Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Aqueducts & water supply

Roman cities were long regarded as a paragon of sanitation due to their baths and aqueducts. However, the daily grind of the inhabitants in most metropolitan centres was not always a bed of roses as the running water generally only reached the fountains and the baths. Antioch on the other hand does truly seem to have been a salubrious locale and much of this was due to its copious water supply and the ingenious way in which it was managed.

Daphne provided abundant springs in close proximity and the layout of the city allowed that the main aqueduct could be built along the slopes of Mount Silpius meaning that all the city was downhill from the water supply and thus everywhere could be provided with running water, including individual residences (at least of the better off) if Libanius' hyperbole can be believed. This post deals with the supply and distribution while a separate post deals with the numerous baths of the city.

Libanius in his Oration XI rhapsodizes over the liquid assets of the city: "Indeed the thing by which especially we are supreme is the fact that our city has water flowing all through it, for even though one were to behave insolently toward us in respect to other things, nevertheless all must yield when the waters are mentioned. We surpass the beautiful waters of other cities by the abundance of ours, and the abundant waters of other cities by the beauty of ours, or rather we surpass the inexhaustible waters of other cities by the abundance of ours, and the pleasing waters of other cities by the beauty of ours. Each of the public baths pours forth a stream as large as a river; some of the private baths have as great a stream as these, and the others are not far behind them.

Whoever has the means to erect a bath on the site of earlier ones does so the more confidently because of these streams, and he does not fear that it may be brought to the point of perfection and then called thirsty because of deficiency of water; but it is so far from being the case that one is deterred from the undertaking by lack of water, that a person who has not a great impulse will be incited by the waters themselves. Wherefore all the tribes (the phylae, see the post on this subject) of the city pride themselves on the particular adornments of their baths more than on their very names. These baths are finer than the public baths just in proportion as they are smaller, and there is much contention among the members of the various tribes that each of their tribes possesses the finest bath. One can judge the wealth of our waters by the number of the houses, since there are as many fountains as there are houses, or rather there are many fountains in each house, and indeed the majority of the shops are also adorned in this way. Wherefore we do not wrestle and box about the public fountains to see who shall draw water before the next person, although this troubles many of the wealthy cities, whose citizens have much pushing about the fountains and complaints about broken jars, and blows in addition to torrents of words. But with us, since everyone has water flowing within his house, the public fountains flow merely for display. The clearness of our water you can test easily if you will fill a pool and then stop the water from running into it. The bottom will be covered by the water so transparently that you will think that the pool is empty. Thus I know not whether the sight is more able to set fire to thirst or to put an end to it, for it both invites one to drink and cheers one before he drinks."

Not exactly faint praise!

In the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1902 the article on aqueducts shows the above image of an aqueduct at Antioch and states "one of the principal bridges of the aqueduct of Antioch, 700 feet long, and at the deepest point 200 feet high. The lower part consists almost entirely of solid wall, and the upper part of a series of arches with very massive pillars. The masonry and design are rude. The water supply was drawn from several springs at a place called Battelma (sic.. Beit el-Ma = Daphne), about 4 or 5 miles from Antioch. From these separate springs the water was conducted by channels of hewn stone into a main channel, similarly constructed, which traversed the rest of the distance, being carried across streams and valleys by means of arches or bridges".

That at least was outside the city, for within the city the water flow in the main channel also went through some extensive tunnels before reappearing in other elevated sections.

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