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Part III – ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’

Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls explain how Rome supplied its million or so inhabitants with a continuous, fresh supply of drinking water.
If you were asked, what have the Romans ever done for us, aqueducts would be a good answer. A growing, thirsty city of a million or so people required an abundant, fresh, fast-flowing water supply for drinking, for trade and industry, and to keep the streets and sewers clean. And pretty early on, the Romans realised the answer to this was to tap the mountain streams in the hills around Rome and bring them flowing into the city in artificial channels, aqueducts. If you want an idea of how much water these aqueducts delivered, you could do worse than come somewhere like this. Here we are at the Trevi Fountain, still fed by an aqueduct that in its origin is ancient.
It’s the Aqua Virgo of 19 BC built for Augustus. And it brings water in from hills 18 kilometres away, delivering 100,000 cubic metres a day. Look at the fountain behind me, and you can see just how much that really is. And this was only one of the network, a system of 12 aqueducts that, at its height, delivered vast volumes of water into the city, feeding the fountains, bath houses, and homes of this growing, thirsty place. As one proud Roman boasted– he was the commissioner of aqueducts under one of the emperors– “How much better this is than those lofty but useless pyramids that the Egyptians built.”
We’re back again in the Heberden coin room at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. And we’re going to look in a bit more detail at what Roman coins can tell us about emperors and their buildings. Roman aqueducts were highly expensive bits of engineering. And emperors wanted to make sure that as many people as possible knew about them and appreciated them. So it’s not surprising that aqueducts are among the buildings advertised on coins. In fact, that happened even before Rome was ruled by emperors. Here’s a coin from the late republic. This is 56 BC.
And it shows a horseman galloping across the arches of the Aqua Marcia, celebrating, perhaps, the restoration of that aqueduct that dated all the way back to 140 BC. But it shows that that long line of aqueduct arches is part of the Roman imagination. If you want to put an aqueduct on a coin, this is how you show it. When the emperors began constructing and refurbishing Rome’s aqueducts, they wanted everybody to know about it. And here, for example, is a coin of the Emperor Trajan. There he is, emperor in the early second century AD– famous builder who built roads and harbours and fora. But he also invested in aqueducts.
Here is his representation of his new aqueduct in Rome, the Aqua Traiana, whose name you can see right at the bottom of the coin. And pictured above it is not a series of aqueduct arcades this time but rather a river god, a familiar depiction of a river god reclining with a reed in his hand.
And this is a river whose streams are diverted into Trajan’s new aqueduct, flowing 25 miles or so from Lake Bracciano northwest of Rome through a series of complicated aqueduct channels over miles of Roman countryside into the city in the high hills of the Janiculum and then flowing down towards the centre of town to power grain mills and to feed, among other things, Trajan’s magnificent new bath house complex.
Now, of course, fountains are still very much part of the street scene of modern Rome today, as here in the Piazza Mattei with this charming fountain known as the Fountain of the Turtles, the turtles being posted up into the basin by their attendants. And the idea of flowing water, the splash of water on stone is a sound here that would go right back to the ancient period.
All that water has to go somewhere. And if you want to find out how the Romans matched their brilliant aqueduct engineering with sewers that were themselves marvelled at by ancient writers, then you can read more about it in the next step.

Although perhaps not the most glamorous of the city’s structures, aqueducts and sewers were a fantastic feat of engineering by the Romans. I explain how Rome supplied its million or so inhabitants with a continuous, fresh supply of drinking water.

As you watch this video, you may like to think about the following:

  • Were the Romans right to be so proud of their aqueducts?

Share your thoughts below.

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