Skip to main content

Roman Sewers and Aqueducts

The Roman Empire depended on it s ability to move water: aqueducts to bring clean water into the city and sewers to remove waste water.

The Roman Empire depended on it s ability to move water: aqueducts to bring clean water into the city and sewers to remove waste water.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire at its Greatest Extent

The Roman Empire at its Greatest Extent

The Roman Empire and the Pax Romana

The greatness and power of the Roman Empire was not based solely on its armies or conquests. Indeed for much of its history, the Roman Empire maintained the pax romana, the Peace of Rome, ruling beneficently over a vast land comprising almost all of western Europe, including present day France, Spain, Portugal and England, as well as North Africa, the Balkans, modern day Turkey, and all of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. During the period of is greatest glory, the Empire provided its citizens (which included not just Romans, but descendants of conquered peoples who were granted full citizenship) the benefit of security, peace, a shared culture, and a better quality of life than had existed before the Empire, or anywhere outside its borders. Reasonable Roman laws, an effective bureaucracy contributed to the running of an effective super power. Because the citizens were well off and generally content, the Roman Empire did not find it necessary to maintain large occupying garrisons in its conquered provinces. Most inhabitants were accepting of Roman rule, becoming citizens of Rome not just in a legal sense, but culturally and in terms of the their personal allegiance.

A Roman Aqueduct at Pont du Gard, France

A Roman Aqueduct at Pont du Gard, France

  • Ancient Sewer Systems
    An interesting survey of ancient sewer systems from prehistoric times to Imperial Rome. Sewers are essential to creating an urban civilization, but their importance is often overlooked.
  • Water and Waste Water Systems in Ancient Rome
    The vast Roman network of aqueducts and sewers ensured a clean water supply for its citizens, and helped the Empire grow.
  • Wikipedia Article on Sanitation in ancient Rome
    The Romans were the first civilization to build a vast system for the removal of waste. Unlike other ancient cities which were clogged with garbage and sewage, Roman cities were clean and healthy.

Hilarious Video About Roman Latrines and Bathroom Customs

Sewers and Aqueducts - The Cornerstones of Roman Power

One of the factors that contributed to this success and to the general stability of the empire, a stability which was disturbed only by later barbarian invasions and the corrupt rule of a few demented emperors, was the Romans' ability to organize large public works for the benefit of the empire. Whereas other conquerors such as the Vandals, whose name would become synonymous with wanton destruction, could conquer and destroy - the Romans knew that in order to hold what they had conquered they also needed to build.

Roman roads, some still in use today as the foundations for modern highways, criss crossed the empire and allowed Roman legions to deploy quickly to any trouble spot, as well as opening up the vast Empire to free trade, as well as bringing the riches of the empire to Rome to feed the gullets of gluttonous emperors. But where the Romans truly excelled was in the movement of water. Aqueducts (some still functioning after all these centuries) brought clean water to Roman cities, and allowed the growth of large urban centers, which all but disappeared after barbarian invasions and the resulting the Dark Ages. Cities did not again equal the size of Roman cities until the 17th and 18th centuries.

Equally important, but not as glamorous, as the construction of roads and aqueducts, was the Roman Empire's system of sewers which drained the teeming Roman cities of wastes. One of the greatest examples of Roman civic engineering was the aptly named Cloaca Maxima, which in Latin means "greatest sewer". Begun around 600 B.C., before Rome was the capital of world-spanning Empire, the sewer was enlarged and expanded throughout the empire's long history, only falling into disrepair when the barbarian hordes ripped the Roman world apart.

Roman Sewers, Aqueducts and Roads

Scroll to Continue
Map Showing the Location of Roman Sewer Lines in Rome

Map Showing the Location of Roman Sewer Lines in Rome

The Cloaca Maxima

The Cloaca Maxima was indeed the greatest sewer - in an era where most cities were squalid cesspool of human waste, the Roman sewer wound its way through all parts of the city; essentially an aqueduct in reverse, the Cloaca Maxima drained Rome of waste water and human waste.

Efficient sewers allowed the capital of the Empire to reach an unprecedented level of urbanization and population density. The Romans themselves understood the importance of the sewer system to their way of life; they appointed one of their many gods - Cloacina (derived from the Latin word "cloaca" meaning "sewer" or "drain") as the goddess who protected the Cloaca Maxima. For some strange Freudian reason, this goddess of the sewers was also believed to protect sexual intercourse within marriage, and later Cloacina came to be identified as an aspect of the Venus, the Roman goddess of love. Cloacina was a rather popular goddess: she had a temple within the Roman Forum (quite an honor for a minor goddess) and several Roman coins bore her image. The exalted position of this goddess within the Roman capital suggests that the Romans well understood the importance of their sewer system in maintaining their way of life.

Alas, the collapse of the Roman Empire ushered in an era of medieval filth. Aqueducts and sewers broke down, as the Germanic barbarians did not know how to run the empire that they had conquered. Cities became unsanitary and plagues and disease were common. The population of Rome shrank dramatically. Throughout western Europe streets became open sewers, and even as late as the 18th centuries it was common place for respectable people to throw the contents of their chamber pots out open windows onto the streets below, without any concern for the people below. In Edinburgh, in the late 1600s it was considered proper etiquette to first cry out "gardyloo!" ( a corruption of the French, gardez l'eau "watch out for the water") before defenestrating the contents of the chamber pot. Not throwing the waste water out the window, or at least first making sure that there was no one below, does not appear to have been considered a refined alternative.

When one compares the dingy rabbit warrens of waste-filled alleys in great cities such as London or Paris, which existed well into the modern era - and the lack of sanitation and clean water - to the well planned cities of the Roman Empire, we get a glimpse of just how far European civilization had fallen. It took western Europe well over 1,400 years to climb back out of the abyss that the Vandals, the Visigoths, the Huns, and the Franks had dug in the short period of time that it took them to overrun the western Empire and destroy the work of centuries.

© 2011 Robert P


Robert P (author) from Canada on October 31, 2011:

@CMHypno - I know what you mean. My city's water and sewer pipes keep bursting and they are only a few decades old. We don't seem to build to the same standards as the ancients.

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on October 31, 2011:

Interesting hubs and great pictures. It's amazing that some Roman sewers and aqueducts are still functioning when you think how much modern stuff falls apart after a few years!

Related Articles