Ancient and modern

Do we need a Roman-style Water Czar?

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

It is clear that the country will soon need a Water Czar. Augustus’s right-hand man Agrippa would be the one to reshape the whole system, and Frontinus to ensure it all worked.

Of Rome’s aqueducts, ‘cut-and cover’ masonry channels, following the contours of the ground, made up 80 to 90 per cent of their total mileage, with tunnels and arches only as necessary. Rome’s first three aqueducts, built between 312 bc and 144 bc, were ten miles, 40 miles and 56 miles long, the last with arches along the final flat seven miles into the city.

But Rome was expanding fast by now and it was clear that, if the health, comfort and sanitation of the city were to be maintained (public baths were Rome’s key leisure facility and the main driver of demand), more were urgently needed. But in 125 bc, only one inadequate 11-mile aqueduct was added. Finally, in 33 bc, Agrippa (d. 11 bc) was appointed to get a real grip(a) on the situation. He repaired and added capacity to all the existing aqueducts, built two more, and completely reorganised the whole distribution system to serve every district of Rome. Augustus ensured his work continued, and when the Emperor Claudius (d. ad 54) added two more aqueducts (totalling 97 miles), Rome received about a million cubic metres of water a day.

By now there was an official Aqueduct Czar, a position taken up in ad 97 by Frontinus (governor of Britain, ad 74-78). His surviving account of his activities is filled with facts and figures. He knew the whole system in detail, made plans of all the aqueducts ‘so that I had everything before my eyes, as it were’, understood the volumes of water being carried, its rates of discharge, its purity, the need for regular shutdowns for repairs and for diversions when demand varied, and so on. With his team of 700 repair men, he was especially hot on leaks and illegal tapping into the supply. He loved it all: ‘compare’ (he exclaimed) ‘the extensive structures of this vital aqueduct network with the idle pyramids or useless, though famous, attractions of the Greeks!’

Doubtless Chris Grayling is awaiting the call…

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments