Roman aqueducts – water in ancient Rome

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Aqueduct in the city of Rome - Roman aqueducts

Aqueduct in the city of Rome – Roman aqueducts brought clean water to the people of Rome

As Roman towns got bigger under the Roman Republic, it got too hard for the people who lived in the towns to get clean drinking and washing water. Because raw sewage was draining into the rivers, people who drank river water often got very sick or died. Local governments, first in the city of Rome and then in other cities in the growing Empire, decided to build long stone channels to carry clean water from nearby hills to the towns. They built the first Roman aqueduct in 312 BC.

The aqueduct at Nimes, in southern France (Pont du Gard)

The aqueduct at Nimes, in southern France (Pont du Gard)

Why do we call them aqueducts?

Aqueducts (ACK-wa-ducts) got their name from the Latin word for water, aqua, and the Latin word for channel, ductus. By the time of the Empire, three hundred years later, most Roman towns had at least one aqueduct to bring in fresh water, and big cities like Rome had ten aqueducts or more.

A Roman aqueduct at Segovia, in eastern Spain

A Roman aqueduct at Segovia, in eastern Spain

 

Aqueducts and engineering

These aqueducts were quite a challenge to build. The engineering had to be just right in order to get the water to run through the channels and get to the city without stagnating in the channel or coming too fast into the city. The engineers had to keep the slope the same all the time, so sometimes the aqueducts had to run on high arches, and other times along the ground in stone channels, or even under the ground in tunnels.

In Ostia, after the aqueducts broke down, people dug wells for water right in the middle of the street.

In Ostia, after the aqueducts broke down, people dug wells for water right in the middle of the street.

Roman engineers built aqueducts all over the Roman Empire, from Syria to England. All Roman towns pretty much got clean drinking waterfrom these aqueducts. But in villages, where most Roman people lived, there were no aqueducts, and people often drank dirty water from the nearest river, and many women and children spent hours every day carrying water from the river or the nearest well in clay pots. Often these people got sick with dysentery from germs in their water, because their drinking water mixed with their sewage.

Aqueducts and the fall of Rome

People in the Roman Empire kept on using aqueducts until the 400s AD, when the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe meant that most towns became much smaller, and were able to get enough water from wells.

By the 400s AD in the Roman town of Ostia, the town had gotten so much smaller that the people living there didn’t need to keep this street clear anymore, and they put their well right in the middle of the street!

Did you find out what you wanted to know about Roman aqueducts? Still have questions? Ask them in the comments!

Learn by doing: build a Lego or Minecraft aqueduct that slopes slowly down and carries water. Or try carrying a full bucket of water across your yard.
More about Roman Aqueducts

Bibliography and further reading about Roman aqueducts:

Or check out the aqueducts article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

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And Roman Sewage Systems
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By | 2017-12-08T10:18:03+00:00 August 25th, 2017|Architecture, Romans, Science|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Roman aqueducts – water in ancient Rome. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 25, 2017. Web. December 14, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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