When in Rome or Italy, you hear a lot about the impressive infrastructure built by the ancient Romans, roads, bridges, buildings, fountains and aqueducts. Rome in antiquity before the first century grew to be the most populous city in the world, 1 million people lived in Rome when it was the Capital of the World. No other city in what was the ancient world was as populous and this meant that you needed a lot of urban planning and the Romans were very good at it, compared to us today.
There was a mathematical order to their cities, but also they were built for people to live in with all necessary facilities at hand, just a few steps away from your home. Same for their Military camps, well ordained and organized. Human needs were provided for, from the supply to safe drinking water, to food preparation areas with dining facilities, parks, public bathhouse and public toilets, markets and entertainment areas. All in the Urbe (city centre) the Sub-Urbia or below the centre was usually a less pleasant area for the poorer classes.
When you have a city of a million people, you need lots of clean water to drink and to wash and to feed into the massive bathhouses all around the city which provided hot and cold water 24/7. Rome also had and still has public fountains to drink water which is said to be the best water in all of Europe. The Nassone gush cold clean water usually in strategic areas of the city so you can have a quick drink on a hot day.
Back in 2008 we visited the Parco degli Acquedotti (Aqueduct Park) is located in the South East of Rome, it is an area that is still a bit out of the way, we took the Metro and then a bus to get to it. You will see 6 of the famous 11 aqueducts feeding the city. What we saw was surprising, several large aqueducts coming in from the countryside into the city.
The Aqueducts are the Anio Vetus (underground), Marcia, Tepula, Julia, Claudio and Anio Novus . There is also l’ acquedotto Felice (next to Julia), which was built at the time of the Renaissance by Pope Sixtjus V in 1586 in a program to both irrigate farmland and provide clean water. The Fountain of Moses next to the St-Regis Hotel is the terminus of this aqueduct. This one was in our neighbourhood so it is well known to us.
Fountain of Moses, corner of Via Venti Settembre and Largo di Santa Susanna
The Aqueduct system worked up to the fourth century A.D. when neglect and destruction brought about the barbarian hordes cut the flow of water into the City. Almost 1000 years would pass before the aqueducts would be restored by the Popes who had returned to Rome. This lack of clean water caused the fall of Rome, its population declined to about 10,000 people, large areas of the Capital were abandoned.
These great arches are gigantic and impressive, they carried millions of litre of clean water into the city each day and supplied the population with a basic necessity.
They survived to this day because they are very solidly built, the Romans used concrete and stone in building them and also most are underground only emerging above ground within the city, gravity pushes the water along.
There are also ancient farms in the area, This one near Via Latina is more than 1200 years old. They look like fortress with small windows and massive gates. At night people and livestock all came inside. Today they are kept as museum and open on appointment for a guided visit.
On Via di Porta Latina, one of the ancient roads of Rome
Aqueduct on Via Latina which leads to the Porta Latina in the Aurelian Walls of Rome. one of the more ancient gates of the city.
The aqueducts had to be maintained daily and an army of men worked at repairing and cleaning them daily. At the top of the aqueduct there is one or two chambers which are large enough for a grown man to stand in. Workers would go into the chambers and scrub the walls and do other maintenance work. The system allowed for the water to be temporarily diverted while they worked. There was also a system of pipes made of copper or cut stone directing water into fountains or basins. To create pressure the pipes would taper off and the water would jet out with force into pools.
Another famous fountain in Rome on the Janiculum Hill in Trastevere is the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola also known as Il Fontanone (“The big fountain”) near the church of San Pietro in Montorio and just above the Residence of the Spanish Ambassador in Rome. It was re-built in 1612 to mark the end of the Acqua Paola aqueduct and the extension of the ancient Aqueduct Traiana, restored by Pope Paul V, Borghese, and took its name from him.
The six coloured marble columns come from the original basilica of St-Peter 306 A.D. salvaged during the construction of the New St-Peter’s (built 1500 to 1626) we see today. All the white marble of the fountain comes from the Temple of Mars the Avenger in the Forum. This fountain is featured at the beginning of the movie La grande Bellezza. The view of Rome from the piazza in front of it is spectacular.
Another famous fountain in Rome which also gets its water from an ancient Aqueduct is the Trevi Fountain. The water comes from 14 miles outside Rome and carried by the Acqua Virgo one of the most ancient aquaduct of Rome built in 19 BC.
The aqueducts also supplied water to the many great bathhouses of Rome, one which can be visited and is fairly complete is the Baths of Caracalla, you can walk in the dried pools and admire the beautiful mosaic floors, visit the subterranean corridors where slaves labourer daily by feeding the various ovens with wood to produce hot water for the pools and also channel same hot water to heat the floors. The pools are quite shallow, hip deep only, Romans including sailors of the Imperial Navy did not know how to swim and many were afraid of any body of water, Romans were very superstitious and saw omens in almost anything. The baths were a social place to meet friends and relax, exercise and enjoy a meal. One aqueduct was feeding continually the Baths of Caracalla and today part of it pass across the gardens of the Canadian Ambassadors residence at Porta Latina, an impressive sight. Other aqueducts fed water to the Imperial palaces of the Palatine Hill.
Aqueduct in the garden of the Canadian Residence in Rome. (not open to the public)
pool floor in coloured mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla built in 212 AD.
When visiting other parts of Italy or of what was the Roman Empire you may encounter to this day a ruined aqueduct. One that is still working very well is at the Alcazar Palace in Seville. In the gardens you can see a jet of water shooting out of a large pipe well above a large pool, all the water is use to water the large gardens of the Alcazar and the Royal Palace which is still in use today for the King of Spain when he visits Seville.
If you want to read more on Roman engineering the book by A. Trevor Hodge, Roman Aqueduct and Water supply, is worth a read.