Aquae Urbis Romae: the Waters of the City of Rome

"Mapping the urban development of Rome through aqueducts, fountains, bridges and sewers", Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, London Conference, June 2000

Katherine W. Rinne, Associate Fellow Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia

Copyright, Katherine W. Rinne, 2000

Ponte Sisto, Rome. Copyright Katherine W. Rinne 2000.


Perhaps more than any other single factor water determines where cities grow and how they develop. Water—too much, too little, or in the wrong places—can make or break a city’s fortunes. Nonetheless, water can to a degree, be controlled, manipulated, and bent to human will. The ways that has been done over nearly three thousand years is the subject of Aquae Urbis Romae: The Waters of the City of Rome, a project that examines water as a living system in the urban development of the city. This is the first work that attempts to take in the whole hydrological and hydraulic history of Rome as a single continuum of technology and topography, and to bring that continuum to life in ways that are enlightening to students and scholars in a wide array of fields.

The theoretical basis of the investigation is grounded on an understanding that every element of this water history is part of an integrated system. This system includes dynamic, natural (hydrological) elements such as the Tiber River, springs, streams, marshes, floods and rainwater, as well as tectonic (hydraulic) elements such as sewers, baths, aqueducts, wells, fountains, conduits, and cisterns, all linked through topography. No feature operates in isolation; rather, each is in a delicately exploited topographical relationship with every other element. Hence, to understand any part, you must have some knowledge of the system as a whole. The relationship of each feature to its neighbors up and downstream determined to a large degree how much water could be delivered to each area of the city. It also determined how water arrived in a city (aqueducts, streams, channels, etc.), who paid for the water and whom it served (state, patron, populace, private citizens, industry, etc.); how water was stored and distributed (holding tanks, cisterns, metal or terracotta pipes, etc.); the work that it did at each stage (drinking, bathing, laundry, animals, factory, irrigation, etc.); how it was displayed when it arrived at its destination (jets, sprays, falls, streams, etc.); and finally, how it left the city. Because of these strong physical relationships and because hydrological infrastructure is closely allied with political, cultural and social agendas, (think of the movie “Chinatown”) water technology offers a perfect lens through which to study the urban history of Rome.

Nonetheless, except when it is absent, as during a drought, or when it is too plentiful, as during a flood, water is easy to ignore. Other aspects of public infrastructure, such as roads can be seen and traversed -- visibly and physically connecting people and places. However, much of the public infrastructure of water is hidden underground and only referenced by the occasional drinking fountain, sewer manhole, or fire hydrant. Therefore, while water is one of the basic building blocks of any city, it is largely unknown, misunderstood, and ignored by designers, administrators, and the public.

Conceived as a research and design tool for American students enrolled in academic programs in Rome, Aquae Urbis Romae will also be useful for other persons as well. Ultimately the goal of the project is to encourage a new level of urban analysis and appreciation, based on an acknowledgment of the impact that hydrological forces and processes, and hydraulic technology have on the development of a city. By examining Rome, or any other city through its water infrastructure, students and historians gain a richer understanding of urban history, form and technology; designers and planners are able to ground their theoretical and design work more fully in the real context of the city; and citizens are able to see their city as a network of linked forces, which in turn brings a deeper understanding of the specific features of individual neighborhoods and places.


Aquae Urbis Romae is an interactive Web-based research archive for architecture, landscape, planning, urban design, and history, as well as the related disciplines of geography, archaeology, and engineering. Initial funding to create the computer prototype was received from the NEH in 1997-98. The prototype was made public in January 1999. The whole project is constructed around a series of new maps of Rome created especially for Aquae Urbis Romae. The first map shows the basic hydrological setting of the city, including the Tiber River, springs, streams, and the marshy areas. This map is a composite of contemporary and historical geological and archaeological data and attempts to describe the parameters of roman hydrology. The second overlays late twentieth century city streets and blocks on this hydrological setting, while the third shows the hydrological setting marked off with late twentieth century topography at one-meter intervals.

