Mediolanum and its Waterways

As my followers know, especially those on Instagram, I’m partial to water bodies: give me a river, a lake, a channel or the sea, and I’m a happy girl. As such, I couldn’t turn down to go and see the recent exhibition on Milan and its Waterways, closing next March and curated by a bunch […]

As my followers know, especially those on Instagram, I’m partial to water bodies: give me a river, a lake, a channel or the sea, and I’m a happy girl. As such, I couldn’t turn down to go and see the recent exhibition on Milan and its Waterways, closing next March and curated by a bunch of universities around the city.

The exhibition is in Milan’s Archeological Museum, and it’s a small place, they have close to nothing, but they try their damn best, okay? It focuses on the millenary history the city has with waterways, on the importance water had in forming the shape of today’s city, and on the role these waterways had in the city’s growth.

It’s divided into 7 sections:

  1. Water and the early urban phases of the city;
  2. Water regulation and water as a resource to be managed;
  3. Water and crafting;
  4. Water in the late imperial era;
  5. Water in houses;
  6. Sacred water;
  7. Water after the Roman era.

Many of the pieces you can find in this exhibition come from recent excavations, meaning they came from contemporary people who were minding their own business and trying to build an underground parking or line 4 of the tube. A couple of excavation sites were particularly significant for this exhibition: one between Santa Croce and via Calatafimi, in the Ticinese district and not far from where today’s surviving harbour rests, and the other one in Piazza Meda, on the border between the city centre and the fashion’s quadrilateral, where traffic had been stuck for years, and now I guess I know why.

“Water is the best of things.”
– Pindaro, Pitiche I

Silver cup with a fisherman and marine animals (II – III century AD). The central part of the bowl shows an elderly fisherman sitting on a pier, with a basket behind him. Around him, a plethora of fishes, snakes, shells, crustaceans and animals. Particularly striking is the figure of a wading bird, holding a dragonfly in its beak.

Water and Milan’s Origins

The oldest sources referring to people wandering around in the big bad swamp we now call Milan come from the Bronze Age, around 1600 B.C., but the first attested settlement is from the V century B.C. and they’re connected with people called Culture of Golasecca, a group of Celtic folks who mysteriously liked it wet and decided to settle between the Sesia and the Serio rivers. Which is frankly hilarious if you think that “golasecca” literally means “dry throat”.

This group of people started working a pivotal role in the trades taking place between people up that way and people down the other way, between all those guys left and all those people right. The settlement soon had to be reorganized to better serve its purpose of connection between the trades taking place by land and the water routes.

More people started coming in, more people started roaming around, the Romans came in they had a one-track mind. The next thing you know, water isn’t a means of connection anymore.

A Ring of Water to Defend the City

After the Romans came sweeping in and conquered the ass of people who were just minding their own business, the settlement then known as Medilanum was reorganized and, between the II and the I century B.C., it started showing signs of being encircled by a demarcation line. Roman urbanistic doesn’t like blurred lines.

Of course the picture is crooked: I took it.

Starting from 49 B.C., Rome gave citizenship to every person in the region known as the Cisalpine Gaul, de facto removing its status of mere province and incorporating it into Italy. Milan started developing into a “proper Roman city”, which means it needed defensive walls. These walls were around 2 meters wide, between 7 and 9 meters high, and they were developing for around 3,5 km, surrounding an area of approximately 70 hectares.
Different gates allowed entrance into the city: the only surviving portion is a tower in the medieval Porta Ticinese, close to my house.

Walls are nothing without a moat, though, and this one was fed water by the Seveso and the Nirone, connected by artificial channels. Traces of these channels, and the arched bridges crossing them, have been found all around the city. In some places, the moat had to be regimented through cementitious retention walls or wooden piling works.

