The Aqueducts

As in Greece, the building of aqueducts quickly became a political tool. The first public aqueduct serving Rome, the Aqua Appia, was built by an ambitious early Roman politician, Appius Claudius, and was constructed at the same time and alongside the very first stone road leading out of Rome, the Via Appia, in 312 bc. As a further flourish of Greek modernity, the first Roman public swimming bath, the Piscina Publica, was built next to it, outside the Porta Capena.2 The Appian projects were immensely popular and successful, and Roman engineering never looked back. Imperial wealth was used quite blatantly to beautify the major Roman towns and cities, and secure mass support from their ever-growing populations. Successive rulers found that public engineering projects soaked up the surplus workforce, involving millions of people labouring by hand, and much political patronage for senators and salaried officials;as the Roman chronicler Polybius remarked, public building was the chief expense regularly incurred by the state.3

Aqueducts had a publicity value at least equal to the job they were built to do. Pliny the Elder (ad 23-79) said boastfully, if anyone will note the abundance of waters skilfully brought into the city for public purposes, for baths, for public basins, for houses, runnels, suburban gardens and villas; if he will note the high aqueducts required for maintaining the proper elevation; the mountains which had to be pierced for the same reason; the valleys it was necessary to fill up; he will conclude that the whole terrestrial globe offers nothing more marvellous.4

In first-century Rome the aqueducts flowed into three central tanks that distributed the water strictly according to public priority: 10 per cent to the emperor, 50 per cent to private customers paying water tax, 40 per cent for tax-free public use, including four military camps, fifteen sets of baths and latrines, twelve public fountains, and 133 public troughs, basins, and 'springers'—small taps running day and night. Generation by generation new aqueducts were added: eleven by ad 226, with 1,000 public baths.

There was another sanitary engineering glory in ancient Rome—though not when they backed up after storms and high tides. The cloacae were the underground sewers flowing down to the Tiber, a black-water drainage system begun in the sixth century bc, but replaced in the first century bc by Agrippa.5 The cloacae also served the monumental public latrines (forica) that were one of the sights of Rome, often heated in winter by a hypocaust, and always good for a gossip:

The Roman forica was public in the full sense of the term, like soldiers' latrines in wartime. People met there, conversed, and exchanged invitations to dinner without embarrassment... [it was] decorated with a lavishness we are not wont to spend on such a spot. All round the semicircle or rectangle which it formed, water flowed continuously in little channels, in front of which a score of seats were fixed. The seats were of marble, and the opening was framed with sculpted brackets in the form of dolphins... above the seats it was not unusual to see niches containing statues of gods or heroes... and not infrequently the room was cheered by the gay sound of a playing fountain.6

Roman latrines evidently met a communal need—or a need for communality—in the same way as the Greek fountains. Archaeologists routinely find villas where three-, five-, seven-, or ten-seater latrines were normal, while even the latrines of the imperial palace 'as majestic and ornate as a sanctuary beneath its dome' contained three seats side by side. You were nothing in Rome without your expensively plumbed latrines, courtyard fountain, pool, or private baths;but for most other people who did not live in Rome (or other well-plumbed cities or forts), water supplies were still dependent on local rivers, springs, wells, and rainwater cisterns, where such effects were more difficult to achieve. In a rapidly growing city like Rome, all the aqueducts did was to maintain a precarious demographic balance, as they were laboriously brought through each new shanty district in turn, creating at least a semblance of the luxuriously paved, watered, and drained city centre.

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