Like the hydrological system that Aquae Urbis Romae represents, the web site itself is dynamic. The structure of the site allows study of this complex urban system in both linear and lateral modes – specifically through topography, typology, and chronology as well as through historic and contemporary images, maps, drawings, prints and texts.

The first section, “typology,” allows the user to create his or her own map of the city by overlaying up to three different sorts of data on any one of three base maps. The catagories of typological data that can be studied will include broad topics such as aqueducts and bridges (ancient, baroque and modern), sewers, and distribution lines (principally for the baroque and modern periods). It will also include more narrowly defined catagories such as all known examples of ancient nymphaea, or projects sponsored by specific individuals such as Marcus Agrippa or Benito Mussolini, or all the public fountains designed by individuals such as Gian Lorenzo Bernini or Giacomo della Porta. This section will also include data related to the world of work, such as the location of the various port activities, the distribution of water-powered grain mills in the 17 century, or of public laundry fountains during the16th and 17th centuries, for example. Water sites associated with ancient myths and literature will also be included in the future.

Thus far fifteen typology layers have been completed, but only six layers are currently available on the web site. Ultimately however, there will be more than 100 categories, and any combination of three layers will be possible. I would like to emphasize that much of this data has never been mapped comprehensively, i.e. data about a particular type, drawn from a variety of sources, drawn at the same scale, with the same orientation, and on the same page. Some mapping is more precise than others due to the precision of the original reports, and some material has never been mapped scientifically, but merely exists in verbal and written work, principally up to the late 19th century.

The “chronology” section also uses the same three base maps, and allows the user to follow the hydrological development of the city through a series of time-line maps that span history from 753 BC to the present day. This section will ultimately present a series of fifty, detailed, sequential, time-line maps, each of which is a composite snap-shot of important hydrological developments during a particular period of time. Some maps, such as those for the medieval period, for which there is little information, will incorporate several hundred years. Others, such as those for the baroque period for which there is an abundance of material, will cover as few as five or ten years. This section is completed through the Middle Republican period.

The “topography” section provides access to a three-dimensional topographic model of the intramural city over which any of the “chronology” or “typology” maps can be “draped” by the computer and then viewed as “Quick Time” movies or in Virtual Reality. Created in "Form Z", the model is sampled at a vertical resolution of one meter, and scaled 3:1 for clarity.

The “typology” and “chronology” (but not the “topography”) maps are hyper-linked to an inventory and to the text and image sections, which work together to allow the student to go directly to selected primary and secondary literary, visual, and archaeological sources. The links will go in both directions, allowing the user to move freely from the maps to the texts and back again. Every water feature on the maps, (currently more than 800 individual elements) is identified by a unique inventory number. By clicking on a specific feature an inventory entry is accessed which will ultimately include: identifying information and discussion of the feature’s importance in the hydraulic history of the city; an outline of current scholarship on the feature and/or its type; a contemporary or historic image (sometimes both); a bibliography for the specific feature; and links to selected primary and secondary literary and archaeological sources, maps and images. A search engine and comprehensive index facilitate research.

Primary sources include English translations of Latin texts such as The Two Books on the Water Supply of the City of Rome, by Sextus Julius Frontinus, of AD 97. It will be possible to link directly from this text to the specific "Chronology" map where a particular feature occurs for the first time. Secondary sources will include difficult-to-obtain studies, including Pietro Narducci’s Sulla fognatura della città di Roma, which is the major study of ancient Roman sewers and includes a series of important measured sectional drawings. Other documents and images, including the aqueduct prints of Piranesi and the fountain prints of Gianbattista Falda are being added, as they become available. Important works on aqueducts and other hydraulic technology such as Raffaele Fabretti, De aquis et aquaeductibus veteris Romae (Rome, 1680) and will made available from the collections of various collaborating archives and libraries. These currently include the Fiske Kimball Library at the University of Virginia and the Burndy Library at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. As the archive grows, it will become increasingly more valuable as a research tool that will complement the extensive cartographic work. This section will also be supplemented with an electronic journal of Roman water studies. The first articles will be: Rebecca R. Benefiel, "The inscriptions of the aqueducts of Rome: the ancient period" (available in Spring 2001), and Rabun Taylor, "Tiber River bridges and the urban development of Rome" (available Winter 2002).