A Roman Waterway

Once upon a time, a guy was just trying to build an underground parking lot between Via Calatafimi and Via Santa Croce. Since we’re at the archaeology museum, you can imagine it did not go well: they found a piece of a large artificial channel with wooden piling going 3 meters deep, a stone quay and a third order of piles possibly working as breakwater or docking poles for boats. The wood was dated to the 1st Century A.D., and it was only the tip of the iceberg. By continuing the dig, archaeologists found a shitload of coins, and those have many wonderful qualities: they aid you in buying stuff, of course, but they also have a date stamped on them. These were minted between 39 and 98 A.D., attesting that the pier had been in use at least between those decades.

The pier was later interred on purpose. We know this from finding signs that significant portions of the quays were removed and the channel bed transformed into a landfill. This probably happened around the 3rd Century A.D.
From written sources, we can imagine this happened during a change of destination for the area which Landolfo Seniore, in his XI Century Historia Mediolanensis, calls Vettabbia.

Reconstruction hypothesis.

So far, we have testimonies of waterways being used for defence and for trade. What’s missing is organized watercrafts, and this is where an inscription from 233 A.D. comes to the rescue.

Dedicated to the craft and honour of one Marcus Celsius Artemas, the marble plaque tells us he was a member of the Collegium Nautarum, the professional guild of ferrymen which had headquarters in Como, Pavia and Peschiera. The painted inscription tells us the plaque was placed when Lucius Valerius Maximus and Cnaeus Cornelius Paternus.

Craftsmen and Traders

Waterways were a public commodity, in Roman times, and they were administered by the Government. The River Po had an enormous importance for both people and trade routes, since travelling by foot in a swamp is never advisable, and it led to important Harbour cities on the Adriatic Sea such as Aquileia and Ravenna.

Both Strabo and Plinio attest that industries in Milan were particularly flourishing, especially the wool industry. The presence of carding and weaving factories is confirmed by funerary plaques where we see people selling blankets or heavy cloaks, both to civilian and military personnel, and — a thing that never fails to blow my mind — we have testimonies of woollen blankets especially produced with the purpose of firefighting.

Other factories in Milan included leatherwork and metalcraft.

Do you know what all these industries need?


The Imperial Era

During the Early Imperial Era of Augustus, Milan was a thoroughly Roman city whose importance continued to increase. Renovation works included enlarging the moat next to the defensive walls, reorganizing the square in front of the Forum, building a new theatre and creating a new infrastructure system keeping together both water and landways. This included sewer and more channels serving factories. Local manufacturing soared.

This 1st Century fresco depicts an ox skull (bucranio) depicted with naturalistic attention, with ritual ribbons or bandages dangling from its horns. This was a widespread motif and it came from the (gruesome) habit of hanging the heads of sacrificed animals to the walls of temples and letting them decay there.

Water Infrastructure

Water was being distributed through lead pipes called fistulae and they were fabricated by specialized craftsmen called plumbarii. A flat plate of lead was created by pouring metal on a refractory material made of clay or stone, and was bent or moulded into a cylindrical shape while it was lukewarm. The surface had inscriptions of district names, of the craftsmen who constructed the pipes or of other people of interest.

Piping was produced out of other materials too, like bronze, clay, stone or wood, but lead was considered a favourite material because it melted at a very low-temperature point, it was resistant, and it was easy to mould. Unfortunately, it’s also toxic as hell and causes a nice little thing called lead poisoning.
I guess we all have to die eventually.


“If you carefully consider the abundance of water this infrastructure gives to the community (baths, pools, channels, houses, gardens, country villas) and the distance water covers, the arches that have been built, the galleries that have been excavated, the gorges that have been flattened, we will have to admit that nothing grander has ever been built in the entire world.”
— Plinius, Natural History

Aqueducts are the grandest of engineering works performed by the Romans and a signature mark wherever they have been, from Spain to Turkey. Water arrived in the city and was collected into big tanks called “water castles” (castella aquae), and then was brought through walls. It took bronze connections called calices, terracotta pipes (tubuli) and those beloved lead pipes (fistulae) I was talking about before.

One of the major sources we have on water management in Roman times is De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae by Sesto Giulio Frontino, curator of waters in 97 A.D. The treaty provides us with several technical, legal and administrative details.

