At its peak, ancient Rome enjoyed a variety of comforts that, once lost, would take centuries to recover. This process, of course, constitutes much of the story of Western civilization. Though some knowledge didn’t survive in any useful form, some of it remained lastingly embodied. The mighty ruins of Roman aqueducts, for example, continued to stand all across the former Empire. Together they once constituted a vast water-delivery system, one of whose construction and operation it took humanity quite some time to regain a functional understanding. Today, you can learn about both in the video from ancient-history Youtuber Garrett Ryan just above.
“Greek engineers began building aqueducts as early as the sixth century BC,” says Ryan. “A stone-line channel carried spring water to archaic Athens, and Samos was served by an aqueduct that plunged through a tunnel more than one kilometer long.”
These systems developed throughout the Hellenistic era, and their Roman successors made use of “arches and hydraulic concrete, but above all it was the sheer number and scale that set them apart.” Most Roman cities had “networks of wells and cisterns” to supply drinking water; aqueducts, in large part, came as “luxuries, designed to supply baths, ornate fountains, and the houses of the élite.” Man’s taste for luxury has inspired no few of his great works.
The task of building Rome’s aqueducts was, in essence, the task of building “an artificial river flowing downhill from source to city” — over great distances using no power but gravity, and thus on a descending slope of about five to ten feet per mile. This precision engineering was made possible by the use of tools like the dioptra and chorobates, as well as an enormous amount of manpower. Roman aqueducts ran mostly underground, but more impressively in the elevated channels that have become landmarks today. “The most spectacular example is undoubtedly the Pont du Gard, located just outside Nîmes,” says Ryan, and TV traveler Rick Steves visits it in the clip above. What once served as infrastructure for the well-watered mansions of the wealthy and connected now makes for a fine picnicking spot.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.