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Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes

Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes

By Brenda Longfellow. Pp. xiv + 277, figs. 70. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $90. ISBN 978-0-521-19493-8 (cloth).

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In the eastern cities of the Roman empire, water supply gradually turned inside out. The fountain changed from a darkened tank behind a screen of columns to a sparkling pool backed by an eye-catching architectural display. A hoarded amenity became a public profusion, thanks to increased and improved aqueduct building. Fountains echoed across plazas and reflected other monuments, heightening the importance and pleasure of the urban junctions they adorned. Water issued from sacral and theatrical backgrounds full of columns and statues of deities, heroes, and benefactors, including emperors. It is this phenomenon that Longfellow’s book aims to explore and explain.

The book is roughly chronological and shuttles between Rome and the eastern provinces. After an introduction, the first chapter lays out precedents: early Greek fountain houses and the waterworks of republican, Augustan, and Julio-Claudian Rome. The next chapter examines Flavian Rome, specifically the second phase of the Meta Sudans near the Colosseum and the less-celebrated remains of a fountain in the Terrace of Domitian, at the southern part of the Forum of Trajan. Chapter 3 turns to the provinces but passes over earlier fountains to focus on those dated to the reigns of Domitian and Trajan: three in Ephesos, one at Keramos in Caria, and one at Soada Dionysiade (better known as Suweida, ancient Dionysias) in Syria, with an excursus on the Aqua Traiana in Italy. Chapter 4 covers Hadrian’s benefactions in Greece, while chapter 5 concerns water projects of his time and after at Antioch in Syria, Alexandria Troas, Sagalassos, and Perge. Chapter 6 goes back to Rome for the Septizodium, tours other installations of similar name in North Africa and of similar type in Asia Minor, and then returns to Rome for the Nymphaeum of Alexander Severus. Finally, chapter 7 follows the subsequent fortune of the civic fountains and sums up what has gone before.

Lively, well-written accounts of individual monuments include examples that deserve to be better known, such as the fountain in the Terrace of Domitian, or Sagalassos’ newly reconstructed nymphaeum of Tiberius Claudius Piso (see S. Mägele, “The Sculptural Evidence of Sagalassos in Its Urban Context,” in F. D’Andria and I. Romeo, eds., Roman Sculpture in Asia Minor. JRA Suppl. 80 [Portsmouth, R.I. 2011] 319–35, esp. 331–34). The bibliography on fountain architecture and art is thorough and up-to-date, though there could have been more on provincial governance and epigraphic evidence. There are intriguing computer reconstructions of some monuments, though the city plans are in too small a scale to show how monumental fountains furnished and adorned urban nodes; fortunately, a recent work (N.B. U─čurlu, The Roman Nymphaea in the Cities of Asia Minor [Saarbrücken 2009]) provides schematic plans of six Anatolian cities to illustrate this very point.

The “imperialism” of the title comes from Longfellow’s hypothesis that civic water projects in Rome, and thence in the East, were indelibly associated with the emperor, generally as founder in Rome but dedicatee in the East. Thus, elite citizens of the East could claim “near-imperial status” by including the emperor’s name in their dedications of fountain buildings (5). The data set is skewed to prove the assertion: only fountains “dedicated to emperors” were admitted (e.g., eliminating Ephesos’ Flavian Hydrekdocheion of C. Laecanius Bassus). Even with that, and the preponderance of eastern fountains (was the West somehow less subject to “imperialism”?), there is little evidence supporting the hypothesis. As Longfellow admits, the dedications are rarely to the emperor alone: almost all begin with the city’s patron god(s), follow with the name of the current emperor, and close with the city (unless the city was the dedicator rather than the dedicatee). Furthermore, many other types of buildings, such as stoas, basilicas, gymnasia, gates, and even workshops, were dedicated using the same formula (see B. Burrell, “False Fronts: Separating the Aedicular Facade from the Imperial Cult in Roman Asia Minor,” AJA 110 [2006] 437–69, esp. 441–42). So fountains were not associated with emperors in particular, nor emperors with fountains in particular.

Individual cases do not fully support the imperial interpretation either. For example, Longfellow (64–76) plausibly names the “Fountain of Domitian” in Ephesos from several inscriptions found nearby (the computer reconstruction might have shown where these would have stood on the monument [fig. 17]). But the inscriptions contradict her contentions that P. Calvisius Ruso, proconsul of Asia, donated the fountain building and that the aqueduct that fed it was an imperial project. They state that the people of Ephesos (in the nominative) brought in the water (of the aqueduct, likely named “Domitianic” to honor the ruling emperor); Ruso (genitive) simply oversaw this important, expensive project during his proconsulship. To then say that Ruso was comparing himself to the emperor with his benefaction, or that the statuary from the fountain—a reused group of Polyphemos with Odysseus and his shipmates—represents his deliberate citation of those in imperial villas in Italy (themselves usually attributed to eastern ateliers) stretches the case still further.

Any deductive attempt to prove a hypothesis must be allied with a stalwart attempt to disprove it, rather than handpicking the evidence to support it. Moreover, examples where the archaeological evidence is equivocal should not be assumed to favor one side and then marshaled to enlist further examples, as in the assertion that statues of Hadrian stood as centerpieces of several fountains, based on one fairly secure case.

The section on each fountain is meticulous and thorough enough to allow a reader to turn “imperialism” on its head and consider how little influence Rome may have had on cities elsewhere. Its most famous fountain, the Meta Sudans, has only a handful of imitations: two in Roman colonies in Greece, a couple in North Africa, and one in southern Italy (Seneca, Letters 56.4). Beyond Pliny the Elder (HN 36.121) counting 300 statues and 400 columns on the waterworks of Agrippa (who was more closely identified with such constructions than Augustus), Rome preserves no sign of fountains with elaborate theatrical facades, a style long popular in Anatolia, until the Severan Septizodium. Instead, there are unique designs without direct issue, like that of Domitian’s Terrace or the Neronian installations in the podium of the Temple of Deified Claudius; sedate basins to flank and reflect temples, as in the imperial fora of Caesar and Augustus and the Pantheon; or ranks of fountains enlivening gardens like those of the Porticus of Pompey and the Temple of Peace.

All in all, this is a smoothly written, well documented, and usable collection of architectural and sculptural evidence for some 30 individual fountains. One could only wish that Longfellow had reconsidered the premise of her dissertation and treated her subject with logical rigor. Scholarship without such rigor is like these fountain displays: sparkling, but evanescent.

Barbara Burrell
Brock University
Department of Classics
St. Catharines, Ontario L2S 3A1

Book Review of Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes, by Brenda Longfellow

Reviewed by Barbara Burrell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Burrell

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