CHAPTER VIII. STREETS, WATER-SUPPLY, AND BUILDING MATERIAL

After this rapid walk through the more interesting parts of the capital, we may consider one or two connected topics of natural interest.

Amid all this splendour and spaciousness of public buildings, what is the aspect of the ordinary streets? In this respect Rome was by no means fortunate. As in Old London, Old Paris, or Old New York, the streets had for the most part grown up as chance circumstances would have it. There were very few thoroughfares laid out straight from the first like the Flaminian or "Broad" Road. Alexandria and Antioch were the creations of monarchs who began with a clear field and a consistent scheme. Their straight, broad streets might well be the envy of the capital. The Romans, then as now, possessed the engineering genius, but they could not well undo the work of a struggling past, which had necessitated the crowding of population, within the defences of a wall. They knew how to supply the city abundantly with water, and how to drain it with sewers of great capacity and strength. The chief of such sewers - the Cloaca Maxima - which passed underneath the Forum to the Tiber and was laid down more than twenty-five centuries ago, is still in working order. But no republican or imperial government ever took it in hand to Hansmannise the city, even after one of those devastating conflagrations which might seem to have cleared the way. It is true that all traffic of vehicles, except for special processions, for Vestal Virgins, and a few other cases - was forbidden for ten hours in the day. All through the morning and afternoon there were no wheels in the Roman streets, unless some public building imperatively demanded its load of stones or timber, or unless the few privileged persons were proceeding in their carriages to some festival. Nevertheless the rich men and women in their litters or sedan-chairs, attended by their servants or their clients; the porters carrying their heavy loads; the itinerant hucksters; and the ordinary man on errand or other business bent, made up crowds which were often difficult to pass through.

Another consequence of the old compression within narrow walls was that, as population increased, the houses grew more lofty. How high the Romans built, or were allowed to build, in republican times we cannot tell. The tendency was certainly to build higher and higher, and sky-scrapers would perhaps have become the rule if the ancient Roman had understood the use of materials both sufficiently light and sufficiently strong, or if he had been forced to establish his work on secure foundations. In point of fact there had been, and there continued to be, too much of jerry-building. Houses sometimes collapsed, and many were unsubstantially shored up. A flood or an earthquake was apt to find them out, and there was frequent peril in the streets. The majority of the abodes of people of humble means were not like those in smaller towns, such as Pompeii, still less like those in the country. They were "tenement houses," large blocks let out in rooms and flats, and it was natural that landlords should make haste to run them up and to increase the number of their stories. When Augustus became emperor he enacted what may be called a Metropolitan Building Act, which insisted on firmer foundations and limited the height to 70 feet. That act was apparently still in force in the age of Nero, and we may take it that along the more frequented streets the houses commonly ran to a height of four or five stories. They looked the taller because of the narrowness of the street itself. While it is perhaps, though not necessarily, an exaggeration for the epigrammatist - who lived "up three pair of stairs, and high ones" - to say that he could touch his opposite neighbour with his hand, it is at least an indication of the truth. Some of the narrower lanes between blocks cannot have been more than a few feet across.

Nor does it appear that the occupants' of rooms opening on the streets were very particular as to what they threw out in the way of rubbish or dirty water. It is true that there were aediles, or officers to look after the order of the streets and public places, but their efforts seem to have been mainly directed to preventing conspicuous obstruction. Practices which we should regard as heinous were treated lightly or disregarded. To make matters worse, the shopkeepers, who occupied the lower fronts of most of such houses, took the greatest liberties in encroaching upon the roadway when exhibiting their wares, and it was not till twenty years later than our date that the Emperor Domitian ordered them to keep within their own thresholds.

Apart from the question of the freedom of traffic, it can be readily imagined that, with all the wooden counters, doors, and shutters down below, and with the disproportionate quantity of woodwork in the beams, floors, and even walls above, fires were of the commonest occurrence, and, with streets so high and narrow, the conflagration of a whole quarter of the town was speedy and complete. Augustus had divided the metropolitan area into fourteen regions, and had distributed over these a force of 7000 watchmen to keep the peace and to deal with fires at night; but it was not to be expected, if a fire occurred in a lofty block, that this body, assisted or hampered by the neighbours, could do much with the buckets, siphons, and wet blankets which formed the extinguishing apparatus of the time.