BMCR 2018.11.26

Los acueductos de Hispania: construcción y abandono. Colección Juanelo Turriano de Historia de la Ingeniería

, , Los acueductos de Hispania: construcción y abandono. Colección Juanelo Turriano de Historia de la Ingeniería. Madrid: Fundación Juanelo Turriano, 2016. 295. ISBN 9788494269578.


Aside from the famous aqueduct of Segovia, a remarkably well-preserved and often photographed UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of us would be hard pressed to think of other aqueducts in Roman Iberia. Los acueductos de Hispania: construcción y abandono, a new book about the history and archaeology of urban aqueducts in the Iberian Peninsula, makes details about the many lesser known Iberian aqueducts readily accessible. The book is part of a series of online, open-access books produced by the Fundación Juanelo Turriano, a Madrid-based foundation dedicated to promoting the history of science, technology, and engineering to a broad academic and lay audience. Here, Elena Sánchez López and Javier Martínez Jiménez have compiled new and old data from across the Iberian Peninsula, producing a synthesis of existing information on urban aqueducts. The book—which has a remarkably broad chronological and geographical scope—benefits from the knowledge base of both authors. Together, they cover the entire Iberian Peninsula and discuss evidence ranging from Roman conquest through the Middle Ages. Sánchez López (Universidad de Granada) has previously written on Roman aqueducts across Baetica and produced a detailed analysis of the aqueduct at Almuñécar for her doctoral dissertation and various subsequent articles. Martínez Jiménez (Cambridge University), by contrast, brings expertise on post-Roman evidence for urban water management. His 2014 dissertation was entitled Aqueducts and Water Supply in the Towns of Post-Roman Spain (400-1000). The authors have done us an enormous service, as much of the data comes from recent fieldwork, rescue archaeology projects, and other sources that are difficult to access from outside of Spain and Portugal.

The book is divided into three sections. Chapter 1 situates the topic in scholarship and gives an introduction to Roman aqueducts in general, but with a primary focus on the evidence from the Iberian Peninsula. The second chapter discusses the role that aqueducts played in urban settings, as well as the typical phases of use and abandonment that large aqueducts went through. Finally, chapter 3—the bulk of the volume—is a catalog of 66 aqueducts from across Spain and Portugal, including the island of Ibiza. The book concludes with a series of appendices that present information given in the catalog in comparative perspective. The text is available in PDF, print, and online versions. I recommend the online version, which helps the reader use the text to its full capacity as an interactive research tool. In-text links facilitate jumping between mentions of specific aqueducts in the first two synthetic chapters and their more detailed catalog entries.

Chapter 1 serves as a very brief overview of the history of scholarship on aqueducts in the Iberian Peninsula, methods of studying them, as well as the engineering behind their construction. The first part of the chapter introduces various methods from archaeology, engineering, and history, with short sections on each that are unlikely to be of great utility to specialists. However, given the broad intended audience of the book, the chapter is useful in so far as it introduces the novice to a wide range of discipline-specific methodologies that will help them better understand the terminology used and detail presented later. Included, for instance, are discussions of relative and absolute dating techniques, the mathematical formulas for calculating the speed and volume of water, and the contributions and limits of written sources to the study of aqueducts.

The second part of Chapter 1 turns to the engineering of the aqueducts themselves and their various functions. The authors present details from book 8 of Vitruvius’ De Architectura and Frontinus’ De Aquaeductu as well as archaeological evidence from across the Iberian Peninsula, with occasional comparisons to notable aqueducts from other Roman provinces and the city of Rome. They do a commendable job of demonstrating how the archaeological evidence from Iberia both differs from and conforms to expectations set out in the ancient texts. For instance, Vitruvius (8.6) describes only three types of channels: built channels, lead pipes, and clay pipes. More varieties are known from the material evidence, however: both stone and wood pipes have been uncovered from archaeological contexts in Iberia (the former from Cádiz and Singilia Barba in Málaga and the latter from Los Bañales in Zaragoza). The chapter concludes with a brief summary of the various uses of water beyond drinking: for public baths and entertainment, sewage and cleaning, urban industry, and symbolic purposes. This second half of Chapter 1 will be of interest to archaeologists specializing in Roman water management and construction for its meticulous detail and presentation of evidence little known outside of Iberia. For those seeing a general view of Roman aqueducts or commentary on the ancient sources, other books will still serve these purposes better.1

In Chapter 2, “Aqueducts in Context,” the authors elaborate on various functional and symbolic roles that aqueducts had to play in Roman cities. They detail how the construction, maintenance and repair, and final abandonment of aqueducts was intertwined with the long-term history of urban places in Iberia. The authors’ central argument is that aqueducts were not essential components of Roman cities (just as not all cities had theaters), but that understanding how and why they were built and maintained can illuminate processes of urban development. For instance, some cities—like Carmona and Clunia—had enough cisterns and wells to supply the population and never required aqueducts. Other cities started out with simpler supply systems but added aqueducts so that they could supply new neighborhoods (e.g., Córdoba), public monuments such as fountains and baths (e.g., Italica), or industrial quarters (e.g., Baelo Claudia and Olisipo). Some aqueducts, by contrast, seem to have been constructed as local acts of euergetism or when cities became municipia and maintained as a point of pride, even when other water was readily accessible. This was apparently the case with the famous aqueduct at Segovia, which was constructed in a location with plentiful natural springs and cisterns (p. 72). Since aqueducts are often taken for granted as a typical part of Roman monumentalization and urbanization in the provinces, this chapter is a welcome reminder of just how varied and individual urban histories can be.

