A story of searching for the oldest sewer in the world, Rome's Cloaca Maxima. This story of our adventures is by my friend & exploration partner Moses Gates. Visit him at http://www.allcitynewyork.com.
“You have made a very big mistake!” Here I was being chewed out, in English no less, by a homeless Gypsy fisherman with a neatly trimmed mustache on the east bank of the Tiber River. My crime? Trying to visit the Cloaca Maxima - the world’s oldest sewer.
Ancient Rome had a problem - a lot of people, even more animals, and no way to get rid of all their poop. To cope with this problem, a rudimentary sewage system was dug around 600 BC, flowing through town out to the Tiber River. True to Roman form, it even came complete with its own goddess, Cloacina, a statue of whom was placed above the part of the Cloaca that now runs underneath the ancient Roman forum. The Cloaca is so old, nobody really knows if it started as a tunnel, or a ditch, or even a natural river. It’s been in use in some form or another ever since, although in modern times its remaining passages were consolidated with the rest of the sewer system of Rome.
I wasn’t quite sure of the big mistake I had made. A little research had led us to the approximate location of the outflow of the Cloaca Maxima. I decided to head over there and see if we could get in. One possible entrance had a couple of guys camped out in front of it, obviously making it their home. One was digging in the mud in front of the entrance with a shovel, so I asked him (as best I could), if it was the Cloaca Maxima. He seemed friendly enough when he gestured to keep walking down the path by the river. But as I turned to walk away, I heard some very rapid, very angry Italian being hurled at me. After repeated “no parlo Italianos,” he said “OK you speak English? - you have made a very big mistake!”
Apparently I had in some way gravely offended some sensibility of his in our brief exchange. I had no idea what to do, or what he would do. Luckily, after a good deal of further berating, he took my apologies enough that I could walk away without fear of further offense. Still, I glanced over my shoulder more than once. He was so mad, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him running after me, shovel in hand.
Well, here was another obstacle I’d put in our way. Instead of manholes and fences, now we had angry Gypsies to contend with. The next morning Steve and I, armed with our peace offerings of cigarettes and beer, went down to try and talk our way in.
We had determined earlier that day that the tunnel by the Gypsy campsite was almost certainly the actual outflow of the Cloaca. The guy who had yelled at me wasn’t there, but his friend was. He only spoke Italian, Romany, and Russian fluently (got to love Europe, with a trilingual homeless population), but we somehow ended up managing a mangled conversation with him in French. 10 minutes and a couple beers late we were in. Imagine our disappointment when the tunnel ended in a brick wall after 10 feet.
Undaunted, we decided to explore a little further down the river to see if there were any other possible entrances. We were in luck: only a few dozen feet down the river was a sewer entrance, close enough that it might lead to the Cloaca. This time the obstacles were different. There was a heavy gate in front of the entrance, although luckily it wasn’t locked. And there was another obstacle one might associate with sewers: namely sewage. While the other entrance had been kept fairly clean by the Gypsies camped out there, this one had no such caretakers. Flies were swarming all over us as we were up to our ankles in the muck of whatever Romans flush down their toilets trying to pry open the gate. This time it took a little elbow grease and a heck of a strong stomach instead of two beers and decent French to make it in.
Once we were in it got a little better - most of the sewage had caught on the gate at the entrance, and there was only a trickle down the middle of the tunnel. The tunnel itself was big, and looked relatively new. It began to curve toward the direction of the entrance to the Cloaca, giving us hope that it would eventually connect with it, but stopped at a flood gate before very long.
With the Cloaca this close, we had to go on. Luckily for us, there was a ladder. Up the ladder, into the gatehouse, across a catwalk, and down another, much rustier, ladder and we found ourselves in the sewers beneath the Capolitine hill. On we went.
These sewers made the one we were just in look like the Sistine Chapel. We were on a narrow, somewhat slippery catwalk maybe a foot wide right next to the bodily waste of millions. One wrong step and we would literally be up shit’s creek without a paddle.
Still we pressed on to see what we could find. After 50 feet or so a smaller tunnel branched off to the side. This had no sewage in it, and was made out of brick - brick that looked incredibly similar to what ancient Roman ruins were made out of. Could this be the remnants of the Cloaca? We went as far as we could, stopping to take some pictures. The tunnel was only about 5 feet high or so, and ended in a strange chamber, complete with brick arches. We were under the oldest part of the city - even if it wasn’t the Cloaca, it was a fair bet this tunnel was at least a couple millennia old, and was host to the kind of history we had only read about.
We left this strange offshoot behind and carried on. Here was where Steve started to get worried. We had brought an air meter, which would tell us if the oxygen content got too low or if there was anything poisonous in the air. But Steve wasn’t worried about air - he was worried about water. We hadn’t checked the forecast that day. If it started to rain, or even just drizzle, there was a good chance the water level of the sewer would rise considerably. The catwalk was only a few inches higher than the effluence next to us. If it rose just even a little, we would be swimming back out. And if it rose a lot…well, let’s just say I could think of a lot better ways to go. We offered up a quick prayer to Cloacina and pressed on.
A little further and the sewer split in two. The big problem was that this was also where the catwalk ended. The tunnel to the right had no catwalk, and there was a 6 foot gap until the catwalk picked back up on the tunnel to the left. Jumping it was out of the question. We tested the water with the camera tripod to see how deep it was. The river of shit swallowed the 5 foot tripod with room to spare. We were out of options.
We had no idea if our quest was successful - we had been almost exactly in the path of the original Cloaca. Some remnants of it could have been the brick tunnel or the catwalk-less offshoot. The most likely possibility was that it was a bricked up archway that we had passed. But we had gone as far as we could without Hazmat suits. It was hard to head back out without knowing for sure if we’d accomplished our objective, but we couldn’t very well expect a big sign saying “welcome to the world’s oldest sewer!” We negotiated the other ladder and the gate, and made it back to the city before nightfall, passing our old Gypsy friends along the way. We gave a friendly wave and smile, and were honored when we got a slight nod of the head back.