Water is life and without it there is only death! I make no joke about the fundamental need of water. Today we have become arrogant in our behavior towards it, spilling out of our kitchen taps without giving it much thought. Rachel Carson wrote, “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.” Ancient Rome was obsessed with water. Finding it, bringing down into its cities, creating new engineering to move it and store it, bathing complexes to bath in it, deified it, respected it and most of all, lived well because of it. By the first century A.D. Rome was bring more water into its city than what New York City did, up until 1985!
Both Augustus and Claudius used their power and presence of mind to improve upon the systems already established to bring water into their capital. Rome's first aqueduct supplied a water-fountain sited at the city's cattle-market. By the 3rd century AD, the city had eleven aqueducts, to sustain a population of over 1,000,000 in a water-extravagant economy; most of the water supplied the city's many public baths, fountains and drinking fountains that could be accessed by all and sundry. Rome even introduced, for a fee, running water into the private homes of the rich and powerful, who happily paid for their own supply of this precious commodity. The maintenance of this important infra-structure was a serious pursuit; Rome took her water seriously and made sure it continued to flow for centuries. The lack of maintenance that eventually disappeared altogether, along with an indifferent society, was the death knell of the fall of Rome. The filthy Tiber River became the source of city water, quickly followed by disease and the decimation of the population. Water is life and life without water is often a slow, miserable death!
Fast forward to 2012 and one is amazed to learn that the ruins of the Vergine Aqueduct, one of the most important in ancient Rome, have been discovered under the former Rinascente building off Via del Corso, now the home of Spanish retail giant Zara. Archaeologists came across the aqueduct under the intersection of Via del Tritone as excavations began to enlarge the retail premises. However the expansion plan – scheduled to take two and a half years – continues, with the intention of opening a larger store in 2015. Well that news might come as a great relief to the shoppers of this world, but the legacy of Rome is not a new Zara shopping complex; it’s water.
The Vergine aqueduct is one of the several built to serve ancient Rome with pure drinking water. The name derives from the name of its predecessor, Aqua Virgo, constructed by Marcus Agrippa in 19 BC to serve the Campo Marzio district. In 1453 Pope Nicholas V renovated and expanded the Aqua Virgo to enhance the city’s drinking water supply during the Renaissance. The magnificent Trevi Fountain started in 1732 by Nicola Salvi that uses the water of the Aqua Vergine aqueduct.
Rome is blessed with water and a true blessing it is! The next time you find yourself in Rome on a hot summer’s day, bending down to drink from one of the many fountains that dot this city, smile and dips your lid to the genius of ancient Rome.