Believe it or not, plumbing impacts the growth of cities due to the necessity of water. Human civilization depends greatly on our ability to technologically adapt to our environment. The necessity of water has driven people to develop systems for moving it from place to place. Irrigation is an early human activity that led to the growth of cities. The ability to provide sanitation through the movement of water is one of the most important characteristics of human civilization.
Ancient Rome was able to sustain its empire in part through an elaborate aqueduct and sewer system. It is from the Romans that we get our word “plumber”. In Latin, the word for lead is “plumbum”, meaning “lead”, which is the material they used to make their water pipes. The practice of ancient plumbing in Europe was abandoned in the Dark Ages, as information about plumbing was lost.
It was not until the industrialization of modern cities in the 19th century that plumbing had major advancements and became a widespread technology. Mass production allowed for pipes and pipe fittings of various shapes and sizes to be made available to plumbers to install in virtually every building in modern cities. As nations became more technologically advanced through the industrialization of production techniques, they were able to quickly grow and spread their influence, in part, through the expansion of pipe networks.
By exploring how the Roman Empire used plumbing to expand its borders and multiply its influence, we can gain some perspective on the re-emergence of pipe systems as a major force during the industrialization of modern cities. The emergence of pipe networks, roughly a thousand years apart, must yield some useful insights about the thresholds of historical change when compared.
The Roman Empire’s sanitation network was composed of several interconnected systems. The aqueducts and sewers were both integral parts in the network of water movement. The Cloaca Maxima was a major sewer system that emptied water into the Tiber River, upon which Rome’s economy of water was based. Additionally, pipes had to be worked into buildings to provide water for drinking and cooking.
The overall system was designed so that the cleanest water would be allocated for drinking and cooking, the second cleanest water would be directed to the baths, and the third cleanest water flushed the sewage out of the system. Through this, the basic human needs for water were met, allowing for a higher standard of sanitation.
The Roman aqueducts were concentrated in the city of Rome, but networked throughout the many cities and towns of the empire. Rome being the capital city, it had the highest concentration of development. Modern sanitations systems, while being much more complex, follow the same basic pattern. Geographically, they are concentrated in cities, and spread out from there. As cities are usually located near rivers, systems take advantage of this placement. A map of pipe systems of a given area would also be a map of the concentration of human population.