We probably all take plumbing for granted. We’re just used to flipping on a faucet and having access to water and trusting that it’s moving throughout the pipes in our homes and cities without much care for how or why it works. But who invented plumbing? Turns out, your local plumber has their professional roots in the ancient Roman Empire. In fact, the word plumber comes from the Latin “plumbus” meaning “one who works with lead.”

Plumbing and the Fall of Rome

Those lead pipes in Rome had a lot of the same problems our lead pipes have today. Scientists have found proof the Roman water supply likely picked up lead particles from their piping material, as much as 100x more than natural springs nearby. This has led to one theory that lead poisoning actually had a hand in the fall of the Roman Empire, causing associated ailments (such as gout, anemia, or organ failure) in the ruling elite and peasants alike, hastening the empire’s internal collapse. Whether or not it’s true, getting the levels of lead in your water tested and your pipes inspected is as important today as it was back then.

Photo by Miguel Ls from Pexels

The Aquaduct and Plumbing Today

Moving water from one place to another is one of the first things our ancestors learned how to do. It was the only way they were going to have access to clean drinking water and agriculture. But the Romans really revolutionized the process. The roman aqueducts were massive, multi-layered bridges designed to carry water across cities and across the empire. They’re the ancestors of our modern-day pipe systems, utilizing gravity alone to move water. Today we rely on water pressure to move water against gravity and you’ll notice when the water pressure stops working.

Bath Somerset
Bath, Somerset is named after its Roman-built baths.

The Health Impacts of Roman Plumbing

It’s long been claimed that the roman invention of plumbing and the use of bathhouses did a world of good for Roman public health. And while it certainly improved some of the sanitary practices of the empire (doctors regularly prescribed baths to patients), ancient plumbing still wasn’t entirely up to code. Disease still managed to spread through the water supply, which highlights how important it is today to have well constructed and safe plumbing in all cities and homes.

Plumbing certainly has come a long way since the rime of Rome, but it took its first big steps those 2,000 years ago. The showerhead and kitchen sink wouldn’t be here if the aqueduct wasn’t first.

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