In the republican age, water management was divided among various magistrates. The censors were in charge of the construction and maintenance of the aqueducts, as well as supervising the supply of public utilities and the concessions (or sale) to private individuals; the latter two functions were also attributed to the aediles. Quaestors, on the other hand, were entrusted with revenue administration (rent taxes, fines, expenditure control, etc.), while praetors handled legal disputes.
Unfortunately, the myth of a fully functional state in Roman times is not accurate: not all waters were public, in fact, and smaller rivers, lakes, reservoirs and conduits could be either state or private. The right of ownership of water also depended on the status of the land in which it flowed.

In the Augustan age, curatores aquarum such as Sesto Giulio Frontino were chosen by the emperor and established to be in charge of every aspect, from the technical to the administrative, from financial to legal matters. Dependent on them were various workers: the castellarii (for the supervision of the water distribution basins); the circitores (who supervised the construction sites); the vilici (in charge of measuring and marking the pipes).

Statal activity was accompanied by local initiatives, supported by city councils or wealthy private citizens who financed the construction of fountains, pipelines or maintenance work in order to gain visibility and political prestige. Pliny the Younger, just to name one, donated 200,000 sesterces to Como, his home town, for the maintenance of the thermal baths over there, and put 200,000 sesterces on top of them for special decorations.

An incredible piece in the exhibition is a water pump in tender oak wood and lead, found at the bottom of a well and usually preserved at the Museum of Natural History.

This is an exceptional finding: only 19 of these artefacts exist.

The pumps, which retain the lead pipes but lack the pistons that ran inside them, represent a variant of the hydraulic pump of Ctesibius, an invention usually dated around the 3rd century BC.
They were operated manually by a handlebar connected to the pistons: when one piston ran downwards, the pressure pushed water into the collecting chamber; at the same time, the second piston ran upwards, collecting water in the lead pipe. The alternating movement of the two pistons allowed the collection chamber to be filled continuously and the water was probably carried further upwards via an additional pipe connected to the stump.

Land Reclamation Works

Mediolanum was a swamp and people insisted on inhabiting it: it’s only natural for numerous drainage, land drainage and land reclamation works to be documented since the earliest stages of its urbanisation.
These works included both the control of surface water and measures to stabilise the ground and isolate buildings from subsoil moisture.
Works for this purpose are attested even before the Roman occupation, as documented by the findings in Via Moneta, where a ditch oriented according to the inclination of the natural ground may represent one of the earliest attempts at draining the built-up area.
In Roman times, interesting is the use of amphorae, containers for transporting grains and other kinds of food, often reused as building material to improve the soil. The hollow bodies of the amphorae, intentionally perforated, functioned as air chambers that promoted the ventilation of the soil.

Accumulations of amphorae were also used to consolidate the soil, so as to prevent subsidence, in foundations, filling systems and substructures. Fragments of plaster have also been found pressed into layers with the function of insulating against moisture.
A further consolidation system consisted in driving massive wooden piles into the ground under the foundations of imposing structures, such as the Roman theatre. This tradition has continued over time, as demonstrated by the piling beneath the basilica of San Lorenzo, the Spanish walls and the dock. And I have bad news for you: we still do it today.


Milan, as in many other Roman cities, had an articulated water supply and distribution system, accompanied by an adequate sewage system, from the earliest stages of urban planning. At first, it was a modest and local sewage system. It soon became widespread, due to the urban evolution and the progressive demographic increase: the network came to cover very large areas, differentiating the drains reserved for clear water from those for sewage.

The Roman sewerage system is quite reconstructible in the central core of the Roman settlement, where numerous finds have been made between Piazza Cordusio and Piazza Duomo, in the area around the Forum (today Piazza San Sepolcro) and the Cardo Maximus, and in the area of Piazza Missori.
The main canals were often large, real tunnels with internal lining in clay slabs, vaulted roofs and inspection manholes: their orientation followed the ancient road routes, below the road pavements. Other conduits are more modest in size, consisting of terracotta tubules protected by a brick structure bound by mortar.
With the transition to the Middle Ages and the decay of the great Roman hydraulic systems, there was a reversal of the trend and a return to a small-scale organisation, in which each household or social group provided for their own disposal.

