Water: The Real Aqua Vitae

You read that right! Though it’s nothing glamorous, water provided everything ancient peoples ate and drank, forming the basis of all dishes — this still hasn’t changed. Here you can read about how Romans got and used water, plus a recipe to try.

The Pont du Gard aqueduct, one of the best-preserved and arguably the most famous of them all.

In the style of my last post on pheasants, I decided to start this one with a myth. The story I have was the national epic of Rome and has since been repeated time and again by Roman tour guides and for eons drilled into the pliable minds of weary teenage Latin students.

Virgil’s Aeneid is a fantastic poem, but to think we might not have had it — Virgil ordered that the manuscript be burned upon his death! For centuries, nay millennia, this story has been treated as the legitimate narrative of Rome’s foundation.

The myth goes something like this: Aeneas flees Troy with his father and son after it falls to the Achaeans. Heading for Italy, where Aeneas is destined to found Rome, the Trojan ships are blown off course in a terrible storm. They wash up on the coast of northern Africa and are welcomed by Dido, queen of Carthage.

Dido and Aeneas fall in love, but Aeneas remembers his duty to travel to Italy. He leaves in the middle of the night, with Dido committing suicide and predicting the Punic Wars. After stopping in Sicily, the Trojans arrive in Latium, where war breaks out. The second half of the poem describes this war and Aeneas’s ultimate triumph.

Virgil delightfully uses the Aeneid to justify the Punic Wars, trace the people of Rome to the legendary city of Troy, and validate Julio-Claudian rule. Later authors went even further as to relate Aeneas and his son Ascanius with Romulus and Remus, but not without contradictory dates and a jumbled family tree. Glorious, sure, but historical fact?

A team of archaeologists recently discovered the remains of something in Rome that hints at the pith of this post: a wall used for channeling water, dating to the ninth century BC, not 753 BC as myth says. The important part of findings like these is that they prove people lived in Rome before, well, even the emigrant “Romans.” So if these aborigines of central Italy weren’t tossed and turned by Neptune’s waves and cast onto the Lavinian shores, why, then, did they pick the site that today bears Rome?

Aeneas’s hapless wanderings aside, the settlement of Rome was likely much more strategic than legend allows. This is mostly a matter of geography — the area’s seven fabled hills (though there are several more) offered some protection and vantage points over the surrounding land. But more importantly the Tiber River for, you guessed it, water.

Water is life. This should go without saying, but water, as far as we can tell, fundamentally determines life. Without it, life couldn’t exist — Earth is the only known planet with liquid water on its surface and, as of the time I’m writing this, the only one with confirmed life. Nearly every large city today is located on some body of water (New York on the Hudson River and others, Tokyo on Tokyo Bay, and London on the Thames).

Settlement along rivers, particularly, presents a handful of benefits, first and foremost for a reliable source of drinking water (this isn’t so for saline water like the ocean). It also provides a route to travel and trade along, offers a food source through fishing, and once food has been eaten, gives people a place to dump their waste.

The same went for Rome. As the empire expanded northward and inland, water — reliable sources of clean, fresh water — was a necessity. I doubt anybody wanted to drink posca forever! And as the empire expanded in population, more water was required to meet the needs of more people. Wells were too small, and river water could be too mucky, so this feat was accomplished by structures synonymous with Roman engineering: aqueducts.

The first of these aqueducts, the Aqua Appia, was built in 312 BC, only running about ten miles. Steadily, longer and higher-volume aqueducts were constructed in the city, like the Aqua Marcia, Aqua Tepula, and Aqua Claudia, until aqueduct construction exploded in the first century AD. During this period, many of the greatest arcade-style aqueducts were built, like in Carthage and Segovia in Spain.

First, water would be drawn from mountain springs. As these montane sources were typically at a higher elevation than their destinations, gravity would allow the water to flow naturally. This wasn’t always the case, though. Sometimes, the endpoints of these aqueducts weren’t too different in elevation — the Pont du Gard, for example (picture at top), only descended 56 feet (17 m) in 31 miles (50 km), or 21.5 inches per mile (34 cm/km). Careful surveying was a must, it seems!

As this spring water approached the city, separate pipe systems would divert some of the water to farms and villas for private use. The rest would enter a castellum aquae, or a header tank, settling out any debris and establishing pressure. This water would be sent to secondary tanks, then into a city-wide system of airtight lead pipes for urban use.

Once the water arrived in Rome, it was manipulated for a number of purposes. It could be collected and stored in cisterns or pumped into fountains. Probably the most important use of them all, fountains were only sources of water for most of the city. Public fountains provided the water that would be used for drinking and cooking (for the poor, who didn’t already have one in their home). As most poor Romans lived in wooden apartments (insulae), these fountains were also the only real form of insurance against the imminent threat of fire.

The water carried in by the aqueducts was also used to fill the scores of thermae in the city, public baths frequented before dinner. Spent bathwater was likely funneled into latrines where, along with sludge dumped beside the streets, it would go into the Cloaca Maxima. Presided over by Cloacina, goddess of the sewers (because why not?), this subterranean network of tunnels and pipes directed waste away from the city and into the Tiber, where it would be swept out to sea.

Despite engineering marvels like the aqueducts and plumbing, water in the empire still wasn’t without its problems. The lead pipes, for example, are believed to have contributed to lead poisoning. Since much of the water traveling through these pipes came from springs and had high mineral content, a layer of sinter collected on the insides of the pipes, somewhat reducing the effects of lead on the water (though many Romans got healthy doses of lead from pots!).

There was also lots of corruption surrounding water access in Rome. We can learn this from Sextus Julius Frontinus, an engineer, writer, and the curator aquarum (supervisor of the aqueducts) during the reign of Nerva at the end of the first century AD. Wealthy residents would hork water, either by tapping conduits to drain right into their gardens or by bribing an official to do it for them! Frontinus describes this more in his work De aquaeductu (On Aqueducts):

“…a large number of landed proprietors, past whose fields the aqueducts run, tap the conduits; whence it comes that the public water courses are actually brought to a standstill by private citizens, just to water their gardens.”

Frontinus doesn’t seem to be amused. Over time, measures were put in place to monitor illicit water use, like installing maintenance holes in aqueducts to check abnormal water levels or stamping lead pipes with names of the manufacturer, owner, and emperor. But without pilfering anything, I’ve included a recipe (more an opportunity for rumination, perhaps) for water:

Water, from a tap or a bottle

Go to your faucet and fill up a glass with sweet, sweet municipal water. Or crack open a bottle of the stuff. While you drink, kick back and relax — and relish the knowledge that you’re able to enjoy Adam’s ale without having to trek through scuzzy, stinking streets just for a swig.

Photos of the Tiber in Rome, the awesome aqueduct in Segovia, and a stamped lead pipe.

Water has, for millennia, determined how and where people live, and it may continue to change settlement patterns well into the future — think rising sea levels. But as you get to the bottom of your glass, consider the Romans and how their engineering, trail-blazing, and struggles with water theft and malaria-ridden fecal slurries resulted in your drink today. Cheers!

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