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Water supply of ancient Greek cities

Water Science & Technology: Water Supply Vol 7 No 1 pp 165–172 Q IWA Publishing 2007
T.P. Tassios
School of Civil Engineering, National Technical University of Athens, Heroon Polytechneiou 5, GR 157 80,
Zographou, Greece (E-mail: tassios@central.ntua.gr)

Abstract This is a short presentation of some typical cases of water supply schemes of ancient Greek
cities. Mycenaean spring chambers and access tunnels are first briefly mentioned. Subsequently, the
Peisistratos Aqueduct of Ancient Athens is described, together with the water reservoir of Theagenes in
Megara. Finally, the long aqueducts of the Greek cities in Asia Minor during the Hellenistic period are
mentioned, and the specific case of ancient city of Pergamos is presented. Its 3 km long siphon is
discussed, and details about its lead pipes are given.
Keywords Ancient Greece; technology; water supply

Introduction

There was no Greek city without an elaborated water supply system; that is why
Pausanias does not condescend to call “city” the destitute old glorious town of Panopeus:
its inhabitants had no water-supply system anymore! Out of the vast data on the water
supply facilities of Greek cities through the centuries, I will select only few examples in
order to describe the typical components of such a facility, i.e. water-collectors, header
tanks, galleries and terminal reservoirs and krēnae (fountains). In doing so, I intend to
examine a prehistoric, a couple of archaic/classical, and a Hellenistic case.

Mycenaean cities
I will briefly describe first the underground well-houses, following the views of Knauss
(2006), and I will restrict this presentation only to those structures which are more
characteristic to the building techniques of the Mycenaeans, i.e. the vaulting of access
tunnels and spring chambers. The main features of these structures are the following:
(a) A series of retaining walls (approximately 3 m high) are securing (i) the stability of
the sloped hillsides and (ii) a better infiltration of surface waters.
(b) A small entrance is built on the ground, leading to the spring chamber via an inclined
tunnel, stabilized by means of a corbelled strong-vault (slope of the tunnel: 1 to 2–4,
width: 0.8 to 1.4 m).
(c) An underground well-house (or spring chamber) stabilized by a two-dimensional or
three-dimensional stone-vault (total depth of the installation: 5 to 15 m).
In this category of water facilities belong the finds of Tiryns and Ithaka (in the area of
the so called “Homer School”). To another category of underground water-supply facili-
ties belong the highly sophisticated mycenaean structures at the Acropolis of Mycenae
and the Acropolis of Athens: the access-tunnels are hug in the rock of the hill, and lead
down to a depth up to 25 m. In Mycenae, the lowest flight of the tunnel is plastered with
a waterproof lime mortar, still in place.
doi: 10.2166/ws.2007.019 165
Athens: the Peisistratian aqueduct
The subterranean aqueducts of Peisistratos are a typical example of water-supply facilities
in Greek cities during the archaic and classical period. In fact, many other Greek cities had
such underground water-supply networks: Syracuse: its catacombs were previous main
aqueducts, (Crouch, 2004), Acragas: 15 km of water-collecting galleries of a cross-section
1 £ 2 m2, were running under the city itself. Finally, the emblematic case of Samos and its
Eupalinian tunnel is very well known and it will not be further described here.
T.P. Tassios

