My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology


Carla Nayland recently had some very interesting posts about Roman water infrastructure in Britain (part 1 and part 2). And today I watched a report on ORF (Austrian TV) about the Roman waterworks in Vindobona (Roman castellum and attached oppidum, now Vienna). They had some nice animations about aquaeduct construction, wells and pump systems, and the way lead was formed to pipes. What struck me as most interesting in the context of Carla's posts was a remark that the water transport in Vindobona was conducted underground because of the danger of frost. This would not be much of a problem in areas like southern France and Italy, known for some spectacular aquaeducts, but it could be a reason for the underground water systems at least in northern Britain - together with the fact that the territory wouldn't require large scale aquaeducts.

Considering the fact that underground pipe systems pose their own problems to get a balanced water pressure, aqueducts, though of simpler structure, could have been an option in some places in Britannia and in Vindobona (where water was led from a mountain well 30 kilometres away) thus I think the danger of frost was indeed a reason for the elaborate underground system. The pipes usually were put some 80 cm into the ground, that's below frost level.

Something that wasn't mentioned but struck me as interesting is the fact that even with the Danube literally running at the backdoor of the fort, the water wasn't taken from the river. The Danube was the outlet for the canalisation, though. I suppose the Romans had some ideas that it was better to keep the freshwater and canalisation systems separate. There was a neat animation of the complete water/latrine structure in the fort of Vindobona. In the 3rd century AD the fort was manned with 6000 soldiers plus auxiliary cavalry; the defense centre of the Noricum-Pannonian border and basis for the Danube fleet.
Oh, DROOL...
Interesting point about the need to avoid frost. I doubt that frost could crack a 6-foot aqueduct like a modern water pipe becaue they weren't completely full of water, but if the water froze solid the flow would be cut off; most inconvenient.

I've seen opposite arguments about how well the Romans understood hygiene. The practice of routinely bringing drinking water from springs and not from the local river (where the sewage was dumped) suggests they had a good empirical knowledge of the importance of keeping the two separate. You don't need to know about parasites and bacteria to observe that drinking water from a dirty river leads to stomach upsets. But a book on Roman medicine I read last year said that wells and cesspits were often quite close together suggesting little understanding of the risk of groundwater contimination.

Was it all lead pipes in Vindobona? In Britain it seems to be a mixture of lead pipes and bored-out wooden logs to make wooden pipes.
When I was in Tunisia I got to see the aqueduct system there, still impressive after all these years. And the sanitation systems, really impressive considering the time and the resources available.
Ceramic water pipes are also found in a few places in Britannia, eg. Fishbourne and London.
The frost measures are also a commentary on Roman adaptation to conditions they'd hardly have encountered in Italy or southern Gaul.

On wells near cesspits - perhaps the well water wasn't visibly (or olfactorally!) foul, so the connection was harder to make.
It does freeze in the Italian mountains in winter, and in the high ground of the Massif in Gaul, so the engineers probably had experience of frost in uplands, if not at low levels.

Well contamination is dependent on exactly how the groundwater migrates, so it doesn't always happen. The book didn't say how widespread it thought contamination was, only that there appeared to be no concerted effort to avoid it.
I suppose it was sometimes a picking of the lesser problem: There's no way to get a water pipe across the Massif Central without big aquaeducts and they had to deal with the frost somehow. But where the landscape allowed a choice, weather could have been a factor in deciding what to build.

Since the Romans always kept the water supply and canalization separate, I assume they had some ideas about the danger of dirty water, other than in the Middle Ages where clothes were washed in the same river nightpots were emptied into. But groundwater contamination is nothing you can see and not always smell, either, so they probably didn't know about it.

I think there have been much less epidemias of cholera and such in the Roman Empire than in later times which points at a better hygiene.
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The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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