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Review: Stratagems. Aqueducts of Rome


This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Stratagems. Aqueducts of Rome

Frontinus, or actually Sextus Julius Frontinus, was an outstanding figure for his time. He reached the highest military (command in Germania under Domitian) and political (consulate three times) of the Roman Empire, and he was the governor of Britain (74-78 CE). He even devoted one of his works to the military issue – Strategemata (“On War Tricks”), in which he mainly talks about strategies from Roman and Greek history.

However, certainly, his greatest knowledge and ability lay in engineering. During the reign of Emperor Nerva (96-98 CE) he was the curator (manager) of the Roman aqueducts. From this period comes his greatest work, “Aqueducts of Rome” (De Aqueductibus Urbis Romae), which consists of two books, which are a kind of report to the emperor about the condition of the aqueducts in Rome. By the way, Frontinus presents the history and description of the water supply to the capital. It presents the laws governing water supplies, the occupancy of the individual – existing at that time – nine aqueducts: Aqua Marcia, Aqua Appia, Aqua Alsietina, Aqua Tepula, Anio Vetus, Anio Novus, Aqua Virgo, Aqua Claudia and Aqua Augusta. Moreover, Frontinus emphasizes the quality of the water supplied by the mains; depending on the type of source.

What probably surprises the reader the most is how complex the Roman water supply system was and how strictly it was regulated by law. Any illegal “connection” to the aqueducts (without a concession and written permission from the emperor) was punished. In order to reduce theft, an obligation was introduced to stamp lead pipes that were connected to the aqueducts – this was a confirmation that the abstraction of water to the property was legal.

As Frontinus emphasizes, when he assumed his office, he first undertook to prepare maps showing the entire system of aqueducts supplying water to Rome and to assess their condition. Next, he wanted to find out what the capacity of the aqueducts is in order to be able to determine what disparities in supplies occur – and thus to what extent water is stolen or leaks from leaky parts of the lines.

In his work, Frontinus devotes much attention to the dimensions of the pipes and the need for constant “care” of aqueducts that tend to leak. For this purpose, there was a unit of slaves who controlled the condition of the water supply system and, if necessary, repaired it.

The Polish edition and translation of the work are in very good shape. The position was translated in 1961 by historian Prof. Cezary Kunderewicz, based on the English version of the translation. The translator provided a solid introduction and outline of Frontinus. What’s more, in the book the reader will have the opportunity to get acquainted with the “Measurement Treatises”, also by Frontinus. In his work, the Roman engineer describes the method of dividing plots, and Professor Kunderewicz accurately completes and introduces the issue.

As emphasized by Mr. Kunderewicz, Frontinus was an outstanding figure of his time. He was diligent in his duties and honest, which earned him respect. Importantly, he himself was aware of his writing and creative achievements. However, as Pliny the Younger says in his letters, as befits a true and modest Roman, Frontinus was to say: “There is no need to erect a monument to me. The memory of us lasts if we deserve it with our lives”.

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