The Peisistratian aqueduct


The descendants of Peisistratos (Figure 1), as genuine tyrants (“bread, shows and water”)
are to offer the Athenian people a truly gigantic technical work (ca. 510 BC). The aque-
duct comes out of the city to seek the waters of the river Ilissos, either on the surface
with the speculated Nine-tap Fountain (perhaps somewhere around the intersection of
Kallirhoi and Anapapseos streets or, more likely, to the north-eastern sources of Ilissos).
Its distance from the Acropolis is about 7.5 km. It is indeed a huge technological
achievement (Figure 2), definitely more important than the Attic Metro of our days. This
aqueduct is situated for the most part in a tunnel, up to 14 m deep. Parts of the tunnel
have been located in too many places (with lower or higher degrees of certainty as to
whether they belong to this very aqueduct), with a typical cross-section of up to one and
a half metres height. Pipes of terracotta with internal diameter of approximately 20 cm
are placed inside the cross-section of the tunnel, with sleeves of extraordinary conception,
openings for cleaning, orientation engravings and other technical elements (and with the
name of the manufacturer, of course!).
The network will be maintained, implemented and enriched systematically during the
democracy of the Classical period, especially with the foundation of new fountains, impress-
ive public constructions that is, for the water supply of the citizens. The fountain had already
been such a widespread social/cultural establishment that within a period of a century alone
(560–460 BC) we find a hundred and fifty fountain depictions in Attic vessels.

Megara: the typical water-reservoir of Theagenes

166 Figure 1 Layout of the Peisistratos and Hadrian aqueducts in Athens


T.P. Tassios
Figure 2 Technical details of the tunnels of Peisistratos aqueduct

Megara was a glorious (and unlucky) Doric city in the middle of two rival cities,
Korinth and Athens, and native land of the larger number of good engineers of Greek
Antiquity. The aqueduct of Megara (ca. 500 B.C.) is not yet completely uncovered, but
its terminal water-tank and krēnē is preserved up to a height of some metres. The protec-
tive roof was supported by five rows of seven octagonal columns, mostly preserved in
situ (Figure 3).
In-plan (dimensions 14 £ 19 m2), the reservoir was divided into two basins of 164 m3
capacity each. On the wall between the collecting and the drawing basin, there is a hole: a
flow-regulating bronze mechanism is provided. The surrounding walls of the reservoir (up to
a height of 1.4 m) are plastered with a pozzolanic mortar, 12 mm thick. The entire floor is cov-
ered by a 50 mm pozzolanic plaster, and on top of that it was covered by a thin black layer of
asphalt, mixed with animal fats, in order to avoid the grow of calcite layers (Hellner, 2006).
In general terms, this Megarian facility arrangements will be followed in several other cases,
such as the krēnē of Glaukē and Peirene in Corinth, or the famous Enneacrounos in Athens.

Figure 3 The Theagenes krene (von Zabern, 1991: 139) 167


Pergamos: the masterpiece of water supply of Hellenistic cities
“It is with the Hellenistic age that the great breakthrough comes [in Hydraulics]”
A. Trevor Hodge, 1992

Following the views of A. Trevor Hodge (1992), the Hellenistic breakthrough is due to
(a) the political and economic developments due to the successors of Alexander the
Great, and (b) the progress in Hellenistic science which gave to the hydraulic engineer
T.P. Tassios

a whole new dimension of technical expertise (p. 31, 32). During this period, aqueducts
outside the city were much longer (40 km stretches were now feasible). The main
characteristics of the Greek engineering, however, was still observed: valleys were
crossed by means of subterranean conduits (not bridges. Thus, inevitably “inverted
siphons” under pressure were to be built! And this was precisely the new Greek
invention, and it will be rapidly spread to numerous Greek cities in Asia Minor; both
before and after the arrival of Romans. The dispute about precise dating of most of
these siphons (Hellenistic or Roman) still continues today. Initially, the German scholars
(G. Weber) were in favour of the Hellenistic origin of most of them. The Patara case is
characteristic: Nowadays, J. T. Coulton prefers the Roman date, based on a Vespasian
inscription on a venter, whereas H. Fahlbusch explains that this inscription refers to a
complete renovation of the aqueduct (in: Trevor Hodge, 1992: 396). Trevor Hodge,
however, includes in his chapter “The predecessors of Romans”, the siphons of
Ephesos, Methymna, Magnesia, Philadelphia, both Antiochias, Blaundros, Patara,
Smyrna, Prymnessos, Tralleis, Trapezopolis, Apameia, Akmonia and Laodikeia
(Figure 4). To my opinion, the precise dating is of no technical significance: a technol-
ogy initiated today, will obviously persist under the new rulers of tomorrow. Thus, the
most prevailing technical conditions in all these cities, with only one exception,
imposed siphons under rather small pressures ranging from only 15 m (Antioch on
the Meander) up to 75 m (Tralleis). The solution adopted in all these cases was
“stone-pipe” (Figure 5). Happily enough, all technical evidence of this solution survived
almost intact: “The stone pipes of many Hellenistic siphons, more durable and less
liable to looting, have often survived”, (Trevor Hodge, 1992: p. 37). It has to be noted
however, that for further lower pressures, terracotta pipes might have been used,
embedded in masonry (e.g. the case of Caesarea) or even hollow tree-trunks (lateron in
European roman areas).
Stone pipes were square blocks (<0.9 £ 0.9 m) accommodating a hole of a diameter
roughly equal to d ¼ 0.25 m, thus leaving a peripheral stone-ring of t < 0.3 m of thick-
ness. Its allowable internal pressure p may be roughly estimated assuming

