It is amazing that Pompeii, a city that existed so long ago, had such a complex water system. Ancient Rome is famous for its luxurious public baths, but much less is known about the about the movement of water through private homes. Did all citizens have running water? How was the water transported to individual homes? How were they able to control the flow of the water? Did they have toilets and sinks? How did they dispose of waste? Since Pompeii (and Herculaneum) were so well preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, archaeologists have been able to answer these questions and more. Studying the use of water in Pompeian homes teaches us about the level of technology available to them and also offers us insight into the daily lives and the values held by the people.
Getting Water to the Home: Wells, Cisterns, and Pipes
Although wells were popular method of obtaining water in Herculaneum, only wealthy citizens in Pompeii could afford to sink private wells. The water table is about twenty meters deep in Pompeii, which is two or three times the depth one would have to dig in Herculaneum, so wells were much too expensive for the average Pompeian ("Water Systems" 161). However, since wells provided a steady flow of water, there were some public wells in the city.
Another way of acquiring water was to build a cistern. Usually located in the courtyard, a cistern is an underground reservoir where rainwater is stored (149). Falling rain would be caught in the compluvium, a channel that surrounds the hole in the roof above the atrium in a home; the rain would then pour through spouts into the impluvium, where it would be routed to the cistern. Rainwater could also reach the cistern by rolling from the portico roofs into gutters that lined the perimeter of a home's peristyle (Ling 69).
A cistern is shaped somewhat like a jug with a short neck. A slab with a hole in its center (to allow a bucket to be lowered into the cistern) would be placed over the cistern's "neck," and the hole in the slab would be covered with a puteal, a cylindrical "lid" that protects the water from debris (150).
Since wells were expensive and cisterns depended on regular rain, Pompeii eventually had to build a system of pipes in order to satisfy the demand for clean water. Pompeii's aqueduct brought water to the castellum aquae, a large reservoir where the water was filtered and disbursed to the city through three main pipes (Laurence 44; "Water Systems" 152).
The main pipes connected to other pipes throughout the city and distributed water to places like public fountains, baths, pools, and private homes.
Water in the Home
Although many Pompeians depended on pipes for a constant supply of water, not all citizens could afford to have water piped directly into their homes. These people carried water from the public fountains that were spaced relatively regularly throughout the city: most citizens "lived within eighty metres of a...