Roman aqueducts

When we speak about ancient cities, we, almost always, think about big monuments, huge temples and basolate roads, but we forget a fundamental infrastructure, necessary for the good functioning of every urban agglomeration: the aqueduct.

The most important information we have about those buildings are thanks to a treaty, wrote by Frontinus, who was the curator aquarum (a kind of superintendent of the hydric supply and of the management of the aqueducts) under emperor Nerva.

In Rome are documented 11 ancient aqueducts: the Aqua Appia, the Anio Vetus, the Aqua Marcia and the Aqua Tepula, belonging to the republican age; the Aqua Iulia, the Aqua Virgo, the Aqua Alsietina, the Aqua Claudia, the Anio Novus, the Aqua Traiana and the Aqua Alexandrina, dated to the imperial age.

The first aqueduct built in Rome, in 312 BC, was, indeed, the Aqua Appia, around which exists a curious anecdote: the responsible censors to superintend the construction were Appio Claudio Crasso, nicknamed “The blind” because he lost his sight, and Gaio Plauzio Venoce, dubbed “The hunter”, because he physically found the springs. Plauzio, however, was deceived by his colleague, who remained in charge even after the end of the mandate, making the aqueduct have only his name; also the “Appia” road is protagonist of a similar intrigue.

A few years later was built the Anio Vetus (272 BC), called that because it took the waters directly from the Aniene river, even if it’s still not clear exactly the point where they were kept.

These two aqueducts probably were not enough, because in 144 BC was built the Aqua Marcia, from the name of its builder: Quinto Marcio Re. The legend says that emperor Nero, one summer, wanted to swim in its springs and because of the very low temperature of the water he almost fainted.

To understand the reasons of this new building we obviously have to take into consideration that Rome was in continuous expansion and it needed a quantity of water always increasing, but the main reasons were the deterioration of the more ancient infrastructures and especially the fact that those aqueducts were often intercepted by private citizens, who unlawfully used their waters.

Above the Aqua Marcia were overlapped, for a long tract, the Aqua Tepula (125 BC), called in this way because it had a higher temperature compared to the others, and the Aqua Iulia (33 BC). These aqueducts ran, for a large part, parallel to the Aqua Claudia, to which was overlapped the Anio Novus (the building of these last two began in AD 38 and ended in AD 52); the quadrangle formed around Tor Fiscale, in which also runs the Felice aqueduct, built by the Pope in 1585, was the place where the Goths, guided by Vitige, in AD 537, encamped.

After Augustus’ rise to power, thanks also to the building of numerous public baths, it was necessary to bring more water into the city and it was built the Aqua Virgo (19 BC), which supplies also the Trevi fountain. The name comes from a legend: the spring, in fact, was found by a girl, who showed it to some thirsty soldiers.

During the construction of the new palace for “La Rinascente”, in Via del Tritone, emerged huge remaining of this aqueduct; today is visible for free for anyone who comes into the store.

To the same emperor dates the Aqua Alsietina (2 BC), built to fill the Naumachia in Trastevere, an hydric basin to remake the most important naval battles of history. The Naumachia was supposed to have a channel connecting with the Tiber, to allow the access of the ships, and an “island” in the centre, to make the shows even more realistic.

A century after it was necessary to build another aqueduct to stoke the area of Trastevere, which was supplied only from a few waters of the Alsietina. In 109 AD, in fact, thanks to the emperor, it was built the Aqua Traiana, which was almost entirely restored (1608-1612) and re-used by Pope Paul V, from which it takes the name of Aqua Paola. The “Fontanone” in the Gianicolo hill was the terminal point of this aqueduct.

The last infrastructure built by the roman emperors was the Aqua Alexandrina, willed by Alessandro Severo (AD 226) to bring more water to Nero’s baths, which were restored by himself and for this reason were known also as “Alexandrian Baths”.

The remaining of the roman aqueducts, obviously, are not only in Italy, but also, among others, in Athens, Istanbul, Segovia (included since 1985 in the UNESCO list) and Nîmes (of which the Pont du Gard is part, the highest ancient bridge in the world). In Rome, furthermore, we can have a walk in the “Parco degli Acquedotti” to realise the impressiveness of these structures; the park, in fact, consists of 240 hectares and has inside 7 different aqueducts, some underground and some others over the peculiar arches that we all know thanks to famous movies as “La dolce vita”, “Mamma Roma”, “Il Marchese del Grillo” or “La grande bellezza”.