Skip to main content
Log in

Water regulation in roman law considered from opposing standpoints: as essential resource and threat to humans and their environment

Water History Aims and scope Submit manuscript


The ambivalence of water as a resource and as an environment was acknowledged very early on in Roman history as it is noticeable in the 5th cent. BC Twelve Tables. Our sources provide evidence of a distribution of hydraulic risks resulting in mechanisms of forced cooperation between landowners, while water resources were made accessible to multiple users in the course of the 3rd century BC thanks to new legal conceptions. This had obvious consequences in terms of land productivity and social well-being but would also bring about a thorough transformation of the Roman agrarian economy due to an increasingly mercantilist basis. The legal protection provided to the usus of the water (contrasting with a rigid property right) was instrumental in the flexibility of this organisational model because the resource could not be retained indefinitely by those who were not needing it. In turn, these rights of use, because they were more cost-effective and more easily obtained than full rights of property over a perennial source of water, benefited the dynamism and productivity of the Italian agrarian system.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Institutional subscriptions


  1. In this landscape, the fundi occupy different levels, with one above and another below, and it is precisely this gradient that ensures the ‘natural’ runoff of stormwater. Danger arises therefore from blocking the flow and making the water stagnate by creating barriers; likewise, trouble arises from accelerating the outflow by channelling and concentrating its potentially destructive force to the detriment of fundi located at a lower elevation. The actio in question excluded the possibility of carrying out an opus manu factum to the detriment of the neighbour.

  2. D.43.24.11 Pr.

  3. D.1.8.2 (Marc., 1 Inst.); Inst. 2. 1. 1, while it is completely absent in Gaius and in the classifications of res of earlier jurists, up to Ulpian and Paul.

  4. I already noted the divergence of the “commons” framework from the structure of water servitudes (Capogrossi 2011).

  5. See the Introduction to this volume.

  6. Thus in D.43.13.2 (Pomp., 34 ad Sab.).

  7. In the Corpus iuris we find many instances of the different destiny of two neighbouring properties belonging to the same owner, starting with two well-known texts probably attributable to a point in Servius, and reported by Paul, in D.8.3.29 (2, epit. Alf., dig.): qui duo praedia confinia habuerat, superiorem fundum vendiderat…, and in D.9.3.30, where the fact that the duo praedia owned by the same holder were adjoining, can be deduced from the reported evidence. To this we should add the interesting statement by Salvius Julianus reported in D.8.3.31 (2 ex Minicio), which also seems to echo the previous generation’s ideas. Finally, the entire passage of Paul reported in D.10.1.12 (ex l. 3 resp.) deals in an exemplary way with the separateness of the two contiguous fundi belonging to the same owner and the importance of the existing boundary markers between them. See also D. (Paul, 15 ad Plaut.) and D. (Paul, 5 ad Sab.), where we find tria praedia continua of the same dominus.

  8. The principal evidence about the organisation of land tenure in Italy during the imperial age is probably that of the Table of Veleia, which lists numerous landed properties in the two municipia of Placentia and Veleia, where the various fundi were identified, first of all, through their owner’s name – ‘fundus Sempronianus or Calvinianus’, for example. It is remarkable how the varied names of these agrarian properties preserve the memory, not only of their former owners, but also of changes in ownership and of the ways the properties were recombined, as a result of the break-up of some larger properties, but also the merging of smaller units with new and larger ones.

  9. D. (29) (Paul., 54 ad ed.).

  10. This is noteworthy because there are relatively few laws designed to innovate or change rules of private law, the evolution of which was generally left to the praetor’s edict and the interpretatio of prudentes.


  • Bannon CJ (2009) Gardens and neighbors. Private water rights in roman Italy. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Capogrossi Colognesi L (1966) Ricerche sulla struttura delle servitù d’acqua in diritto romano. Giuffrè, Milan

    Google Scholar 

  • Capogrossi Colognesi L (2011) Le servitù prediali: interessi contrastanti e collaborazione tra vicini. Bull Istit Dir rom 105:409–419

    Google Scholar 

  • D’Arms JH (1970) Romans of the Bay of Naples. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)

    Google Scholar 

  • Möller C Elemente des römischen Wasserrechts - lex und natura, servitus und vetustas, in: Wasser-Wege-Wissen auf der iberischen Halbinsel. Vom Römischen Imperium bis zur islamischen Herrschaft, hrsg. von I. Czeguhn, Möller C (2016) Y. Quesada Morillas und J. A. Pérez Juan, 2016, 9–28

  • Möller C Römischrechtliche Regelungskonzepte für Regenwasser, in: Wasser-Wege-Wissen auf der iberischen Halbinsel. Eine interdisziplinäre Annäherung im Verlauf der Geschichte, hrsg. von I. Czeguhn, Möller C (2018) Y. Quesada Morillas und J. A. Pérez Juan, 2018, 9–34

  • Nordon M (1991) L’eau conquise. Les origines et le monde antique. Masson Ed., Paris

    Google Scholar 

  • Quilici L (1994) Centuriazione e paesaggio agrario nell’Italia centrale. Carlsen J, Osted P and Skydsgaard JE (eds) landuse in the Roman Empire. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, pp 127–133

    Google Scholar 

  • Quilici Gigli S (2008) The management of the Water Regime in Agrarian Contexts in Central Italy. In: Hermon E (ed) Vers une gestion intégrée de l’eau dans l’Empire romain, actes du colloque international (Université Laval, 2006). L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, pp 217–222

    Google Scholar 

  • Quilici L, Quilici Gigli S (eds) (1995) Interventi di bonifica agraria nell’Italia romana. L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome

    Google Scholar 

  • Rawson E (1976) The Ciceronian aristocracy and its properties. In: Finley M (ed) Studies in roman property. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 84–102

    Google Scholar 

  • Quilici Gigli S (1997) Uomo, acqua e paesaggio, Atti atti dell’Incontro di studio sul tema “Irregimentazione delle acque e trasformazione del paesaggio antico” (S. Maria Capua Vetere, 22–23 Nov. 1996). L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luigi CAPOGROSSI COLOGNESI.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

CAPOGROSSI COLOGNESI, L. Water regulation in roman law considered from opposing standpoints: as essential resource and threat to humans and their environment. Water Hist 15, 161–167 (2023).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: