Forests and Water in Roman Empire

If we do not learn from the past we might repeat it.

Roman Empire

Roman Empire

Deforestation during the Roman period was a result of the geographical expansion of the Roman Empire, with its increased population, large-scale agriculture, and unprecedented economic development. Roman expansion marks the transition in the Mediterranean from prehistory (around 1,000 BC) to the historical period beginning around 500 BC. Earth sustained a few million people 8,000 years ago and was still fundamentally pristine, but Rome drove human development in Western Europe and was a leading contributor of the deforestation around the Mediterranean.

A measure of Roman civilization was availability of water.

Aqueduct View

Aqueduct View

Roman Water Carriers – Aqueducts: The Romans are renowned for engineering marvels, among which is the aqueduct that carried water for many miles in order to provide a crowded urban population with relatively safe, potable water, as well as less essential but very Roman aquatic uses. Rome had nine aqueducts by the time of the engineer Sextus Julius Frontinus (c. 35–105), appointed curator aquarum in 97, our main ancient source on the water supply. The first of these was built in the fourth century B.C. and the last in the first century A.D. Aqueducts were built because the springs, wells, and Tiber River were no longer providing the safe water that was needed for the swelling urban population.

Aqueduct Roman Empire

Aqueduct Roman Empire

Here is a list of Aqueducts Listed by Frontinus:

  1. In 312 B.C., the Appia Aqueduct was built 16,445 meters long.
  2. Next was the Anio Verus, built between 272-269, and 63,705 meters.
  3. Next was the Marcia, built between 144-140 and 91,424 meters.
  4. The next aqueduct was the Tepula, built in 125, and 17,745 meters.
  5. The Julia was built in 33 B.C. at 22,854 meters.
  6. The Virgo was built in 19 B.C., at 20,697 meters.
  7. The next aqueduct is the Alsientina, whose date is unknown. Its length is 32,848.
  8. The last two aqueducts were built between 38 and 52 A.D. Claudia was 68,751 meters.
  9. The Anio Novus was 86,964 meters.

Water did not go to all residents of Rome. Only the rich had private service and the rich were as likely to divert and hence, steal, the water from the aqueducts as anyone. Water in residences only reached the lowest floors. Most Romans got their water from a constantly running public fountain.

Aqueduct Roman Empire

Aqueduct Roman Empire

Aqueducts also supplied water to public latrines and baths. Latrines served 12-60 people at once with no dividers for privacy or toilet paper — only a sponge on a stick in the water to pass around. Fortunately, water ran through the latrines constantly. Some latrines were elaborate and may have been amusing. Baths were more clearly a form of entertainment as well as hygiene.


The main sewer of Rome was the Cloaca Maxima. It emptied into the Tiber River. It was probably built by one of the Etruscan kings of Rome to drain the marshes in the valleys between the hills.


During the Roman period, water channelled from distant springs to the city was collected in reservoirs and distribution tanks built on hilltop sites, and from there piped in different directions to cisterns, houses and public fountains. In their book on the Byzantine water structures of İstanbul, Die Byzantinischen Wasserbehalter von Konstantinopel (1893), Strzgowski and Forchheimer tell us that water from dams in the Belgrad Forest was carried by pipes to the district of Eğrikapı at the northern edge of the city, crossing the valleys formed by the two streams which flowed into the Golden Horn via aqueducts. From here three mains lines carried the water to tanks in the districts of Atpazarı, Yenibahçe and Ayasofya for distribution to the rest of the city.

Roman Period Waterworks


In order to maintain a fixed water level, covered water channels were carried over valleys by aqueducts, which are arched structures in the form of bridges. Roman period aqueducts dating from the fourth century and which are still standing -at least in part-today in İstanbul are the Valens (Bozdoğan) built in 368, the Ma’zulkemer, Karakemer, and Turunçluk aqueducts.

Water levels

Nothing precise is known about the form and interior mechanism of Roman period water levels which were part of the water distribution system. In the Ottoman period these were tower-like structures known as su terazisi serving to adjust water pressure and also measure water for distribution purposes. In Book VIII of his De Architectura Vitruvius discusses the water structures of Rome in the fifth section entitled ‘Levelling and Levelling Methods’ and describes methods of conducting water ‘to dwellings and cities’. Vitruvius explains, ‘First comes the method of taking the level. Levellings is done either with dioptrae, or with water levels, or with the chorobates,’ going on the say that the chorobates is the most accurate method. “the chorobates is a straightedge about twenty feet long. At the extremities it has legs, made exactly alike and jointed on perpendicularly to the extremities of the straightedge, and also crosspieces fastened by tenons, connecting the straightedge and the legs. These crosspieces have vertical lines drawn upon them, and there are plumblines hanging form the straightedge over each of the lines.” However he gives no description of the water levels.

Distribution chambers

These were structures which measured and distributed incoming water. In Book VIII of De Architectura, Vitruvius writes that inside the city the water poured into a reservoir with a connecting distribution chamber with three contiguous tanks. Water from the reservoir was conveyed into each tank via three seperate pipes. Water from the central tank was piped to all the pools and fountains in the city, water from one of the side tanks to the public baths, and from the other side tank to private houses. In his doctoral dissertation entitled. “The Architecture of Water Structures in Byzantine period istanbul” (1989), which is the most detailed source of information about Roman period distribution chambers, Özkan Ertuğrul tells us that during the Byzantine period (the Eastern Roman Empire, successor to the Roman Empire), water was distributed to the city from five distribution chambers known as Nymphaeum Maximum, Tezgahçılar Kubbesi, Balıklı, Sultanahmet and Valens.

