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.
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.
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.
Roman engineers built aqueducts all over the Roman Empire, from Syria to England. All Roman towns pretty much got clean drinking water from 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.
Did they really work?
It’s not clear that the aqueducts really helped, because there were just as many lice and tapeworms and other parasites in places with Roman aqueducts and sewers and baths as there were in places outside the Roman empire. The aqueducts might have helped with germs though.
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!
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