Water And Water Supply In The Roman Empire

31st July 2015

Water supply problem of human settlements to areas of public and private life in antiquity is given maximum interest, both the fact that water was indispensable for daily activities but also special attention is given to water transport, which not infrequently had achieved from great distances. Compliance with the conditions of sanitation and technical artifices requiring large investments and coordinated work of important personages in the social hierarchy. Because of its absence the water was a very precious element in ancient times, which is why in the building plans of cities and human settlements in general, an important concern it hold the water sources, because, until the introduction of some methods for adduction remotely, they used local sources, when they existed, river water or rainwater.

The water, through its role played in physical and biological processes in nature, raised the interest to scientists and philosophers of antiquity. Thales of Miletus rise the water to the level of fundamental principle of all things. Euripides, the disciple of Anaxagoras, considered that the basis of all that exist stand the air and land; the earth through its fecundation by the heavenly water, gave birth to the life, human beings, animals, but another factor, the time, compels organic forms to decompose and return to their initial structure. Pythagoras, Empedocles, Epiharm considered that four are the principles that determine the existence of life: the air, fire, earth and water.

Practical considerations applied to the philosophical-religious principles, have led to a real cult of the waters and their protective deities. Besides the cult of central deity Neptune-Poseidon, should be mentioned the nymphs and even muses. Religious importance of water sources in Rome might emerges from analysis of the cult of Fons. According to tradition, Fons was the divine spirit that resides in any source of water coming out from under the earth-numen aquae, assigning itself as father Patulcius or Clusius and as mother Iuturna or Diuturna, personification of waters which never dry. According to legend Patulcius prevented Sabines to surprise Latins from Capitol, pouring a large amount of water, out of the temple of Janus Geminus. To Rome, every year on October 13 was held the feast Fontanalia or Fontinalia, on which occasion Arval Brothers (priests) made sacrifices in honor of Fons, to the Lari (gods protectors of the house and family), mother of Lari and Flora, when the fountains and wells were adorned with flowers.

Roman authors. Among the ancient authors who have dealt with the issue of water and water supply to settlements, it distinguish Vitruvius and Frontinus.

During Augustus reign, Vitruvius dedicated to him a treaty composed by ten chapters, “De Architectura“, of which only seven have been remained. To this treaty has used the writings of his predecessors, reminiscent of twenty Greek authors who wrote about architecture or had described ancient monuments. Among Latin authors only reminds Fuficius, Publius Terentius Varro and Sulpicianus. Referring to rainwater, Vitruvius considers it salubrious and of good quality, and in terms of thermal waters, he observe their curative character, affirming “boiling in an unusual environment, water receives an unusual trait.” He speaks of the existence of three solutions for achieving water pipes: brickwork channels, lead pipes-fistula, ceramic tubes. Regarding lead pipes, Vitruvius speaks of conditions to be met in achieving them, on which occasion relates to their capacities. The pipes were molded into rectangular sheets, on marble plates, after which they were rolled around a wooden shaft and they are never shorter than ten feet (about 2.90 m). He do not forget to draw attention to the fact that these pipes could harm health, as long the lead contain ceruse. For this reason he proposes the ceramic tubes, cheaper, easier to replace and more salubrious. The thickness of the ceramic tubes should be sufficient for resisting to water pressure, and one of ends to be provided with a sleeve for engagement with the other tubes. The joinings were seal with lime mixed with oil. In the recipe for making mortar, he speaks about a mixture of dust brought from regions stretching from “Cumae to the promontory of Minerva” and lime, in the proportion of two parts “dust of Cumae” at one part lime.

Sex. Iulius Frontinus (30-104 AD) comes from an aristocratic family, originally from Rome or coming to Rome from Sicily. In addition to writings aimed the military topics, from him was preserved a treaty about the aqueducts of Rome, completed during Trajan reign, “De aquis urbis Romae.” In his treaty Frontinus do a thorough job of checking the figures from the imperial records, to which add the outgrowth of his own experience, and more, expose his program of measures which should be taken to improve the organizational system and all other water supply problems. Appear for us as an author well informed, which uses a large variety of sources, such as archives of those responsible for water supply of Rome (curatores aquarum), Comentarii Principis, imperial registers or authors like Fenestella. After presenting in detail of the major aqueducts of Rome, making a timeline and offering their main technical characteristics, refer to the measurement units and constructive elements, through which brings some extra details to what we already knew from Vitruvius. On this occasion was used abundant the sources they were available for him, presenting figures who can create an image about the sizes and number of pipes used for water distribution from the aqueduct. Related to these issues is presented water supply of the main consumers: the Imperial Palace, monumental fountains-nymphaeum, simple fountains-lacus, private properties. The work has a bias character, Frontinus objectivity being questioned because it expresses the position of the politician, with the criticism that addressed to the previous regimes, which compares them in a light at all favorable to the regime of Nerva. He does not hesitate to attack the predecessors to display his own program to reform the administration of water.

