9/21/10 - roman concrete

In today's excerpt - creating and sustaining the world's first city of one million people took many things; among them control of the entire Mediterranean, the continual extraction of food from the farthest regions of its empire, and the invention of  concrete used to build the aqueducts that supplied its water:

"Although not famed for their technological originality, Romans did use water to make one transformational innovation—concrete—around 200 BC that helped galvanize their rise as a great power. Light, strong, and waterproof, concrete was derived from a process that exploited water's catalytic properties at several stages by adding it to highly heated limestone. When skillfully produced, the end process yielded a putty adhesive strong enough to bind sand, stone chips, brick dust, and volcanic ash. Before hardening, inexpensive concrete could be poured into molds to produce Rome's hallmark giant construction projects. One peerless application was the extensive network of aqueducts that enabled Rome to access, convey, and  manage prodigious supplies of wholesome freshwater for drinking, bathing, cleaning, and sanitation on a scale exceeding anything realized before in history and without which its giant metropolis would not have been possible. ...

"Yet nowhere was Rome's public water system more influential than in Rome itself. Indeed, Rome's rapid growth to a grand, astonishingly clean imperial metropolis corresponded closely with its building its 11 aqueducts over five centuries to AD 226, extending 306 miles in total length and delivering a continuous, abundant flow of fresh countryside water from as far away as 57 miles. The aqueducts funneled their mostly spring-fed water through purifying settling and distribution tanks to sustain an urban water network that included 1,352 fountains and basins for drinking, cooking and cleaning, 11 huge imperial baths, 856 free or inexpensive public baths plus numerous, variously priced private ones, and ultimately to underground sewers that constantly flushed the wastewater into the Tiber. ...

"Sustaining and housing a population of I million may not seem like much of an accomplishment from the vantage point of the twenty-first century with its megacities. Yet for most of human history cities were unsanitary human death traps of inadequate sewerage and fetid water that bred germs and disease-carrying insects. Athens at its peak  was about one-fifth the size of Rome, and heaped with filth and refuse at its perimeter. In 1800, only six cities in the world had more than half a million people—London, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo, Istanbul, Canton. Despite Rome's hygienic shortcomings—incomplete urban waste disposal, overcrowded and unsanitary tenements, malaria-infested, surrounding lowlands—the city's provision of copious amounts of fresh, clean public water washed away so much filth and disease as to constitute an urban sanitary breakthrough unsurpassed until the nineteenth century's great sanitary awakening in the industrialized West.

"Although there are no precise figures in ancient records, on how much freshwater was delivered daily, it is widely believed that Roman water availability was stunning by ancient standards and even compared favorably with leading urban centers until modern times—perhaps as much as an average of 150 to 200 gallons per day for each Roman. Moreover, the high quality of the water—the Roman countryside offered some of the best water quality in all Europe, and still does so today—was an easily overlooked historical factor in explaining Rome's rise and endurance."


Steven Solomon


Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2010 by Steven Solomon


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment