Building the World

Aqueducts of Rome, Italy

Aqueducts of Rome. Image: wikimedia commons.

“The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” might call up crumbling magnificence: remnants of Doric columns or vestiges of the Colliseum, but ancient Romans had more water to drink daily than New Yorkers in the 21st century. And there was plenty left over for fountains too.


The Romans loved water. Eleven aqueducts serving the city supplied over 1.5 million cubic yards (1.1 cubic meters) of water per day. That’s about 200 gallons (750 liters) per person, per day. Compare this to the 1975 average per capita consumption of water in the United States of 150 gallons (563 liters). But wait, there’s more. In ancient Rome, there was enough left for thousands of fountains throughout the city.

Ever wonder by the pope is called the pontiff? Water was so important that only the pope himself could order a bridge built. That’s the origin of the word, “pontiff,” which comes from Latin pontifex – bridge maker.


Like many cities before it, Rome was built on a river, in this case, the Tiber. At its best, the Tiber was muddy. It became murkier when Rome designed its first sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, to which the Tiber River was the repository. As one might imagine, it was not long before the need for clean water became a growing problem.

But it was danger and fear that finally prompted a solution to the deteriorating potability of the Tiber. During the Second Samnite War (326-304BCE), the water supply for Rome became vulnerable to poisoning by the enemy, and so the government took action.


Setting out to find springs in the hills surrounding Rome, engineers used a few ingenious tricks. According to Vitruvius, a Roman engineer who wrote 10 books on architecture and building, scouts looked for villages whose inhabitants had particularly clear skin. Clean water, clear skin. Springs from those villages were tapped for Roman consumption. Another method: observers were to lie down on the ground in the morning and look for moisture in the rising mist.  Vitruvius leaves nothing to chance; he even suggests the most convenient position for observation: chin resting on hands. Another search method developed as scouts interacted with the locals: asking the children scampering along the mountains and valleys was a sure way to find springs. One of the prized of the waters of Rome, Aqua Virgo, was named after a little girl who led surveyors to a lovely fresh water source.

Trevi Fountain, the end of the Aqua Virgo, from Wayne State University, at

Romans spoke of water the way oenophiles wax poetic about regions and vintages. The Aqua Marcia, the favorite aqueduct of many Romans, was described as fine nectar. Have we come full circle when today’s gourmet grocery shelves display waters from around the world, priced not unlike wines?


Built by the Roman army, the aqueducts were a marvel both of engineering and of organization. Work camps were established up and down the construction route from spring source to city, sometimes the route stretched as far as 60 miles (100 kilometers). When a route came through a town, locals were hired as supplemental workers. The work-camp method allowed construction to be tested along the route.


Every 20 yards, shafts were built, usually made of stone to withstand the force of the water. Sometimes wood was used as reinforcement, particularly in marshy patches. On occasion, arches were needed. Although the Romans were renowned for their perfection of the arch, these sections of the aqueducts tended to be the weakest part of the construction and often required patching or repair. Once the shaft, supports, and arches (if needed) were built, the whole aqueduct was lined with concrete. Vitruvius gives the formula: 1 part chalk + 2-3 parts sand + 20% water.

The secret to Rome’s great construction success was the quality of the sand – it was volcanic and known for superior strength. Can we improve upon this formula today in regions with similar volcanic materials?


Water was soon its own industry. There were water officials. There were surveyors. There were instrument builders; a groma was invented to measure angles, the dioptra was designed to take readings. When length was determined, elevation and slope calculated, the surveyor or librator could finalize the route. Then there were of course construction engineers, day laborers, and plenty of cafes and restaurants along the camp route to satisfy workers’ needs.

Using a groma, as depicted by Carolus Stephanus and Johannes Liebhaltus, Strausburg, 1579. Image: wikipedia

Finally there were water lawyers – water was so valuable that rights were disputed. Theft was common. Rich people bribed those in authority to “look the other way” while they tapped pipes to divert water into their own homes. It was called “puncturing.” Legal experts were required to adjudicate easements and rights of way. Lawyers may have handled personal injury claims when pots of sewage, which Juvenal satirizes, landed on the heads of people strolling by the insulae or tenement buildings. While Rome’s water system may have been a success, there were enough failures to spawn a parallel industry of legal intervention.

Oddly, in a city with so much water, fire was still a problem. Most residents used their homes for sleeping and went out to public baths instead. Juvenal talks about the dangers of fire. During emperor Nero’s reign, whole sections of Rome were destroyed by fire.


It is sometimes said that ancient Rome declined because of lead in the water supply. Probably not. Lead was certainly used in the pipes. An archeological dig at the end of the nineteenth century uncovered a lead pipe built to convey water to the Roman Forum; the pipe ran 5,742 feet (1,750 meters) and contained 513,130 pounds (232,752 kilograms) of lead. And there were thousands of such pipes. But it should also be noted that Roman water had a high level of calcium, the deposits of which coated the lead pipes and probably prevented lead from leaking into the water supply. Lead seeps out in standing water, but flowing water retards the leakage. Confirmation of low levels of lead in the skeletal remains of ancient Romans (lead being traceable in bones) has now been verified by scientific tests.


