The Roman aqueduct of Eleusis

A personal statement: late last spring I was terrified about spending the summer working in Eleusis. July and August are difficult months in downtown Athens, but Eleusis has an even worse reputation for insufferable heat. It is no coincidence that according to the World Meteorological Organization the highest ever officially recorded temperature in Europe occurred in Eleusis and Tatoi on July 10, 1977: a “balmy” 48.0 °C (118.4 °F). In this heat the only salvation (in times when air conditioners were unheard of) could be found in copious amounts of fresh water, but this was a rare luxury in Eleusis.

Since humans first settled the hill of Eleusis in the prehistoric period, they had to fight hard against an arid landscape to get the water they needed. Eleusis always suffered greatly from lack of fresh water. In the old days the inhabitants were forced to drink brackish water from wells or to carefully collect rainwater. But precipitation was generally low and most of it occurred during the cooler winter months. Each drop had to be carefully stored in order to be available during the dry and hot summer months. The struggle to secure fresh water lasted for many centuries before the Roman emperor Hadrian arrived on the scene.

The “Greek” emperor

Hadrian (117-138 AD) was an ardent philhellene. He studied music, art and geometry in Athens, and was able to master the highly demanding Attic dialect. His charities towards the Greeks took many forms: city-planning programs, tax relief and land redistribution. He granted honorific titles to many notable Greeks and financed the reorganization (on a more elaborate scale) of numerous religious festivals. Many of these projects aimed to improve the economic and cultural life of the general population. The aqueducts and nymphaea served as Hadrian’s trademark, since he financed their construction in Dion, Athens, Argos, Koroni, Durres, Hersonissos, Lyttos and possibly Nicopolis.

Life without flush toilets

Roman aqueducts transformed Greek cities, which until then often suffered from drought and the scarcity of freshwater. The aqueducts were impressive, complex and expensive projects that stood out in the urban and rural landscape. At the same time they made possible many novel amenities that dramatically improved the citizens’ daily lives. An abundant and reliable supply of fresh water allowed city officials and architects to erect public fountains, bathhouses and communal latrines. Equally (or perhaps more) important was the ability to safely remove urban waste water. 

A unique relationship

It is obvious that Hadrian had a soft spot for Eleusis. He had certainly been initiated into the Greater Mysteries (though we do not know the exact date) and attended the festival three times (in 124, 128 and 131 CE). He also selected the port of Eleusis as his departure point when he sailed to Ephesus in the spring of 129 CE. As the Mysteries were celebrated in the fall, it is obvious that Hadrian came to Eleusis that year for another reason (perhaps to oversee the building projects he was funding).

The emperor also brought back the age-old tradition of offering the first fruits to the goddess (a custom that had almost been forgotten over the centuries) and advertised this act by cutting new coins depicting him holding grain stalks as he points towards Eleusis. In 128 CE he ensured that Antinous (his beautiful young lover, who drowned in the Nile two years later) was also initiated into the Greater Mysteries.

The art of water supply

The construction of Hadrian’s aqueduct was a testament to the emperor’s interest in the prosperity of the city and the sanctuary. It probably began in 125 CE but it took several decades to complete with the help of the army under the supervision of experienced engineers. The most likely date for the completion of the project is 160 CE. The aqueduct was fed by springs in Mount Parnitha and used gravity to bring water to the city and the sanctuary of Demeter. The architects took advantage of the natural terrain and a clever combination of underground tunnels and bridges to provide the pipes with the correct gradient to ensure that the water would flow effortlessly.

The aqueduct route began in Mount Parnitha, crossed the Thriasian Plain from the northeast to the southwest and turned abruptly towards the south when it reached the outskirts of Eleusis. The most impressive extant part of the aqueduct is located on the east side of Dimitros Street, but other segments have been located during construction work along its route. Rectangular columns and semicircular arches support the conduit, while the foundations consist of high-quality Roman cement which has maintained its durability for almost two millennia.

Heat record

Today state-of-the-art systems supply the city of Eleusis with fresh water; the few sections of the Roman aqueduct still standing have been converted into tourist attractions. The heat, however, still shapes the days and nights of Eleusis, even though the incredible record of July 1977 may no longer be considered plausible. Heat from a wildfire that was burning a pine forest near Tatoi that day was carried by the wind to the Thriasian Plain and affected (upwards) the temperature recorded by the airport thermometers outside the city. Eleusis may not be the hottest place in Europe but this is probably a good thing.

Bibliography

Αλεξοπούλου-Μπάγια, Πόλλυ (2005). Ιστορία της Ελευσίνας: Από την Προϊστορική μέχρι τη Ρωμαϊκή περίοδο, Ελευσίνα: Δήμος Ελευσίνας. [in Greek]

Birley, Anthony (2013). Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, London: Routledge.

Mylonas, George (2015). Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Papangeli, Kalliopi & Chlepa, Eleni-Anna (2011).Transformations of the Eleusinian Landscape: Antiquities and the Modern City, Athens.

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