Like a Modern-Day Agrippa

A recent item in the LA Times about the ages-old hobby of aqueduct-hunting reminded me of a story about the Roman statesman, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64-12 BC), and another about greater Boston in the nineteenth century.  The newspaper report deals with a group of amateur speleologists who are mapping the underground conduits of the eleven aqueducts that fed classical Rome. Says one, “The famous arched, over-ground aqueducts we see today are just the tip of the iceberg; 95% of the network ran underground.” I have to say, climbing into tunnels with scanners and GPS devices to trace the ancient water system seems like a fun way to spend a weekend, and a cheap way for the Italian government to recover yet another part of its rich heritage.

180px-254163-63108-mighty-agrippa_large agrippaAs I say, though, the article reminds me of Agrippa. Classicists will already know this important historical figure, though others may only recognize him as “Mighty Agrippa Roman God of the Aqueduct” from the cartoon show, The Tick, in what is a strangely learned, and somewhat accurate description (see the images to either side).

In addition to being Augustus’ top general and later son-in-law, the real Agrippa was a great builder and restorer of public works.  His name adorns the pediment of no less than Rome’s Pantheon; with respect to aqueducts, he was responsible for discovering the Aqua Virgo, the spring which, once transported to Rome, terminates spectacularly in the famous Trevi Fountain.

Ruin of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct

Ruin of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct

The maiden (virgo) showing Agrippa the spring--a relief from above the Trevi fountain. See

The maiden (virgo) showing Agrippa the spring–a relief from above the Trevi fountain.

But it is not the discovery of the Virgin Water is that I am thinking of in connection with the LA Times’ spelunking sleuths.  Rather, there is a story told of Agrippa’s cleaning out the Cloaca Maxima, Rome’s great sewer (Dio Cassius 49.43.1):

The next year Agrippa agreed to be made aedile, and without taking anything from the public treasury repaired all the public buildings and all the streets, cleaned out the sewers, and sailed through them underground into the Tiber.

I love this story–imagine Agrippa triumphantly emerging on his boat from the Cloaca Maxima in a still brilliantly white toga, evidence of the success of his project.

The modern story I was put in mind of has to do with an aqueduct not in Italy but Massachusetts, not so far from where I used to teach at Boston College.  Echo Bridge was built in 1876 and spans the Charles River between the towns of Needham and Newton in the Hemlock Gorge preserve– about 500 feet in length, the bridge, constructed entirely of stone and made up of a series of arches, would not seem out of place in an ancient landscape.

One can walk over the top of it, but the real purpose of Echo Bridge is to serve as an aqueduct: beneath the walkway is a covered conduit that used to transport water from the Sudbury River into Boston, before the building of the Quabbin Reservoir replaced it. (Actually, I now read that the Sudbury aqueduct is used as a back-up, and in fact was utilized by the Mass. Water Resources Authority in 2010 during a critical failure of the system, acording to the Boston Globe).

As with any conduit, access for clean-up and repair is important, and so it is with Echo Bridge.  There is a charming story recounted in King’s Handbook of Newton (1898) by one Mary Blake, of going into the covered aqueduct of Echo Bridge and being transported from there all the way to the end of the channel (one can also read it in Ken Newcombe’s account):

We were a party of adventurers, who…were allowed to go down into the main conduit of the Sudbury River water supply, where it crosses the arches of Newton, and float down under the earth till we reached the light of day again at Chestnut Hill. When the opening through which we had descended had been closed, and as we glided down the dark tunnel, with flaring lights and innumerable candles fastened in tin reflectors…the situation was novel enough to suit even a modern spectacular dramatist…(it is) a clean, well-aired, brick arched aqueduct, nine feet in diameter, with a stream of clear, pure water, two feet in depth, flowing with almost imperceptible motion through the dark silence, and losing itself in the shadows. At every hundred feet a little numbered tablet of white porcelain divided the structure into sections, so that either cleaning or repairs could be carried on systematically and quickly. The gangs of men employed in labor of this kind can be subdivided, so that the work is accomplished in an incredibly short space of time. Twice a year the entire extent is carefully scraped and washed; and a constant supervision, with telephonic communication along the whole line, and expert examination, prevents the possibility of even slight damage. Through the entire length of 16 miles manholes and ladders give easy access at stated points, and a system of underground maps corresponding to the landmarks above makes it possible to locate any break or injury with great exactness. A complicated system of screens and floodgates at both inlet and outlet filter and control the flow, so that the mighty force is as gentle as a well-bred child, when it might easily be so terrible. The exquisite compactness and neatness of the enormous structure is a marvel to unused eyes; not a drop of moisture falls from the high, clean roof; both brickwork and cement look pure and fresh as if laid yesterday, and the clear, limpid water is transparent as crystal…”

Below one can see the entrance to the walkway over Echo Bridge, as it appears in an old postcard and a newer photo. To the right you can see a sort of iron trap-door, below which is the staircase to the waterway below.  And now a new item for my bucket list emerges.  Someday, I am thinking, oh someday, I will gain access to that door, so I too can sail along the Sudbury like a modern-day Agrippa.



Postscript. March 6, 2014.  Below is a story from KSWO about a man who got lost for two days in the sewers beneath Lawton, Oklahoma:

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Boston, Cartoons, Classics, Military, Nautical. Bookmark the permalink.

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