The height of water entertainment had to be the naumachia, staged naval battles on artificial lakes. The naumachia were public celebrations, similar to gladiatorial fights. When Domitian was emperor, he ordered special piping laid under the floor of the Roman Coliseum so the area could be flooded for naumachia. But even the Coliseum proved too small for Domitian’s hobby, so he dug an artificial lake near the Tiber and surrounded it with seats from which he could view the elaborate naval staging.

Naumachia. Image: wikimedia.

Document of Authorization

Below is a translated excerpt from the edict ordering the construction of the aqueducts and applicable stipulations.

Edict of Emperor Caesar Augustus…in the name of the people of Venafrum…it shall be right and permissible…in regard to channels, conduits, sluices, and springs…have been made, built, or constructed above or below the water level for the purpose of building or repairing the aqueducts; or in regard to any other work which as been performed above or below the water level for the purpose of building or repairing the said aqueduct; it is ordered that whatever of the following operations have been done in the past are to continue in effect in the same manner, and workmen are to remake, to replace, to restore, or to repair in the same manner regardless of the number of times, and are to lay culverts and pipes of all sizes, to make openings therein, and to do any other work necessary to construct the aqueduct. There shall be no destruction or removal, however, of that wall or any part of that wall whereby any tract or field has been enclosed on the estate, which is, or is said to be, the property of Quintus Sirinius, son of Lucius, of the tribe Terentia, and on the estate which is, or is said to be, the property of Lucius Pompeius Sulla, son of  Marcus, of the tribe Terentina, through which tract or under which tract the conduits of the said aqueduct pass, except as is necessary for the repair or inspection of the conduit. No privately owned structures shall be constructed thereon, however, whereby passage, flow, or conduction of the water can be impeded.

Building the World, p. 33.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

World Water Supply: In 1965, Americans used 1.3 trillion liters (355 billion gallons) of water per day. It might be surprising to learn, however, that residential water use actually accounts for only a small percentage of total use. According to a Texas A&M University study, it takes 2,915 liters (770 gallons) of water to refine one barrel of petroleum; 151,416 liters (40,000 gallons) to turn out a ton of steel, and 2.3 million liters (600,000 gallons) to make a ton of synthetic rubber.  The need for water in our world will only increase. According to a statement of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, water shortages may be the next cause of terror and war. How can we conserve existing available water supplies? Is there a future for accessing the world’s largest underground aquifer lying deep under the Sahara desert? What about our oceans, with Pacific, Indian and Atlantic among the largest bodies of water on earth?

Water Rights: Even in ancient Rome, private property had to be taken into account when developing the aqueducts, as can be seen in the edict of Emperor Caesar Augustus who carefully differentiated the rights of Italy versus the rights of landowners. How are similar public/private rights adjudicated today? What about the future – of underground aquifers such as the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System which covering 2 million sq. kms. (1.25 million sq. mi.) and containing 150,000 cubic kilometers of water shared by Libya, Chad, Egypt and Sudan? Or closer to the United States, can the implications of the Colorado River Compact with water rights shared by the states in the Upper and Lower Basins, Mexico, and the Native American nations including the Navajo be a guide for hydraulic fracturing in the shared deposit on the Texas-Mexican border? What should Eagle Ford do? How can water safety be protected in fracking? And how can innovations, combined with agreements, distribution, and governance, improve water for the world?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

The Stratagems and The Aqueducts of Rome with English Translation by Chares E. Bennett. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950.
“Rome: the culture of water – fountains, baths, aqueducts, nymphaeums. Azienda Di Promozioine Turistica Di Roma


“Illustrated history of the Roman Empire,” section on Roman army:

Photo of Aqua Virgo.

“How did the Romans make Concrete?” by David Moore, P.E.:

“Water and Wastewater Systems in Imperial Rome,” by Roger D. Hansen:

“History: aqueducts,” Photos of Cloaca Maxima, Tibertinus Garden, Trevi Fountain.

“Pictorial Tour of Rome,”  Pictures of Baths of Caracalla, Baths of Diocletian, Baths of Trajan, and Roman temples including Temple of Vesta. Http://

“Hetch Hetchy Reservoir Site,” Hearing Before The Committee On Public Lands, United States Senate Sixty-Third Congress, First Session on H.R. 7202. An Act Granting to the City and County of San Francisco certain rights of way in, over, and through certain public lands, the Yosemite National Park, and in the Yosemite National Park, the Stanislaus National Forest, and the public lands in the State of California, and for other purposes, 1913. .S25A5 1913d.

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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