Water channels

Open or covered conduits carried water between the reservoirs and cisterns, and from there to public fountains and houses. They also served as overflow spills for the cisterns. It has been possible to identify twenty-three of these conduits today. Conduits were made variously of masonry, lead or baked clay, but Vitruvius comments that baked clay pipes are to be preferred. He also explains that the channel bed should have a gradient of at least one quarter inch for each hundred feet.



Reservoirs, Wells and Cisterns

Water Cistern Istambul
Water Cistern Istambul 

Vitruvius explains that in the absence of springs whose water may be transferable by aqueducts, it is necessary either to dig wells or to collect surface water in cisterns. He describes cisterns having two or three sections in which the water was cleaned by means of pouring from one section to another. These cisterns thus served a second function as precipitation tanks, which during Ottoman times were separate structures in which the water rested. An example of an ancient well of the type described by Vitruvius is Dolab Ocağı in the First Courtyard at Topkapı Palace which is entered via the Second Courtyard. The construction techniques of this large well in which all water for the palace was stored for distribution is characteristic of the Roman period. In Ottoman times a cistern was added to this well. Of the seven pre-Ottoman wells discovered in İstanbul five date from the pre-Byzantine period (Dolap Ocağı in the First Courtyard at Topkapı Palace, and four others located respectively next to the cistern in the Second Courtyard at Topkapı Palace, next to the Fil Gate in the Fifth Courtyard at Topkapı Palace, in the centre of the semicircular courtyard of Haghia Maria Hodigitria Baptistry in the Manganlar area, and in the courtyard of the Ottoman Mint), and two from the Byzantine period (beneath the arcade in front of the first gate leading to the kitchens in the Second Courtyard at Topkapı Palace, and in front of arcade of Topkapı Palace Kitchens).

Another Roman water structure related to wells is the cistern, the oldest surviving examples of which date from the Byzantine era, which succeeded the Roman.


Causes of deforestation

Housing and building

The most basic building supply in the Roman time period was wood. Trees were cut to house increasing populations throughout the Roman Empire. While some Mediterranean houses were built with brick and stone, roof structures, covered with tiles, as well as floors were often made of wood. At one point it is estimated that the Roman Empire had a population of 60 million people, and an estimated one million or more in Rome alone (a population that was not matched in size in Europe until London in the 19th century). With such a large population increase, coupled with an enhancement of exuberant lifestyles and a high standard of living for the urbanized communities of the Roman world, resource consumption became exponentially extensive.


Wood was a primary source of heating and used extensively in industry. Wood fuel constituted about 90 percent of the consumption overall, and was a major factor in the Roman deforestation epidemic. Wood was essential fuel in industries like mining, smelting, and the making of ceramics. Wood and charcoal were the primary ancient fuels in public facilities, households, public baths and industries that produced light and heat. Forest areas around mining centers were deforested first, consuming all natural resources around the area of work. Once all the natural resources around the area of production were consumed, wood was then shipped and carried in to supply the furnaces and smelters for the mining centers. Eventually, these centers would shut down and move to areas within Roman territory to repeat the same cycle of deforestation, supplying an ever-growing population and consumption demand.


Agriculture was the economic base for the Roman Empire. With an ever-increasing population, the clearing of land for crops was a primary cause of initial deforestation. Human hands gave way to the iron plough and the use of animals to clear dense forests to utilize the rich topsoil. Agriculture produced commodities that contributed to the economic prosperity of the Romans, who relied on the crops produced from the slaves/landowners. As a result, in 111 BC Roman law allowed anyone who occupied public land of up to 20 acres (81,000 m2) to keep it, provided it was brought into cultivation.This type of policy created widespread clearing and reflected the importance of agriculture, not only to the affluent, but also to citizens, to the military and to merchants engaged in trade with other regions.

Consequences of deforestation


With an increased demand for resources and food, constant pressure was put upon the land and soil to provide food for a growing economy. Regular clearing and plowing exhausted existing soil, which eventually became infertile. Runoff from deforested hillsides increased the amount of silt and impeded the flow of water into agricultural areas. Eventually, due to the Mediterranean climate and the increased depletion of soil nutrients from hundreds of years of harvesting, yields diminished. Rainwater that had been locked into the soil through vegetation and forests was now running off too quickly, with each raindrop unprotected by plants or by a litter layer.

Flooding/harbors and ports

Erosion accelerated up to twentyfold in the 3rd century, creating unusable marshlands, which spread diseases such as malaria. Flooding from runoff disrupted water supply to natural springs and rivers, but also increased siltation to coastal areas and harbors at river deltas. Rains washed away the unprotected earth and greatly altered coastlines, in some cases, pushing them many miles farther out to sea as in the case around the mouths of the Po River. The washing away of topsoil and deposits of silt and gravel meant that harbors and ports needed to be moved, causing further burden upon the economy. Even in the city of Rome, floods covered the lower parts of the city and backed up the sewers. The first such flood was noted in 241 BC; records indicate increased flooding of the river from that time onward.

The Romans did have some forms of ecological conservation though. Recycling of glassware was practiced along with architectural design that utilized solar heating. Forests were also under government regulations and protected for future resources. Unfortunately, these attempts may have been too little too late.

In the 5th century BC Plato complained that “the loss of timber had denuded the hills and plains surrounding Athens and caused massive soil erosion.”Cicero also noted “we (humans) are the masters of what the earth produces,” and “all things in this world which men employ have been created and provided for the sake of men.”


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