Water Supply in Roman Carthage

by Charlaine Lunsford
Ancient Carthage was located in the corner of north Africa across the Mediterranean Sea from Sicily. It began as a Phoenician colony and was in a prime location for trade and defense. It grew to be a great naval power, usurping the Greeks in Magna Graecia, but eventually fell to the spectacular Roman war machine. How were the Carthaginians able to subsist in an area with such scanty rainfall (approx. 446.1 mm/per year)? How would Roman settlers survive in conditions so different from Rome? Would water displays, like fountains and baths, mainstays of Roman architecture, be impossible? The Roman settlers used their own technology (aqueducts and castella) combined with Punic techniques (cisterns) to bring the power of water to North Africa.

At the time of Carthage’s defeat in the Third Punic War (146 BCE), both cities already possessed significant water collection and storage techniques. There were already two aqueducts in Rome, the Appian and the “Old” Anio, and a third was under construction, the Aqua Marcia [1] . The Romans’ master engineers had figured out the physics of water flow and elevation and were able to bring massive amounts of water from natural sources (lakes, rivers and streams) into the city. Upon arrival, the water was rerouted to fountains, public baths and private homes. They also used water storage facilities called castella. These were ingenius devices in which water flow to one location could be blocked and rerouted to other locations. Vitruvius outlines the suggested distribution of water from the different chambers of the castellum: one chamber supplies fountains and pools, another, public baths and a third private houses [2] . Public baths, thermae, were also present in the city of Rome on the Campus Martius. In pre-Roman Carthage, wells have been found which date to the 4th century BCE [3] . This same excavation, lead by Rakob, found cisterns beneath houses that were built in the 3rd century BCE; the wells were subsequently used as overflow drains. Wilson posits that the population increased significantly during this time and therefore, more water was needed to support the inhabitants [4] . Also, some evidence suggests that there may have been an aqueduct or water pipeline in pre-Roman Carthage [5] .

During Roman occupation of Carthage, new water collection and distribution facilities were constructed. Three groups of cisterns and an aqueduct were erected in different areas around the city. The La Malga cisterns were located in the north-west corner of Carthage, near the Zaghouan aqueduct. To date, this is one of the largest cistern complexes in the ancient world. Between fifteen and twenty-four cisterns held approximately 50,000 m3 of water [6] . A construction date between 29 BCE and the early 2nd century CE has been suggested for these cisterns. The Bordj Djedid cisterns were located in the northeast corner of the city and fed the Antonine Baths. Two cisterns, each with 12 chambers, could hold approximately 20,000 m3 of water [7] . These cisterns have been dated to the mid-2nd century CE. The source of the Bordj Djedid cisterns is still unknown, but Wilson posits that the Carthaginians may have had an aqueduct that brought water to this location before the Roman invasion [8] . North of the city were the Dar Saniat cisterns. These cisterns had three tanks with two reservoirs each and it is believed that their capacity was 2,780 m3 of water [9] . Unfortunately, the source of the cisterns hasn’t been found nor has a construction date been computed. Finally, the Zaghouan aqueduct, erected in the 2nd century CE, was responsible for delivering most of the water to Carthage. The source of the aqueduct is Djebel Zaghouan, a mountain outside of the city. A nymphaeum (water temple) marks the beginning of the aqueduct and the construction date for both the nymphaeum and aqueduct is 160 CE [10] . The estimated daily volume of the aqueduct is 25,000 m3.

Even though the city of Carthage had been cursed by Scipio Aemilianus, the first Roman settlers began to relocate there within one hundred years of its defeat. In order to provide the Romans with all the comforts of home, architectural features similar to those in Rome were constructed. The climate of Carthage was warmer than that of ancient Rome so hygiene was of key importance (remember, the aristocracy wore wool togas year round). In addition, public baths were not just facilities for cleaning one’s body and exercising, but also served as educational and political centers. The imperial baths contained libraries and wealthy men often discussed business here as well. The following quotes from the Oxford Classical Dictionary summarize their importance:

Public baths, often located near the forum, were a normal part of Roman towns in Italy by the 1st century BCE,
and seem to have existed at Rome even earlier. [They] set new standards of luxury and architectural elaboration,
and heralded a new civic role for the baths in the towns of the empire... Bathing occupied a central position in the
social life of the day; by the 2nd century CE, any community of any substance, civil and military, had at least one
set of public baths... [11]

However, before baths and fountains were built, water had to be supplied. By adapting and improving the Carthaginians’ methods of water storage and distribution, Romans showed that even the arid region of Africa could be conquered by ingenuity. The consistent supply of water made the city of Carthage an attractive place for the wealthy elite. The agricultural richness of the surrounding rural areas also created an elite class in the local population and both of these groups contributed to the wealth and splendor of the ancient city. The Roman empire demonstrated to the world that it was a force to be reckoned with.

external image moz-screenshot.pngexternal image moz-screenshot-1.pngexternal image moz-screenshot-2.png
La Malga Cisterns, Carthage

aqueductzag.jpg Zaghouan aqueduct, Carthage

Annotated Bibliography:


Primary Sources

Frontinus. De aquis urbis Romae. Trans. C. E. Bennett. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1969. Print.

  • The author recounts the construction of the aqueducts and also describes the duties and responsibilities of all persons associated with their construction and maintenance.

Vitruvius. De Architectura. Trans. F. Granger. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

  • The author describes all aspects of Roman architecture and engineering.

Web Resources


  • This website has an interactive reconstruction of the Baths of Caracalla. It also features pages on Roman aqueducts.


  • Another good description of the baths can be found here. It has links to photographs or models of the rooms of the baths.

Secondary Sources for Teachers

Wilson, A. I. “Water Supply in Ancient Carthage.”
Carthage Papers: The Early Colony’s
Economy, Water Supply, a Public Bath and the Mobilization of State Olive Oil. Journal
of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series. Portsmouth, RI: 1998. 65-102. Print.

  • This is an excellent work which gives a full description of the cistern complexes and aqueduct, along with diagrams and illustrations.

Secondary Sources for Students

“Baths.” The
Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd ed. 1999. Print.
  • This dictionary entry is a good place to start. It gives a brief history of Carthage and has many cross-references.

Canter, H. V. “Roman Civilization in North Africa.” The Classical Journal 35:4 (1940): 197-
208. Print.

  • This article gives a good description of all areas of North Africa that were colonized by the Romans. However, this was not a reference that I used for this paper.

  1. ^ Frontinus, I.5-7.
  2. ^ Vitruvius, VIII.6.2.
  3. ^ Wilson, Andrew, pp. 65, 67.
  4. ^ Ibid., p. 67.
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 68.
  6. ^ Ibid., p. 76.
  7. ^ Ibid., p. 81.
  8. ^ Ibid., p. 84.
  9. ^ Ibid., p. 70
  10. ^ Ibid., p. 80
  11. ^ OCD, p. 236.