Published onOctober 12th, 2023
4 Fascinating Facts About Plumbing in Ancient Rome
The ancient Romans were an innovative people, especially when it came to the modernization of society. Sanitation was a common problem in most ancient civilizations, with sewage discarded in the streets or buried in deep holes. The rise and stabilization of the Roman Empire saw the advent of aqueducts and ancient Roman plumbing.
The designs and infrastructure of ancient Rome inspired modern advances in sanitation systems. Some of the innovations of ancient Rome are still in use today — for instance, the Cloaca Maxima. Discover some of the most fascinating facts about Roman plumbing.
4 Interesting Facts About Ancient Roman Plumbing
1. Ancient Rome Had a Sewer System – and It Still Works
In the early days of ancient Roman plumbing, the system aimed to drain excess stormwater from the streets. However, as the territories became more populous, people emptied household latrines and public bathrooms into the streets or manufactured marshes.
Roman engineers built the Cloaca Maxima — the Great Sewer — in the 6th century B.C. The sewer was quite the engineering feat for the time, consisting of large stone blocks; it was 25 feet wide and over 1,000 feet long. The initial purpose of the sewer was to empty marshlands and carry stormwater to the Tiber River.
However, a century after its installation, to curb the threat to public health — and possibly to improve the odor of the city — the Cloaca Maxima’s open drain was sealed and became a sewer for all latrines and public baths. The continuous water flow through the line helped remove potential obstructions and clear the system.
The Great Sewer is still in use, over 2,400 years later. While it is no longer used for sewage waste, the drain is used to lead stormwater away from the city, as was its original intent.
2. Roman Aqueducts Took 500 Years To Complete
Roman aqueducts included a system of bridges, pipes, tunnels, and canals, all proceeding from the Tiber River and running throughout the city. Roman engineers used the slope of the land and gravity to transport water through the complex system, in much the same way as New York City’s water supply.
The Roman invention was more sophisticated than older aqueduct designs from Egypt or India. The extensive network allowed for the transport of freshwater across all Roman territories, easing the complexities of daily life.
The construction of the aqueducts took over 500 years, from 312 B.C. to 226 A.D. The engineers used various substances to build the sturdy and intricate system, including stone and lead.
Despite the ability to install indoor connections to the aqueduct system, few households at the time had any plumbing because of the expense. Rome installed central fountains and bathhouses to ensure all citizens could access freshwater and sanitation. For the most part, high-born and wealthy socialites had the privilege of indoor plumbing. That said, the privilege likely came with several health issues, as the pipes used lead to feed water into homes.
3. Plumbing Systems Separated Freshwater and Waste Water
The aqueducts and ancient Roman plumbing, including the sewage system, ensured that Rome’s water supply remained clean. The sewers connected to latrines and waste lines, leading wastewater out of the city and its territories. By evacuating the waste from the city, Rome could limit the illness and infection that festered in the poorer communities.
Additionally, sourcing freshwater from the Tiber helped maintain a hygienic and healthier society. While people were still susceptible to the various illnesses of the day, being able to clean themselves daily helped to maintain a somewhat sanitary life.
The complex plumbing system ensured that the Roman Empire did not suffer the same fate as many other civilizations. Drought and a lack of safe drinking water have led to the downfall of at least 10 nations or civilizations, including the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt and the Maya civilization. Rome’s ingenuity and engineering prowess saved its people from similar fates and likely contributed to the empire’s nearly 1,500-year existence.
4. Romans Had Public Toilets
Because indoor plumbing was not in widespread use in ancient Rome, the empire installed “rooms of easement,” or communal toilets. The dedicated rooms appeared in several locations throughout cities and connected directly to the ancient Roman plumbing system.
The rooms were not complex, and did not have the same comforts as people are used to in modern restrooms. The communal toilets comprised a simple rectangular platform with adjacent seats and openings. While some of the bathrooms included partitions, these were not common. People sat side by side, regardless of gender. One room could house up to 20 toilets — not exactly a gathering you’d want to experience!
Beneath the toilet or latrine seats, water flowed continuously from the aqueducts. All waste from these public restrooms went into the sewers underneath the city and flowed to the Tiber River.
Not everyone enjoyed the prospect of sharing a squat with their neighbors, so some people installed private toilets in their residences that were not connected to the sewer system. The waste from these toilets was often collected and used in personal gardens as fertilizer, or sold to farmers for the same purpose.
Beyond Ancient Roman Plumbing
Let Sanitary Plumbing Keep Your Systems Up to Date
The Romans had a groundbreaking society and understood the importance of clean water for survival. Before constructing the aqueducts, the empire still used the Tiber River for drinking water. Still, the development of the ancient Roman plumbing system was a monumental leap forward for the plumbing industry and for civilization.
While some aspects of the ancient Roman invention are still in use today, plumbing has come a long way. New building codes and sanitation demands mean property owners must stay up to date on system maintenance and inspections, which can be challenging when managing several properties. Instead of trying to maintain an inspection schedule yourself, talk to a plumbing service about annual service contracts.
Contact Sanitary Plumbing at 212-734-5000 to schedule an inspection of your building’s plumbing system and to sign up for an annual service contract. Clients receive preferential scheduling and other perks, but the most significant benefit is that the service ensures all crucial maintenance services, and inspections are scheduled when necessary. While ancient Roman plumbing was good for the empire, it is not a system that works in modern NYC.