Small was beautiful for the Romans

Contrary to textbook history, the grand sweeping aqueducts and engineered sewer networks held up to be the standard for Roman municipal life, were most likely to be the last resort for Roman town planners and latter day sewage engineers, according to new research.


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A study from the Netherlands suggests that the Romans preferred much smaller scale solutions for their water and wastewater, such as cesspits, wells and rainwater tanks. Roman planners 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 many wells but no cesspits, as the water table is too high for cesspits. Therefore Ostia has a sewerage system.

According to the researchers, Ostia’s sewer is particularly beautiful and has remained perfectly intact. It is so well preserved because it has remained underground, but this has its disadvantages for researchers who have had to cope with a large population of toads and a labyrinth of passages.

In Herculaneum, no cesspits were constructed as the ground is too rocky. “The cesspits were not that difficult to dig, it is just that they were not functioning properly, filled in quickly and had to be emptied often,” Gemma Jansen, one of the researchers, told edie. “Therefore, the inhabitants chose at a certain point to have a sewer system.”

Pompeii has both a sewer and a drainage system for rainwater. The Dutch team is currently examining the latter.

Small elevations in the streets of Pompeii directed the rainwater away, although, sometimes these were not adequate 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, concludes the Dutch researchers.

However, despite the broad scale of systems available to the Romans, the researchers say there is little they can teach today’s sewage engineers. Even though some of the inventions are ingenious, it is not a surprise to hear that 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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