The Roman Aqueduct: Definition & Facts

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  • 0:04 What is an Aqueduct?
  • 0:44 History of Aqueducts
  • 2:18 Development and Design
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history, design and development of the Roman aqueduct and test your understanding of ancient Rome, the expansion of the Roman empire, and ancient building techniques.

What Is an Aqueduct?

Duct tape works fine for repairing minor leaks, but I doubt the ancient Romans would have found it very useful to maintain their plumbing. Instead, they used the aqueduct, which is a pipe designed to bring fresh water from mountain springs into cities that had either no fresh water or not enough to sustain the growing populations.

Roman aqueducts ran for miles both above and below ground. They're one of the foremost engineering achievements of the Romans, which is really saying something, and they transported millions of gallons of fresh water per day across the empire. Their design and construction was so good that, even after millennia, many are still standing today.

History of Aqueducts

The first Roman aqueduct was commissioned by a member of the Senate named Appius Claudius Caecus in 312 BCE, back when Rome was still a republic and not an empire. The population of Rome had grown so much that there wasn't enough drinkable water.

This aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, followed Rome's first major road, the Appian Way, 10 miles out of town underground to a fresh water spring. It brought in 75,500 cubic meters of water every day. Since gravity moved the water, the fountain had to be lower than the original spring, and it only supplied water to the lowest parts of Rome.

40 years later, the Old Anio aqueduct was commissioned. This aqueduct was above ground on arches that reduced the slope from the mountains to the city, meaning the water could be brought to the higher parts of Rome.

Aqueducts became one of the key features of Rome. This city alone had over 480 miles of aqueducts, about 29 of which were above ground, and brought in 300 million gallons of water per day. When Rome became an empire and spread across Europe, the Romans introduced aqueducts into their new colonies.

Territories captured by the Romans weren't always treated with tyranny and abuse. When an area came under Roman control, its infrastructure was upgraded, often bringing in new temples, public baths and markets, reliable roads, and aqueducts for fresh water. The longest Roman aqueduct system in the world was in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Called the Valens Aqueduct, its combined length of pipes ran over 600 miles.

Development and Design

The system of bringing fresh water to areas that needed it wasn't invented by the Romans. The Greeks had similar systems, and the Etruscans - the inhabitants of Tuscany before the Romans - had very advanced irrigation and water control. The Romans improved upon these systems, made them practical for wide use, and established an incredible network of water resources.

The start of an aqueduct is a fresh water source, usually a mountain spring. This water was directed into stone or concrete tanks that flowed into the aqueduct. Pipes were usually made from ceramics, although lead was also a building material. The amount of water flowing through them generally kept the lead too diluted to pose a health risk. The pipes had to be the correct width to accommodate enough water and maintain the slope of flow, and the aqueducts were lined with waterproof concrete to prevent leaks.

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