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Engaging Ancient Infrastructure

July 21, 2014
Rome's Tiber Riverfront

Rome’s Tiber Riverfront

Walking through the caked mud, weeds and scattered refuse which litter the Tiber river’s left bank, you encounter few tourists. High above you, held back by the massive travertine embankment as high as a four-story building, flows a river of cars, trucks, buses and scooters, one of central Rome’s only continuous traffic arteries.  The noise of traffic stays up there, surrounding the few tourists who attempt to visit the circular temple of Hercules Victor, the first Roman temple constructed in Greek marble, and the slightly earlier Temple of Portunus, God of the keys, gates, and eventually ports.  Most of these adventurers then head to the portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, drawn by the mysteriously kitsch appeal of the Bocca della Verità, the ancient (alleged) drain cover in the form of a mask that now sees tourists line up to pose with their hand in its mouth. But a few brave ones dart daringly through the speeding traffic to gaze down into the river.

Where they are standing once stood the sloping riparian banks and later, during the early Republic, bustling port facilities replete with docks, warehouses, and a multitude of temples.  Then, in the late 19th century, tired of the frequent floods, the nascent Italian capital undertook the massive public works project that would end the flooding forever. At least that was the idea.

Apart from the occasional jogger or fisherman (fishing for what in this dirty water you ask yourself?) you are alone down here.  Ducks and cormorants swim amidst river grasses; Saxifraga and occasional elm trees grow out of the rocky river banks.  You may see a nutria, looking something like a large rat or small beaver, a species imported in the fifties from South America for breeding (their meat was thought a delicacy and their fur was used in clothing) but later released into the wild when the farms proved unsuccessful.

The air is humid, a mist often stirred up by the fast-moving water where the presence of the Tiber Island plugs the river, forming rapids and small waterfalls.  Proceeding a little further you pass the remains of the Pons Aemilius (later called Ponte Rotto or broken bridge for reasons which you will find obvious), and then under the high iron trusses of the Ponte Palatino.  Before long you encounter a section where the path you are on itself becomes a bridge. Below you the vegetation is far more luxuriant and through it, in the embankment wall, you spy a heavy yellowish-grey stone arch. You have stumbled upon the outlet of ancient Rome’s first permanently engineered structure, the Cloaca Maximus.

Most people expect the first monument of Rome to have been a temple or a palace or perhaps a defensive wall. But the Cloaca Maximus is little more than a mundane sewer pipe. Since the drain’s first construction in the 6th century BCE it has been channeling storm water and runoff from the low-lying wetlands into the Tiber River, leading Lewis Mumford to call it “the world’s most cost-effective public works project.”  What better example can one find of smart, sustainable urban infrastructure?


Rome's Tiber Riverfront

Rome’s Tiber Riverfront

Cloaca Maxima: Rome's Ancient Sewer

Cloaca Maxima: Rome’s Ancient Sewer

One Comment leave one →
  1. andrea ruffolo permalink
    July 24, 2014 19:43

    GREAT Article! I didn’t know that Lewis Munford expressed about the cloaca maixima : let me say we are too far away in time to suspect what kind of inefficencies were going on in those days..but still I think is true that ancients had a more people oriented urban policy.. although when we say ( “people”) at that time some 60% in slavery condition were excluded from civil rights.


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