List of Roman canals

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The Fossa Corbulonis connected the Rhine and the Meuse on the Dutch coast. Fossa Corbulonis map.png
The Fossa Corbulonis connected the Rhine and the Meuse on the Dutch coast.
Remains of Nero's unfinished Corinth Canal project, which followed exactly the same course as the modern canal. Remains of Nero's Isthmus Canal in 1881.jpg
Remains of Nero's unfinished Corinth Canal project, which followed exactly the same course as the modern canal.

This is a list of Roman canals. Roman canals were typically multi-purpose structures, intended for irrigation, drainage, land reclamation, flood control and navigation where feasible. This list focuses on the larger canals, particularly navigational canals, as recorded by ancient geographers and still traceable by modern archaeology. Channels which served the needs of urban water supply are covered at the List of aqueducts in the Roman Empire.


Greek engineers were the first to use canal locks, by which they regulated the water flow in the Ancient Suez Canal as early as the 3rd century BC. [1] [2] [3] The Romans under Trajan too secured the entrance to the Red Sea with sluice gates, while they extended the canal south to the height of modern Cairo in order to improve its water inflow. [4] The existence of ancient pound locks to bridge height gaps has been proposed by a number of authors, [2] [5] [6] but in the absence of clear archaeological evidence the question seems to be permanently undecided. [7]


By chronological order:


Construction dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
2nd century BCSouth of line ModenaParma DrainageBuilt by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus to drain lower Po area [8]
2nd century BC Bologna, Piacenza and Cremona areasDrainageBuilt by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to drain lower Po area [8]
1st century BC Forum AppiiTerracina DrainageFor dewatering Pomptine Marshes; navigated when Via Appia unusable by mule-towing [8] [9] [10]
Late 1st century BC FerraraPadua Inland to coastBuilt by Augustus to link Ravenna and Po estuary ( Fossa Augusta ) [8]
Before late 1st century AD Fossa Flavia , Fossa Carbonaria , Fossa Philistina , Fossa Clodia DrainageAccording to Pliny the Elder for draining Po estuary; erosion and siltation renders modern identification impossible [8] [9]


Construction dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
101 BC RhoneFos-sur-Mer ( Fossa Mariana )Inland to coastBuilt by Marius across Crau plain for supplying his positions around Arles in his campaign against Teutons [8] [9] [10]
 ? NarbonneAude Inland to coastMade Narbonne accessible from Mediterranean; 13 km long [8]


Construction dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
12 BC RhineIJssel ( Fossa Drusiana )Inland to coastFor quick deployment of troops to the Frisian coast, avoiding the dangerous passage on the North Sea off the mouth of the Rhine; 14 km long [8] [9] [10]
c. 9 BCRhine dykeInlandBuilt by Drusus the Elder to retain sufficient water to navigate his Fossa Drusiana; demolished by revolting Civilis in 70 AD [8]
47 ADRhine–Meuse ( Fossa Corbulonis )InlandAllowed to navigate both rivers without sailing into North Sea; c. 35 km long [8] [10]


Construction dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
c. 1st century AD River CamRiver Ouse (Car Dyke)DrainageLand reclamation in Fenland; also navigated [8]
 ?River Ouse–River Nene Drainage [8]
 ?River Nene–River Witham  ? [8]
 ?River Witham–River Trent  ? Foss Dyke still in use [8]
 ? Bourne-Morton Canal Navigation [11]


Construction dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
No later than 112 AD NileRed Sea (Ancient Suez Canal)Inland to coastAs the older Ptolemaic channel, which was the first to use locks, [12] Trajan's canal linked Mediterranean and Red Sea not directly, but via the Nile. Unlike the Greek channel, though, which branched off the Pelusiac arm, the Roman canal started off the main branch of the Nile at Babylon, 60 km to the south. It joined the Ptolemaic dyke at Belbeis, eventually discharging into the Gulf of Suez at Arsinoe. [13]


Construction dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
101 AD Danube bypass canalInlandTo safely negotiate the cataracts of the Iron Gate; once traceable on Serbian bank (Sip) on a length of 3,220 m [14] [15]
2nd–6th century ADDanube bypass canalInlandAccording to Procopius for allowing the safe passage past the remains of Trajan's Bridge which obstructed river navigation; dug on Serbian side (Kladovo) [16]

Projected canals

In the following, Roman canal projects which were never completed for various reasons are listed.

Planning dateConnectionCanal typeCommentRefs.
c. 54–68 AD RomeOstia Inland to coastPlanned by Nero [8]
c. 54–68 AD Puteoli–OstiaInland to coastStarting from Lake Avernus near Puteoli, it was intended by Nero to run parallel to Mediterranean; length upon completion would have been 160 Roman miles [8]
c. 54–68 AD Isthmus of Corinth (modern Corinth Canal)Coast to coastTo avoid long and dangerous circumnavigation of the Peloponnese peninsula; several abandoned building projects in antiquity aimed at replacing Diolkos trackway; serious work begun by Nero, but aborted after his death [8] [9] [10]
55 AD SaôneMoselle (modern Canal de l'Est)InlandAnother ambitious project: would have connected Mediterranean Sea with North Sea via Rhone, Saône, Moselle and Rhine; presupposes capacity to construct pound locks though, for which there is as yet no certain evidence; yet, plan finally dropped not due to technological reasons, but political intrigues [8] [9] [10]
111 AD Lake SapancaSea of Marmara Inland to coastFor facilitating transfer of inland produce to seaside; subject of correspondence between governor Pliny the Younger and emperor Trajan; would have required to overcome difference in height of 32 m [8] [9] [10] [17]

See also

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  1. Moore 1950, pp. 99–101
  2. 1 2 Froriep 1986, p. 46
  3. Schörner 2000, pp. 33–35
  4. Schörner 2000, pp. 36
  5. Moore 1950, pp. 98ff.
  6. Schörner 2000, pp. 39
  7. Wikander 2000, p. 326
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 White 1984, pp. 227–229, table 6
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Wikander 2000, pp. 328–330
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Grewe 2008, pp. 333–336
  11. D.Trimble (1993), Excavation of a section of the Bourne-Morton canal in Morton Fen., Annual Report, Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire, pp. 29, 30
  12. Schörner 2000, pp. 33f.
  13. Schörner 2000, pp. 36f.
  14. Tudor 1974, p. 38
  15. Serban 2009, p. 333
  16. Tudor 1974, pp. 68f., 80
  17. Froriep 1986, pp. 39–50


Further reading