Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, Rome, China. Great thinkers from these ancient civilizations gave us ideas that are the backbone of our modern world – literature, mathematics, drama, democracy. (Well, we’re still working on that last one.) The ancient engineers invented quarrying and produced marvels of engineering that are still standing today. These civilizations grew thanks to advances in irrigation and construction (and a significant supply of slave labor). What does all of that have to do with swimming pools? Be patient.
Hundreds of thousands of people populated Rome prior to the fall of the empire. All of these people required clean drinking water and a system to remove the garbage and human waste from the city. Perhaps Rome’s greatest achievement was its construction of aqueducts. A total of nine of these massive pipelines crossed large rivers and funneled water into the capital city from nearby hills. With the construction of each new aqueduct, Rome’s population grew, and its influence spread deeper into Europe making it the world’s first superpower.
Besides providing fresh drinking water, the aqueducts also provided the water for Rome’s famous bath houses. Most Roman cities throughout the empire had at least one bath house. A bath complex kept Roman citizens clean, was a vital social gathering place for both men and women, and provided breath mints from a dispenser affixed to the walls. Larger bath houses included a cold water bath, a hot water bath, a warm water bath, and often a sauna, gymnasium, or (here it comes) a swimming pool.
Yes, over 2000 years ago, the ancient world had public pools and public baths using water carried many miles over aqueducts, through stone pipes, and into wood-fired boilers. No filtration system, no chlorine, no algicide, no phone numbers of the 24/7 pool service hotline etched into the stone walls. Just a bunch of dirty, sandal-clad Romans walking through the baths day after day. So, how did the Romans maintain good water quality? There are two answers to that question.
First, the aqueducts provided a constant flow of fresh water into the bath houses. The best water supplied to the city was used for drinking water. The baths were given the next best supply. Likewise, an equally impressive system known as the Cloaca Maxima (literally, Latin for “giant sewer”) carried away the used water filled with Rome’s trash, human and animal waste, and even bodies of dead slaves. The sewer system flowed through and under much of Rome and still drains rain water and debris from modern Rome.
Second, well, the truth is that ancient Rome was rife with disease. The sewer system didn’t actually connect to most of the city, so the streets in poorer areas were filthy. Water flowed under the public latrines and into the sewer system, but the communal toilet sponge…shudder. The sick and healthy regularly bathed together since doctors advised their sick patients to visit the baths for their therapeutic value. Malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and digestive ailments like gastroenteritis killed tens of thousands of the city’s denizens each year.
Spending time at the baths was an integral part of a Roman’s daily ritual. While those facilities would never pass a public health inspection today, Roman engineering provided a reasonably healthy experience for men and women from all walks of life.