Liquid Assets


These rather athletic lovelies have tied their clothes to a bar and are paddling in a pool while showering under water jetting from boars’ mouths. It’s a sophisticated bathing experience which wouldn’t be out of place in a Spitalfields Rough Luxe interior. These showers are on a fourth century BCE Italian pot. It’s my guess that such contraptions were not unusual however, for elaborate domestic plumbing had been in place since Minoan times. The Minoans (3500-1200 BCE) had terracotta or limestone underground pipes for the transport of fresh water and sewage. At Knossos, a flushing loo has been found with partitions around it for privacy, and cisterns and conduits in the wall. The Mycenaeans (1600-1100BCE) built massive dams and reservoirs to store water and prevent flooding.

We are used to seeing Roman aqueducts striding over the landscape, but the Greeks often built theirs underground, sometimes 60′ deep, to protect the water supply from enemy attack, and keep it cool. Two of those which supplied ancient Athens are in use today, thus achieving gold star sustainability status.

The most ambitious of these structures was built on the island of Samos in around 530 BCE. Samos is just off the coast of Turkey, not far from Miletus, the town where Anaximander lived (HIP Classics 74).  It’s a tunnel which was built through a mountain and like modern tunnels, from both ends. Designed and constructed by the engineer Eupalinus, (which means ‘good at solving problems’ and sounds well deserved), it took ten years to build and is 1036 m long. Where the two ends meet, one tunnel was made wider and dips lower to compensate for any margin of error and ensure the two would join up. There is no ancient explanation of how this was planned with such accuracy. A tower placed on top of the mountain would have given a view of both starting points, but how did he calculate the direction, depth and inclination of the channel?*  Quite how the design could be enforced day by day in the dark, stifling depths of the mine I would love to know. In comparison with this, a shower is a mere pear-drop of a problem.

The project was ordered by the tyrant Polycrates, who had outstanding military nous and a massive ego. His is a comforting tale of how hubris and fate undermine power. His friend the Egyptian King Amasis told him he was too successful and he should redress the balance of fortune by giving up his most precious possession. He threw an emerald ring into the sea. It was the darndest thing, but before he had time to grieve, it was found in the stomach of a fish by his own kitchen staff.  Amasis immediately, wisely, unfriended him, but Polycrates continued to act as if indestructible, ignored a warning dream, went on a risky mission to Sardis, and came to a Very Bad End.

* For the latest theory: The Tunnel of Samos by Tom Apostol.



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