When the activists responsible for the first modern public-health systems sought to convince their governments to invest in sanitary infrastructure, a favorite tactic was to point to the glorious aqueducts and sewers of ancient Rome.
In stark contrast with European governments of the first half of the 19th century, one writer stressed:
It seems to have been a rule with [the Romans], that from the time when the foundation of a city was laid, to that of the summit of its greatness, no structural operation, public or private, should be permitted to take a shape which might render it a harbour either for disease or crime; and it is to this vigilant forethought that, in the absence of other organising agencies discovered only in our later times, we may attribute the success with which that remarkable people preserved social order, throughout so dense and vast a mass of human beings as the inhabitants of the imperial city in the days of its greatness.
The argument that Rome’s success was a direct result of its commitment to public health popped up first in Victorian London, and almost immediately hopped the Atlantic to be repeated by American sanitarians. While recent paleopathological research into Roman feces suggests that aqueducts weren’t enough to spare Romans from playing host to various gastrointestinal parasites, the ancient capital’s infrastructure was still quite a bit more advanced than Victorian London’s. But it’s not clear that Romans owed their impressive hydraulic technology to some great concern for public health on the part of the government—or, at least not at first.
Rome’s oldest aqueduct was already nearly three centuries old when the Roman emperor Augustus included a brief mention of his improvements to the city’s water system in his autobiographical Res Gestae.
I restored the channels of the aqueducts which in several places were falling into disrepair through age, and doubled the capacity of the aqueduct called the Marcia by turning a new spring into its channel.
As historian Harry B. Evans explained in an article published in the American Journal of Archaeology, Augustus’s changes to Rome’s water supply (executed by his right-hand man Agrippa) were quite a bit more extensive than his own words suggest. In a sweeping, multi-year program starting in 35 B.C.E., Augustus’s administration completely revamped the city’s water infrastructure. The oldest aqueducts were repaired for the first time in a century. Over the course of three decades, four new conduits—the Aqua Julia, Aqua Augusta, Aqua Virgo, and Aqua Alsietina—were built, and the locations of distribution basins and fountains around the city were thoughtfully adjusted to serve Rome’s public spaces as well as its growing residential neighborhoods.