The ancient Romans were originally dependent on the Tiber River and a few springs and wells for their water, but as the population of Rome grew and these sources became polluted they were forced to think on a grander scale. Thus the mighty Roman Aqueducts were born.
This system of waterways that brought running water to the very heart of Rome is considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the ancient world, and was the forerunner of the modern plumbing we enjoy today.
How they worked
The aqueducts relied on gravity to bring water to Rome. From far off springs and streams, the water was channelled on a gradual downward gradient via concrete channels, viaducts and inverted siphons until it arrived at giant cisterns dotted around Rome, where it was then distributed via lead pipes throughout the city.
The covered rectangular channels were between half a metre and two metres wide and one and a half to two metres deep. As the demand for water grew in Rome, they often grew to two or three channels high, each constructed on top of the other.
The water quality in various aqueducts varied considerably, and the best was used for drinking, the less pure for baths, fountains and irrigation and the worst to provide a constant flow of running water for the sewers and public latrines.
Those Romans with influence and power had running water piped to their homes, but the majority of Romans had to fetch water from the public fountains. Others bribed officials or simply put in secret pipes to tap the water, and there was reportedly a maze of such illegal pipework across the city.
Some myths dispelled
There are several myths surrounding the aqueducts of Rome. One is that because the Romans used lead in their pipes, this was the cause of the decline of the Roman Empire. Modern historians have disputed this, however, pointing to the fact that the high levels of calcium that were in the water would have formed deposits that insulated the pipes against lead poisoning.
The other common myth is that the aqueducts were channels that were elevated via huge lines of arches. While there remains evidence of such structures in Rome today, this form of engineering was only used when absolutely necessary, as it required a great deal of maintenance. The majority of the Aqueducts were actually below ground level.
The statistics behind the aqueducts are impressive to say the least. The system extended over roughly 260 miles, of which only 30 miles was above ground.
Eleven separate aqueducts were built over the course of 500 years, and they supplied the 1 million inhabitants of Rome with up to one cubic metre of water per person per day.
Even by modern standards, this was an impressive accomplishment and shows that the ancient Romans were by far the greatest plumbing engineers of their time.