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Water Supply

Route of the Aqua Augusta

The Aqua Augusta or Serino Aqueduct carried water from the spring source of Fons Augustus near the present day town of St. Lucia di Serino (at an altitude of 376m) to its termination at the Piscina Mirabilis which lies 10 metres above sea level at Misenum west of Naples.

From the source, the aqueduct ran mostly underground so is not known for any spectacular structures, but it did have some major tunnels, like the one below Mt Paterno which measured over 1900 metres.

In all, the main channel was over 96 km long, and had between 12 and 14 branches to towns along its route. These towns included Nola, Pompeii, Neapolis, Puteoli, Cumae and Baiae, with possibly a branch to Herculaneum, although evidence of this is sparse.

The route passed to the north of Mount Vesuvius and then onto Neapolis, to terminate at the Roman naval base of Misenum. Here, it flowed into the huge cistern of Piscina Mirabilis (pictured left).

The branch serving Pompeii ended at the Castellum Aquae (pictured above) in the north of the city, situated next to the Vesuvius Gate.
The Castellum Aquae sits at the highest point of Pompeii, some 34 metres higher than the lowest point in the city to the south around the Stabia Gate. The building contains a circular, domed cistern, 5.7m in diameter and 4.3m high into which the water from the aqueduct flowed.

The water exited the cistern by way of the three principal branches of the urban water network (pictured right).

Lead pipework, buried to a depth of 60cm under the pavements carried the water to a series of secondary water towers intended to lower the water pressure.

Thirteen of these towers are dotted around the city, each of a different height to provide a suitable water pressure. The towers in turn fed water to the neighbouring properties and public fountains. The photos below shows typical fountains from Herculaneum and Pompeii.
However, large consumers of water such as the baths and commercial businesses like the fullers needed the large volumes of water that only the aqueduct could provide, so there was pressure on the council to restore the supply as soon as possible.

While the existing network of pipes was being dug up and repaired, it seems temporary piping was laid at street level to distribute water.
Pompeii's water supply was seriously damaged by the earthquake of AD62.
Immediately after the earthquake all water from the aqueduct was cut off and citizens had to rely on the rainwater collected in their own cisterns.
For an in depth look at the issues involved in transporting water large distances we recommend the website Roman Aquaducts by Schram and Passchier. In addition there is a paper by Monteleone, Yeung and Smith on the practicalities of Roman water supply which can be found in the Bibliography as Appendix M. A second paper,
by Jones and Robinson on the importance of water and its implications on social.status, is also included as Appendix C.

Drainage and Sewers

Apart from the area around the Forum, there was no proper drainage in Pompeii. This was probably due to the fact that Pompeii was a relatively old City: had it been newer, like neighbouring Herculaneum, a sewer system would have been part of the original town planning.

In Pompeii the paved streets themselves acted as a drainage network. The overflow from the water supply (at public fountains, etc) ran down the streets together with waste water from latrines and other sources. This overflow must have run permanently and would have helped to clean the streets.
The running water followed the natural slope of the streets and left the city through outlets in the wall near the city gates. Because of the perpetually flowing water, however, stepping stones were required to cross the streets as can be seen in the above photograph.

In Herculaneum there was a planned system of drains and sewers. One such sewer that has been partially excavated runs down the eastern side of Cardo V under Insula Orientalis II, referred to as the systema fognario. The photograph (right) shows Cardo V, looking south - the sewer runs under the buildings on the left-hand side of the picture. There is a major branch (from the area of the palaestra) joining this sewer at a point opposite the thermopolium at the corner of the Lower Decumanus and Cardo V.

The sewer is no mean undertaking, substantially built in brick and varying in width from 750mm in the main sewer in Cardo V to over 2 metres in the branch to the palaestra.

In general the height of the sewer is in the order of 3 metres with an arched soffit. Unfortunately we currently have no photographs of the sewer, but the link here displays a 3D view of the branch to the palaestra. For fuller information on the systema fognario, please visit the appropriate page on the Herculaneum Conservation Project website.

