Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
If you’re here then, just like us, you have a passion for Ancient Rome. We’re glad you do for there is so much to share.
As one of the largest ancient cities, Rome probably felt like the center of the universe at the height of its power. With so much happening militarily, culturally, religiously, and constructurally above the ground we often overlook what was going on underneath it.
Well that ends today as we uncover a truly great feat (at least in its own right) as we explore the Cloaca Maxima!
The Cloaca Maxima is one of the world’s earliest sewage systems. Constructed in Ancient Rome in order to drain local marshes and remove the waste of one of the world’s most populous cities, it carried effluent to the River Tiber, which ran beside the city.
The Cloaca Maxima was originally built by the Etruscans as an open-air canal. Over time, the Romans covered over the canal and turned it into a sewer system for the city.
The system of Roman sewers was much imitated throughout the Imperium Rōmānum (Roman Empire), especially when combined with abundant supplies of water from Roman aqueducts. The sewer system in Eboracum (modern-day York) was especially impressive, and part of it still survives today.
Contained within the Cloaca Maxima there were many branches off of the main sewer, all of which seem to be official SPQR drains that would have served public toilets, thermae (bath-houses) and other public buildings. Private residences in Rome, even of the rich, would have relied on some sort of cess-pit arrangement for sewage.
The Cloaca Maxima was well maintained throughout the life of the Roman Empire and even today drains rainwater and debris from the center of town, below the ancient Forum Rōmānum (Roman Forum), Velabrum and Foro Boario (Forum Boarium). In 33 BC it was known to have received an inspection and overhaul from Agrippa, and was thought to be presided over by the goddess Cloacina.
Modern archaeology has revealed several building styles and material from various ages, suggesting that the systems received regular attention. In more recent times, the remaining passages have been connected to the modern-day sewage system, mainly to cope with problems of backwash from the river.
The Romans are recorded to have dragged the bodies of a number of people to the sewers rather than give them proper burial, the reliability of the accounts though depends upon the case.
The outfall of the Cloaca Maxima into the River Tiber is still visible today near the bridge Ponte Rotto (Broken Bridge), and near Ponte Palatino (English Bridge). There is a stairway going down to it visible next to the Basilica Julia at the Forum, or from the surface opposite the church of San Giorgio al Velabro.
The underground structure was much praised. Here are the words of Pliny the Elder:
Hills were tunneled into the course of the construction of the sewers, and Rome was a ‘city on stilts’ beneath which men sailed when Marcus Agrippa was Aedile. Seven rivers join together and rush headlong through Rome, and, like torrents, they necessarily sweep away everything in their path. With raging force, owing to the additional amount of rainwater, they shake the bottom and sides of the sewers. Sometimes water from the Tiber flows backwards and makes its way up the sewers. Then the powerful flood-waters clash head-on in the confined space, but the unyielding structure holds firm. Huge blocks of stone are dragged across the surface above the tunnels; buildings collapse of their own accord or come crashing down because of fire; earth tremors shake the ground – but still, for seven hundred years from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, the sewers have survived almost completely intact.
This public work was largely achieved through the use of Etruscan engineers and large amounts of semi-forced labor from the poorer classes of Roman Citizens. Underground work is said to have been carried out on the sewer by Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s 7th and final King.
Although Livy describes it as being tunneled out beneath Rome, he was writing centuries after the event. From other writings and from the path that it takes, it seems more likely that it was originally an open drain, formed from streams from 3 of the neighboring hills, that were channeled through the main Forum and then on to the Tiber.
This open drain would then have been gradually built over, as building space within the city became more valuable. It is possible that both theories are correct, and certainly some of the main lower parts of the system suggest that they would have been below ground level even at the time of the supposed construction.
The 11 aqueducts which supplied water to Rome by the 1st Century AD were finally channeled into the sewers after having supplied the many public baths such as the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Trajan, the public fountains, imperial palaces and private houses.
The continuous supply of running water helped to remove wastes and keep the sewers clear of obstructions. The best waters were reserved for potable drinking supplies, and the subsequent quality waters would be used by the baths, the outfalls of which connected to the sewer network under the streets of the city.
We hope you found this journey at least somewhat enjoyable. We tried to keep it as clean as possible (considering the topic of discussion), and look forward to having you back again.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
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