The ancient fountain

The Meta Sudans was a tall, conical fountain located in the very centre of ancient Rome. Its name (‘sweating turnpost’) reflects its perpetual wetness and its resemblance to the conical turning-posts at the ends of Roman race­tracks. Built in tandem with the Flavian emperors’ magnificent amphitheatre and probably completed by 90 ce, the fountain’s relationship to the past was ideologically fraught from the moment of its inception.4

The Flavian building programme in this part of Rome was trumpeted in antiquity as an erasure of the imperial palace that the Flavians’ despised predecessor, the Emperor Nero, had recently built there. Known as the Domus Aurea (‘Golden House’), Nero’s palatial complex had covered an enormous tract of land in the centre of Rome, encompassing the Palatine, Velian, Oppian, Esquiline and Caelian hills. This area, which had been largely residential, had suddenly (and, according to tradition, suspiciously) become available thanks to a catastrophic fire in 64 ce. The imperial biographer Suetonius, at pains to convey the size and magnificence of the Domus Aurea, noted its mile-long arcade, its pool ‘like the sea’, its buildings ‘like cities’, its gardens encompassing every kind of outdoor environment.5 What little has been excavated of the palace’s remains, including a spectacular octagonal dining room on the Esquiline, largely bears out Suetonius’ description.6 After his suicide in 68 ce, Nero was officially proclaimed an enemy of the Roman people; subsequent histories of his reign treat the Domus Aurea as the reifi­cation of his tyranny. Tacitus, for example, considered the palace a violation of the laws of nature.7

Emphasizing the complexity of those elite writers’ motives and prejudices, recent scholarship has begun to revise the traditional, one-sided view of Nero’s reign, and even to champion him as a great populist.8 Whatever its basis, however, Nero’s reputation as the consummate Bad Emperor was very useful to his successors. The Flavians stood to gain much goodwill by presenting their building programme as a restoration to the public of (at least some of) the land wrongfully expropriated by a tyrannical megalomaniac. Such a message fitted comfortably within the broader political programme adopted by Vespasian, the founder of the dynasty, who carefully constructed a sober, quasi-republican image diametrically opposed to the opulent, semi­bohemian gilded youth embodied by Nero. The contrast is most readily apparent in their respective portrait types, but is also evident in such acts as Vespasian’s transfer of Nero’s private art collection to public display in his new Templum Pacis.9

One of the most forceful articulations of the Flavian rhetoric of giving back that which Nero had taken away comes from Martial, Domitian’s court poet:

Here where the glittering solar colossus views the stars more closely and where in the central road lofty machines grow up, the hateful hall of the beastly king used to radiate its beams, at the time when a single house used to occupy the whole city. Here where the mass of the conspicuous and revered amphitheatre rises up, the pools of Nero [stagnum Neronis] once stood. Here where we marvel at that swiftly built donation, the baths, an arrogant field had deprived the poor of their homes. Where the Claudian portico spreads its shade afar, the farthest part of the palace came to an end. Rome is restored to herself, and under your direction, O Caesar, those delights now belong to the people which once belonged to the master.10

The transformation of the private structures of Nero’s Golden House to public use was, no doubt, much less systematic than Martial implies.11 But the poem does seem a largely accurate summary of what happened in the space between the Velian, Oppian and Caelian hills, the area later known as the Colosseum valley for the most famous of its new, public structures. As Martial asserts, the Flavian amphitheatre was built on the filled-in site of the ‘stagnum Neronis’, presumably the same sea-sized pool mentioned by Suetonius. Of unprecedented scale and refinement, the amphitheatre offered to 50,000 spectators the kind of lavish entertainment and spectacle that Nero had made the hallmark of his private domain. Its curved form may also have served as a permanent reminder of the aqueous body it replaced.

The amphitheatre was, however, only one element in the Flavian programme to overwrite the marks Nero had made upon the valley. Vespasian transformed the features of Nero’s 120-foot-tall portrait, installed in the palace vestibule on the Velian, into those of the far less offensive Sun-god.12 He also undid Nero’s transformation into a nymphaeum of the half-finished structures of the Temple of the Divine Claudius on the Caelian, and completed the building of the temple.13

