What Should I Know About the Roman Aqueducts?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

One of the more remarkable achievements of the Romans was the extensive network of aqueducts they built across Europe for the purpose of transporting water between various locations. The Roman aqueducts are hailed today as an ancient engineering feat, and one of the marvels of the ancient world. In some parts of Europe, Roman aqueducts can still be seen today, and some of them are still in use, despite the fact that they are over 2,000 years old.

Ancient Romans built an extensive network of aqueducts across Europe for the purpose of transporting water.
Ancient Romans built an extensive network of aqueducts across Europe for the purpose of transporting water.

There were 11 major Roman aqueducts, and numerous smaller aqueducts along with leats, small watercourses used to divert water to various locations. All told, the 11 major Roman aqueducts stretched across an estimated 260 miles (418 kilometers), with shapes dictated by the lie of the land. The Roman aqueducts twisted and curved across the European landscape to transport water to Roman cities, industrial works, and farms.

The Romans used aqueducts to transport water to major urban centers.
The Romans used aqueducts to transport water to major urban centers.

The Romans used a lot of water, and the aqueducts were capable of amply meeting their needs. In addition to extensive gardens which needed water, the Romans also had rivers, pools, and other water features around their homes, and the famous Roman baths also sucked up a great deal of water. The innovation and creativity involved in meeting the Roman need for water is really quite impressive, when one thinks about the tools and knowledge available to the Romans.

The most famous features of the Roman aqueducts are probably the massive elevated structures used to build up water pressure so that the water could flow into cisterns in Roman cities. From the cisterns, water was distributed to numerous public fountains, and into the homes of very wealthy Romans. However, the aqueducts also included pipes, canals, and tubes bored directly through hills and mountains.

The stone parts of the Roman aqueducts were lined with a special type of concrete to prevent water loss, and the construction of the aqueducts promoted a steady, reliable flow of water along their entire length. A sophisticated system of controls and sluice gates could be used to empty sections for maintenance, and water periodically made stops in sedimentation tanks to remove impurities.

Construction of the Roman aqueducts primarily took place between 326 BCE and 226 CE. The aqueducts required a great deal of maintenance and constant inspection to run smoothly, and as a result, many rapidly fell into disrepair after the fall of the Roman Empire. In some areas, this disrepair was hastened by enemies who destroyed sections of the aqueducts; in retrospect, this was a poor decision, as it limited abilities for expansion and settlement in some parts of Europe.

The Roman baths used quite a lot of water.
The Roman baths used quite a lot of water.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon314217

Yeah, the aqueducts were really quite incredible. It is crazy how the Romans came up with sewer equipment over a thousand years before it became readily available. Thanks for the article!

anon270312

The problem with these is that the aqueducts the Romans lost at the fall of their empire were just given to other countries for free.

anon270311

The Roman army might have fallen sooner if these didn't exist.

anon269269

without these, we will die

BigBloom

@BostonIrish

I think the fall of Rome can be attributed to more than simply negligence. There were a variety of factors which worked together to cause their downfall.

BostonIrish

These water conduits were an important part of early plumbing and the predecessor of the modern water system. Water is the key to comfortable living, and the innovations which the Romans provided caused an increase in safety and comfort. Unfortunately, this was envied by many outside invaders and provided a strong incentive to move toward Rome. Perhaps if the Romans had kept their orientation toward expansion instead of comfort their downfall might have been avoided.

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