Amazing Places

Rome Is Still Technically Using One Of The First Sewer Systems In The World

It's not as romantic as the Acropolis. It's not as legendary as the Colosseum. But the Cloaca Maxima ("Greatest Sewer") is an engineering marvel that's several centuries older than both of these structures, and smellier by far. Rome's ancient sewer system predates even the empire itself, and what's more, it's still in use today.

Map of central Rome during the time of the Roman Empire. Cloaca Maxima is the red line.

More Than Ancient Waste Management

Archaeologists date the Cloaca Maxima to about 600 B.C.E., meaning it was around for roughly six centuries when Julius Caesar declared himself emperor. In fact, the central 100-meter-long pipeline dates back to the fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus. Its original purpose was not to flush out the ancient Romans' latrines, but rather to drain the nearby swamps. Later, the newly solid ground was made into the famous Forum.

As far as the laborers who built it were concerned, however, it was a graveyard. According to Pliny the Elder, writing sometime around 77 C.E., many of the workers resorted to suicide to escape the long, hard, grueling labor—but Pliny also seemed to think the loss was worth it. "The ground is shaken by earth tremors; but in spite of all, for 700 years from the time of Tarquinius Priscus, the channels have remained well-nigh impregnable." Even more incredibly, they've remained "well-nigh impregnable" in the nearly 2,000 years since.

View of the Cloaca Maxima, Rome, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1814, Danish painting, oil on canvas.

Further Development And Modern Deterioration

The open-air channel that Tarquinius had constructed was only the beginning of the Cloaca Maxima's history. 300 years after the original project, the Cloaca's open drain was covered and the flow was connected to the Roman citizens' latrines and baths. Later still, under Julius's grand-nephew Augustus Caesar in the first century C.E., the sewer system was thoroughly scrubbed and expanded to include the flow of no less than 11 aqueducts. Maybe it wasn't exactly a rose garden, but it was a mightily impressive feat—and though the flow has slowed to a trickle today, it does continue to run.

But not all is well in this ancient sewage system. In the early 20th century, modern building projects were connected to the Cloaca and the system was put to use for drainage once again—despite the fact that it still hasn't been fully mapped. As it turns out, that lack of study could have been bad news for the sewers. Recent years have seen wildly fluctuating temperatures and severe flooding, so in 2012, a local archeological authority commissioned an investigation of the Cloaca Maxima's infrastructure. They did it with the help of Archeorobot, an amphibious robot created for the project, and what it found was not heartening. Blockages and structural damage could lead to a collapse. That could cause irreparable damage to the structure or worse, a backup of flood waters that could put lives at risk. Until those repairs have been completed, we wouldn't recommend any urban spelunking in the historic tunnels.

That hasn't kept said spelunkers from trying, however. Writing for Arcade, explorer Steve Duncan included his adventures in the Cloaca Maxima among other dives into the smelly underworld. And while the age of the sewer is staggering, the millennia that have passed since its construction have not been kind. "What a difference in perspective a couple thousand years can make," he writes. "The Cloaca that Livy lauded as the 'receptacle of all filth in the city' now seemed tiny and mundane next to the huge sewer tunnels of the modern era." Times change, and thankfully, so do plumbing systems.

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It's so fascinating to think of how people actually lived in ancient places. Philip Matyszak brings the city to life in "24 Hours in Ancient Rome." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like.  If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas April 21, 2017

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