Between the years 33 and 12 BC, one of the largest and most complex Roman aqueducts was constructed, known as the Aqua Augusta. Later called the Serino Aqueduct (because it starts in the town of that name), it was actually a genuine network that supplied water to cities in the Bay of Naples and several villas: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Nola, Neapolis, Cumae, Acerra, Atella, Posillipo, and Nisida, among others.

It originated from the Fontis Augustei at 376 meters above sea level in Serino, near Mount Terminio, ran for 96 kilometers towards the coast, and ended at the Piscina Mirabilis in Portus Iulius in Misenum, where the base of the Roman fleet was located. Overall, it is considered one of the greatest architectural and engineering feats of the Roman Empire.

It had ten branches, seven of which supplied water to the most important urban centers, and the other three to the villas. Including all branches, the length of the aqueduct reached 145 kilometers, making it the longest of all those built until the 5th century AD, when the expansion of the aqueduct of Constantinople surpassed 400 kilometers.

The responsible party for its construction was Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa when he held the position of curator aquarum, which was responsible for managing and maintaining the water supply system in Roman cities. The main objective was to supply water to the imperial fleet of Misenum.

Over time, significant maintenance works had to be carried out. For example, during the Flavian era in the 1st century AD, some sections were replaced by parallel ones.

In the early 4th century AD, Emperor Constantine carried out a significant restoration, documented by an inscription found in Serino dating back to 324 AD, listing the locations served by the aqueduct: Nola, Acerra, Atella, Naples, Pozzuoli, Baia, Cumae, and Misenum. Obviously, Pompeii and Herculaneum had already been destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, so they do not appear on the list.

The construction of the Aqua Augusta represented one of the greatest engineering challenges of antiquity. To overcome the rugged terrain, the Romans had to dig long tunnels through mountains, such as the 6-kilometer one that crossed the watershed of the Apennines.

Impressive elevated sections on arches were also required, like the 3.5-kilometer stretch in Pomigliano d’Arco, or the remains that can still be seen today in the city of Naples.

In addition to tunnels and arches, the Roman builders had to contend with other formidable natural obstacles. There were earth movements due to seismic activity, and the aqueduct even crossed the sea to reach the island of Nisida.

Twin tunnels of the aqueduct in Pozzuoli
Twin tunnels of the aqueduct in Pozzuoli. Credit: UR Alumni Travel & Learn / Wikimedia Commons / Flickr

Much of the aqueduct ran underground through fields and mountains, so the work went practically unnoticed for a long time.

Not until the Renaissance did two Italian engineers tasked with assessing whether the ancient aqueduct could be reactivated as the main water source for Naples discover much of the eastern route of this majestic hydraulic work.

The magnitude of the work means that there is no single construction technique or predominant material, but rather, depending on each area and each specific case, materials and techniques adapted to the type of rock found were used.

In 472 AD, another major eruption of Vesuvius practically rendered the aqueduct unusable, covered in ashes. Even the 3.5-kilometer section of arches in Pomigliano d’Arco collapsed, cutting off the water supply to all cities except Nola and Acerrae.

No repair works were carried out, and since then, the water supply was interrupted.

Many visible remains of the aqueduct, such as bridges, tunnels, and reservoirs, still exist. Many more remain underground, and others remain hidden in the basements of more modern buildings.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 22, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Aqua Augusta, la gran obra de ingeniería hidráulica romana que abastecía a más de 10 ciudades incluidas Pompeya y Herculano

Sources

Giovanni De Feo and Wayne F. Lorenz, Route and tunnels of the Aqua Augusta for the water supply of Pompeii. International Journal of Global Environment, vol.14, no.3-4, doi.org/10.1504/IJGENVI.2015.071851 | Keenan-Jones D., Macquarie University Gale Scholarship: The Aqua Augusta. Regional water supply in Roman and late antique Campania: an historical and archaeometrical study. Papers of the British School at Rome. 2010;78:308-309. doi:10.1017/S0068246200000994 | Uberto Ing. Potenza, Gli Acquedotti Romani di Serino | Wikipedia


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