Water supply and sanitation in Rome

May 25, 2020

Rome’s location provided two key advantages: its seven hills made city defense more manageable and the Tiber river supplied a steady source of water. The first water-related project in Rome was likely the Cloaca Maxima, or the Great Sewer. The Cloaca Maxima was a drainage canal that began construction in 600 B.C.E. at the order of the fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus.
As the city expanded over time, additional canal segments were frequently added and modified to fit the needs of the growing populace. While Rome’s initial water sources consisted of local wells and cisterns near the city, the needs of the growing population soon required a larger, more consistent supply. This is where the famous aqueducts came into play.

Romans did not have advanced methods for checking water quality so they had to use more qualitative measures. Marcus Vitruvius, a civil engineer and architect, wrote about some of the techniques they used. He described the process of looking for plants in the vicinity of potential water sources, speaking with local inhabitants and observing their health, and visually judging the nearby rocks and soils.

Aqua Appia was the first aqueduct built in ancient Rome. The need for the aqueduct rose from the fact that the wells and springs around the Tiber river were no longer adequate enough to meet the growing needs of the city. Appius Claudius was already working on the Appian Way (one of the first ancient Roman roads), so he decided to take on the aqueduct project as well.

Rome has a rich history of water engineering, from its humble beginnings with the Tiber river through its construction of the aqueducts. Having consistent access to clean water through services like public baths and fountains allowed Rome to keep its population healthier and happier. The diligent engineering that was required to create Rome’s water system is a testament to the capabilities of human innovation; the fact that Romans were able to accomplish so much in ancient times should serve as motivation for current society to keep pushing the limits of engineering.

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