Exploring the aqueducts' role in ancient Rome

Tourists flock to Trevi Fountain, the largest of the many fountains found throughout Rome. 
Photo by Judy Benson
Tourists flock to Trevi Fountain, the largest of the many fountains found throughout Rome. Photo by Judy Benson

From palatial Trevi Fountain to the perpetually running spigots called nasoni found on street corners throughout the city, water doesn’t just flow through modern Rome.

It gushes, like the infinite lifeblood of the Eternal City.

But in this ancient metropolis so rich with iconic architecture, art and history, from the Coliseum to the Sistine Chapel to the Catacombs, the average tourist probably overlooks the importance of water — or, more precisely, the conquest of water through the creation of the aqueducts — in the rise of Rome and its impact on civilization. Gary Robbins, though, is no average tourist.

“The aqueducts are, to me, the number one technology that these people developed,” said Robbins, a hydrogeology professor at The University of Connecticut’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. “Unlike the pyramids, which are interesting, these structures were fully functional and contributed to the advancement of society.”

This spring, Robbins led two trips to Rome and the surrounding area to teach students and a small group of his friends — including yours truly — about the wonders of the ancient aqueduct system, built from 312 BC to 226 AD. For Robbins, 61, his own awakening to the aqueducts over the last dozen years has marked a turning point infusing the last part of his career with a jolt of enthusiasm and passion for learning about and sharing what the Romans accomplished with water.

“What I found most fascinating is that you’re talking about 2,000-year-old technology that basically still works,” said Robbins. “It’s the root of our modern water systems.”

Look no further than the public water system in Groton for a local example. With its series of linked reservoirs starting in higher elevations to the north to the distribution point to the south at the lowest point, the Groton system is designed using the same basic principles of controlling flow with gravity and channels set at gradual slopes. Robbins said he began to appreciate the aqueducts in 2005, while preparing to teach a water resources course for undergraduates that included the history of water systems. Then, in 2012, while a visiting professor in Florence, Italy, he took a trip to Aqueduct Park on the outskirts of Rome, seeing up close the famous elevated arched channels that carried water into the city at precisely the right height to deliver neither too much nor too little, neither too fast or too slow. After that came a sabbatical in 2015 when he went back to Italy to start designing an aqueducts course for students that brought its first group to Rome in 2016.

“We’ve offered it twice, and will do it again,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in history and geology and science, and the aqueducts represent all those things.”

To understand the significance of the aqueducts, students first learn about the motivation for building it. In 312 BC, when the water demands of a growing city couldn’t be satisfied with wells and rainwater collection, a 10-mile underground channel called Aqua Appia was constructed to bring in water. Over the next 500 years, 11 major aqueducts were built, the longest stretching 60 miles to tap springs along the banks of the Aniene River in the Apennine Mountains. While the arched channels have become the signature image of the aqueducts, about 80 percent of the entire system — which totaled about 310 miles in length — was actually underground tunnels. The arched elevated channels were built to carry water across rivers, or to when the natural topography required it to keep the water flowing along a downward gradient.

But the aqueducts didn’t happen in isolation. Instead, notes Robbins, they are the result of a convergence of breakthroughs in ancient materials, architecture, engineering and government in ancient Rome that allowed the system to supply an estimated 260 gallons of water per day per person to the population, which grew to more than 1 million by the first century.

“It was the accumulation of technology, the development of waterproof cement, the development of arches and the ability to administrate this stuff,” he said. The ancient Romans also employed geometry and surveying skills, using the groma and other tools to determine elevations and distances between points. And, of course, they also had slaves brought from their many conquests to do the hard labor of digging and building with cut stone and cement.

With settling ponds and aeration to remove contaminants, the aqueducts supplied ample quantities of clean water used not just for drinking and cooking, but also for hygiene and entertainment in the 1,000 public baths in the city — several of which had heating systems for the pools — and 350 public fountains that were an expression of the empire’s power. Many of the larger fountains were, in fact, the terminus of a major aqueduct. That even holds true today with Trevi Fountain and the Moses Fountain, each of which is the end of functioning aqueducts restored from ancient predecessors.

Outside Rome, beyond the city’s many beautiful fountains, the fascinating ruins of the ancient Baths of Caracalla and the graceful arches of Aqueduct Park, lies a less well known but equally intriguing part of the ancient water system. Through connections he has developed with a group of volunteer archeologists called Roma Sotteranea, Robbins has led the way to the Convent of San Cosimato in Vicovaro, about 30 miles northeast of the city.

There, guides and guests alike clad in hard hats, head lamps and protective clothing venture underground, to explore the tunnels of Aqua Marcia and Aqua Claudia, fed by numerous springs in the porous limestone of the region.

“The Aqua Marche was built in 144 BC, and it’s still in good shape. The concrete is still good,” said Luca Girardo, one of the guides whose day job is as a software engineer for the Italian space agency, as he led one group into the darkness in early June.

Dry of water now, but still cool with a pleasantly musty odor, the tunnels are large enough for modern frames to stand erect. Pausing at a turn in one of the tunnels, Girardo pointed out shelves for holding the oil lamps that were the only light for the original workers and openings used to remove excavated material. He explained how they would survey and measure “step by step” to reach specific entry and exit points along the way.

“Aqua Marche provided good quality, cold clean water that was very high in minerals,” he said, pointing out marks along the walls the from limestone buildup.

Robbins said he still has more to learn about the aqueducts. He wants to understand more about the mineral deposits and how much water the aqueducts carried, and what they can teach us about changing climate conditions. He wants to know what was involved in maintaining them.

For his students, regardless of whether they plan careers in civil engineering, natural resources or an unrelated field, the aqueducts can teach some lessons that transcend their place as mere historical artifacts, he believes.

“This gives students an appreciation for modern water systems,” he said. “But it also gives them an appreciation of how ingenious people can be, even 2,000 years ago. I’d like students to walk away with the idea that no problem is insurmountable. You can come up with solutions.”

 

UConn professors Gary Robbins, left, and Thomas Meyer stand beneath one of the arches along the elevated channels from the first century AD on June 1 at Aqueduct Park in Rome. 
Photo by Judy Benson
UConn professors Gary Robbins, left, and Thomas Meyer stand beneath one of the arches along the elevated channels from the first century AD on June 1 at Aqueduct Park in Rome. Photo by Judy Benson
Underground in ancient roman aqueduct Marcia at San Cosimato outside of Rome, Uconn students performing measurements to estimate water flow rate when the aqueduct was active.
Photo by Gary Robbins
Underground in ancient roman aqueduct Marcia at San Cosimato outside of Rome, Uconn students performing measurements to estimate water flow rate when the aqueduct was active. Photo by Gary Robbins
Letti Ozuna, who toured the Roman aqueducts with Prof. Gary Robbins and others this spring, fills her water bottle at one of the many nasoni throughout the city.
Photo by Judy Benson
Letti Ozuna, who toured the Roman aqueducts with Prof. Gary Robbins and others this spring, fills her water bottle at one of the many nasoni throughout the city. Photo by Judy Benson
Prof. Gary Robbins fills his water bottle at the Moses Fountain in Rome in early June. (Photo by Judy Benson)
Prof. Gary Robbins fills his water bottle at the Moses Fountain in Rome in early June. (Photo by Judy Benson)

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