Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Roman Aqueducts |
Water, the essential need, where the Romans excelled

Roman Aqueducts is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 112, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Roman baths, where people talked, dined, and debated, were made possible by feats of engineering that continue to amaze

Roman Aqueducts - Water, the essential need, where the Romans excelled

Roman Aqueducts - Water, the essential need, where the Romans excelled
The thermae or public baths were a visible advertisement of the grandeur and luxury of the empire. Wherever its citizens traveled, they could cleanse their pores in a steamy caldarium. The water for the baths, fountains, and other public sanitation services was brought to the empire’s cities from upland lakes, often as much as sixty miles away, by massive aqueducts, like the Claudian near Rome (above).

The twentieth-century essayist G. K. Chesterton once remarked that anyone called upon to defend a preference for civilization over barbarism would be hard-pressed to point to any single reason for his preference–warm houses, postal delivery, and public transportation might all figure into a fragmentary answer. Yet the word “civilization” is derived from the Latin for city and citizenship, implying that it blossoms only when many people can live together in close proximity. And that inevitably requires public sanitation, one of civilization’s most important fruits.

In the case of Roman civilization, sanitation was not only a necessary precondition of tightly packed communities. The public baths or thermae themselves were the venues for leisurely political debate, artistic musings and entrepreneurial negotiations. Romans bathed not only to get clean (and in winter, warm), but also to meet with friends and fellow citizens.

The rituals of bathing differed from province to province, but generally the bather would first have his skin rubbed with oil in the unctuarium and exercise in a palestra or courtyard. He would then relax and chat with friends in the trepidarium or warm room, while being served snacks and drinks by public slave-attendants, and then move on to the hot and steamy caldarium. Here he sat, perspiring and scraping his skin with a strigil, the curved metal knife that served ancient skin-care needs in place of soap. Finally came a soak in the calidarium (hot bath) and a quick dip in the frigidarium (cold bath).

After swimming, the bather might stroll with friends in the public gardens, decorated with mosaics and marble sculptures, or perhaps watch an athletic event in a theater-like rotunda, listen to a poetry recital in an attached theatre, or have a meal in the restaurant. Visitors might book a room at the baths.

For Christians, the baths posed problems. Some shunned them as homosexual brothels. Others saw them as an opportunity to preach the Gospel.

The largest Roman bath was built by Diocletian in a.d. 305, covering an area of 130,000 square yards and capable of serving over 6,000 bathers at a time (though later converted into a church by Michelangelo). Others were almost as large, and the thermae were the most impressive buildings in every provincial town.

Such baths required the logistics of a functioning empire. Cool running water was brought in from miles away by aqueducts large enough to drive a wagon through. A constant supply of charcoal or wood was needed to feed the hypocaust or underfloor furnace, which heated the floors, walls and pools.

This is the end of the Roman Aqueducts category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 112, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Roman Aqueducts from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at