Social, political and legal implications. Data on the Republican era are quite poor. Cura aquarum during this period was held by the censors, who dealt with the public works. Probably they were helped by other magistrates, especially for the administrative issues. Censors could be replaced by aediles, who had care with public fountains, too. Questores had responsibilities of financial nature and had dealt with public water concession for the private properties and staff remuneration.

The water service during the Empire had a centralized administration organized in an office called statio aquarum. During the early Empire it was controlled by a senior official, curator aquarum, assisted by two deputies. The remaining staff was divided into two broad categories: technical and office. The first category includes, architecti, engineers that oversaw the construction of everything concerning aqueducts: capture, construction of the underground pipes or overground, distribution castles, fountains and their maintenance, the sources, aqueducts, regular distribution of water. Subordinated to these engineers were those who executed works: familia aquaria, which in turn are divided into two parts, public personnel familia aquaria publica, consisting of 240 people and imperial staff familia aquaria Caesaris, consisting of 460 people. In most of cases the workers were slaves. Frontinus distinguished as workers: vilicus quartermaster who were assigned with control of water distribution; castellarius which deals with maintenance of the water castles; circitor, custos, inspectors. Silicarius take care of paving, because, the author tells us, lead pipes throughout the city were under pavement. On the other hand the right to use water was not transmitted by inheritance, purchase or acquisition. This legislation led to the removal or reinstatement in function constantly of the pipes and consequently result was the frequent paving and repaving of the streets. Tector take care for cover with stucco work. Plumbarii were those who made ​​lead pipes. Are mentioned those who called a punctis, they were the workers who perforated lead pipes to allow connection to the water. Obligations of the workers were covered daily.

In the same time, professional staff oversee water distribution with a tool called calix. This instrument was a pipe, usually of bronze, with a fixed and standardized section, which was used to verify that the tubings were not modified. Based on measurements made ​​with this instrument was perceived later the taxes and try to avoid frauds. Scam possibilities were numerous. It could install a calix, with a size greater than that authorized, with bribing of those who were making the proper connection. On the bronze tube could inscribe a different stamp or even at all. By attaching a pipe higher than the calix creating a pump effect. Another possibility of deception was installing lead pipes without any control tool.

From the second category, the office staff, were part those in charge of the documents and accounting, or the cashier who pay on those from familia Caesaris. They were imperial freedmen and were clustered in the office ratio aquarum. Here may be listed scribae, librarii or tabularii (those who overseeing the documentary problems). A magistrate subordinate staff consists of accensi, praecones and lictores (those charged with protecting the magistrate). Concerning concession of the aqueducts, it was achieved by paying to treasury the vectigal (an impost). Thus, as result from the “Aquis Urbis Romae” during Republic with the works concession dealt the censors and aediles. Frontinus show us the fact that all staff in the water administration was paid from the treasury.

Technical realization of a water supply works for a house or a workshop requires a written request for connection and paying a tax. This concession was made upon written request, to which the emperor sent a response, confirming for the curator aquarum and personnel serving installations, the right of a person to be connected to the public water. In principle, the concession was not anymore valid in case of death or when it is about to another house or plot of an individual who was already connected. Generally the concession right was obtained by persons of high social and political rank; other persons received the so-called subscriptiones, through which answer was given according to the legal offer.

Regarding the issue of water administration in the provinces, unlike the case of Rome, was not assigned to some special magistrates, but is found as a sum of attributions of other magistrates. In Constantinople and Antioch in the fourth century after AD, unlike Rome, where approval concession could be done only by the emperor and the praetorian prefect, it could get from the one who replaced the emperor, too. In other cities of the Empire the concession was given by ordo decurionum (a sort of council of the city nowadays) as is shown in lex Ursonensis (Urso was a roman city in Spain) and the edict of Augustus from Venafrum (a town from Italy). For the irrigation in agriculture it seems there was a concession system similar to that for cities. For the construction or repairing of the pipes may be appointed a special functionary for a short period curator aquae ducendae. A similar situation is known for the construction of public baths. Later in the III-IV centuries AD, in some cities curator civitatis was one of the major personages, dealing with issues related to the supply or distribution of water, as it results in some texts from Italy or North Africa.

Public fountains were very important in the life of a city, their security requiring a special attention, especially because by incorrect use could quickly spoil. As shown the astynomen from Pergamum and other sources, was prohibited watering cattle, washing clothes or tools from public fountains. As results from Frontinus, Roman laws punished the contamination of the fountains with a fine of 100 sesterces. In Rome their supervision was for the aediles who appointed two citizens from each area of ​​the city to deal with this problem.

