Historical Notes: The man in charge of the aqua company

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The Independent Culture
SEXTUS JULIUS Frontinus was an extremely capable and versatile army commander and civil administrator who in his lifetime achieved much, and remains today, after nearly 19 centuries, a thorn in the flesh of some naive social historians by his refusal to conform with their rigid stereotype of a Roman aristocrat.

He was born in about AD 30 into a branch of the gens Julia, the great family group to which Julius Caesar and Augustus belonged, and had the conventional upper-class career leading to his appointment as praetor urbanus, a senior "home affairs" minister in the imperial government. This was in AD 70 when he was 40. Four years later he was granted the highest dignity available to him under the Emperor Vespasian, that of consul, and then appointed Governor of one of the most troublesome provinces - Britain.

Almost immediately he encountered trouble from the Silurians. These wild Welshmen from the Cardiff-Chepstow-Monmouth area had been quiet for 14 years or so, but they had been keeping a welcome in the hillsides, and now threatened to extend it eastwards towards the frontier on the Fosse Way.

Frontinus carried out a large-scale campaign against them. After establishing a fortress at Caerleon-on-Usk he moved north to the Cheshire plain, organised a survey of the future site of Chester, and started building a legionary fort there. He also instituted road improvements in those areas of Britain which were no longer under military government, including Hertfordshire, Dorset and Devon.

He returned to Rome in 78, and we hear very little of him for the next 19 years or so. This is not as strange as it might seem. The embittered and paranoid Emperor Domitian came to power in AD81; in previous years there had been a number of occasions when successful and popular governors of provinces had led their armies back to Rome and attempted to seize the imperial power for themselves. Domitian feared that Frontinus' successor in Britain, Julius Agricola, might do the same, so he recalled that highly successful general, and gave him no further chance to shine, nor did he give Frontinus any appointment.

Frontinus' chance came after several years of enforced retirement when Domitian was assassinated and Nerva became emperor in 96. The following year Frontinus was appointed to the cura aquarum - the management of the entire Roman water-supply. He began his task by making a detailed personal inspection of the system, including nine aqueducts which totalled about 250 miles of water channel, most of it underground or in covered surface leats, and the rest on the familiar arches. His research revealed the sad story of a state-owned system suffering water loss through leakage and fraudulent extraction and through lack of regular investment and maintenance.

When he eventually got things under control he wrote the first handbook describing the individual aqueducts in detail, the amount of water they delivered, and the ways in which it was distributed. But it was more than just a technical manual; he also described the administrative set-up, the financing of the system and the workforce of some 700 men under his control. He was, of course, quite familiar with man management on a much larger scale. He gives two reasons for writing the book. The first is that he thought it very important "to understand fully the task he had undertaken"; the second that it would be highly embarrassing for the boss of the show to have to go to his subordinates for explanations and advice on technical matters. Frontinus made sure he knew.

We do not know how long he held the office - perhaps about four years. But as the Roman water supply was never privatised or run for profit, it is most unlikely that he ever became a fat cat.

Professor J. G. Landels is the author of `Engineering in the Ancient World' (Constable, pounds 9.99)