Water Supply: Wells

Thanks to the shallow water table, the main water supply system in Milan has been represented since Roman times by the capture of groundwater through the use of wells, found in large numbers in every part of the city. If you want to put it into another way: you dig a hole and water comes up, whether you like it or not.

Exemplary is the testimony of the writer Bonvesin de la Riva, who at the end of the 13th century surveyed more than six thousand wells throughout Milan. That is a lot of wells.

A well excavated near Piazza Fontana, right behind Piazza Duomo.

Easily recognisable by the prevalent use of the characteristic round-arched bricks (pozzali), wells from the Roman period vary in diameter, from 70 cm up to approximately 1.80 metres. The bottom could be closed with compact material, in some cases with a circle or a wooden slab that served to provide a stable and elastic support surface for the entire artefact.
As a rule, wells were constructed by drilling cylindrical pits of varying depths in waterlogged soils. Structuring could then be done in a variety of manners, applying the ‘lining’ or ‘sinking’ technique.
The first step in the works involved the excavation of the pit up to the calculated level and the progressive laying of the stone or brick facing, possibly reinforcing the walls with wooden bulkheads.
The second step entailed a shallow excavation and the placement of a wooden ring with a stabilising function: on top of the wooden ring, the stone or brick structure was piled up to a height well above the floor level, and after excavating the bottom from the inside, the entire structure was pushed downwards, repeating the operation up to the desired depth and from time to time reconstructing the upper part of the masonry.
That’s called top-down construction and it’s considered revolutionary. Can you believe it?

Surviving Roman wells were often reused in later periods, as documented by the medieval and sometimes Renaissance materials found in them.

A well excavated in Corso di Porta Romana.

Between the 3rd and 5th centuries, we witness a phase of political and social instability. As early as the second half of the 3rd century AD, various foreign people penetrated the territory of the Roman Empire on several occasions, returning favours the Roman Armies had dispensed for centuries across the alps and plundering areas of central and northern Italy. These incursions were followed in the 5th century by veritable migrations of folks, with the occasional violent episode such as the siege of Rome in 410 by Alaric at the head of the Visigoths, the arrival of Attila around 451, and the settlement of the Ostrogoths led by Theodoric in 489. We were just in the middle of the highway and we couldn’t hope to escape: around 538 the Ostrogoth Uraia besieged and sacked Milan.
In this climate of uncertainty, the local populations abandoned their homes and objects considered valuable were hidden in the hope of recovering them later. Chosen as secret repositories are — you guessed it — wells, which become perfect hiding places.

Well excavated in Via Speronari.

At least three wells in Milan stored precious objects that their owners never recovered: a well near the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro in Via Speronari (excavated in 1959), a second well found in Via San Raffaele during the construction of the Rinascente Store (excavated in 1949) and another in Via Santa Maria Fulcorina (excavated in 1985). The materials found included various objects of use, coins, copper and bronze containers. Metal vessels were considered valuable, as they were long-lasting objects, often preserved and used for several generations.
In general, the materials were found piled up on the bottom; it is therefore probable that the pits were still in use at the time of the burial.

Close-up of the materials found during the excavations near San Satiro.

Water and Craftsmanship

Ceramic production

The basis for producing a ceramic object is clay, whose name in Greek was κέραμος (kéramos), meaning “stuff that’s good for pottery”. This, in turn, is thought to come from κεράννυμι (keránnumi, “to mix”), but that’s highly debated.

What’s not up for debate, however, is that this one is a cute elephant.

In its natural state, this material is not directly usable and must undergo several processing steps such as purification, modelling, drying, and baking. In Roman times, these activities were mainly carried out in specialised workshops that required, among other things, abundant and readily available water sources to function and stay safe. That’s where our waterways come in.