Another major goal of the project is to assign real-world coordinates to the map and the individual features to allow users to interface with GIS data for Rome. Each feature will be referenced to x, y, and, when possible, to Z coordinates. It will also be possible to refine and update this information from contemporary archaeological excavations, and to incorporate changes that the city makes to the water infrastructure system.


Aquae Urbis Romae is more than simply a tool for understanding Rome. It also suggests a strategy for looking at other cities. Ideally, the project will be a “jumping-off place” for further research and analysis by others into the role that water infrastructure plays in urban development. How will this happen? Rome is one of the most intensively studied of all cities, and something of a laboratory for design professionals and urban historians throughout the world. Most European countries and the United States have a major scholarly presence in Rome, both in the form of study-abroad programs and permanent institutions such as the American Academy and the British School in Rome.

Aquae Urbis Romae engages most of the disciplines that draw students to Rome. Many fall under the general rubric of environmental design, including architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and architectural, landscape, and urban history; but the project contains significant resources for the related disciplines of art history, cartography, hydrology, geography, archaeology, and classics as well. For all of these disciplines, the project will provide the basis for a general knowledge of the urban development of Rome by examining how water, the most essential element for human survival and the growth of cities is exploited, controlled, and manipulated for political, social, cultural, religious and other goals. By encouraging its users to find new ways to formulate research and design questions, Aquae Urbis Romae should help students and scholars develop new strategies for solving research problems in all sorts of contexts, whether or not they are studying the history of Rome.

I conceived the idea for Aquae Urbis Romae and am solely responsible for all research, writing, drawings, and photography associated with the project to date. I designed the conceptual structure of the web site and drew all the computer base maps (with the exception of the 3-D model) as well as all the “typology” and “chronology” maps. A growing number of academic advisors continue to provide me with thoughtful criticism and advice, and will help insure the accuracy of information that appears on the web site. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia (IATH) wrote the programs, constructed the web site, and built the 3-D model, based on my original drawings and research. IATH also publishes the site and will continue to provide technical assistance.

The data currently available represents about five percent of the total scope of information. At this time my work on the web site is proceeding chronologically in order to maintain the integrity of the time-line, which currently runs from pre-Romunlean Rome through the Middle Republic. However, since water still responds to precisely the same physical laws now as in antiquity, and because hydraulic engineering did not really change significantly until the late 19th century, I am using evidence from the baroque period to gain insights into water distribution in ancient Rome. This analysis will elucidate the importance that a basic infrastructure element and a simple physical law played in the design of some of the most important features that defined the character of Ancient and Baroque Rome as well as the modern city.

My theoretical approach is amazingly straightforward but it offers fresh insights into the primary importance that water has always assumed in urban development. Furthermore, the mode of publication looks to the future – a future of easy public access to information and research materials. Although far from complete, the web site is graphically clear and elegant, and has the potential to become a major research resource. There are few contemporary resources dedicated to the study of the history of Rome that will have this richness of interrelated cartographic and topographic detail either in print or electronic media. The archival material supplements a growing number of scholarly web sites for the study of the classics, such as the “Perseus Project” at Tufts University, and other sites devoted to Roman archaeology, such as the “Trajan’s Forum Project” published by The Getty Research Institute and the “Pompeii Project” published by IATH. My goal is to create a useful and easily accessible research tool for students, professionals, historians, and interested lay persons.

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