max st , f t =gm ð1Þ

where st is the acting tensile stress, ft the tensile resistance and gm the safety factor. In
addition,
1 þ ðri =ra Þ2
max st ¼ p ð2Þ
1 2 ðri =ra Þ2
where ri is the internal radius and ra the external radius. Assuming ft < 0.45 N/mm2 for a
rather soft limestone, gm < 2, ri ¼ 0.13 m and ra ¼ 0.43 m, then p < 1 N/mm2, corre-
sponding to a water column of 100 m.
It seems therefore that these stone-pipes could easily resist the relatively low hydraulic
pressures envisaged in the a.m. cases of siphons. It remains however to understand how
the tightness was secured through the joints between consecutive blocks, located approxi-
168 mately every metre. Several answers may be given to this:
T.P. Tassios
Ankyra

Methy

Prymnessos
Akmonia
Smyrna
Antiocheia
Ephesos
Trallels Apameia
Samos Loodikela

Trapezopolis
Alabanda Aphrodisias
Kibyra Aspendos

N Oinoanda
Patara

0 200 km
Sources of lead
0 125 mi

Figure 4 Distribution of stone-pipeline blocks in Greek cities during Hellenistic Age or after the arrival of
Romans (Trevor Hodge, 1992: 41)

(a) in most cases, these stone-interfaces were well worked out and matched; besides, the
ends of the holes were all reamed
(b) a longitudinal compression stress equal to p/2, acting along the pipe, offers a kind of
prestressing contributing to the tightness of the joints
(c) calcite deposits may further diminish water permeability of these joints
(d) if however leakages through the joints appear, water losses are expected to be reason-
ably low.
Let us now describe with more details the most emblematic case of Hellenistic siphons
“…that stands apart from all others, Greek and Roman alike, by reason of its gigantic

Figure 5 Stone-pipes form in the siphon of the city of Patara (von Zabern, 1991: 157) 169
3250 m
Header tank
376 m Acropolis
Caputlu Tepe 335 m
234 m Kaleardi Tepe
235 m
223 m
193 m
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175 m
N

Acropolis

Hagios
Georgios

0 500 1000 m

Figure 6 Pergamos: Longitudinal section of the final part of the aqueduct No 2 (from Madradag), under
hydraulic pressure up to 200 m of water column (Trevor Hodge, 1992: 43)

size” (Trevor Hodge, p. 42), that of the city of Pergamos – the capital city of the
Attalides kings (282 –133 BC – and intellectual cradle of the physician Galen and the
writer Pausanias). Four of its aqueducts are Hellenistic. Aqueduct No2 (from actual
Madradag up to the Acropolis, Figures 6, 7), was built by Eumenēs II (197 –159 BC): It
has a length of 42 km, with a triple terracotta pipeline (of a diameter of approximately
0.18 m and wall thickness of 3.5 cm), and it contains a last stretch of 3.2 km of siphon,
under a maximum water pressure of 200 m. Everything here is gigantic indeed – a culmi-
nation of the glorious Alexandrian School of thought. Obviously, for such pressures,
stone-pipeline is inadequate; lead-pipes were used instead. No sign of lead-pipes has sur-
vived, of course. Soil samples, however, close to the pipeline proved to have 50 times
higher lead-content than samples outside the tracing…The resistance of these pipes is
confirmed by a simple calculation, assuming pressure p ¼ 200 t/m2 ¼ 2 N/mm2, diameter
d < 180 mm, thickness t < 35 mm and tensile resistance of low quality lead

