Water management and usage in Roman North Africa:
A social and technological study

Andrew Wilson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Thesis submitted for the degree of D. Phil.

Michaelmas Term 1997


This thesis examines the exploitation of water resources in North Africa from the first century B.C. to the seventh century A.D., exploring in particular the relationship between hydraulic infrastructure and social issues.

Study of urban water supply arrangements suggests that ancient attitudes towards water use were less wasteful than some judgements allow. Evidence for the use of control devices on urban distribution networks, coupled with the provision of large cistern complexes, argues for an ability to regulate supply against demand and accumulate reserves. Water of different qualities was used for different purposes, while re-use for activities requiring lower-grade water was common.

I argue that the urban-consumptive/rural-productive dichotomy, often advanced in studies of ancient hydraulic technology, is too simplistic: urban aqueducts might serve rural communities en route. Public baths and fountains might have ostentatious functions, but also served genuine needs of public hygiene and supply for households lacking wells and cisterns. However, water usage in elite households which could afford piped water supplies tended to be oriented largely towards ostentatious uses to express status.

The extent of the use of water-power in the area is far greater than has been realised. The types of water-mill employed are the earliest datable examples of horizontally-wheeled mills outside China; there may be a technological link with early mills in the Near East, a region with a comparable climatic regime.

The thesis suggests a reconsideration of attitudes is required, not only towards Roman water usage, but also towards wider questions of the level of technological development attained in antiquity, the degree of understanding of natural resources, and the extent to which Romanisation brought real benefits to an area, or merely imposed alien cultural values.


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