The waterways were also a transport route for the distribution and sale of finished products.

The remains of a kiln for the production of ceramics have recently emerged in the area in front of the Sant’Eustorgio basilica: the structure, which has yielded functional and discarded ceramic material, was located near the watercourse between via Calatafimi and via Santa Croce, from which come battered or deformed ceramic fragments, matrices (moulds) for oil lamps and for the decoration of terra sigillata crockery and clay vessels used in the construction of kiln vaults.


The earliest traces of metalworking in Milan date back to the Celtic oppidum, but it was especially during the 2nd century that this activity acquired an increasingly important role, characterising the city’s physiognomy. The metallurgical technology of the time did not presuppose the use of hydraulic motive power, which would have been widely exploited in the Renaissance period, but water was nonetheless indispensable in many processing stages.
The production district that emerged from the excavations in Via Moneta, in the heart of the first settlement and active mainly in the 2nd century, testifies to how early metalworking was developed in the city.
Minerals and raw materials were not processed in Milan, but only refining metallurgy was carried out there: through the waterways of the iron and steel centres in the area (Poltello-Rodara area), ready-processed goods arrived to be transformed into finished artefacts that were then marketed.

Iron forges were found in Via San Vincenzo, and along the main access roads, e.g. in the western area, in the courtyard of the current Catholic University (late 1st century BC). Later, the area of Porta Romana and piazza Erculea became a real ‘industrial hub’ for large-scale production of brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) used in furniture objects and mirrors. This was highly specialised workmanship, which in the
imperial period found comparisons only in Germany and Gaul, and for brass, in Britain. Milan obtained zinc supplies from the nearby Bergamo mines, as Pliny the Elder informs us: even the late antique mints needed water for some stages of gold coin production, and Milan could provide it in abundance.

Leather works: the Tannery in Piazza Meda

One of Mediolanum’s most developed manufacturing activities was the tanning of hides destined for various applications, as can be seen from inscriptions mentioning shoemakers and leather merchants.

The most famous testimony of a leather craftsman is probably the so-called Lambrate Sarcophagus (above), dated between the end of the 3rd Century and the beginning of the next and discovered in March 1905 during some excavation works in the area.

These testimonies have recently been enriched by the archaeological finding of a processing plant in Piazza Meda.

In the 1st Century A.D., an articulated tanning complex occupied this district to the northeast of the city, cleverly and significantly outside the walls because tanneries smell and pollute.
The abundance of water, essential in all tanning operations, also influenced the choice of this district, close enough to the town and in communication with the area towards Bergamo and Brescia.

The tanning facilities found in the excavation belong to a complex with at least three well-equipped workshops, which, due to their extensions, take on the character of a proper leather industry. This might be the first actual factory found in Milan. Look me in the eyes and tell me this isn’t a big deal, and I’ll punch your nose through the back of your skull.

The western workshop, which is better preserved, comprised two rooms opening onto a large courtyard with a central masonry tank served by a lead pipeline. Inside the rooms were two rows of underground wooden vats in which hides could be treated with vegetable substances (tannins) by being immersed for long periods. The tannins prevented the hides from rotting, believe it or not.

Six additional vats were buried in a double row in the courtyard under a roof, separated by a drainage channel for water. In the open air, the many operations of washing and finishing the hides took place without people collapsing and dying, which was considered more of a priority than it is today.

Visual reconstruction of the tannery.

Capital of the Empire

We don’t like to talk about it, but Milan was the capital of the Roman Empire from 286 onwards, when a guy called Maximian decided to come and live here.

