Today, we take modern plumbing for granted. However, it is so important for society and it is essential for our wellbeing, health and the economy. Good plumbing is essential for every advanced society.
The Roman’s knew this, and they were very interested in developing the best plumbing system and they were innovators in this area. Rome dominated a great part of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa for over 500 years and it left an enduring legacy.
Rome was a very urban society. Having large groups of people together in a small area can lead to sanitation and health problems. The Romans who were a very practical people began to realize the importance of plumbing and they laid the foundations for modern plumbing and sanitation systems. Now the Romans did not invent plumbing, but they did make considerable advances in the field. The Romans knew that they needed running water to provide drinking water and sanitation to the vast metropolis of Rome. This was necessary as clean water is essential for people and without it, a city will not long function.
The Romans were great engineers and they built many aqueducts that brought water to their city. Not long after the city was built they created a network of tunnels as part of a sewage system. They also developed a public water supply and public latrines. This ensured that its population was relatively disease-free and healthy. Roman plumbing was important in the rise of the city from a small state to an Empire.
After the 1st century BC, the Romans began to use lead pipes in order to bring water to private homes. These lead pipes were very common in the houses of aristocrats. Water was brought by aqueducts to the city and then lead pipes would channel it to private homes. Over time, lead pipes were used to supply drinking water to the large and growing population of Rome. By the 1st century AD, much of the population of Rome was dependent on water that came from lead pipes. The lead piping allowed Rome to have the drinking water that it needed to grow its population and maintain its Empire.
The Roman also exported their plumbing skills and knowledge to every part of their territories. Emperor Antonius Pius personally funded the creation of Roman plumbing systems throughout his Empire. By the second century AD, a significant part of the urban population of the Roman Empire was able to avail of clean drinking water that was obtained via lead pipes. This helped to improve the quality of life for millions throughout the Empire. Even though Roman plumbing was superior until anything in modern times, it was fundamentally unsafe.
Unknown to the Romans there are many dangers in lead pipe when used in plumbing. The lead in the pipes can contaminate the water supply and even in extreme cases to lead poisoning, a very serious and potentially fatal condition. Children are particularly at risk from the contaminated water, it can lead to developmental delays and general ill-health. In adults, it can lead to pains and high blood pressure, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks. Drinking lead-contaminated water also increases the risk of a pregnant woman miscarrying.
Research has shown, based on an examination of sediment, that the lead level in Rome’ s water supply was ten times that of modern water supplies. This raises the question did the high lead levels contribute to the fall of Rome in 476 AD.
There were many factors in the demise of Rome. They include constant invasion by mainly German barbarian tribes, a fall in the population, recurring epidemics of plague and financial collapse. The direct cause of the decline of Rome was the collapse of the Rhine frontier in 406 AD, that allowed German tribes to invade the Empire. They eventually, became so powerful that they deposed the last Roman Emperor.
It is agreed that the lead piping used in the Roman Empire’ s water supply was dangerously high. One study has suggested that despite these high levels that the public health impact on Rome and its Empire was not great. This means that high numbers of death as a result of drinking water from lead pipes was unlikely.
However, over time, the contamination of the water supply by lead could have weakened the population. It made them unable to resist the many plagues that ravaged the Empire after the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Then the lead piping could have increased the number of miscarriages that women had, and this could have reduced the birth rate. Furthermore, lead is known to impact negatively on male fertility. One of the main reasons for the decline of Rome was the fact that its population fell, and it could no longer recruit enough soldiers for its legions. This meant that it could no longer defend its borders against invaders. It would appear that the use of lead in Roman plumbing was a contributing factor to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire because it negatively impacted on the demography of the Empire.
Modern plumbing systems are much superior to Roman ones. Firstly, modern plumbing systems do not use lead piping but only materials that do not contaminate the water. It is also much more reliable and not as vulnerable to drought or water shortages. Plumbing, in the present day, provides water at a much faster rate than in Roman times. Modern pipes allow for more water to be supplied to different areas of a building. In Rome, communal bathing and toilets were largely unavoidable, because of limitations to its plumbing systems.
Ancient Roman latrines – Wikimedia creative commons
Photos are from Unsplash
Guest Author Bio
Charlotte is a long time food industry professional, and now a stay at home mom of two. She loves sharing natural recipes, gardening tips and creative foodie advice with the world.