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The Ingenuity of the Roman Aqueducts

Picture of Roman Aqueducts
Roman Aqueducts compared to Modern Systems

Ever since the human race has lived in communities and farmed the land, water management has been a key factor in the well-being and prosperity of a community. Settlements not immediately near a fresh-water source dug shafts into underground water tables to create wells and cisterns were also created to collect rainwater so that it could be used at a later date. Aqueducts, however, allowed communities to live further from a water source and to utilise land which would otherwise have been unusable for agriculture.

The earliest and simplest aqueducts were constructed of lengths of inverted clay tiles and sometimes pipes which channelled water over a short distance and followed the contours of the land. The earliest examples of these date from the Minoan civilization on Crete in the early 2nd millennium BCE and from contemporary Mesopotamia. Aqueducts were also an important feature of Mycenaean settlements in the 14th century BCE, ensuring autonomy against siege for the acropolis of Mycenae and the fortifications at Tiryns.

It is, however, the Romans who have rightly gained celebrity as the aqueduct builders par excellence. Hugely ambitious engineering projects successfully mastered all kinds of difficult and dangerous terrain and made their magnificent arched aqueducts a common sight throughout their empire, supplying towns with water to meet not only basic needs but also those of large public baths, decorative fountains (nymphaea) and private villas. Whilst most aqueducts continued to run along the surface and follow land contours wherever possible, the invention of the arch allowed for the construction of large-span structures employing new materials such as concrete and water-proof cement which could ignore unfavourable land features and draw the water along the straightest possible route along a regular gradient. Similarly, an increase in engineering expertise allowed for large-scale and deep tunnelling projects.


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