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The Romans preferred small-scale solutions to aqueducts and sewers

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

Contrary to common opinion, the Romans had several systems for the supply and drainage of water. The Romans preferred small-scale provisions such as cesspits, wells and rainwater tanks. The residents only constructed a water supply network or a sewerage system if these were not effective.

Research carried out at the University of Nijmegen reveals that the Romans came up with various, often pragmatic, solutions to their water problems. For example, the Italian town of Ostia has got many wells but no cesspits. The groundwater there is too high for cesspits. The water would seep through the piled up stones of the cesspit and that would cause a filthy mess. Therefore Ostia has a sewerage system.

The sewer in Ostia is particularly beautiful and has remained perfectly intact. It is so well preserved because it has always remained underground and that is still the case. The only disadvantage is that it is full of toads. This makes research in the sewer something of an Indiana Jones experience, especially as it is easy to get lost in it.

In Herculaneum, like Ostia a Roman town, the inhabitants did not construct such cesspits. The ground there is too rocky for draining away urine and faeces.

Pompeii, the third city visited by the archaeologists, has both a sewer and a drainage system for rainwater. The latter is currently being examined in the Netherlands.

Small elevations in the streets of Pompeii guided away the rainwater. Sometimes the elevations were not enough and the inhabitants chose to allow the rainwater to flow through the sewer. For example at the forum, the central square, rainwater flows into the sewer for the simple reason that people did not want the inconvenience of rainwater on such a lively square.

According to the researchers we cannot learn much more from the Romans. Even though some of the inventions are ingenious, hygiene, for example, is much better now. Although many Romans had their own toilet, they repeatedly used the same sponge cleaned with water instead of toilet paper.


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