Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was a Roman statesman, military general, and architect. He was the right-hand man to King Octavius when he took over after the assassination of Julius Ceasar during the Ides of March. There is also a wonderful painting of the ides of march by the artist Vincenzo Camuccini and it was aptly named, ‘The Death of julus Ceasar’.

Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo
Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo

In addition to leading the Roman empire to victory in multiple wars, he was an able architect as well. Agrippa built the Aqua Julia in 33 BC which is another aqueduct that provided water to multiple parts of the Roman empire, especially the city of Rome.

Before we go any further let’s understand why an aqueduct was needed in the first place.

What was the need to build an Aqueduct?

In the early days, civilizations were built near water sources, for example, the most famous Indus civilization was built on the banks of the Indus river. Water is a big priority for humans and they needed a source that provides them with just that on a regular basis.

Water was very important for agriculture, cooking, sanitation, etc. But as empires grew they could not all be built on the banks of rivers. They had to use up the interior lands as well.

These interior lands did not have access to regular water and although they could rely on rainwater, it was not sustainable. Because it is irregular, to begin with, and depending on rainwater alone it could help foster a community of maybe 500 people whereas, with a constant water source like a river or a lake, it could maybe service close to 5,000 people. So it was important that they figure out a solution for water.

And the answer was the aqueduct which moved water from the rivers to the interior places of the empire.

Now moving back to the Aqua Virgo, it was no surprise that Agrippa was tasked to build the Aqua Virgo 14 years later in 19 BC.

Before we jump on to how Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo. We need to explore the reason why was the aqueduct needed in the first place.

Why Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo?

There are two main reasons why the Aqua Virgo was needed to be built:

– There is only one part of the Roman empire that is present on the west bank of the River Tiber. This part was called Transtiberim which literally means ‘across the Tiber’. They did not have to think too much about this name.

This is a special part of the empire because it housed all the immigrants such as multiple Jewish and Syrian communities. They brought in their own traditions and values. They also participated in the civic institutions that were vital for the entire economy.

Since this was an important part of the empire, they had to provide the community with excellent water facilities to help foster these communities. Although this part received water from other sources, it was not enough as the delivery was constrained by the delivery pipes. An aqueduct was needed to carry water from Rome to Transberitum, across the Tiber river.

Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo
Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo

– The Roman empire had created multiple artificial canals and lakes to service the empire and these fake ones needed to be replenished with regular sources of water.

So, Aqua Virgo was built also to service Agrippa′s baths near the Pantheon. The artificial canal near the baths called the Euripus, and the Stagnum, an artificial lake, as mentioned here.

Moving on to the name of the aqueduct there are some interesting theories.

Theories regarding the aqueduct’s name

– Sextus Julius Frontinus was a prominent Roman civil engineer, author, soldier, and senator and in his works, he suggests that the Aqueduct is named after the girl who found the source for this structure. It sounds ok, but I find it hard to believe that this is true.

– The other theory suggests that it was named after the statue of a goddess found in a temple near the water source. I found this to be more believable given Virgo could very well be the name of a Goddess. The Romans were pretty spiritual.

Although these two theories present possible cases, the name was actually changed later.

Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo but the name was changed to Acqua Vergine later

Over the years, the last few km of the structure stopped working and it had to be rebuilt. It was Pope Nicholas V who sponsored the restoration process. In light of this rebuild, it led to a new network of multiple water ducts around the roman empire. This also retrieved the original springs of the source of the Aqua Virgo. This was situated at the eighth mile of the via Collatina present to the north of Rome.

Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo which supplies water to the  Trevi Fountain in Rome
Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo which supplies water to the Trevi Fountain in Rome

So for some time, the Aqua Virgo was renamed Acqua Di Salone. This was referencing the area in which its original springs were present. But it was later named ‘Acqua Vergine which literally means Aqua Virgo in Italian.

We moved too forward into the story. Let’s back up a bit and see what problems Agrippa faced when he built the Aqua Virgo.

The problems faced when Marcus Agrippa built the Aqua Virgo

Precipitate impurities

Aqua Virgo′s source was in an area near Collatina which was present in the north of the city of Rome. There were many additional feeder channels of its water across its 21 km length which aided the massive amounts of water it brought to the city of Rome. It was nearly 100,000 cubic meters of water.

Although the feeder channels provided additional sources of water, these channels induced precipitate impurities that even obstructed the flow of water.

So Agrippa put a system in place such that the Aqua Virgo was always under regular periodic maintenance.

Nimbyism

Nimby-ism literally stands for Not In My Back Yard and this is predominant even today. You would have definitely heard of landowners protesting against these telecom companies who want to build cell towers across a certain route or against the government who want to build these wind turbines. This same problem existed in the Roman empire as well.

From Collatina to the inner areas of Rome, the Aqua Virgo had to pass through the eastern suburbs. Building this aqueduct across these suburbs will hamper the daily life of the residents and they fought for the construction to not take place.

They invariably won and Agrippa had to find a solution for this. He decided to take a longer route which increased the length of the aqueduct to 21 km. This was much longer than the anticipated length initially.

The Roman architectures were amazing and the fascinating part is that some even stand to this very day and some are even functioning. The reason for that is that the Roman generals held the architects to very high accountability standards.

Architect accountability was enforced by the Roman empire

The artists and architects belonging to the Roman empire were sort of mentally pushed to take their work seriously. Because any positive outcome out of that will go to them. On the other hand in case of negative outcomes, they would be solely responsible.

That is why the buildings had such detailing. Every small aspect was checked and the architects worked as if their life depended on it. Frankly, their lives did depend on it.

There is one story involving Agrippa and Aqua Julia, his first aqueduct construction in 33 BC before the Aqua Virgo.

Example of Roman Architecture - Roman Forum after the ruins
Example of Roman Architecture – Roman Forum after the ruins

To have exceptional focus and dedication while constructing the Aqua Julia, Agrippa and his family, involving his wife and his children, were made to stand under the aqueduct when the water from the source was first being let into the construction.

If any minor flaw was present then the structure will collapse. As it would not be able to handle the force with which water gushed in. When it collapses, Agrippa and his family would be underneath. That collapse would result in the death of its constructor.

Such strict guard rails led to immense dedication to their craft. The Aqua Virgo is a scintillating example of this as it is still the only Roman aqueduct still in use today.

Adithya V

I have an innate interest in art and I am starting this blog to document some of the amazing things I learned. I would segregate my content in chronological order which would make sense for any beginner to read and make sense of it all.

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