courtesy of Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine, July 1989
The Roman Empire eventually encompassed all the countries along the Mediterranean Sea, Mesopotamia, the Balkans, and most of modern Europe, including Britain. With their plumbing engineers in tow, the Romans left in their wake large – and small – scale water systems that incorporated similar-style aqueducts, lead pipes, heated floors, dams and drains. From Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, largest of the ancient sewers, to the famous spas of Aquae Sulis in Bath, England, and the colossal baths of Emperors Caracalla and Diocletian, the early Roman plumbers left indelible marks on civilization.
In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted and obliterated the ancient Roman resort towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Beneath the lava ruins rests a freeze – frame of high style Roman living, thanks in part to the plumberium, workers of lead.
Since 1758 when excavation began in Pompeii, palaces of the Caesars and private homes of the nouveau riche merchants and court hangers-on have emerged along with theaters, dance halls and circuses. In addition, grand-style temples and amphitheaters were uncovered, along with elaborate public baths for hundreds of people, and a water supply system for both private and public needs.
Water closets were in vogue in Pompeii, and archaeologists have found ancient closets in the back of one palace, including a cistern to flush water to the different seats. Near the palace kitchen they also found an arched recess approximately three feet deep. Although the actual wood had long disappeared, archaeologists say they could still see outlines of hinges for the privy seats.
The kitchen’s brick oven sat four feet from the privy. To the efficient Romans who had no inkling of germs, the proximity allowed the easy disposal of both scraps and excrete. The women used the privy along side the kitchen; the men went around to the back and used their own.
Plumbing Galore: The famous Roman aqueducts supplied water to the town, the pipe used in siphons set in sections of 10 feet. The sections fit into a one-foot square block of stone servicing as an elbow, with connecting holes cut into the adjoining walls.
Water flowed continuously into a private home through a nozzle, the homeowner paying water rates according to the nozzle size. At the reservoir where the service pipe was attached, engineers installed a kind of ball float, resembling the modern type, to assure a reasonable steady flow of water. Each length of service pipe carried the subscriber’s name to prevent any un-paying freeloaders from tapping into his neighbor’s pipe.
The plumbers of Pompeii had a flourishing trade that included fashioning gutters of lead for the private homes. A Pompeiian house featured an atrium and open-roof design. Underneath a tank collected the rainwater which ran down from the roof tiles.
In Pompeii, this is how the plumber formed pipe: He poured molten lead into various sheets of thickness and dimension, and allowed them to cool. Then he shaped the sheets around a core of wood, leaving a V-shaped opening where the ends met. He fashioned a sand or clay mold around the channel, and poured hot lead into the opening. Typically the pipe was elliptical, or egg-shaped. According to present-day experts, the plumberium’s efforts were crude, but workable.
The plumber made connecting joints in a like manner. He flared one end of the pipe into a cone – like shape, and fit the adjoining piece of lead into it. He soldered the two pieces together with pure hot lead.
Even Old Roman galleys were outfitted with regular plumbing, especially the ones used by emperors. It’s reported that one old relic may have been used by Emperor Caligula for pleasure cruises. Expense unspared, it was outfitted with bronze pipe and ornaments, with running water provided in the lavish cabins.
The ROMAN Bath: A Roman bath in today’s connotation is a luxury affair – an appropriate term. Between the public baths and homes of the patricians, the plumbers of Pompeii had no trouble staying busy. There was a steady demand for lead pipes, wiped joints and bronze valves and opulent fixtures of marble, gold and silver.
A bathroom of the wealthy literally was a room with a pool of water filling up the entire floor, in essence a small swimming pool in present-day terms. The walls were lined with marble and complemented the three or four marble steps leading down to the submerged concrete floor.
Comfort the key, both the water and the air were heated at the same time to a desired temperature, the heat regulated by using a type of damper system. The entire floor rested on piers of bricks which drew hot air from an adjacent furnace. The walls also were interfaced with hollow terra cotta tiles on all sides to draw the heat through.
Frequently the bath had a plug so the water could be emptied, maybe twice, maybe once, or not at all during the day. The pipes might either be lead or, more typically, tiles buried in the ground. Usually planted a foot or more under a very solid concrete floor, they were built to last.
Rome’s public baths featured silver faucets, and there is no reason to assume otherwise in Pompeii. Luxury plumbing also featured four-branch fittings or crosses, brass stop cocks, wipe joints and individual-size bronze bathtubs.
Archaeologists uncovered a bath complex in Pompeii measuring nearly one mile around, said to be “hardly second to the amphitheaters.”
Style That Counts: Herculaneum catered to the richest of the rich and the most powerful, a resort even more expensive than the goings-on in Pompeii. The beautiful mosaics in the women’s bath and frescoes on the walls reportedly were superior to those of Pompeii.
In general, a Roman public bath was like a country club. For a small sum, it was a place to meet friends, go to the gym, play a few games, have a good meal, and spend a bit of time in a succession of cold, tepid, warm or hot baths. This was the concept at the beginning.
In the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) the Romans were conservative in the attitudes toward women in the bath houses. Mixed bathing was prohibited, and there were separate baths for the men and women, and set hours for each. They bathed au naturel, except a woman might wear a cap to protect her hair or a string of pearls around her neck.
The rules changed later on and both sexes were allowed to bathe together, again without bathing suits. However, Rule One said “don’t stare,” and Rule Two insisted on behaving as if one were fully dressed. Break the rules, and out you go. A final humiliation would be the denial of admission. As Rome declined, the baths degenerated likewise into places of debauchery and orgies.
The ancient Roman spas will always be associated with opulent luxury and a style of living that awed even its own people. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, visited Herculaneum several times. These visits no doubt helped inspire these perceptive words: “We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls (of the baths) are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles (statues and busts) are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, or their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colors like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming pools are not lined with Thasian marble, once a rare and wonderful sight in any temple; and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots.”