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Rome's Tremendous Tunnel
March 24, 2009 2:15 PM   Subscribe

The Ancient World's Longest Underground Aqueduct. "Roman engineers chipped an aqueduct through more than 100 kilometers of stone to connect water to cities in the ancient province of Syria. The monumental effort took more than a century, says the German researcher who discovered it." How Did the Romans Accomplish Such a Feat? [Via]
posted by homunculus (25 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is incredibly fucking cool.

One question, though. First article sez:

When the Romans weren't busy conquering their enemies, they loved to waste massive quantities of water, which gurgled and bubbled throughout their cities. The engineers of the empire invented standardized lead pipes, aqueducts as high as fortresses, and water mains with 15 bars (217 pounds per square inch) of pressure.

In the capital alone there were thousands of fountains, drinking troughs and thermal baths. Rich senators refreshed themselves in private pools and decorated their gardens with cooling grottos. The result was a record daily consumption of over 500 liters of water per capita (Germans today use around 125 liters).


I'm not totally up on the history here, but hasn't our use of water gotten more efficient? This seems a little like harshing on folks in the early 20th century for their BIG UGLY REFRIGERATORS and their INEFFICIENTLY PRODUCED PENICILLIN. I'd rather have that drinking trough, however wasteful, than drink stagnant water.

Like I said, though, history of technology isn't my thing. Maybe I'm wrong and the Romans were just into being wasteful bastards?
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:24 PM on March 24, 2009


(Oh, I get it, they're the same article. Well, "first page" then.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:27 PM on March 24, 2009


Um.... slave labour?
posted by jokeefe at 2:32 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm impressed, but not surprised that it was possible. Eupalinos on Samos managed to create a 1km long tunnel over 500 years earlier, with as little, if not less technical knowledge. Likewise, similar boring methods using regularly spaced starting holes in order to maintain orientation and depth, as well as cut the work into smaller pieces, were still used on navigations and railways in the UK in the 19th century (perhaps later as well?).

I suppose the most surprising thing is that they thought investing 120 years of manpower was a good use of time, especially when they could have, you know, just used less water.
posted by Sova at 2:49 PM on March 24, 2009


It still shocks me to see how ancient cultures embarked on projects that would span generations since nowadays we can't seem to plan more than a few years for most things.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:51 PM on March 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


jokeefe: Yeah, close, or at least in part, but actually just as likely to have been military labor. The thing is, with a professional army like the Romans have, you have to pay them - even when they're NOT plundering Gaul, Germania, and the Near East. Now, a military waging war in the ancient war generates enormous profit, but an army protecting a frontier costs a fortune. Hell, how do you the the Romans had such a huge-mongious road system? Soldiers built it.

Nebulawindphone: Is it possible you are correct on both counts? Ancient technology made things horribly innefficient, but the Romans were also big on strategic, conspicuous consumption. I remember hearing a tale, possibly apocryphal, about a Roman aqueduct, hundreds of miles long, build somewhere in arid central asia, that just constantly gushed tons and tons of water. You know, just to show off, impress, and/or intimidate.
posted by absalom at 2:53 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


This seems a little like harshing on folks in the early 20th century for their BIG UGLY REFRIGERATORS and their INEFFICIENTLY PRODUCED PENICILLIN. I'd rather have that drinking trough, however wasteful, than drink stagnant water.

Yeah, a little. What I think needs to be kept in mind is the number of people in either case. I'm pretty confident even before looking anything up that modern Europe (even if you looked just at the ex-Roman areas) at 125L/person-day consumes more water than ancient Rome did at 500L/ppd, because the population is so much higher. Unfortunately it's probably pulling from many of the same aquifers and other water sources, so even though we're more efficient per-person, modern society is probably closer to unsustainability than the Romans ever were.

Given the resources at their disposal, their "waste" probably looked like a very small price to pay for what they were getting.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:54 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I suppose the most surprising thing is that they thought investing 120 years of manpower was a good use of time, especially when they could have, you know, just used less water.

Yea, what kind of society wastes huge amounts of manpower on securing a limited resource rather take easy steps to conserve what they have?
posted by octothorpe at 3:05 PM on March 24, 2009 [12 favorites]


modern society is probably closer to unsustainability than the Romans ever were.

Excellent point: after all, I'd say a huge amount of society's current water use (and waste) are from industrial and commercial rather than individual use, which would simply not exist in Rome's case.
posted by absalom at 3:10 PM on March 24, 2009


modern society is probably closer to unsustainability than the Romans ever were.

Not to mention the fact that there's about five+ billion more of us now than then.

Seriously cool find/article.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:17 PM on March 24, 2009


OT: The article currently at the top of neatorama about vasectomies in a recession is also fascinating.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:34 PM on March 24, 2009


I'm not totally up on the history here, but hasn't our use of water gotten more efficient?
Yes. But for starters we probably have a different concept of waste. In many cases, a Roman aqueduct was simply diverting part of river's tributary directly to their city, while it was still fresh and clean, rather than letting that tributary flow into the polluted, main river (which would be a waste of clean water). The water was going to flow to the sea either way, so might as well flow fresh and clean through the city fountains first, right?

The Romans also believed running water was healthier and safer than stagnant water in reservoirs. Even Rome today has plenty of public drinking fountains that have constantly running water (and I've had locals tell me that it is safer to drink water if it is both cool and from a constantly flowing source).

