"We surpass the beautiful waters of other cities by the abundance of ours": Reconciling function and decoration in late antique fountains

Ine Jacobs, Julian Richard

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Compared to their predecessors of imperial times, public fountains of Late Antiquity have triggered only a negligible interest among scholars. This study presents a current overview on the topic. It focuses on newly built fountains and on the visual and functional maintenance of earlier ones in Late Antiquity. Through a combination of architectural, decorative, and technical data, the authors address the overall meaning of both monumental and modest public fountains in the late antique cityscapes of the eastern Mediterranean. A review of late antique fountain architecture in the light of past realizations demonstrates that, even if the trend of grand nymphaea was still present, new investments were more modest and/or cost-effective. This pragmatism also reveals itself in the practice of converting existing monuments into public fountains. The active preservation of older fountains shows an uninterrupted concern for their functional continuity and the upkeep of their pleasant appearance. Besides architectural repairs and the preservation or update of statuary programs, the various alterations made to the hydraulic apparatus demonstrate a great flexibility in the way water was made available to consumers. Even if some of these alterations may at first sight seem negative, in many cases they can also be interpreted as a willingness to increase the comfort of users and to maintain good water quality. Sometimes, however, the changes made to older fountains led to the almost total disappearance of their functions, even if their decorative facade could be maintained. Many of them were turned into genuine castella aquarum or redistribution stations. The wide array of functional alterations analyzed here testifies to a new culture of water management in many late antique cities. Water resources became increasingly diversified through the dissemination of fountains and basins of various sizes in the most densely populated areas. The aesthetic maintenance of earlier fountains, the pragmatic investment in new ones, and the willingness to improve comfort and to bring water resources closer to consumers all demonstrate the existence of a vivid late antique fountain culture.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)3-71
    JournalJournal of Late Antiquity
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2012


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