Ancient Roman Aqueducts
Provide a Classicist
With a Fount of Lore

By Lawrence Biemiller

Portland, Me. -- Peter J. Aicher, a professor of classics at the University of Southern Maine, is sitting out by the end of the ferry pier here on a sunny morning, drinking hot coffee and talking about a favorite topic -- the 11 aqueducts of classical Rome. With engaging enthusiasm, he lays down fact upon fact, mortaring each to the next with a fine layer of detail, until he seems to have re-created in the clear spring air every arch and tunnel of a 300-mile system that once served a city of a million people.

As gulls wheel overhead, Mr. Aicher describes the aqueducts' construction. Although they're best known for the monumental ruins of their above-ground arcades, he notes, about four-fifths of the aqueducts' total length was underground. They filled cisterns, he says, and served hundreds of bathhouses, and fed ubiquitous public fountains whose overflow flushed the sewers. He mentions Martial's reference to a "dripping arch" -- one of what must have been many leaks around the city. He tells how repairs by a succession of emperors, conquerors, and popes kept the aqueducts running long into the Middle Ages -- and how the Aqua Virgo, completed in 19 B.C., has delivered water ever since. Its flow is now used for fountains, including the Trevi.

Mr. Aicher accumulated this reservoir of knowledge while writing Guide to the Aqueducts of Ancient Rome (Bolchazy-Carducci, 1995), a lively, literate account that gives the tourist maps and specific directions by road and subway, and even says when to bring along a flashlight. But the book also offers details, drawings, and vivid descriptions for the armchair traveler. If what you know about Roman aqueducts consists of hazy images of arches, the volume is full of surprises:

* The first aqueduct of the classical period, the Appia, was built in 312 B.C., and the last, the Alexandrina, in A.D. 226. Many were paid for with the spoils of foreign military campaigns. Later aqueducts often piggybacked on the structures of their predecessors -- in 33 B.C., a hundred years after the Aqua Marcia was completed, Marcus Agrippa added to the part of it nearest the city both the rerouted channel of the old Aqua Tepula and the channel of a new aqueduct, the Julia. (Much later -- in 1585 -- engineers working for Sixtus V began reusing parts of the Marcia's structure, as well as parts of the Aqua Claudia's, in the Acqua Felice, Rome's first new aqueduct in a millennium.)

* Romans favored the aqueducts that brought cool, clear water from springs east of the city, but the Anio Novus took its water directly from the Anio River, and the Aqua Alsietina, constructed by Augustus in 2 B.C., drew on a small crater lake west of the city that was then called Lake Alsietinus and is now known as Lake Martignano. Mr. Aicher notes that Augustus probably intended the aqueduct's "almost undrinkable" water to fill the Naumachia, a basin for mock sea battles.

* Except when one was shut down for maintenance -- when mineral deposits had to be chipped from the interior walls, for example -- the water in the aqueducts ran constantly. Although the aqueduct channels were covered, they did not run full or under pressure -- they relied on gravity, not pumps. From their tall arcades, the aqueducts fed distribution castella, where the water filled lofty tanks from which it was channeled down under pressure into a system of pipes that supplied neighborhoods. Although the pipes could lift water as high as the castellum that supplied them, only the wealthy had running water in their homes -- most people drew their water from the public fountains.

In writing Guide to the Aqueducts, Mr. Aicher says, he drew on the earlier work of several scholars, including Thomas Ashby's 1935 The Aqueducts of Ancient Rome and Esther B. Van Deman's 1934 The Building of the Roman Aqueducts (a questionable bit of classicists' lore, Mr. Aicher says, holds that Van Deman could identify cement from different periods of antiquity by its taste). But the most important source for aqueduct information is by far the oldest, a handbook called De aquaeducta urbis Romae. Prepared by a Roman water commissioner named Frontinus, who was appointed in A.D. 97, it not only explains in detail how the water supply worked, but also includes rough estimates of how much water each aqueduct carried. One copy survived the Middle Ages, in a Benedictine monastery.

Mr. Aicher is quick to note that his book, while updating earlier scholars' works, is not intended to advance aqueduct scholarship so much as to help scholars -- and others -- find whatever remains of the aqueducts, from a handful of tunnels that can be easily investigated to the much-patched ruins of bridges that carried the channels over rivers. Some of the above-ground structures have been damaged by time and by earthquakes, but where the structures have disappeared entirely, it's usually because the stones have been reused by later builders. "As late as the 18th century, there's a paper trail of private owners selling stone by the arch," Mr. Aicher notes.

How he came to write the definitive guidebook to Rome's aqueducts is a story with nearly as many twists as the Marcia and the Claudia. Mr. Aicher was a senior English major at Colgate University when he took up Latin -- on his own. "I wanted to read Virgil," he says, "and the plumber who I was working for had a cousin who tutored Latin." Later, while he was working as a night watchman and house painter, he found himself missing Latin so much that one day he stopped by the classics department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, looking for someone to talk to. He ended up enrolling as a graduate student.

After earning a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and teaching for three years at Creighton University, he took a leave to spend a year at Loyola University of Chicago's Rome Center, where he taught a topography course. "A couple of students were interested in the aqueducts, and I'd always been interested, but we had a hard time finding where they were." Ashby and Van Deman's books -- "tomes, really" -- offered dated descriptions of the landscape and were out of print anyway. "It struck me at the end of that year that people might appreciate a guidebook," he says.

It seemed a perfect task for Mr. Aicher, who enjoys both hiking and writing for broader audiences than classics journals typically receive. He started scouting out aqueduct sites, and returned a year later to scout some more. The ruins of the monumental arcades aren't too hard to find, of course, but the episodic repairs -- visible as accretions of brickwork and concrete, as arches within arches -- need an expert's explanation. And other remnants are elusive, such as the remains of the castella and evidence of the shafts that gave maintenance workers -- most of them slaves in imperial times -- access to underground parts of the routes.

Mr. Aicher also found that, as areas around Rome have evolved in recent years from farmland into suburbs, features that were visible when sheep grazed the local vegetation have become seriously overgrown. "It's amazing how fertile the thickets are," he says. "You could be 30 feet from these ruins and just not be able to get there."

Later in the morning, Mr. Aicher displays his talents as a tour guide, taking a visitor to a local cemetery to see a mausoleum modeled on the Maison-Carrée, a Roman temple that has survived intact in Nîmes, France. The aqueduct book, he says in the car, gave him "a different way of studying history" -- one that started from ruined stonework and expanded to encompass politics, engineering, and changing patterns of everyday life over a thousand years. "It brought Roman history alive for me."

Among his current projects are a novel about the man who became St. Benedict (he lived for several years in a cave overlooking the source of the Anio Novus), and research into Mussolini's efforts to style himself as a new Augustus. But Mr. Aicher is also working on another guidebook, one that will rely on transcriptions of Roman and Greek texts to bring history alive for visitors to Rome. He's doing most of the translating himself, taking extra care to make the texts "vigorous and vivid." His goal, he says, is to help modern tourists see the ancient city through the eyes of Virgil and Horace, Juvenal and Martial -- to see it with people crowding its baths, with fountains running on every street, and with water dripping, quietly and constantly, from the aqueducts' tall arches, just as Martial reports.

Copyright © 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published April 28, 2000.