Also, while the construction of the aqueducts required tremendous engineering skill, the system itself was built to last forever (like a river) and with as few mechanical and manpower dependencies as possible, to reduce the risks of system breakdowns. Water pressure was supplied by gravity; you didn't have to add or reduce water pressure as you might have to if it were coming from below or above ground reservoirs. (To be sure, Rome made use of reservoirs - but not nearly to the extent that they did in Constantinople, centuries later. And these reservoirs were massive, underground construction projects in and of themselves).
posted by Davenhill at 4:01 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I suppose the most surprising thing is that they thought investing 120 years of manpower was a good use of time, especially when they could have, you know, just used less water.

Yea, what kind of society wastes huge amounts of manpower on securing a limited resource rather take easy steps to conserve what they have?


You can't spell touche without 'ouch'!

Ok then, I'm surprised that we haven't learnt anything in two thousand years...no wait, that's not surprising at all. Let me see...I'm surprised it takes wasteful civilisations so long to collapse even though they're engaging in such works. By this rate, Western civilisation has a couple of hundred years left to run, and then they'll be little left of us but neat buildings and expensive pipelines long run dry.
posted by Sova at 4:13 PM on March 24, 2009


It still shocks me to see how ancient cultures embarked on projects that would span generations since nowadays we can't seem to plan more than a few years for most things.

Guess this sort of thing is the one of the fruits of the sheer power of embedded autocracy/oligarchy/monarchy, compared to the short-termism of modern democracy, as any player of Civ 2 knows from experience.
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:51 PM on March 24, 2009


jokeefe: "Um.... slave labour?"

I am Spartacus.
posted by stbalbach at 7:29 PM on March 24, 2009


"The Romans also believed running water was healthier and safer than stagnant water in reservoirs. "

Actually true considering the wide spread use of lead in potable water systems. The less time the water spends in contact with the lead the less lead in any particular unit of water.
posted by Mitheral at 8:44 PM on March 24, 2009


Thank goodnesss much of humanity now obtains its drinking water from ultra-efficient combustion-engine driven trucks bearing water contained in HDPE bottles! Aqueducts built to stand the test of time are so backwards!
posted by Burhanistan at 9:29 PM on March 24, 2009


Whoops, the article says Hadrian visited the project in 129 B.C., but they must mean A.D. since Hadrian was emperor from 117-138 A.D.

Colossal statue of the emperor Hadrian discovered
posted by homunculus at 9:31 PM on March 24, 2009


I refer you to Burro Schmidt Tunnel. This was ONE guy who built an 0.8 km tunnel with pickaxe and some explosives. Subtract explosives and add thousands of laborers, and a 94 km tunnel is certainly doable.
posted by crapmatic at 10:06 PM on March 24, 2009


Roman inverted siphons are also pretty cool.
posted by Rumple at 10:14 PM on March 24, 2009


(Related: Previously, previously.)
posted by hattifattener at 10:45 PM on March 24, 2009


I bet if the Huns had stayed put we'd be in a funkier place today. Amazing!
posted by The Salaryman at 6:49 AM on March 25, 2009


Neat article! (homunculus, I am totally gonna fall for your Goatse Surprise one of these days) Those Roman engineers were amazing, and the empire certainly thought in terms of the long run - 120 years to build a public utility out in the hinterlands? Sure, no problem. Assuming an engineer might have a 20 year career, that's 6 generations of engineers working on this, probably a lot more as people got transferred around to different posts in the empire. Amazing they could maintain continuity for that long.

I find it interesting that fairly modern (19th - 20th Century) water supply systems are not very different from their Roman ancestors. New York City's water comes from an aqueduct system that delivers 95% of the water by gravity feed. Although mechanical pumps were available, inverted siphons were used wherever possible (sorry, can't find a better reference) to minimize the need for pumps. The pressure head produced by the ~300 m difference in elevation between the watersheds in upstate NY and faucets in the city is enough to deliver water to the 6th floor of most buildings without pumping!

Back to the Romans: their love of splashing about in hot water probably accelerated the downfall of the Empire due to deforestation. While they used wood for many things, like building and "industrial" fires (for smelting, glassworking, pottery-making, etc), a huge part of Roman wood consumption was heating water for public baths, which is what a lot of these aqueducts were supplying. One small bath needed over 100,000 kg of wood per year, according to that link! We all know the dire consequences of deforestation: soil erosion, desertification, flooding, loss of biological diversity, etc. The Roman Empire had reached unsustainability and it didn't take much for the Visigoths to overthrow the crumbling system in 410. We're probably heading for the same type of crash with our dependence on oil and refusal to give up our luxuries, but all we get are ugly strip malls and cheap plastic crap at Walmart. I'd much rather have a lovely hot bath to splash around in before civilization collapses!
posted by Quietgal at 11:42 AM on March 25, 2009


Uh, probably ought to clarify: homunculus' Goatse Surprise.

please don't hurt us, mods
posted by Quietgal at 12:13 PM on March 25, 2009


please don't hurt us, mods

Don't worry, I've bribed one of the mods, so we're safe. It's all part of the plan.

posted by homunculus at 12:33 PM on March 25, 2009


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