“In Milan everything is worthy of admiration, there is a profusion of riches
and there are innumerable stately homes… The city has expanded and is surrounded by a double circle of walls; there is the circus, where the people enjoy shows, the theatre with its wedge-shaped tiers of seats, the temples, the fortress of the imperial palace, the mint, the district named after the famous Herculean baths… Its buildings appear one more imposing than the others, as if they were rivals, and not even its proximity to Rome diminishes its greatness.”
— Ausonius, Ordo urbium nobilium

As you might imagine, this meant the city underwent a series of critical urban changes, first and foremost the extension of the fortified city wall and its moat because a lot of time had passed but the Romans still had a one-tracked mind.
The city walls came to incorporate new areas to the east and west. Along the north-eastern boundary, a residential and commercial quarter developed around the Porta Orientalis and was called the Regio Herculea, which also included the city’s largest bath complex. The imposing structure (15,000 square metres) stood between today’s Corso Europa and Corso Vittorio Emanuele, and was located near the moat and a branch of the Acqualunga fontanile. This, in turn, entered the city at the Porta Orientalis, and flowed along today’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele in the direction of the area later occupied by the Episcopal complex.
As you can easily guess, water is pretty important if you’re trying to run a public bath.

In the western quarter, the new section of wall encloses the circus, the new performance building connected to the imperial palace.
A horreum, a large storehouse of food for military troops and the court, was also built along the road axis to Novum Comum (Como), not far from the moat.

A city expanding isn’t suitable for tanneries

You have to decide whether you want thermal baths or tanneries, from an urbanistic point of view, at least you do if they’re growing in the same district. And when it comes to the Romans… well, you can always trust them to pick their thermal baths.

In the 2nd century AD, the expansion of the city into the suburban areas led to the progressive contraction of the activities of the tannery complex, which finally came to an end at the end of the 3rd century A.D.
The extension across the northeastern sector of the defensive wall initiated a process of major urban transformations throughout the district, which, from being a craft-productive area, took on a residential and commercial character.
The same old story.

The dwellings facing the two intersecting streets of the area were enlarged and enriched with frescoed porticoes, surviving in a large portion of walls found on the via S. Paolo and dated to the Constantinian period (early 4th century). The gravel streets, equipped with sewage services, reveal repeated maintenance work due to the heavy traffic. The commercial vocation of the district was maintained even in later periods (12th-13th centuries), which documented the persistence of the road layout and urban fabric, with buildings and shops equipped with wells, cisterns and iceboxes. No more tanneries, though. As I already mentioned, they smell.
Leather-related handicrafts seem to have been concentrated, since the Middle Ages, in the southern part of the city between Piazza Vetra and the Ticinese.
Which is where I live.

The Herculean Baths

The construction of the Herculean Baths was part of a more articulated urban planning project to redevelop and enlarge the city, chosen as the imperial seat by Maximian in 286 AD.
The exceptionally extensive facilities occupied an area of approximately 14,500 square metres, currently bounded by Corso Europa and Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, corresponding to the northeastern part of the city and not far from the Porta Orientalis.

A monumental entrance on the north side gave access to the gymnasium, consisting of a large courtyard surrounded by a colonnade. On the same axis we found, in succession, the frigidarium flanked by two rooms interpreted as dressing rooms, the tepidarium (medium-heated room) and the calidarium (high-temperature room). The rooms were heated by injecting hot air below the floors, which were raised on small columns made of circular bricks (suspensurae).

Water in Private Houses

Water played a central role in private homes of Roman period, both for strictly functional and service purposes and, in the case of the most prestigious residences, for recreational purposes. Just as it happens today.
As far as the utilitarian aspect is concerned, recurring is the presence of wells intended for the collection of groundwater, sometimes flanked by underground cisterns or by special tanks located within gardens and porticoed courtyards, designed for the collection and conservation of rainwater.
A rainwater well, for instance, came to light in the Domus discovered in Via Cesare Correnti in 1992.

Excavations of the main pool in via Cesare Correnti.

In the absence of such installations, the water needed for the most common domestic needs had to be drawn directly from public fountains, which were widespread throughout the city.
Running water was common only inside the wealthiest homes, though it was lead-flavoured as we have seen before. In such cases, it could also be used in private baths and thermal areas for the care and well-being of the body, but also in accessory apparatuses such as fountains and nymphaea intended to satisfy the aesthetic and artistic taste of the owners.

Visual reconstruction of the house.

