The Cloaca Maxima in Rome is one of the world’s first sewer systems. It still works today, and with good reason: it has its own goddess.
According to tradition, Rome began as seven small settlements on seven hills. Over time, the settlements grew and merged and formed the ancient metropolis we all know and love. And that process also created the Cloaca Maxima, one of the world’s earliest sewer systems.
The Cloaca Maxima probably began its life as an open drain or stream, running between the hills of early Rome. Rainwater from the hills would flow down into the drain, sweeping away the residents’ effluent. As the city expanded this drain was covered up and built over, turning it into an efficient underground sewer system. Rome’s famous aqueducts, such as Aqua Marcia, supplied water to public baths, and those baths also drained into this sewer.
Incredibly, this sewer is still operational today. Rainwater that falls on the Forum flows down through the Cloaca Maxima and out to the River Tiber. The illustration above, of the sewer’s outlet to the Tiber, is by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (star creator of the prisons of the imagination) from the 18th century CE. This is what the same place looks like today:
Perhaps unique among sewer systems, the Cloaca Maxima has its own patron goddess: Cloacina. Also known as the “Venus of the Sewers,” Cloacina may have been an Etruscan deity of the original stream. That stream became a drain became a sewer, but Cloacina’s connection persisted and she became the Roman goddess of this particular piece of civic infrastructure.
Cloacina even had a shrine and statues in the Forum because of the site’s connection to some of Rome’s founding myths. According to the myth, early Romans abducted thirty women from a nearby tribe, the Sabines. The Sabines responded by going to war with the Romans. When the two sides finally made peace, they did so over Cloacina’s creek.
(End note: Cloacina may be the only goddess of a specific sewer system, but several religions have goddesses of toilets in general for some reason: Zigu of Chinese folk religion, the Aztec goddess Tlazōlteōtl, and the Korean toilet goddess Cheuksin.)