Aqueducts: Quenching Rome’s Thirst

Ancient masters of engineering, aqueduct builders created a vast network of pipes, channels, and bridges to bring water to Rome, creating in the process an enduring symbol of Roman civilization and innovation.

Rome is known for many things: its military conquests, its civic architecture, temples, roads, emperors, and sculpture. Yet none of these would have been possible without the most vital resource of all: water. Now, as then, water is life, and without effective distribution, there would have been no great Roman civilization. Even until relatively modern times, Roman techniques to collect, store, and channel water over huge distances remained unsurpassed.

Such technology, was not, of course, invented from scratch by the Romans, and many earlier Mediterranean peoples had poured resources and expertise into managing water. On the island of Crete, the Minoans developed sophisticated rain-harvesting and filtering systems as early as the middle of the third millennium B.C. Cretan water management techniques were later adopted across the Greek-speaking world, and examples abound of tunnels, drainage systems, and cisterns, sometimes of considerable size.

Yet although the water management tradition Rome inherited was rich and extensive, no previous system came close to the sophistication and reach of the Roman aqueduct. Striding across the landscape from Spain to Syria, these awe-inspiring structures not only carried life and livelihood but also proclaimed the greatness of Rome.

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