Aqua Virgo: the only still functioning Roman Aqueduct of the Roman Empire
Aqua Virgo dates back to 19 BC, it means “Virgin Water”, and is the last working aqueduct built during the Roman Empire. In the last 2 millennia, the aqueduct, commissioned by Agrippa, the right-hand man of Augusto, has never stopped bringing water to Roman citizens, and has contributed to the grandeur of the city. Even today it feeds three of the most admired and photographed artistic masterpieces of Rome: the Trevi Fountain, the Barcaccia of Piazza di Spagna and the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.
During the period of water maximum splendor, the aqueducts of the city were a total of 16, and managed to bring an impressive amount of water to Rome. During the Augustean era, at the turn of the year Zero, Rome had about 1 million inhabitants, who had twice the per capita water available to the current inhabitants.
Sesto Giulio Fontino, Roman politician and historian, declared triumphantly:
“Such a quantity of structures that carry so much water, compare it, if you want, with the idle pyramids, or with the other useless, even if renowned, works of the Greeks.”
Rome was so organized at a water level with aqueducts and sewers that for centuries, certainly until after the Middle Ages, no European city reached its glory.
The Aqua Virgo is the only Roman aqueduct still functioning until our time. This fact can not be attributed to the poor quality of the other structures, but rather to the siege of 537 AD. by the Ostrogoths of Vitige, who cut off all the aqueducts to reduce the inhabitants of the city “to the thirst”. The Romans repaired some damage but, from the ninth century about, the scarcity of resources made the maintenance cease, and the inhabitants returned to supply themselves with water to the Tiber and to the wells, a regression of civil engineering of over a millennium.
The purity of the water of the “Virgin” aqueduct allowed this structure not to deteriorate, and to remain functional even in dark ages. The Aqua Virgo route crossed the Campo Marzio and ended at the Terme di Agrippa and, thanks to a secondary branch, to Trastevere. Initially the Aqua Virgo supplied private homes and public works, bringing in the city something like 103 thousand cubic meters of water per day, 1,202 liters per second.
The interventions on the aqueduct were many in several centuries, and radically changed both the course and the form of the work. Many channels were “intubated” with concrete works, and even the flow was increased to capture new sources. Currently, water is no longer as pure as it used to be, and is only suitable for irrigation and scenic functions for public works, such as the fountains in the center of Rome.