You are here

Water for the City, Fountains for the People: Monumental Fountains in the Roman East

Water for the City, Fountains for the People: Monumental Fountains in the Roman East

By Julian Richard (Studies in Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology 9). Pp. xvi + 307, figs. 150. Brepols, Turnhout 2012. €95. ISBN 978-2-503-53449-7 (paper).

Reviewed by

Although studies of monumental fountains of the Roman era have been abundant in recent decades, this is the first monograph to approach the genre principally from a functional standpoint with full attention to such matters as water systems, urban context, and practical utility. Prior studies, Richard argues, have relied too much on formal typology, dissolving fountains into mere ensembles of architectural components or isolating them from their urban contexts (1–14). Thus, the author views his contribution as a corrective to a scholarly tradition that has regarded monumental fountains in isolation or as exclusively formal or symbolic features. Richard’s geographic scope covers the Roman East—mainland Greece, Crete, Asia Minor, and the Levant. Within this region, he catalogues 78 fountains from the Roman and Early Byzantine periods.

Chapter 1 reviews the now extensive literature on fountains in Greek and Roman antiquity. This is the necessary first step in Robert’s attempt to stake out new methodological territory. He satisfactorily demonstrates that no single blanket term in Greek or Latin referenced all monumental fountains at all times in antiquity; modern scholars’ favored term, “nymphaeum,” shifted meaning radically between the Hellenistic period and late antiquity. He settles on a suitably functional term for his subject of study: “monumental fountain.” Chapter 2, consisting of a running table with illustrations, is a short catalogue of monumental fountains organized by their formal type. In light of the author’s foregoing criticism of pure formalism, this is somewhat jarring; nevertheless, monumental fountains do in fact fall into definable formal categories, and such categories remain useful in functional terms.

Chapter 3 investigates urban aqueduct networks in the East from the perspective of systems analysis. Refining a flowchart technique developed by Gemma Jansen, Richard identifies three basic models (each with variants) to characterize how monumental fountains relate functionally to their affiliated water systems. Some, such as the Hydrekdocheion of Laecanius Bassus at Ephesos, are the aqueduct’s exclusive outlet; in more complex systems, fountains might serve as primary or secondary consuming structures (e.g., those at Miletos and Laodikeia, respectively). But the most striking characteristic of eastern fountains, he contends, is their nucleation. The streets of these cities were not typically lined with small basins for the convenience of nearby consumers; for whatever reasons, the highly ramified distribution networks so familiar in the Roman West were avoided.

Chapter 4 moves from systems down to subsystems: supply, display, storage, primary use, drainage, secondary use, and discard. Here Richard seems most at home; after all, networks are hard to extrapolate from the inevitably random and fragmentary surviving evidence, whereas their individual features can be examined in detail. This chapter is full of insights, especially on the functions of water containers built into the systems. Some were castella (distribution tanks), some reservoirs (what he calls “buffers” against supply shortages), some both. The frontal basins also functioned variably, depending on rate of flow, degree of purity, protection from sunlight and dust, expectations for the water’s reuse, and so on. Richard takes pains to demonstrate that most were clearly draw basins for daily consumption, as rope marks on the parapets and frontal spout holes indicate.

Chapter 5 continues with a closer analysis of the hydraulic implications for these systems and their provisions for water quality. Using physical evidence of such things as basin sizes and presence of spouts in the facade, Richard categorizes all the fountains in his dataset by flow rate: high, medium, and low. Flow rate is distinct from overall volume; indeed, one of Richard’s most significant findings is that Levantine fountains, with their small basins and single spouts, favored higher flow rates with lower volumes than those in Greece and Asia. By minimizing stagnation, this tendency favors quality over quantity. His overall assessment of non-Levant fountains is equally interesting: “Most monumental fountains were slow fountains” (161 [emphasis original])—slow, if only because their decorative spouts, emerging from statue niches, were small relative to the size of the basins.

Chapter 6, on the urban context of eastern monumental fountains, is somewhat more hypothetical than the more purely functional chapters. Asking why the long and expensive aqueducts serving them avoided more spread-out fountain networks, Richard can only offer uncertain or partial answers, the most persuasive being that other water sources, such as cistern networks, springs, and wells, were already available in areas remote from the fountains. In Greece, urban centers were already well developed, leaving little room for new monumental features outside the agora. Moreover, most cities had preexisting fountain houses, which remained in use. Elsewhere, there was more opportunity to include new fountains in urban design. In Asia, they were often situated at the edge of the urban core, near a gate; in the Levant, they were favored along porticoed streets, set back in courtyards behind monumental facades articulating the colonnades. Often they were strategically positioned as refreshment stations near major gathering places such as baths or gymnasia. But Richard also emphasizes the importance of most monumental fountains to urban commercial and industrial operations—a priority well understood at Pompeii and Ostia, but not so fully exploited in the East.

Chapter 7 contends, against earlier scholarship, that many eastern cities either rebuilt or continued to operate their fountains far into late antiquity for preeminently practical purposes; Sagalassos and Ephesos provide prominent examples. In some cases, systems were even improved; Gortyn’s sophisticated, ramified Late Antique distribution system lasted into the seventh century. Finally, chapter 8 turns to the discursive meanings of monumental fountains and the modes of their sponsorship. Here Richard is satisfied to rely on the scholarship of others, and he concludes with a forceful reiteration that eastern fountains were neither superficial nor mainly ornamental impositions on the urban fabric. The book ends with a descriptive catalogue, unfortunately without illustrations.

This volume’s utility and importance are unquestionable, though both virtues are diminished at times by a loose organizational structure and an excessive fondness for lists, as well as some infelicities of presentation (e.g., pp. 48 and 49 are reversed, and there are too few illustrations). Its singular contribution to ancient water studies consists of the advances it makes on previous scholarship in understanding monumental fountains as genuine utilities, not just works of art or propaganda.

Rabun Taylor
Department of Classics
University of Texas at Austin

Book Review of Water for the City, Fountains for the People: Monumental Fountains in the Roman East, by Julian Richard

Reviewed by Rabun Taylor

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Taylor

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.