From On the Aqueducts. In 97, two decades after serving as governor of Britain, Frontinus was appointed water commissioner of Rome, which he described as concerning “not merely the convenience but also the health and even the safety of the city.” Beyond providing technical information, this treatise is believed to have warned wealthy landowners that unauthorized tapping of aqueduct conduits for private use would no longer be tolerated. The text is known from a manuscript copied by scholar Poggio Bracciolini at Monte Cassino in 1429.
The maintenance of the aqueducts is worthy of special care, as it gives the best testimony to the greatness of the Roman Empire. The numerous and extensive works are continually falling into decay, and they must be attended to before they begin to demand extensive repair. Very often, however, it is best to exercise a wise restraint in attending to their upkeep, since those who urge the construction or extension of the works cannot always be trusted. The water commissioner, therefore, not only ought to be provided with competent advisers but ought also to be equipped with practical experience of his own. He must consult not only the architects of his own office but must also seek aid from the trustworthy and thorough knowledge of numerous other persons in order to judge what must be taken in hand immediately, and what postponed, and again, what is to be carried out by public contractors and what by his own regular workmen.
The necessity of repairs arises from the following reasons: damage is done either by the lawlessness of abutting proprietors, by age, by violent storms, or by defects in the original construction, which has happened quite frequently in the case of recent works.
I think no one will doubt that the greatest care should be taken with the aqueducts nearest to the city (I mean those inside the seventh milestone, which consist of block-stone masonry), both because they are structures of the greatest magnitude and because each one carries several conduits; for should it once be necessary to interrupt these, the city would be deprived of the greater part of its water supply. But there are methods for meeting even these difficulties: provisional works are built up to the level of the conduit that is being put out of use, and a channel, formed of leaden troughs, running along the course of the portion that has been cut off, again provides a continuous passage. Furthermore, since almost all the aqueducts ran through the fields of private parties, and it seemed difficult to provide for future outlays without the help of some constituted law; in order, also, that contractors should not be prevented by proprietors from access to the conduits for the purpose of making repairs, a resolution of the Senate was passed.
But damages often occur by reason of the lawlessness of private owners, who injure the conduits in numerous ways. In the first place, they occupy with buildings or with trees the space around the aqueducts, which according to a resolution of the Senate should remain open. Trees do the most damage because their roots burst asunder the top coverings as well as the sides. They also lay out village and country roads over the aqueducts themselves. Finally, they shut off access to those coming to make repairs.
Our forefathers did not seize from private parties even those lands necessary for public purposes but, in the construction of waterworks, whenever a proprietor made any difficulty in the sale of a portion, they paid for the whole field and, after marking off the needed part, again sold the land with the understanding that public as well as private parties should, each within his boundaries, have his own full rights. But many have not been content to confine themselves to their limits and have laid hands on the aqueducts themselves by puncturing, here and there, the side walls of the channels, not merely those who have secured a right to draw water but also those who misuse the occasion of the least favor for attacking the walls of the conduits. What more would not be done were all those things not prevented by a carefully drawn law and were not the transgressors threatened with a serious penalty? Accordingly, I append the words of the law:
Whoever, after the passage of this law, shall maliciously and intentionally pierce, break, or countenance the attempt to pierce or break, the channels, conduits, arches, pipes, tubes, reservoirs, or basins of the public waters that are brought into the city, or who shall do damage with intent to prevent watercourses or any portion of them from going, falling, flowing, reaching, or being conducted into the city of Rome; or so as to prevent the issue, distribution, allotment, or discharge into reservoirs or basins of any water at Rome or in those places or buildings that are now or shall hereafter be adjacent to the city, or in the gardens, properties, or estates of those owners or proprietors to whom the water is now or in future shall be given or granted, he shall be condemned to pay a fine of a hundred thousand sesterces to the Roman people. In addition, whoever shall maliciously do any of these things shall be condemned to repair, restore, reestablish, reconstruct, or replace what he has damaged, and quickly demolish what he has built—all in good faith and in such manner as the commissioners may determine. Further, whoever is or shall be water commissioner or, in default of such officer, that praetor who is charged with judging between citizens and strangers, is authorized to fine, bind over by bail, or restrain the offender. Nothing of this law shall revoke the privilege of pasturing cattle, cutting grass or hay, or gathering brambles in this place. The water commissioners, present or future, in any place now enclosed about any springs, arches, walls, channels, or conduits are authorized to have removed, pulled out, dug up, or uprooted, any trees, vines, briars, brambles, banks, fences, willow thickets, or beds of reeds so far as they are ready to proceed with justice. To that end, they shall possess the right to bind over, impose fines, or restrain the offender; and it shall be their privilege, right, and power to do the same without prejudice.
I should call the transgressor of so beneficent a law worthy of the threatened punishment. But those who had been lulled into confidence by long-standing neglect had to be brought back by gentle means to right conduct. I therefore endeavored with diligence to have the erring ones remain unknown as far as possible. Those who sought the emperor’s pardon, after due warning received, may thank me for the favor granted. But for the future, I hope that the execution of the law may not be necessary, since it will be advisable for me to maintain the honor of my office even at the risk of giving offense.