The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the abandonment of aqueducts: while about a quarter were still in use in the 5th century, this number declined steadily in the following centuries. The main exception to this pattern is the aqueduct at Reccopolis, newly constructed as a part of the Visigothic city in 578 AD. The authors bring up an interesting question that is ultimately not possible to answer given the variable quality of extant data: how does the abandonment of aqueducts in Iberia differ relative to other parts of the Roman Empire, like Gaul or Italy, which had vastly different political trajectories between 300 and 700 AD? In the case of Iberia, they argue, financing and specialized labor for aqueduct maintenance was no longer readily available (only four were in use at the time of the Umayyad conquest of Iberia in 711; p. 77). People in many cities adapted by altering the footprint of cities and increasing the use of wells and cisterns for water supply, while surviving aqueducts were privatized to serve Umayyad palaces and private estates.

Chapter 3 is a detailed catalog of 66 aqueducts organized geographically by the Roman provincial territories of Tarraconensis, Baetica, Lusitania, and Gallaecia, with further subdivisions by conventus. While certainly many more aqueducts are known than this, only aqueducts serving urban centers and for which there is material evidence are included. This means that aqueducts used in rural industries—such as agriculture and mining—are omitted, as are urban aqueducts that must have existed but have not yet been found (the authors cite Pollentia as one such example, p. 87). Each entry is presented uniformly to facilitate comparison and general usability. Most entries include the dates of construction and abandonment, as well as references to specific evidence that corroborates the dating. Next is a presentation of the technical elements of each aqueduct (e.g., slope, volume of water flow, and construction techniques and materials). The entries also include—whenever possible—a map, photos and/or drawings, a description of the path of the aqueduct, and, finally, a list of written sources (ancient and modern). The maps are especially well produced, clearly depicting the known and hypothesized routes of aqueducts, their relationship to cities, and their placement with respect to the topography of the wider landscape. Usefully, photographs of many examples are displayed in full color, often showing sections of aqueducts in the process of excavation or close-up shots taken by the authors.

The appendix provides elegant visualizations of the data in the catalog in comparative perspective, making it easier to contextualize and access this information. Bar graphs present a range of topics, including the periods of use and abandonment, relative lengths, relative capacity in volume, and relative heights of different aqueducts. The reader can see readily, for instance, that the aqueduct at Cádiz was the longest at 75 km, while the aqueduct at Toletum was the tallest at an estimated 40 m in height.

Prior to the publication of this work, Acueductos Romanos en España served as the standard text on the topic. The first edition was produced in 1972 from a series of six articles by Carlos Fernández Casado in the journal Informes de la Construcción.2 Because of its unusual origin, the book did not have a clear table of contents or even page numbers until it was reissued in 2008.3 Though encyclopedic at the time of its initial publication, its scope is limited in comparison to the book under review. The focus is on the territory of modern peninsular Spain only; Portugal and the Balearic Islands are omitted. Maps, drawings, and photographs, while of historical interest, are now outdated. Finally, because Fernández Casado was an engineer rather than an archaeologist, his primary focus is on the engineering rather than the life histories or wider contexts of aqueducts.

In light of the limitations of previous work, this new book is a welcome addition to research on Roman aqueducts in Iberia: it presents updated, detailed evidence on aqueducts in urban contexts in a readable, well-illustrated format, accompanied by a thoughtful discussion. I do lament that, although the publication venue of the book does make it widely accessible, it is inevitably more likely to be read by Spanish speakers with interests in the history of technology and engineering than by classical archaeologists, classicists, or historians.4 I hope this review will serve, at least, to make more people aware that the volume exists as a useful resource. Indeed, more open access books and catalogs that present little-known or difficult to find evidence would help facilitate comparative research across the Roman Empire. Los acueductos de Hispania: construcción y abandono should be of value to anyone who studies water management and urban infrastructure, Roman technology and engineering, as well as the history and archaeology of Hispania and of the Roman provinces in general.


1. E.g., Hodge, A.T. 2002. Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply. 2nd ed. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press (Duckworth Archaeology); Rodgers, R.H. 2004. Frontinus. De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Rowland, I.D., and T.N. Howe. 1999. Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Fernández Casado, C. 1972. Acueductos Romanos en España. Madrid: Instituto Eduardo Toroja.

3. Fernández Casado, C. 2008. Acueductos Romanos en España. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas.

4. This is especially true because many of the other volumes in the series deal with topics related to Spain’s industrial heritage and engineering in later epochs rather than in antiquity (see Fundación Juanelo Turriano) and because this title does not seem to appear on most university library databases in the US.