Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Brenda Longfellow, Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 277. ISBN 9780521194938. $90.00.

Reviewed by Julian Richard, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (julian.richard@arts.kuleuven.be)

Version at BMCR home site


Since the 19th century, the scholarly approach to monumental water displays has progressively evolved from a strictly art-historical perspective to a broad, socio-cultural approach to fountain architecture. This monograph by Brenda Longfellow, which aims at studying these utilitarian and representative monuments as the physical expression of their patrons' identity, be they local actors or imperial authorities, stands in line with the most recent contributions on the topic. It is very distant from traditional typo-chronological approaches, whereby fountains were classified on the basis of their architectural and decorative properties, without investigating their function and meaning.

Longfellow has chosen to focus on one specific aspect of the complex dynamics behind the design, use and perception of monumental fountains. She studies the interplay between local and imperial agencies and the ways in which cultural, political and social identities were expressed through the topography, architecture, decoration and hydraulic properties of Roman nymphaea in Imperial times. Through their setting in the cityscape, the utilitarian benefit of bringing water to urban communities and the representative contents of their sculptural and epigraphic programs, nymphaea are, as the author states in the introduction, an ideal means of studying negotiations of patronage, identity and status in the Roman Empire. Thirty monumental fountains from Greece, Asia Minor and Rome that can be associated with patrons and emperors were selected. Each is examined within its particular historical and geographical setting, and the studied material is distributed chronologically chapter by chapter. After the presentation of the thematic issues examined in the book , the introduction ends with a section on civic patronage, whereby the relative importance of locals, extra-urban and imperial authorities in the funding of waterworks is assessed. Longfellow legitimately underscores the difficulty of delineating the actual personal involvement of the emperor in municipal benefactions outside of Rome. This peculiar problem will appear insufficiently exploited in some of the proposed interpretations, as argued at the end of this review.

The first chapter is devoted to the Greek and pre-Imperial precedents for Roman fountains. The earliest fountain-houses attested archaeologically were built by Greek tyrants in the late 7th and 6th c. BC, out of a concern for social patronage. These early fountains also had a religious dimension, as they were related to cultic contexts or the sacred and mythological heritage of the community. From the mid-4th c. BC on, water began to be used as a decorative element. The use of statuary for ornamental purposes also became a common practice in Hellenistic private and royal contexts.Moreover, Hellenistic rulers continued to use public fountains as a means of symbolic self-representation. The earliest public fountains of Rome, appearing in the late 3rd / early 2nd c. BC, clearly followed the same trends. It was common practice for the prominent military figures of the late Republican period to use the old 'water places' of the Forum Romanum to display their victories, and in that way to integrate their deeds within the communal experiences commemorated in the forum. Yet it is in the private sphere that the greatest experimentation would take place, with the incorporation of niches, the use of basilica-type plans, cascades and water displays. By contrast, the public fountains of the time were more sober. It is not before the late 1st c. BC that Republican rulers and, after them, Augustus, introduced these new types of fountains in the civic arena, and used them as topographic markers. Augustus, for instance, distributed both small and monumental fountains at the nodal points of his newly re-organized city of Rome. For the first time, as underscored by Longfellow, these fountains were extracted from a wider context and used as purely topographic and ideological indicators. This practice was imitated later, for instance when the Flavians rebuilt the Augustan Meta Sudans.

The second chapter focuses on the 'fountain policy' of Flavian emperors in Rome. After the personal re-appropriation of water displays in Nero's Domus Aurea, Flavian emperors gave back public fountains to the population of Rome. They also used this as an opportunity to legitimate their rule, by intentionally monumentalizing some locations that were crucial to Augustus' topography of power. Although it focuses on only two fountains, i.e. the Flavian Meta Sudans and the fountain in the terrace of Domitian, this chapter underlines the ideological use of nymphaea by Flavian emperors and the technical innovations of the time.

In the late Flavian period and under Trajan in particular, fountains built in Rome were quickly emulated by local patrons. Chapter three reviews a series of monumental waterworks in Asia Minor, where the influence of provincial administrators may have played a role in the diffusion of new shapes inspired by Rome and, in turn, inspired private benefactors. The pioneering role of Ephesos is rightly underscored. The use of apsidal basins and of statuary groups inspired by imperial garden displays shows that the taste that was popular in Italian residences may have found its way into Asia Minor. When public fountains were built by wealthy local patrons, the emperor generally was given a prominent location in the statuary display and/or the dedicatory inscription and thus had a strong role in the symbolic impact of the monument. The two nymphaea built at Ephesos by Ti. Claudius Aristion are illustrative of this trend. Aristion, high-priest of the imperial cult, succeeded in building a fountain of local manufacture yet prominently emphasizing Trajan as a divine provider of water. At the same time, the sculptural program also depicted the local religion and mythology, as well as the family of the benefactor. As Longfellow demonstrates, technical solutions were also emulated in the provinces: mostre d'acqua, i.e. fountains functioning as endpoints of aqueducts, may have been inspired by similar productions of Trajan in Rome. Nevertheless, the emperor always left a certain freedom to wealthy benefactors: instead of personally funding waterworks in the provinces, he always encouraged building projects to be financed with local resources.