Many houses, and certainly most upper floor apartments, did not have main drainage. This is not susprising, since most households also did not have running water, but had to fetch water from the street fountains. Anything resembling water closets, seats sited over running water, must have been rare in private housing. Some houses seem to have had cess-pits, but mostly people used commodes or chamber pots which were later emptied down a nearby drain, or loaded onto the wagons taking out the night soil.

There were, however, public latrines. They seem to have been a normal part of public baths, with which they could share water supply and drainage; they were also likely to be found at other convenient sites. It seems likely that access was free, but perhaps there was a token payment when they were separate from the baths.

Public lavatories were commonly comfortable places, where one might sit and read or otherwise socialise.

Public urinals, on the other hand, were simply large jars, dolia, cut short for convenience and hence often called dolia curta, which were regularly emptied and the contents sold to the fullers. Urine was bought by the fullers as it was used particularly for cleaning woolen material.

The disposal of excrement not washed down the sewers must have been a problem. It was presumably often take out of the city as night soil and dumped in open pits, into which all sorts of other refuse was also thrown. Agricultural writers point out that it could be aged into useful manure, but because the Roman diet was cereal based, the human manure would have taken longer to degrade than that of grass eaters.


Paved roads initially began with the paved streets of Rome. With the conquest of Italy, roads (viae) were extended from Rome to outlying municipalities. These roads basically conformed to a standard laid down in the 'Twelve Tables', dated to approximately 450 BC, which specified that a road should be 8 feet wide where straight and 16 where curved. The construction consisted of a broad trench about four feet deep filled with a solid foundation of sand and rubble followed by a layer of compacted gravel and clay topped off with flagstones, cambered to allow rainwater to run off to the sides. 

The over-riding purpose of the Roman road system was to provide for the needs of the army: to supply garrisons in Italy and later in the provinces and to allow for the rapid movement of troops. For this reason the building and maintenance of roads was made a military responsibility. Municipalities, however, were responsible for their own roads (viae vicinales). Roman engineers built roads that were generally straight. Although this directness provided for the shortest route between two points, it could result in impractically steep inclines. Over time Romans chose routes which, though longer, were more practical.

The roads connecting cities (viae) were generally centrally placed in the countryside and were divided into numbered miles by milestones.  A roman mile was 1000 paces (milia passuum) and each milestone (an example is pictured right) recorded the mile and often gave additional information such as who built or maintained that particular stretch of road. Secondary roads (viae rusticae) connected settlements off the main route. Beyond the secondary roads were dirt tracks (viae terrenae).

The main road passing through the Ager Pompeianus was the Via Popilia which connected Capua with Rhegium in the toe of Italy. This road connected with the Via Appia (pictured top right and below) at Capua and hence led to Rome. The Via Popilia passed through Nuceria (present day Nocera), about 14km from Pompeii following the approximate route of the A30/E841.

A network of secondary roads connected Pompeii and the other settlements in the area with each other and Nuceria. Pompeii was ideally placed for trade as it was at the mouth of the River Sarnus (todays River Sarno) as well as being at the junction of several of these secondary roads linking Neapolis, Nuceria and Stabiae.

Although the roads may have been of a quality never seen before, travelling on them was far from a comfortable experience. Sprung suspensions were almost non-existent and most vehicle axles were simply greased with a handful of fat to keep them turning.

Many travellers chose to walk, with perhaps a donkey to carry their luggage. A couple, if they have the money may have chosen a birota, a two wheeled cart, usually drawn by two or three mules, but a family would be more likely to use a carruca dormitoria, a large covered wagon (pictured left) in which they all could sleep, thus saving the cost of overnight accommodation.

Most maps of the time listed the imperial way stations (mansiones), which kept a change of vehicles and horse for those on imperial business, but which also offered food and accommodation to the general public. Mansiones were generally about a dozen or so miles apart but there were also alternatives such as stabulum which offered overnight stabling and hospitality.

Roman maps were generally in the form of a band representing points along the journey as can be seen in the Peutinger Map, a 13th century copy of a road map of the Roman Empire, probably dating back to the Augustan Age. The map is in the form of a continuous elongated chart, 6.8m x 0.34m, showing the known world from Britain to India. To view this map in its entirety go to Appendix III - Peutinger Map.

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