Early Italy’s Canals

When discussing the concept of identity in the ancient world, as historians we often group people by actions and achievements, as much as how they wanted to be seen. When discussing Early Rome, it has often been the case in the past to say that certain innovations, rather than natural developments, were due to the presence of a new group, often the Etruscans. This fits with what we know from limited source material, the Tarquins were an Etruscan Dynasty, and during the dates that we assign to them, Rome underwent several great changes. I want to discuss one type of structure, drainage channels, and the creation of the Cloaca Maxima and how, rather than showing ‘Etruscanisation’ it shows that Rome was part of a network of shared Italian culture.

It is often said that at some time in the late seventh century BC, the Etruscans entered Rome in force and entered the society on every level (Ogilvie (1976) 30), this event is often linked to the emergence of the Tarquin Dynasty, who were exiles of the Etruscan City of Tarquinii. The Tarquin’s were meant to have overseen an urban revolution, the Etruscan architects and building techniques forced the city of Rome transform from thatched huts to monumental buildings with an interconnected urban centre (Scullard (1935) 42; Ogilvie (1975) 31; Hall (1996a) 151). One of the main pieces of evidence for this, is how the rulers of Archaic Rome were able to the drain the forum. Drainage channels were thought to be a specialty of Etruscan engineers (Ogilvie (1975); Cornell (1995) 164-165), which explains why the Cloaca Maxima was built, because of this Etruscan revolution (Scullard (1935) 42).

However, the cuniculi (drainage channels) that were seen as the evidence for Etruscan dominance in water engineering are found both in south Etruria and in Latium, and these features are impossible to date, meaning there is no way of knowing which culture came up with them first (Cornell (1995) 165). Due to the nature of the landscape it is quite likely that knowledge of drainage systems was an important aspect of society, the marshy terrain around the Tiber and in Etruria and Latium meant is was a skill that was used by all the peoples that inhabited that area. Additionally, the design of these drainage ditches in Etruria was common all over the Italian peninsula (Hopkins (2007) Mentions cuniculi in Southern Italy), further supporting the suggestion that it was simply the most ergonomic way of dealing with areas in flood plains.

Juncture between Early Republican, Late Republican and Archaic Stonework in the Cloaca Maxima
Juncture between Early Republican, Late Republican and Archaic Stonework in the Cloaca Maxima (Photo by John Hopkins, from Hopkins (2007) 3)

The main cuniculi in Rome during the Regal Period was the Cloaca Maxima, we know from Livy that it was the Tarquin’s who drained the forum by building channels, both Tarquinius Priscus and Tarquinius Superbus were recorded as building channels to drain the forum (Livy, Histories, 1.36; 1.56). The archaeological evidence from the cloaca shows that it doesn’t conform to local models. The other drainage channels from around the Italian Peninsula were lined with clay, whilst the Cloaca Maxima was stoned lined, challenging the local traditions (Hopkins (2007) 12). This would have made the task much more difficult than the normal design. Furthermore, this project involved landfill, bringing in stones and gravel and covering the areas likely to flood in order to raise the ground level.

Our sources tell us that a Tarquin (it is unclear which one) had to resort to torture and intimidation to ensure the workers completed the task (Pliny, N.H. 36.107; Cassius Hemina, fr. 15 P = Cornell (1995) 128. Pliny asserts it was Priscus who dug the channels, Hemina says it was Superbus). The monumental nature of the original Cloaca Maxima is important to understanding why the project was so mired in problems. It can be seen as a testament to the prestige of the Roman Kings and a permanent reminder of their power, being able to drain a floodplain and accrue the manpower to do so (Hopkins (2007) 12). Archaeological evidence shows that there would have been small bridges over it, meaning that because of the landfill the forum was level with the channel (Hopkins (2007) 10). The creation of the forum by the drainage channel is often seen as the Tarquin dynasty forcing Rome to undergo a process of “Etruscanisation”, when in fact the evidence for this is very small or non-existent (Cornell (1995) 121).

Drainage channels were not uniquely Etruscan, but a more general Italian feature. It is the use of stone lining to monumentalise the structure that was unique, and was symptomatic of urbanisation, often seen as an Etruscan innovation brought to Rome (Scullard (1935) 42; Ogilvie (1976) 30-33; Hall (1996b) 7). I have already mentioned the literary evidence for this, but these sources don’t explicitly attribute this to the Etruscans, even though it was common for them say that certain traditions were adopted from Etruscan culture (such as togas and the fasces). The archaeological evidence for the ‘Etruscanisation’ of Rome is slim. It actually represents evidence of the idea that the peoples of Italy had a similar material culture with close links to each other, whilst maintaining their own linguistic and cultural identities (Cornell (1995) 163-164). Previous attempts at labelling the Cloaca Maxima an Etruscan structure have fell into the trap of attempting to link archaeology and history, rather than seeking to look at the function and context of the feature (Forsythe (2006) 79).

The monumentalising of a drainage channel was likely to be an attempt by the Roman Kings to publicise their reign and show their power (Smith (2000) 27; Hopkins (2007) 13), the combination of the raised and paved forum and this stone lined channel would have contrasted greatly with the still mostly thatched and daubed city. A case of taking the ordinary and making extraordinary. I think that the rise of monumental architecture should be linked with the successes in warfare that the Tarquins experienced, since in an archaic society where wealth is measured in land and money hasn’t greatly developed, war is the only place that the kings would be able to gain the wealth needed to fund these projects (Livy says that Tarquinius Priscus undertook campaigns where the plunder exceeded everyone’s expectations (Livy, Histories, 1.35)).



Livy, The Early History of Rome, trans. A. De Sélincourt (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1960).

Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, books 1-2, trans. B.O. Foster (Cambridge MA: Loeb)


Cornell, T. (1995) The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars. (London: Routledge).

Forsythe, G. (2006) A Critical History of Early Rome: from Prehistory to the First Punic War. (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Hall, J.F. (1996a) ‘From the Tarquins to the Caesars: Etruscan Governance at Rome’, in Etruscan Italy: Etruscan influences on the civilizations of Italy from antiquity to the modern era, eds. J.F. Hall (Provo, Utah: Museum of Art, Brighton Young University).

Hall, J. (1996b) ‘Etruscan Italy: A Rediscoverable History’, in Etruscan Italy: Etruscan influences on the civilizations of Italy from antiquity to the modern era, eds. J.F. Hall (Provo, Utah: Museum of Art, Brighton Young University).

Hopkins, N. (2007) ‘The Cloaca Maxima and the Monumental Manipulation of Water in Archaic Rome.’ in K. W. Rinne, ed. The Waters of Rome. Charlottesville: Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia.

Ogilvie, R.M. (1976) Early Rome and the Etruscans. (Hassocks: Harvester Press).

Scullard, H.H (1935 4th edition) A History of the Roman World. (London: Routledge Classics)

Smith, C. (2000) ‘Early and Archaic Rome’, in Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, eds. H. Dodge and J. Coulston. (Oxford: Oxford School of Archaeology).


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