Advanced technologies of ancient Rome

Advanced technologies of ancient Rome
Advanced technologies of ancient Rome

The history of water supply in the ancient Roman Empire is long. The transport and hydraulic control of large quantities of fresh water was one of the factors behind the immense, unprecedented success of the Roman Empire. The main Roman cities were located, in part, in the immediate vicinity of a good water supply. The abundance of water improved the health of the population and allowed urban life to provide labor and business support to build the Roman economy.

Several technological advances by Roman engineers made water available to urban centers. Among these advances were aqueduct design, surveying, tunnel construction, lead pipelines, inverted siphons, lead storage tanks, and valves. Even though there was plenty of water, Roman water commissioners put in place control measures to restrict illegal plumbing and control flow for users.

Yes. The ancient Romans were famous for their plumbing and water distribution systems. If you were a wealthy Roman, then most likely you lived in a domus - a single-family house. And if you were wealthy enough to own a home, then chances are you could afford to pay for a city or town water connection.

The Romans used a lead pipeline to distribute water to cities and towns throughout the Roman Empire. The use of lead pipelines was widespread in the 1st century BC and over the next several centuries. The use of valves to control the flow of water in these pipeline systems was also widespread in the Empire. This versatile use of valves and piping required a level of standardization that is familiar to modern engineers.

This water was extracted, often over long distances, through aqueducts, which brought it to large, centralized cisterns. From here, pipeline communications delivered it to various areas through lead pipes, and from them to private houses.

The flow of water from the city water supply to your home was controlled by a faucet, and it was the size of that faucet, and therefore its potential maximum flow rate, that determined how much you paid the city for this luxury.

Homes with plumbing facilities such as fountains, bathtubs and swimming pools were also fitted with additional valves to shut off or regulate the flow of water.

But those faucets, made of brass and sometimes even gold, look remarkably similar to ours today. It took our "advanced" civilization more than a thousand years to "invent" what was already invented in Ancient Rome.


Apart from the municipal plumbing, most Roman houses during the Republican and early Imperial era had very similar designs. It included a central courtyard called the atrium, from which numerous bedrooms (cubiculae) opened around. The atrium had an opening in the roof called the compluvium that allowed rainwater to collect in a shallow decorative pool in the atrium floor called the impluvium. From impluvium water it was possible to collect water in cisterns, where it supplemented the water supply of the house.


But if you were like most Romans, you didn’t live in a house, but in a high-rise building called an insula. In this case, your apartment most likely did not have a city water supply.

While the more luxurious apartments in some insuls may have had their own running water, most of the poor working-class Romans got their water from public fountains, which were found on almost every street corner. From here, you filled your vessel and carried drinking water up the stairs to your apartment, often several times a day.

The design of ancient Roman water valves is remarkably similar to our modern plunger valve design. Typical Pompeian water valves are shown in the pictures. The valve bodies were made of bronze with a typical built-in configuration as shown in Figure 1, although the Romans also made angle valves with a very similar design. The valve body has a cylindrical chamber into which a cylindrical plug has been inserted.

The valve body was welded to the lead pipe at each end, with the side of the valve union being inserted into the lead pipe bushing. The molten lead solder was then used to weld the insert on each side of the valve. Although the Romans knew about threaded pipes, no known threaded joint was used on pipe or valve connections. The valve body pipe diameter tapers into the plug chamber, which would result in increased water velocity and more accurate water flow control.

The valve plug insert was also made of bronze and was a hollow cylindrical insert with an oval hole on each side of the cylinder for water passage. As with modern valves, the plug insert rotated within the valve body to either control flow or provide shutoff.

The plug-in plug also had a slot that was cast or cut into the outer surface of the cylinder base.

The Wright Paleohydrological Institute (WPI) studied water use in the ancient city of Pompeii. This study involved the use of water valves to control the flow of water in homes and businesses in the city.

The valve body had a small hole near the base of the body that coincided with the gallows hole surrounding the plug insert. After the plug was inserted into the valve body, a blow was applied to create a bulge on the inside of the body that allowed the insert plug to rotate, but prevented it from being removed from the top. This design also prevented the plug-in plug from falling out of the valve body due to fluctuating water pressure.

Remarkably, these 2,000-year-old valves are very similar to the water valves you can find at your local hardware store today!

Much of what we know about Roman water engineering has been conveyed to us in two wonderful books by Sextus Julius Frontinus, De Acis Urbin Romae, or The Water Supply of the City of Rome, which were written around 97 AD. Frontin was the curator of the aquarium, or commissioner for water, in Rome. De Aquis Frontinus standardizes 15 pipe sizes in terms of diameter, circumference and capacity. These pipe standards were used throughout the Roman Empire and the standards were also applied to valves.

Independent studies have shown that, indeed, valves and pipes made by the Romans were the same in relative dimensions; they have been standardized. It turns out that De Aquis was the predecessor to our ASTM and ASA standards.

The valves were also very similar in material composition. Copper, lead and tin were very important materials in the Roman metallurgical industry. They provided resistance to corrosion and abrasion, as well as the ductility required for easy fabrication.

Based on metallurgical research, the materials used to cast Roman valves were:

73% copper

19% lead

8% tin

Several ancient valves that have been tested have results that are very consistent with the materials and percentages used in their manufacture. The Romans had a standard mixture of metal alloys for valves, and they were manufactured with a high standard of quality control. The metal composition shown above for ancient valves is very close to the current ASTM B67 standard for plain bearings used in automobiles and railroad cars.

The Roman water valve design matches well with the pressure water design of the lead pipeline. The lead pipeline was designed for low water pressure applications (with the rare exception that lead pipeline was used as an inverted siphon). WPI studied the water distribution system in Pompeii. The water was delivered through a water tower system that maintained the water pressure at approximately 8-9 psi (18-20 feet). Although this water pressure is much less than what we expect today, it was enough to distribute water in Roman cities and towns.

The flow of water in the distribution system was controlled by restricting the pipe (calix) or valves. This was the key to preserving and using the supplies correctly.

In Pompeii, water was delivered through lead pipelines to public fountains, public baths, businesses and private homes. Delivering water to the home was considered a luxury and a sign of the social status of the homeowners; only a small percentage of private houses in Pompeii received water into the home. In the homes, the water was on full display using distinctive and artistic water features.

Valves in each individual house controlled the flow of water to each of the water bodies. Most of the valve assemblies were as shown in Figure 5. The WPI studied water use in a specific house in Pompeii called the Hanging Balcony House. The water feature in this house was a marble statue of a little boy with water coming out of his hand into a clam shell with water running from the clam shell into the base. The water structure also had two water jets that fell into the same marble pool. The low water pressure was ideal for the water feature in this house.

The valves that controlled the flow to these locations were fabricated onto a lead pipe header. The entire assembly shown in Figure 5 was placed at the foot of the water structure. This is a great example of the know-how of the engineers of that era.

It might be surprising that the Roman valve design over 2000 years ago is strikingly similar to our "modern" design, but it is a fact that this technology was invented long before ours.

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