Occasionally cities could benefit from specialists in technical problems from the army, sometimes with the personal support of the emperor. It could even appeal to using the troops in construction activity. One of the best known examples is that of the Nonius Datus, librator, engineer, in Legion III Augusta from Lambesis (North Africa). He was detached to Saldae to help the locals to pierce a heights with a tunnel, which they had started it from both sides but they were not able to coordinate the two teams. To facilitate work in favorable conditions, were placed ​​to his disposal the soldiers  from the fleet stationed at Caesareea (Mauretania). The usage of troops was made only with the consent of the governor and the prefect of the fleet. There were quite detailed reports on the usage of troops. Providing specialists from the military often happen​​, which shows the small number of these specialists in case of the civilians. Trajan advised Pliny to ask for a librator from Calpurnius Macer, the governor of Moesia Inferior, to build some channels in Nicomedia. The latter shall send a centurion of legion.

Ownership of sources. Regarding the private regime, Greeks and Romans used the water for drinking, bathing, laundry. Quite often they used pure water-aqua mera mixed with wine – convivium; water is also used to purifications-lustratio, sacrifices-sacrificium, for bath-balneum, clothes-fullo, marriages-nuptiae.

From the legal point of view, water was split in aqua pluviales or aqua caelestis (rainwater) and aqua profluens (current water). As water sources were using fountaines-fontes, rivers-rivus, torrents-rivus non perennis. Rainwater belonged to those that accumulate it, and could be used as such. The situation was somehow more complex in the case of rivers, but especially for navigable waters. At the beginning, there was only property encumbered by certain obligations, but when the rivers become navigable-flumina navigabilia, the situation changes. To legalize this situation are given res communes. If a river benefit by res communes, individuals could use the water for domestic and household, but these rights do not extended in the terms of use for agriculture and crafts, possibly only with authorization. Rivers-rivus and the torrents-flumen non perenne usually belonged to the riparian owners, who usually had no obligation for these sources. Regulating the water distribution between upper riparians, lower or parallel was based on customs, municipal laws or the praetorian prohibitions. Riparian owners could made embankments to protect their property, provided that such work does not harm neighbors or to the navigation system. The fact that every fisherman sailing on the river, to disembark, tie a rope to a tree on shore, dissatisfaction the owners, that through magistrates could initiate legal actions against the public use of rivers. It was forbidden something likely to alter the flow or speed of the running water, or to impairing water quality. When disagreements arose between upstream owners – downstream, it could initiate a judicial action aquae pluviae arcendae, judged by a superior magistrate, arbiter, who decided under the law of the 12 tables. If an private would try to alter the course of a river, so as to prejudice a private or public property, public slaves intervened. Also could not undertake works to restore a river navigation without authorization. All these issues were regulated by aqua in usu publico. Special provisions of the emperor or the Senate did not prevent the riparians to collect or deflect the flow of water quo minus ex aqua publico nihil impedit, of course the above conditions mentioned. There are some other changes in the legislation, but they had a provincial character, if Africa, or municipal level, based on some old possessions and rights that will gain in time the character of law vetustate quae semper pro lege habeatur. By analogy, these rules must be operated in case of rivers, lakes and ponds, too. Riparians to the public rivers had ownership of waterfront land, unlike seaside territories that are common litus.

Usage of the land for the construction of aqueducts, was limited by the right of free property of those to whom they belonged. As a result, the crossing of some properties could not do without the arbitration of a higher authority whose decision to be unassailable, but taking into account the interests of the owners. In these circumstances, Senate intervention became inevitable, the more that these owners were creating difficulties in the construction of aqueducts pursuing their own interests, though they were supplied with their water. Frontinus show that if an owner create difficulties, he had to finally give his point of view. By senatus consultum (senatorial decree) of 11 BC and Lex Quinctia of 9 BC, was established the size of parcels that could be expropriated. There were cases that are exceptions to the rule. A famous case concerns the Forum of Augustus, who had built more narrow than it was designed, because of the owners of the neighboring houses. During the censors M. Aemilius Lepidus and M. Fulvius Nobilior, in 179 BC, were granted funds for water supply. Due to the opposition of M. Licinius Crassus, who refused to allow the passage of a property that belonged to him, the action failed. No expropriation was possible in the name of public interest, without compensation, in Roman law. Not even in the third century AD when state interventions were common in property regime. Refusals of some landowners were not fewer when the pipes or channels were passing through their lands, because the agricultural works were hampered due to the property division by the aqueduct. However owners obliging themselves to ensure the cleanliness and maintenance of water installations, had reductions in taxes or other facilities.

In the cities life of the Roman Empire, water supply continuously and in sufficient quantities it was very important, representing firstly a prerequisite for civilization. Besides the multiple uses of water for irrigation, crafts activities, hygiene and sanitation, we can speak of pleasure and luxury that it offers water usage. It was a pleasure for all the citizens participating in the ritual bath daily, offering a diverse social environment through the discussions who taken place here, hearing the recitation of texts, sports competitions and the luxuries which offered themselves those with financial possibilities by connecting to the public aqueduct.

Dr Gica Baestean, Archeologist on Roman locality Sarmizegetusa, Romania

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