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 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!

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.
Roman sewers
More about Roman science and engineering

Bibliography and further reading about Roman aqueducts:

Or read this article about how the aqueducts and sewers may not have really helped

Or check out the aqueducts article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Roman Architecture
Roman Baths
And Roman Sewage Systems home

By | 2018-02-19T15:03:56+00:00 August 25th, 2017|Architecture, Romans, Science|12 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Roman aqueducts – water in ancient Rome. Study Guides, August 25, 2017. Web. February 24, 2018.

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.


  1. someone February 19, 2018 at 9:00 am - Reply

    this had great info but theres no further info wheres is the other things the people that helped

  2. Lgan February 8, 2018 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    this was very educational

  3. Kay February 8, 2018 at 11:55 am - Reply

    This is a good website to use. It helped me do some work in my Social Studies class. Thanks!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 8, 2018 at 10:48 pm

      I’m happy to hear it, Kay! Thanks for letting me know!

  4. Ashley February 8, 2018 at 10:59 am - Reply

    This would’ve been a good website but it wouldn’t let me on the second page. I am trying to do a project and for half of it this website was good but that all changed. I failed thanks to you. Thank you so much!!!

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr February 8, 2018 at 11:20 am

      Sorry about the link issue, Ashley; I’ve fixed that now.

  5. Ross January 28, 2018 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    I am also using this for a project and I was hoping to get some dimensions on the aqueducts, but I did not find any. So, maybe in the future, you could add some of the dimensions for others. Otherwise, it is a amazing website.

    • Ross January 28, 2018 at 1:01 pm

      The dimensions of the aqueducts would be for my physical project that I would need to have the correct slope and size otherwise it would be distorted and not be able to have the right speed of flow needed to get it right.

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 28, 2018 at 1:12 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion, Ross! I’ll try to put together a project page that would have the information you’d need to do the project. But the slope and width varied with each aqueduct that was built, depending on how far it had to go, what the water pressure was at the source, and the topography in between.

  6. Hannah January 12, 2018 at 11:59 am - Reply

    this had a lot of great information. I am using this to help with a school project thank you 🙂

    • Karen Carr
      Karen Carr January 12, 2018 at 12:49 pm

      Oh, I’m so happy to hear it, Hannah! Best of luck with your project. Feel free to ask if you have any questions.

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