Following the ancient practice, the Romans merely buried the other guy’s work and laid down fresh pavers… to their own standards and social credit. Without written records, even the locals came to believe that the Romans had built the road network.

    Even Roman gold mines — in France and Britain — were found to be worked in an inferior manner to that of the barbarians that they’d stolen/ conquered them from.

    We now know why Germany was spared conquest: the Romans finally figured out that the ‘German’ gold was coming from Britain. So, they promptly turned north. Ireland got a pass because it had no gold — dittos for the rest of Europe.

    Romania was conquered (Dacia) strictly for its gold mines. The ancient works can be viewed on YouTube. Trajan committed genocide: all of the residents were put to the sword. This brutality is recorded, twisting around Trajan’s Column.

    It’s not for nothing that First Century man considered the Romans a pox on humanity.


    Be proud: in 3,000 years Apollo 11 will still be on the Moon.

  10. Sgt. Mom Says:

    I did a course my last year in college, in Roman art and architecture. It turned out to be a graduate-level course intended for mostly serious art students, but, oh – it was a fantastic course. The Romans were superb engineers – and they don’t get nearly as much credit for architectural skill as the Greeks do; the Greeks built in solid marble, which always looked gorgeous, even in ruins (and even when it was garishly painted, as it turns out was the case) whereas the Romans did cast concrete with various facings. Things like the Pantheon were a marvel and the equal of any of the Greek achievements.Roman bridges, large buildings, roads, harbors – there wasn’t the like again in Western Europe until the 19th century.

    The final for the course included having to draw a map of Rome from memory, including the seven hills, several major roads, twenty or so prominent landmarks (including the Fora) and several aqueducts. Having to do this was of wonderful use to me when I actually visited Rome several years later.

    Speaking of the aqueducts again, one of the early archeologists who set about mapping the course of them within Rome was an eccentric woman who could deduce which aqueduct they had found by tasting the mineral residue.

  11. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “The system was built with incredible solidity.”

    That’s because bean counters hadn’t yet been invented. An engineer’s impulse is to build to last, a bean counter’s impulse is to cut corners, so as to increase short term profits.

  12. Mike Lief Says:

    Robert Harris’ novel, “Pompeii,” follows a Roman engineer who’s been sent to investigate the cause of problems with the aqueduct supplying a quarter of a million people in nine towns on the Bay of Naples.

    Hint: It may have something to do with Mt. Vesuvius.

    The novel provides a detailed (and fascinating) look at the marvels of Roman engineering, as well as daily life in Pompeii. Well worth a read, if the topic is of interest.

  13. Ymarsakar Says:

    Assuming there will be a moon around Earth that long.

    The gradation scaling for the underground tunnels were very fine. I bet they could beat our academics holding up in Gaia global warming land and in Obama’s DC closet.

  14. david foster Says:

    Blert…thanks. I’d be interested in any links you have on the Roman waterpower-for-mining project.

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