The aqueducts are among the greatest achievements of the ancient Romans. A number of these architectural wonders of antiquity are still (partially) standing and even functioning. Even in the city center of Rome you will sometimes unexpectedly bump into small stretches of these monuments.
A brief history of the aqueducts of Rome
Added up, those ancient Roman aqueducts are about 400 kilometers long. All but 50 of these 400 kilometers are underground. When they were being built, the possibility of repairs was already taken into account, so access roads (with marble manhole covers) were installed at regular intervals.
A legion (in the time of Emperor Augustus a legion consisted of more than 5000 men) of workers was needed to build and maintain the system. The whole enterprise was under the direction of a curator aquarum.
Where to see the aqueducts
The very best place to get an impression of the gigantic enterprise it must have been is in the Parco degli Acquedotti, which is not in the center but can easily be reached by subway (metro line A, stop Numidio Quadrato). Those who prefer staying in the center had best go to the Porta Maggiore, where multiple aqueducts are incorporated in the Aurelian Wall.
The most important aqueducts of Rome
The Acquedotto Vergine was one of the most important aqueducts, as it supplied water to the Trevi Fountain and the fountains in Piazza Navona, among others. It was the first aqueduct to be restored after the plundering by the Barbarians, allowing people to move to the current, but at the time still uninhabited, center.
Acqua Julia Aqueduct
The Acqua Iulia Aqueduct was also among the city’s more important aqueducts, as it supplied water to the most central neighborhoods. Part of the aqueduct was built on existing arches of the Aqua Marcia Aqueduct.
Aqua Appia Aqueduct
The oldest aqueduct in Rome is the Acqua Appia which dates back to 312 BC, with a length of 16 kilometers.
Aqua Claudia Aqueduct
This is dwarfed by the 68 kilometers of the Acqua Claudia. Like the vast majority of aqueducts, the Acqua Claudia enters the city at Porta Maggiore. Later branches were added to the Basilica of St. John of Lateran and the Palatine, among others.
The Alessandrino Aqueduct, which also enters the city at Porta Maggiore, is best admired along Viale Palmito Togliatti, outside the city center. Although others were built later, the Acquedotto Alessandrino is the last of the aqueducts built in Roman times.
Acqua Marcia Aqueduct
The Acqua Marcia is 91 kilometers long. This aqueduct has its source at Arsoli, east of Rome. It was built in the 2nd century BC and later restored many times. It would eventually supply water to 10 districts of the city and also provided the water supply to Diocletian’s Baths.
Anio Novus Aqueduct
The Anio Novus Aqueduct is one of the longest aqueducts in the city at 87 kilometers. It enters Rome at a part of the city now called Capanelle and was known for the poor quality of the water, which came not from a spring, but directly from the river.
Acqua Paola Aqueduct
The Acqua Paola Aqueduct is one of the few aqueducts that does not enter the city at Porta Maggiore. The source is near Bracciano, the showpiece is the Fontana dell’Aqua Paola on the Janiculum above Trastevere.
Acqua Alsietina Aqueduct
The Acqua Alsietina Aqueduct (or Acqua Augusta Aqueduct) was built by order of Augustus. He needed the water to organize fake naval battles. Almost the entire aqueduct is underground and therefore the least interesting for tourists of all the aqueducts in Rome.
Wherever you are in Rome you can see little water fountains, spouting water inexhaustibly, day and night. The water from these “long-noses” (nasoni), as the Romans call them, is perfectly drinkable. Even in the middle of summer, when temperatures hover between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius, it tastes like it came straight from the refrigerator. What most tourists in Rome do not know is that most of this water is supplied by the ancient Romans aqueducts.
Some of Rome’s most famous fountains were actually meant to be showpieces, built at the end of an aqueduct to demonstrate the magnificence of the patronage that went into their construction. The Moses Fountain is an example, and so is the Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, but the most famous one, of course, is the Trevi Fountain.