By contrast, the personal involvement of Hadrian in Greece deserved a longer discussion in Chapter four. The emperor's philhellenism triggered a genuine revolution in the way water was supplied to and exhibited in major city centers. After a short review of pre-Hadrianic waterworks in the region, Longfellow examines two fountains funded by Hadrian as termini of his newly built aqueducts : the Larissa Nymphaeum in Argos and the Lykabettos Nymphaeum in Athens. The two share a rustic character, evoking for the first time within an urban landscape the primitive grottoes devoted to the cult of springs. They also were erected at selected religiously significant locations. At the same time, the two monuments exhibited Roman features, such as brick-faced concrete, water staircases and a pseudo-basilical plan. This combination of Greek tradition and Roman forms summarizes the philosophy behind Hadrian's fountains. A third nymphaeum, located in the Classical Agora of Athens, symbolically greeted people leaving the square to climb the Acropolis. Its curvilinear shape, the Corinthian order and the axial statue of Hadrian made it a strong statement of the emperor's presence in Greece. This building activity was emulated by local patrons in their hometowns. Examples from Nikopolis, where a typically Italian shape was used, Olympia, Eleusis and Gortyn are reviewed at the end of the chapter. Even if the emperor still occupied a prominent location in their decorative display, these nymphaea appear less original than those funded by Hadrian.

The fifth chapter is devoted to contemporary creations in Asia Minor. Compared to those from Greece, they showed a greater variation in architectural typology and decoration. According to Longfellow, this is due to a greater reliance on private benefactors, who designed building programs according to local conditions, regional or local tastes, as well as their relationship to the emperor. The spring installations at Daphnè near Antioch-on-the-Orontes appear awkward in this chapter, and should not have been mentioned among monumental fountains. The other nymphaea discussed in the chapter are those of Alexandria Troas, Sagalassos and Perge. The author argues that the relationship of each benefactor to the emperor and his willingness to more or less emphasize this link was a determinant factor in variation. At Alexandria Troas, Herodes Atticus may have been influenced by Hadrian's Athenian waterworks. The two other nymphaea, however, referred more strongly to local deities and the personality of their founder, the emperor being less 'favoured' in the statuary displays. This reveals a greater willingness to promote the local civic identity. Yet the presence of Hadrian in the statuary programs shows that local benefactors integrated the local identity into wider political and cultural dynamics.

The Severan period saw the return of grand nymphaea in Rome. Longfellow rightly establishes a parallel between the Flavian and Severan emperors. In order to legitimate their dynasty, the latter made use of Rome's topography and of experimental architectural formulas to impress their contemporaries. The Septizodium, a three-storied monumental fountain built at the foot of the Palatine, is the main focus of the chapter. The author summarizes the existing research on this controversial fountain, including the few other North African monuments bearing the same name. She convincingly concludes that Septizodia were hydraulic monuments showing the Severans in association with the seven planetary deities and their region of origin. Other nymphaea built in the same period in North Africa and Asia Minor are also examined. The duality observed during Hadrianic times between fountains sponsored by the emperors – such as the waterworks in Septimius Severus' hometown of Lepcis Magna – and locally-focused nymphaea whose decorative programs were centered on local deities, is maintained. The last fountain discussed extensively is that of Alexander Severus in Rome. Shaped as a triumphal arch, it featured trophies reused from a monument probably commemorating Trajan. In that way, Severus Alexander emulated his predecessors' waterworks and topographic re-organization of the city in order to legitimize his own position.

Through an exhaustive and accurate review of archaeological, literary and numismatic evidence, Longfellow has demonstrated the tremendous importance of emperors in the dialectic exchange between local communities, local patrons and their rulers. Nevertheless, it is precisely on that point that, in my opinion, a major criticism of this study can be made. The author is dealing only with a selected number of examples, those for which the presence of the emperor – actively involved or not – can be formally attested via either written sources or statuary depictions. Such an approach presents the risk of over-estimating the role of external agency, leaving out of the discussion the much larger majority of public fountains built by cities or local patrons that are lacking documents referring to external authorities. The notion of initiative appears in this case essential. I strongly believe that imperial interventions were the exception rather than the rule: this can be demonstrated from the evidence of other categories of buildings. This is particularly striking in the chapter on Hadrianic fountains in Asia Minor, where the emperor is supposed to have left a large margin of initiative to local patrons. Do we have to interpret this as a choice of the emperor or a normal pattern of civic patronage freely organized by local elites? Does every statue of the emperor need to be seen as an intended message? Was an Italian ground-plan perceived as such? Focusing too strongly on Rome, on Hadrian's philhellenism or on the dynastic legitimacy of Severan emperors tends to hide the fact that, above all, local benefactors remained free to build fountains for their own cities without necessarily emulating an example from above. The monuments presented as exceptions because of their variation formed, in my opinion, the majority of Roman civic fountains. If one reverses the perspective taken by Longfellow, some of the conclusions proposed in the book may be weakened, especially as far as 'provincial' or 'locally-focused' nymphaea are concerned. Despite this criticism, her monograph will undoubtedly become an irreplaceable milestone in the contextual study of Roman monumental fountains. Yet one should not forget that many of them were the exclusive product of a local context.

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