Figure 7 The lead pipes were resting on perforated stone-supports and on underlying stone slabs (von
170 Zabern, 1991: 29)
T.P. Tassios
Figure 8 The archaic hybrid solution of lead pipes and stone collars in the Artemision of Ephesos (von
Zabern, 1991: 180)

ft ¼ 11 N/mm2 (Hütte Manual). The acting tensile stress is st ¼ d p/2t ¼ ¼ 5.14 N/ mm2
and the available safety factor is gm ¼ 11/5.14 2 < 2 (adequate).
The tightness of the joints (every 1.2 m) was secured by means of a swelling mortar of
sand, silt and clay, interposed underneath the external lead-collars. The pipeline was
supported every 1.2 m on vertically standing perforated volcanic stone-plates
0.3 £ 0.15 £ 1.20 m.
We will omit here the discussion on the issues of air venters and the inertial thrust
of the siphon. But we should conclude with the statement of Prof. G. Garbrecht of the
Tech. University of Braunschweig (Germany) maintaining that “the pressure pipeline of
Pergamos will be rightly considered among the magnificent achievements of the ancient
Hydraulic Technology” (von Zabern, 1991: 26). The same scholar has calculated that this
specific aqueduct was discharging 2 700 m3 per day, on average.
Last but not least, it is worth to note here the hybrid solution given to a greek siphon
of the archaic period, found in the Ionian city of Ephesos (near the Artemision temple,
Figure 8): Lead-pipes, connected with strong stone-collars. In this case assuming
ft < 0.25 N/mm2, d ¼ 180 mm, t ¼ 35 mm and gm ¼ 2 one may estimate an allowable
internal pressure p ¼ 0.25 N/mm2 corresponding to 25 m of water column. This archeolo-
gical find is described by A. Bammer in “Das Heiligtum der Artemis von Ephesos”, 1985
(reference in von Zabern, 1991, p. 180) and shows how misleading some stereotypes may
be, like the affirmation “lead-pipes were used only by Romans”.

Conclusions
For the semi-arid regions inhabited by the Greeks during prehistoric, archaic and Helle-
nistic times, it was all too natural for every city to have its own water supply system as a
basic feature of civilized life. Yet, because of the continuous war events between ancient
Greek cities, aqueducts used to be hidden and subterranean rather than visible conduits
on bridges. That is why, the following technologies were mainly developed, related to the
water economy. Tunneling methods were improved, especially after the development of
topographic measuring devices. The industry of pipes, ceramic, stone and (during the
late Hellenistic period) lead, was flourishing. Parallel social phenomena were also
observed, such as the luxury of decorated fountains, as well as a well structured water
management system. 171
References
Crouch, D.P. (2004). Geology and Settlement. Greco-Roman Patterns, Oxford University Press, UK.
Hellner, N. (2006). The krēnē in Megara. The analysis of a thin black layer on the floor plaster. In: Proc. of
the 2nd Int. Conf. on Ancient Greek Technology, Tech. Chamber of Greece, Athens, Greece.
Knauss, J. (2006). Observations and considerations concerning mycenaean underground well-houses, etc. In:
Proc. of the 2nd Int. Conf. on Ancient Greek Technology, Tech. Chamber of Greece, Athens, Greece.
Trevor Hodge, A. (1992). Roman Aqueducts and Water Supply. Duckworth, London, UK.
T.P. Tassios

von Zabern, Ph. (1991). Die Wasser-Versorgung antiker Städte. Mainz am Rhein.

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