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p299 Cloaca

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp299‑300 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

CLOACA, a common sewer. The term cloaca is generally used in reference only to those spacious subterraneous vaults, either of stone or brick, through which the foul waters of the city, as well as all the streams brought to Rome by the aqueducts, finally discharged into the Tiber; but it also includes within its meaning any smaller drain, either wooden pipes or clay tubes (Ulpian, Dig.43 tit. 23 s1), with which almost every house in the city was furnished to carry off its impurities into the main conduit. The whole city was thus intersected by subterraneous passages, and is therefore called urbs pensilis, in Pliny's enthusiastic description of the cloacae (H.N. XXXVI.15 s24).

The most celebrated of these drains was the cloaca maxima, the construction of which is ascribed to Tarquinius Priscus (Liv. I.38; Plin. l.c.), and which was formed to carry off the waters brought down from the adjacent hills into the Velabrum and valley of the Forum. The stone of which it is built is a mark of the great antiquity of the work; it is not the peperino of Gabii and the Alban hills, which was the common building-stone in the time of the commonwealth; but it is the "tufa litoide" of Brocchi, one of the volcanic formations which is found in many places in Rome, and which was afterwards supplanted in public buildings by the finer quality of the peperino (Arnold, Hist. Rom. vol. I p52). This cloaca was formed by three arches, one within the other, the innermost of which is a semicircular vault of 18 Roman palms, about 14 feet in diameter, each of the hewn blocks being 7½ palms long and 4⅙ high, and joined together without cement. The manner of construction is shown in the annexed woodcut, taken on the spot, where a part of it is uncovered near the arch of Janus Quadrifrons.

[image ALT: An engraving of a small round temple with an enclosed inner cell surrounded by elegant columns, the whole on a base of several rectangular courses of stone blocks; somewhat beneath the temple and off to the right, the arched mouth of an ancient sewer, also of stone blocks. It is a view of the Foro Boario area in Rome, and the sewer is the Cloaca Maxima.]

The mouth where it reaches the Tiber, nearly opposite to one extremity of the insula Tiberina, still remains in the state referred to by Pliny (l.c.). It is represented in the annexed woodcut, the modern fabrics only which encumber the site, being left out.

[image ALT: An engraving of a stone archway with water running beneath it. It is a view of the mouth of the ancient Roman sewer, in the city of Rome, known as the Cloaca Maxima.]

The passages in Strabo and Pliny, which state that a cart (ἄμαξα, vehes) loaded with hay, could pass down the cloaca maxima, will no longer appear incredible from the dimensions given of this stupendous work; but it must still be borne in mind that the vehicles of the Romans were much smaller than our own. Dion Cassius also states (XLIX.43) that Agrippa, when he cleansed the sewers, passed thru them in a boat, to which Pliny probably alludes in the expression urbs subter navigata; and their extraordinary dimensions, as well as that of the embouchures through which the waters poured into them, is still further testified by the exploits of Nero, who threw down the sewers the unfortunate victims of his nightly riots (Suet. Ner. 26; cf. Dionys. X.53; Cic. pro Sext. 35).

The cloaca maxima, formed by Tarquin, extended only from the forum to the river, but was subsequently continued as far up as the Subura, of which branch some vestiges were discovered in the p300year 1742 (Venuti, Antichità di Roma, vol. I p98; Ficoroni, Vestigie di Roma, pp74, 75). This was the crypta Suburae to which Juvenal refers (Sat. V.106; cf. Dict. of Gr. and Rom. Geog. art. Roma).

The expense of cleansing and repairing these cloacae was, of course, very great, and was defrayed partly by the treasury, and partly by an assessment called cloacarium (Ulpian, Dig. 7 tit. 1 s27 § 3). Under the republic, the administration of the sewers was entrusted to the censors; but under the empire, particular officers were appointed for that purpose, cloacarum curatores, mention of whom is found in inscriptions (ap. Grut. p. cxcvii.5, p. cxcviii.2, 3, 4, 5; p. cclii.1; Ulpian, Dig. 43 tit. 23 s2). The emperors employed condemned criminals in the task (Plin. Epist. X.32).º

Rome was not the only city celebrated for works of this kind. Diodorus (XI.25) makes special mention of the sewers (ὑπόνομοι) of Agrigentum, which were constructed about B.C. 480, by an architect named Phaeax, after whom they were called φαίακες.

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Page updated: 7 May 08