Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.11.13

Christoph P.J. Ohlig, De aquis Pompeiorum. Das Castellum Aquae in Pompeji: Herkunft, Zuleitung und Verteilung des Wassers. Circumvesuviana, volume 4 .   Nijmegen:  Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt, 2001.  Pp. 483; CD of photographs.  ISBN 3-8311-2614-3.  EUR 50.00.  

Reviewed by Renate Lafer, Universität Klagenfurt, Austria (
Word count: 1288 words

This detailed study about the water tower in Pompeii is a revised edition of a thesis (PhD) written in the year 2000. In 483 pages the author (in the following O.) shows his specialized knowledge about this topic. Researches and measurements in the years 1993 till 2001 as well as the publication of several articles by the author himself regarding the water supply of Pompeii in the last decennium led to the now presented new and profound results.1 Involving close cooperation with other scientists like chemists, physicians and technicians, the study of a physical model of the basin contributed to a new understanding of the water supply of Pompeii. The importance of this study can be seen furthermore in that until now there existed only publications regarding Pompeii in an overall view2 or studies on the water supply for the whole empire.3 This fact might be the result of the difficulty provoked by new researches about the castellum excavated in 1902 (many artefacts can not be seen any more because of erosion and other factors of destruction -- e.g. the possibility of robbery can not be excluded) and therefore research work is difficult. So the author had to invest much time for his research. He has done this in an accurate and conscientious manner, so that many important reflections and scientific results can be delivered. Therefore the knowledge about the water tower up to now has to be re-thought in many aspects.

The book can be divided into the following sections: After a short foreword (pp. XI-XII) the first chapter (pp. 1-32) gives an introduction into the research until now, the problems which must be considered, a brief survey about the author's research in the field and a glossary for the most important terms used in the present study. The second chapter (pp. 33-48) deals with the ancient literary sources (Vitruvius, Frontinus), which refer to the functioning of the water supply in general. The controversial passage in Vitr. VIII, 6, 1-2 about the water distribution, which is the central point for the following considerations, is discussed in detail. The third chapter (pp. 49-84) is dedicated to the origin of the water that finally came to the water tower in Pompeii. The possible channels for both phases of construction of the pipe and the sources are discussed. The fourth chapter (pp. 85-156) deals with the channel itself with its route as well as its structure and its peculiarities. In chapters V (pp. 157-240) and VI (pp. 241-268) finally, which form the central part of this study, O. discusses the castellum itself, the inner part as well as the outside. The results regarding the arrangement of the distribution pipes form the basis for his analyses.

After the summary of the most important results (pp. 269-277), O. gives five appendices (pp. 279-364) with information about his analyses. The first one deals with the passage in Vitr. VIII,6,1-2 already mentioned above and its traditions and various editions. For comparison the castella from Conimbriga and Gadara are also discussed. The next appendix is dedicated to some diagrams of analyses of the sinter deposit. Afterwards the author gives some facts about the pipe and inscriptions found in this area. An extract of the report from the excavations 1899-1912 in the Giornale di Scavo and the Notizie degli Scavi are reproduced in the last appendix. A bibliography (pp. 365-370), an index (pp. 371-380), a collection of photos in black and white (pp. 381-474) and eight pages with illustrations conclude the publication. Moreover all 270 photos are reproduced on a CD in good quality, which is of special interest, and as they are coloured pictures, show also small differences regarding the colour of the illustrations (e.g. the deposit of sinter or various phases of the building). Additionally details have a more exact contrast to the background on the coloured photos.

The present study is of great importance as O. has made an accurate research in the field in the past years. One of his most important results concerns the function of water distribution. Until now the passage in Vitruvius was interpreted and thereafter used to explain the castellum of Pompeii, and the water tower of Pompeii was declared to be a typical construction with regards to all other castella. According to this interpretation the basin should consist of three connected pipes arranged on three different levels to favour the public water supply and to put at a disadvantage the private users in case of lack of water. Such opinions can even be found in some renowned encyclopaedia as the Lexikon der Alten Welt.4 After nearly ten years of research, however, O. is able to show that the pipes are arranged on one and the same level and suggests an optical illusion may be responsible for the false opinion (pp. 195ff.). In addition the measurements of the proportions of the pipes must be changed a little bit, as they are not, as believed until now, arranged exactly symmetrically.

