The subject of canal-building in Antiquity is one which has been rather sparsely treated by scholars. Although it is generally accepted that multi-purpose canals have been a feature of ancient civilizations ever since the canalization of the Mesopotamian plain in the fourth millennium B.C., there has been no concerted effort to trace the development of canal-building, the different functions of canals or their role within the transport systems of the ancient world. This contrasts with the contemporary interest shown in canal-building in the early stages of the industrial revolution, particularly in Great Britain, but also in France.1 Canals are in this context seen as an important part of the infra-structure of the economy; canals in Antiquity are usually only mentioned, and reference is continually made to the same few well-known examples. In one of the more exhaustive works on ancient technology, that of J.G. Landels, there are substantial chapters on ships and sea transport as well as on land transport; canals are, however, not even mentioned.2 The only comprehensive work, which remains basic in spite of its brevity, is an article by N.H.S. Smith in the series of the Transactions of the Newcomen Society, from 1977–78.3 Although this is hardly the place to completely remedy this gap in scholarly analysis, I would emphasize that the subject of canal-building in its various aspects (technical, administrative and with a view towards transportation techniques) deserves a monograph—if not several.
1 For examples of the studies of British waterways see, e.g., Binnie 1981 and
Baldwin and Burton 1984, with the extensive bibliography of Charles Hadfield, the
prominent British canal scholar, 4–8, and further a bibliography of British canals,
130–91. A recent summary is Crompton 1996. To this may be added the bibli-
ography in Anderson 1992, 109–23, which also gives a good picture of the work
on canals in Central Europe.
2 Landels 1978. In fairness, however, it must be noted that M.P. Charlesworth
in his work on Roman trade routes does take into account both Nero's attempt at
a Corinth canal and the works of Drusus in the Rhine estuary, known from Tacitus
(Charlesworth 1926, 117 and 188–9). Nevertheless, these canal projects are merely
mentioned in passing: there is no attempt at analysis.
3 This is also the basis for a short summary in White 1984.