CAMBRIDGE, MA—In what is being hailed as a groundbreaking discovery in the study of classical civilization, historians at Harvard University published findings Thursday that show the aqueducts were but a small part of a vast, sophisticated system of water parks that once spanned the Roman Empire.
In a paper appearing in the The Journal Of Roman Studies, the historians write that the ancient aqueducts are all that remain of a much larger infrastructure of recreational water slides, the first sections of which were built in 312 B.C. when a Roman censor decreed all citizens of the Republic deserved access to fun-filled aquatic adventures the whole family could enjoy. Known in antiquity as the Splashatorium, the system was reportedly expanded over the course of five centuries until it stretched from modern-day Spain to Asia Minor.
“We now know the primary purpose of the aqueducts was to supply fresh water to winding wet mazes full of twists, turns, and heart-stopping drops,” said the paper’s lead author, Emma Dench, explaining that Romans 48 inches or taller could flop down on a centurion shield they grabbed from a pile at the top of the stairs and use it to bank along the curves of a downward-sloping network of terra-cotta pipes. “Nowhere else in the ancient world does one find such a highly developed series of splash-tacular high-speed thrill rides.”
Dench added, “It would appear the lives of Romans in this period were far wetter ’n’ wilder than has been previously documented.”
In a recently uncovered text from the first century B.C., author and architect Vitruvius describes the remarkable feats of engineering underpinning the hundreds of miles of water slides, which were based upon the rudimentary sprinkler systems and slip-’n’-slide technologies found in the meadows of ancient Greece. His writings suggest the advancement of fun in the sun was a point of civic pride for the Romans, who diverted a small stretch of the Tiber to create history’s first lazy river ride, allowing patricians and plebeians alike to drift around the city’s perimeter while relaxing on a floatation device made from inflated ox bladders.
Though most of the water rides have been lost to time, an archeological excavation in northern Africa has turned up ruins of the earliest known artificial surf pool, which a contemporary account identifies as Neptune’s Far-Out Flowrider. It was notable for its massive gilded statue of the sea god hanging 10 on a boogie board and catching waves “too gnarly for any mortal to tame.”
According to the historians, a sketch from the second century A.D. shows hundreds of nude Romans standing in lines that stretch through the city center as they wait to ascend a 150-foot-tall stone staircase. From there, many can be seen riding down an elaborate sequence of slides that zigzag through columns in the Roman Forum and wind in and out of the Colosseum’s arcades. Also depicted is a small replica of a trireme ship that was likely used to squirt water onto small children playing in the Forum’s wading pool.
“It’s a testament to the egalitarian ideals of Rome that even as Julius Caesar expanded into Gaul, he brought family-friendly water parks to those he conquered,” said Christopher Jones, a scholar of imperial Rome, emphasizing that free citizens of the empire who visited the capital were given a 10% discount at the Circus Maximus, which functioned mostly as a ticketing area and souvenir shop. “It didn’t matter what ethnicity you were. If you screamed with joy while shooting out of a pipe and dropping seven feet into the plunge pool below, you were a Roman.”
“In fact, it has often been remarked that all log flumes led to Rome,” Jones added.
Among the factors contributing to the downfall of the water park system, Jones said, were complaints about overpriced concessions, which arose when the price of a tankard of wine and leg of lamb doubled during the reign of Constantine the Great. Then in 410 A.D., records show that Visigoths poured in from the north, overcrowding the attractions and ignoring strict Roman customs about never barreling down a slide headfirst. The lifeguards, mostly teenage slaves who had been imported from the far reaches of the empire, are believed to have done little to enforce park rules following this invasion.
“In the end, the Roman water parks were undone by their own success,” Dench said. “With hundreds of thousands visiting each year, sanitation standards were difficult to maintain, and eventually the number children defecating in the pools led to widespread pandemics.”
“Without modern chlorination, they didn’t stand a chance,” continued Dench