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Venus the Purifier

Sewage systems have a long history. One ancient sewer from the Sumarian city Eshnunna in central Mesopotamia, consisted of brick sewers connected to water flushed latrines and was built in 2500 BC. In 2020 there was evidence unearthed of more than 4000 year old sewers in ancient China in the Ancient City ruins of Pingliangtai in central China's Henan Province. Minoans, Persians, Athenians, Egyptians, Macedonians, and Greeks all built sewer systems.

"Drains in the streets are known since the early Mesopotamian Empire in Iraq (ca. 4000–2500 BC). However, well organized and operated sewerage and drainage systems were practiced for the first time in the history of humankind by the Minoan and Harappan civilizations in Crete, and in the greater Indus valley, respectively after ca. 3000 BC. It is evident that during the Minoan era extensive drainage systems and elaborate structures were planned, designed and built to protect the growing population centers and the agricultural land. In several Minoan palaces discovered by archaeologists in the 20th century, one of the most important elements was the provision and distribution of water and the transfer of stormwater and sewage in drains by means of hydraulic systems. Minoans and Indus valley civilizations, originally, and Hellenes and Romans thereafter, are considered pioneers in developing the basic hydraulics of sewerage and drainage systems technologies, with emphasis on sanitation in the urban environment. Hellenes and Romans further developed these technologies and greatly increased the scale of their provision."
-Feo et al, Sustainability, 2014 

The Cloaca Maxima

Around 800 BC the Romans built the Cloaca Maxima ("Great Drain/Sewer"), a sewer system that dried out the Roman Forum, and carried waste and rainwater from Rome to the River Tiber. The sewer was an important contribution to public health in ancient Rome and an impressive feat of ancient engineering.

Saeid Islamian, Editor, Handbook of Engineering Hydrology (Three-Volume Set), CRC Press, 2018


The Cloaca Maxima was constructed during the time of the Etruscan kings, and the goddess Cloacina, may have been Etruscan. In later years she was associated with Venus, who was goddess of love and more relevant: purity.


Rome had an extensive system of sewers that can be seen in these two maps:

Annette Haug, Nicola Chiarenza, Ulrich Müller, Editors, The Power of Urban Water Studies in Premodern Urbanism, De Gruyter, 2020


The Cloaca Maxima the shown on this map is less direct than other drains which suggests that the it's origin was a stream flowing through the marshy valley.

"The Romans developed very advanced technology to sanitation, including baths, with flowing water, and underground sewers and drains. The drains of Rome were intended primarily to carry away runoff from storms and to flush streets. There are specific instances where direct connections were made to private homes and palaces, but these were the exceptions, for most of the houses did not have such connections."
-Feo et al, Sustainability, 2014 

Rome Alive Vol. 1, by Peter J. Aicher, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2020


The Cloaca Maxima in Rome. Various Sections and a Plan of Its Course. Published circa 1889. Wellcome Collection. Image used under terms of the CC SA 4.0 license.


Parts of this system are still visible and even somewhat functional in Rome today:

Outlet of the Cloaca Maxima, Life in Ancient Rome, by Shilpa Mehta-Jones, Crabtree Publishing Company, 2005


The raised walkways and "stepping stones" on this street in Pompey reinforce that the streets would have been open channels for clearing of water from fountains, rainwater and waste.

Source: Figure 12 from -Feo et al, Sustainability, 2014


Venus Cloacina

Pliny shares the origins of the name Cloacina - linking to the work "cluere" or "purify":

There were myrtles growing on the site now occupied by Rome, at the time of its foundation; for a tradition exists to the effect that the Romans and the Sabines, after they had intended fighting, on account of the virgins who had been ravished by the former, purified themselves, first laying down their arms, with sprigs of myrtle, on the very same spot which is now occupied by the statues of Venus Cluacina; for in the ancient language "cluere" means to purify."
Pliny, Natural History, 15.36 

The remnants of the shrine to Venus Cloacina (Venus of the Sewers) can still be seen in the Roman Forum:

The Sacrum Cloacina in the Roman Forum in August 2012. Image by Brian Ahola, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hopkins (2102) proposes that the Bocca della Verità as an ancient drain cover for the Cloaca Maxima created during the Imperial times, depicting Oceanus, representing the most venerated waters, and the power of the emperor.


The Denarius

These two varieties Crawford 494/42 (a & b) are differentiated only by the star under the chin of Concordia on the obverse. There is a third type (c) with a crescent in place of the star. Crawford reports 87 obverse and 97 reverse dies for the type. There are two other varieties with an obverse of Sol instead of Concordia (494/43 a & b).

L. Mussidius Longus, AR denarius, issued 42 BCE, 4.03g, 19mm

Obv: CONCORDIA, Diademed and veiled head of Concordia right

Rev: L MVSSIDIVS LONGVS, Shrine of Venus Cloacina: Circular platform surmounted by two statues of the goddess, each resting right hand on cippus, the platform inscribed CLOACIN and ornamented with trellis-pattern balustrade, flight of steps and portico on left.

Ref: Crawford 494/42a; Sydenham 1093


L. Mussidius Longus, AR denarius, issued 42 BCE, 4.03g, 19mm

Obv: CONCORDIA, Diademed and veiled head of Concordia right, star below chin

Rev: L MVSSIDIVS LONGVS, Shrine of Venus Cloacina: Circular platform surmounted by two statues of the goddess, each resting right hand on cippus, the platform inscribed CLOACIN and ornamented with trellis-pattern balustrade, flight of steps and portico on left.

Ref: Crawford 494/42b; Sydenham 1093

Evolution of Water Supply Through the Millennia, Andreas N. Angelakis, Larry W. Mays, Demetris Koutsoyiannis, Nikos Mamassis, IWA Publishing, Apr 14, 2012 - Science - 584 pages

Why would L. Mussidius Longus include this image on his denarius?

In 42 BC, the triumvirate was newly formed to avenge the death of Julius Caesar and restore concord to the republic. This representation of "purification" perhaps an appropriate image for the aims of the triumvirate of Antony, Octavian and Lepidus and the Concordia between them. Crawford notes that the story from Pliny also suggests a resolution of differences and the shrine "may have been a symbol of civil peace" (Pliny, Natural History, 15.36) and that the star, crescent and Sol on these issues all could support the "belief in the imminence of a new age".

An 18th Century Ode to Cloacine


O Cloacine! thou Goddess heavenly bright,
Pregnant with ease, profuse with soft delight!
Without thine aid divine mankind were curst;
All human kind, without, --- must starve or burst.
Cloacina triumphant, poem citing Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Cloacina, 1782

Additional References:

  • De Feo, Giovanni, George Antoniou, Hilal Franz Fardin, Fatma El-Gohary, Xiao Yun Zheng, Ieva Reklaityte, David Butler, Stavros Yannopoulos, and Andreas N. Angelakis. 2014. "The Historical Development of Sewers Worldwide" Sustainability 6, no. 6: 3936-3974.

  • Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby): A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, London: Oxford University Press, 1929. Cloaca Maxima Article on pp126‑127.

  • Hopkins, John N. 2012. “The 'Sacred Sewer' : Tradition and Religion in the Cloaca Maxima.” In Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity, Edited by Mark Bradley and Kenneth Stow. British School at Rome. Studies, 81-102. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

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