Fountains and Nymphaea

In addition to installations for functional purposes, in residences of greater value and wealth, water could also be widely used within more or less articulated ornamental apparatuses, such as fountains and nymphaea, in which a generic practical purpose was accompanied by a more targeted search for aesthetic values and the fulfilment of artistic demands.

If fountains could be adorned with sculptures, nymphaeums offered the possibility of deploying more complex settings, both architecturally and decoratively, enriched with mythological subjects often set in a natural context.

Installations of this kind derive their origin from natural places consecrated to the cult of nymphs, and they were destined for convivial encounters and rest, cheered by the constant flow of water within aediculae decorated with mosaics or shaped in imitation of small caverns and grottoes overlooking gardens.

The most famous and better-preserved nymphaeum is the one in Ercolanum.

In Milan, remains of probable nymphaeums belonging to luxury residences were brought to light during excavations conducted in 1950 in the area of Piazza Borromeo and in 2012 in Piazza Fontana.

Eaves and Gutters

Gutters and eaves of course had the function of collecting and draining water from the roofs, but in the pre-industrial era you could expect stuff to be charming too. Rainwater was piped into special collection tanks located in the peristyles (courtyards), and those were not particularly charming even in the pre-industrial era.

Primarily made in moulds, eaves took different shapes: comic or Silenian masks, animals, and especially dogs which recalled the role of the guard, protecting the house and warding off evil spirits. Or it’s simply that Romans liked puppies just as much as we do.

Sacred Water

As in many other cultures, Roman civilisation linked springs and running water to the concepts of regeneration, purity and sacredness. Springs are a valuable thing when you don’t have bottled water, and they were consecrated to nymphs or considered works, property or residence of a local deity, especially where thermal waters were concerned.

Water, as an instrument of physical and spiritual purification, is present in various rituals that mark the life of society and the individual: birth, marriage, funeral rites.
It is also an indispensable instrument of purification in cases of bloodshed: Aeneas, fleeing from Troy, asks his father to carry the sacred images and the Penates until he has purified himself from the carnage wrought in battle by washing himself in the river.

Upon entering a sacred space, the citizen had to either wash his entire body or just his right hand, depending on the level of involvement and the rite in question, and they did so in special basins placed at the entrances of the temple areas.
Washing one’s hands before the ritual slaughtering of an animal was an essential act, and this purification also involved the sacrificial victim, the instruments used and the participants in the ritual, all of which were purified by sprinkling water with branches.
Finally, water is present in the geography of the underworld, where it demarcates the passage between life and death and forces the deceased to undergo one final rite of passage, the paying of Charon and the ferrying across the Acheron.

Water and the Dead

Because the Romans had common sense above pretty much everything else, necropolises were located outside the urban perimeter, and Milan was no exception. Some necropolises have yielded traces of watercourses or artificial canals, which in some cases delimited the burial area itself, and this is less of a good idea, as people in London will find out during their cholera outbreak.

The presence of water in necropolises was probably connected to funerary rituals, as running water was considered an instrument of purification.
In addition to purification practices, water was used for banquets and libations practised during festivities to remember the dead, festivals such as the Parentalia in February and the Lemuralia, held in May, meant to exorcise the angry spirits of those who were dead in violence.

On such occasions, liquid offerings such as water, wine, milk and honey were sometimes scattered on the ground or poured into specially made conduits made with perforated amphorae, opposing tiles or lead pipes so that they flowed into the burial. Such conduits are documented, for instance, in the necropolis in Via Madre Cabrini, in the Policlinico area and the Catholic University’s courtyards.

An example of amphorae conduits to channel liquid offerings to the dead (found in Via Madre Cabrini).

Milan practised both cremation, prevalent until the beginning of the 2nd century AD, and inhumation, which became widespread with Christianity as many other bad ideas. The objects placed in the tomb to accompany and protect the deceased in the afterlife include glass and ceramic containers, oil lamps, coins and, on rarer occasions, toiletries and objects with a magical protective function.


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