The second new result concerns the origin of the water (pp. 49ff.). By chemical and mineralogical examinations and the study of the sinter deposit, O. shows that there must have been two phases of construction and not one as commonly believed. At first (most probably in the time of Sulla) the water came from the sources of Avella, while in the time of Augustus (after 27 B.C.) the water from a second source (from the region around Serino) was mixed with the first. Now a constant water supply was possible the whole year long, although the quantity seemed to be reduced. The reasons for this change were diverse. At first the settlement of veterans in the time of Sulla needed a well-functioning water supply. As the quantity from the region of Avella was not enough any more and also prooved to be too irregular (many cities in the Campania were now connected with the water supply net from these sources) the water pipe from Serino was constructed. Moreover the analysis of the sinter deposit shows that generally the quantity of water was much smaller than commonly believed (p. 13). Because of these reflections and results one has also to consider whether Vitruvius' study on architecture was available for the construction of the water pipe (at least for the first one from Avella), as Vitruvius is writing in the time of Augustus.

In direct connection, the building of the basin was also constructed in two phases. In the first one there was an open and round basin without the possibility of regulation. In the second phase a triangular basin (as it can be seen now) was built and superstructured with the castellum. Now there was the possibility to regulate the water quantity with a rake (to remove rubbish) and a plate with a horizontal opening (which could also be closed within a short time by plugging it up). The water flow of the pipes could be regulated individually ad libitum by the fixing of some plates (p. 233), too.

To sum up it can be said that with this study O. has produced many new and important results. Logical considerations as well as chemical, mineralogical und technical analyses led to this well-documented and fine structured publication. The overview of past research at the beginning of each chapter is also helpful for understanding the problems. Moreover, many illustrations, statistics, maps, calculations and photos gave a good and detailed documentation, which is based on the close cooperation with technicians and other scientists.

The study is very precise und accurate. As a minor mistake only the error on p. 46, where the author by mistake wrote instead the name of Fahlbusch Fensterbusch (in the text and in the note 178) can be mentioned.


1.   Wasserversorgung. Ein Projekt im Gespräch mit M. Vitruvius Pollio und Sex. Iulius Frontinus, Der altsprachliche Unterricht 3 + 4, 1994, 115-140. Vitruvs "Castellum Aquae" und die Wasserverteilung im antiken Pompeji, Schriftenreihe der Frontinus-Gesellschaft 19, 1995, 124-147. Anmerkungen zum Funktionsmodell des Catellum Aquae im antiken Pompeji, in: N. de Haan -- G. Jansen (Hg.), Cura aquarum in Campania, Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress on the History of Water Management and Hydraulic Engineering in the Mediterranean Region (Pompeii -- 1.-8. October 1994), Leiden 1996, 19-27. Neue Erkenntnisse über die Wasserverorgung im antiken Pompeji, Schriftenreiche der Frontinus-Gesellschaft 22, 1997, 57-102. "Aquädukt-Daktyloskopie" im Zuleitungskanal von Pompeji. Eine Methode zur Untersuchung der Baugeschichte eines antiken Wasserleitungssystems, in: G. Jansen (Hg.), Cura aquarum in Sicilia. Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress on the History of Water Management and Hydraulic Engineering in the Mediterranean Region (Syracus Mai 1998), Leiden 2000, 163-169.
2.   Comp. e.g. F. Coarelli (Hg.), Pompeji. Archäologischer Führer, Bergisch Gladbach 1990, where the castellum is mentioned only in passing (pp. 375-376). Nothing is said about the water tower and its functioning.
3.   R. Tölle-Kastenbein, Antike Wasserkultur, München 1990, 142-144 and 146; A. Tr. Hodge, Roman aqueducts and Water Supply, London 2002.
4.   W. Krenkel, LdAW, 1965 (ND 2001), 3258-3260, s.v. Wasserversorgung. This opinion can be found e.g. once more in K. Geißler, Die öffentliche Wasserversorgung im römischen Recht (= Freiburger Rechtsgeschichtliche Abhandlungen N.F. Bd. 29), Berlin 1998, 147-148. Hodge (see note number 3) changes this view already a little bit, but doesn't give any exact explanation.

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