We have all done it, haven’t we? At one time or another, we have all had the pleasure, however fleeting and momentary it might have been. Perhaps you experienced it lying on your belly, with the enormous thing looming in front of you. Perhaps you were sprawled out on your back, gazing up at it in silent admiration. I myself have enjoyed the experience on several occasions—sometimes alone, on a cloudy windswept day; one or two times with my wife; and once as part of a large, loud, excited group of friends. I have even done it while eating. Yes, if you have lived here in Israel for any length of time, it is reasonably certain that, sooner or later, you have found yourself on the beach at Caesarea, contemplating the remains of the magnificent Roman aqueduct that once brought pure, fresh water from distant springs near the foot of Mt. Carmel to the ancient port city of Caesarea Palaestina. You may even have numbered among the happy throngs of people on Israeli Independence Day, barbequing and picnicking under one of the aqueduct’s arches.
I’ve had a “thing” about ancient aqueducts for many years. My fascination with them, I suppose, has gone hand in hand with an equally intense interest in ancient Rome—the small backwater city sacked by the Gauls in 390 BCE that quickly recovered and subjugated all of Italy; then the fledgling republic that expanded into the Mediterranean, destroyed mighty Carthage and humbled the proud Greeks; then the invincible empire that forged northward into Europe, crossed the Danube, tamed the wild
Germans and conquered savage Britain; and finally the effete, decadent, decayed civilization whose inner corruption and dissipating weakness led to its slow but inevitable collapse. You know, that Rome.
The Rome I admire, however, is the Rome that brought the benefits of literacy, law, civil administration, communication, transportation, trade, urbanization and Pax Romana to even the darkest forests of Europe and the wildest expanses of North African desert. With nothing more than might, Iron Age technology and bullish determination, this city on the Tiber River forged a world in which both the tattooed Briton and the Nubian warrior—not to mention the Judean farmer—were governed by the same laws and ruled by the same men. Yes, of course they were cruel. Yes, their tastes and sensibilities were barbaric. And yes, I know that they conquered our country, oppressed our people, destroyed our holy temple, exiled us from our land and scattered us to the four winds for 2,000 years. Save your letters to the editor; I know it’s not cool to like Rome. Give the devils their due, though: what they were good at, they were good at. Many of the roads they made all over Europe were still in day-to-day use right on up to the automobile age, and some aqueducts they built more than 2,000 years ago are still standing—a few of them still working.
Aqueducts, of course, pre-date Rome. The idea of somehow conveying fresh water from where it occurs to where it is needed is probably prehistoric and can be seen amongst “primitive” peoples today. I had the privilege to reside for three years with a
very remote Philippine hill tribe called the Hanuno’o. They lived far from anything that one could call a town, had no electricity, knew almost nothing of the outside world,
hunted with bows and arrows, worshipped mountain spirits and adorned themselves by filing and blackening their teeth. And, they built aqueducts. Fashioned simply of bamboo piping supported some five feet off the ground by “girders” of sticks and tree branches, Hanuno’o aqueducts efficiently carried clean water from far-away, inaccessible mountain springs down to the tribe’s little hamlets and villages, often at great distances. Historically, earlier forms of aqueducts are known to have been built throughout the ancient Near East, Persia and India. The first people to build the sort of aqueduct later made famous by the Romans were our dear enemies the Assyrians who, in addition to conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and losing ten of our twelve ancient tribes, built one of limestone 30 feet high and 900 feet long to carry water to the city of Nineveh.
No one built them like the Romans, however. Their first one, the Aqua Appia, was completed in 312 BCE, in conjunction with their first great road, the Via Appia. From that point onward, they just kept getting better at it. Visit Wikipedia’s website on Roman aqueducts on the Internet, and an anonymous author will breathlessly inform you that,
“Roman aqueducts were extremely sophisticated constructions. They were built to remarkably fine tolerances, and of a technological standard that had a gradient of only 34 cm per km (3.4:10,000), descending only 17 m vertically in its entire length of 31 miles (50 km). Powered entirely by gravity, they transported very large amounts of water very efficiently…the combined aqueducts of the city of Rome supplied around 1 million cubic
meters (300 million gallons) a day (an accomplishment not equalled until the late 19th century and represents a value 25% larger than the present water supply of the city of Bangalore, with a population of 6 million). Sometimes, where depressions deeper than 50 m had to be crossed, gravity pressurized pipelines called inverted siphons were used to
force water uphill…Modern hydraulic engineers use similar techniques to enable sewers and water pipes to cross depressions.”
No one, though, will ever be able to genuinely assay the awesome drive and determination of a people who could construct such monuments to human genius as the aqueducts at Nimes in France, Segovia in Spain and Valens in Turkey with Iron Age workmen—perhaps many of them slaves—using draft animals to carry materials, torches for night light, and working by hand.
The Romans endeavored to build an aqueduct for most of the larger cities in their empire. Not surprisingly, when Pontius Pilate became Procurator (governor) of Judea, one of the first things he wanted to do was build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. (His taste for crucifixion appears to have developed a bit later.) Pilate’s insistence upon using some of the treasure from our Temple in Jerusalem to finance construction of the aqueduct brought angry Jewish mobs into the streets, which the Romans dispersed—in their inimitable manner—with clubs, whips, and the flat sides of their swords. Pilate got his aqueduct, one of two that were to serve Jerusalem, along with others throughout the Roman province of Judea.
I will leave it for others of a more professional academic bent to share their expert knowledge of the ancient water systems of Israel, and leave you with the observation that the aqueducts of Rome, built from one end of their far-flung empire to the other, were a lot like the Romans themselves: awe-inspiring—yet down to earth, majestic—but
practical, and brilliant—while almost pathologically anti-intellectual. Like any good magazine article about Roman aqueducts, this one will close with the immortal words of Sextus Iulius Frontinius, Superintendent of Aqueducts in Rome (95 CE) and author of De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae : “With these grand structures, so numerous and indispensable, carrying so many waters, who indeed would compare the idle Pyramids or other useless, although renowned, works of the Greeks?”