Lessons can be learned from ancient Rome's mastery of water

Jack Flobeck Published: August 11, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

Once all roads led to Rome, the law of the known world was meted out as Lex Romanum, and the peace of the world was maintained by Roman Legions parading Pax Romanum. But, it's also true that the Romans were the first genuine masters of water. I'm holding in my hands a musty old book translated and published scarcely 40 years ago, written in Latin, close to 2,000 years ago. It's basically an autobiography of Rome's most famous water commissioner, Sextus Julius Frontinus. It's impossible to pursue water literacy without continually running into Roman sounding names like, Bernoulli, Venturi, and Vetruvius.

History can help us appreciate this thesis simply entitled, 'The water supply of Rome.' The original text survives because of General George Patton's passion for history. He limited the bombing of an ancient hill top monastery in Monte Casino, Italy during WWII. Patton knew of the priceless artifacts stored at the monastery. The capture of the hill appeared hopeless, but, 'ole blood and guts' ordered bombing, but also asked the rangers to scale the sheer cliff at the rear of the hill to totally surprise the defenders. They succeeded and the ancient art and manuscripts were rescued.

Rome first built seven aqueducts to transport clean clear water from the mountains north of the city down to the metropolis. These aqueducts - elevated arch supported roadways of water - are now considered architectural masterpieces of brilliant engineering and design. Romans clearly understood that water was a life and death commodity, so early in their history instituted a death penalty for stealing water. How do you think that would work here in the arid and drought stricken west? Might depend upon which side of the ditch you stood?

At the same time the ancient Romans established Caesar as the owner of all water. Caesar would not keep the water, but would sell it at an auction to the highest bidder. The 'rub' was that Caesar only sold a life estate to the water. Readers active in real estate are chuckling as they know that a life estate provides title to the property only during your lifetime, while at your death, the property reverts to the previous owner, in this case: Caesar!

It's a good thing that most politicians are lawyers, not too well read in history or science, or they would immediately seize on the tax possibilities of a life estate for water. Just think of the sales taxes on millions of dollars of constantly occurring, water sales; and imagine the unlimited horizons for bureaucracy with a cabinet secretary of water auctions, an assistant secretary, a new headquarters office in Washington, D.C., chauffeurs, fleets of black SUVs, laptops, mainframes, stationary, 50 state offices, with untold opportunities for new laws, rules, and regulations. Friedman, the economist, put it best when he said, "If the government were put in charge of the Sahara Desert, in six months there would be a shortage of sand."

Don't scoff at government ownership of water. It's constantly debated at the U.N. and at world water meetings where the water have nots, suggest levying taxes on developed nations as aid to the nations without natural resources, just as clean air taxes are being promoted to compensate nations without energy resources.

The Romans were zealots for accuracy and invented brass fittings for their users that could be screwed into the water mains. These fittings allowed a specific measure of water to be drawn from the pipe to water farms and vineyards. Thus the standard flat rate was born.

Professors and pundits may well question and ridicule our interest in Rome and her water, saying that they declined; they fell, and are no more. But Rome fell only after they overtaxed their best producers, destroyed their families, allowed their superior water system to fall apart, debauched their morals, overspent on their military, and debased their currency. None of that can sound familiar? As Winston Churchill said, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

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Readers may contact Jack Flobeck at colojackf@msn.com.

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