After the amphitheatre itself, however, the most impressive new feature of the Flavian Colosseum valley must have been the open, public square to the west of the amphitheatre (Figure 2.2).14 The creation of this area amounted to a radical (and permanent) alteration of the ancient topography of the valley. The filling in and smoothing out of the depression of Nero’s lake and the surrounding area raised the level of the valley by perhaps as much as ten metres. This new, flat, open space replaced a densely built up segment of the Domus Aurea’s ‘mile-long portico’, the foundations of which have recently been excavated. Nero’s portico encompassed, and effectively built into the palace, two of the oldest and most important traffic routes in the city: a north-south road that ran along the valley floor between the Velian and Caelian hills (probably the ‘central road’ which Martial tells us was superseded by Nero’s ‘hateful hall’), and an east-west segment of the ceremonial Sacred Way that climbed the Velian and ran along the edge of Palatine to the Forum.15 The Flavians demolished the north-south portico and repaved the area, thereby restoring the thoroughfare to the fully public realm. The relatively broad, open space of the piazza can be understood not only as a response to the density of the Neronian construction but also as an erasure of its insis­tently rectilinear contours.

It was at the site of the former intersection of the two roads that the Flavians built the Meta Sudans, the monumental fountain that embellished their new piazza. This precise topographical coincidence suggests that the relationship between the new structure and the old is rather like that between the Flavian amphitheatre and the Neronian lake: while completely replacing its predecessor, the form and location of the new monument are carefully calcu­lated to remind the viewer that something else had stood there previously, and thus, in a sense, to memorialize the act of erasure.

The Flavians may have been playing an even deeper game. It has recently been argued that this valley had been Rome’s central traffic hub from the mid-Republican period up until the fire of 64 ce, and that the area around the Meta Sudans had formerly seen the intersection not of two but of five major roads.16 While the Flavians did not restore all of these pre-Neronian roadways – one was buried beneath the amphitheatre – the opening up and paving of the piazza would have allowed traffic to circulate freely through the


Plan of the layers of development of the Colosseum valley, first-fourth centuries ce (after Steinby, op. cit., v. II, fig. 19)

1) pre-Neronian roadways (indicated in dashed lines) (after Panella, op. cit. 1990, fig. 20); 2) porticoes and other structures of the Domus Aurea (after Steinby, op. cit., v. II, fig. 19); 3) ‘Stagnum Neronis’ (artificial lake); 4) Flavian Amphitheatre; 5) Colossal statue base (after its relocation by Hadrian); 6) Meta Sudans; 7) platform of Hadrian’s Temple of Venus and Roma; 8) Arch of Constantine; 9) via San Gregorio (‘Triumphalis’); 10) via Sacra.

area once again. Furthermore, the old roads had served as boundaries between four (or perhaps five) of the fourteen administrative regiones or wards into which Augustus had divided the city.17 It has even been argued that their intersection was the punto d’origine of Augustus’ urban system, and that the spot was very likely monumentalized in some way from at least that period.18 If this is correct, the construction of the Flavian fountain would have signalled not only the return to the public domain of the private terrain of Nero’s Domus Aurea; it would also have suggested the symbolic restoration of the city as it was organized and monumentalized by Augustus, the memory of whose reign had, by this time, already taken on quasi-mythic proportions as a bygone golden age.

Independent of its historical referents, the fountain would surely have been a welcome gift in this bustling piazza. Due to a number of natural and unnatural phenomena occurring over the subsequent centuries (including Mussolini’s removal in toto of the Velian hill), the Colosseum valley is much more open and spacious today than it was in antiquity. In the Flavians’ day, even without the Neronian structures, the constricted space within the valley’s steep walls must have felt oppressively crowded, particularly when thousands of agitated spectators were thronging towards, or bursting out of, the amphitheatre’s west entrance, or lining the streets to watch triumphal parades pass by along the via Sacra. It also must have been stiflingly hot for much of the year. The Meta Sudans seems to have been purpose-built not only to provide fresh, abundant drinking water from the spigots around its base, but also to cool the surrounding air. Its ingenious (though imperfectly understood) design somehow managed to raise water all the way up an inner pipeway in the cone, from which it burst forth out of a spherical finial and then


Sestertius from the reign of Titus depicting the Meta Sudans and Amphitheatre (Colosseum), 30 ce

flowed down the sides to collect in a basin below. The fountain’s great height would have widened the range of its cooling mists.

The sensual pleasures afforded by the Meta Sudans would have included the aural and the visual, as well as the tactile. While nothing survives of the fountain’s marble cladding, the depictions of the monument on coins minted by the Emperor Titus clearly show niches around its base (Figure 2.3), which presumably contained statuary. In fact, in the sixteenth century, Pirro Ligorio reports having witnessed the carting off to a private warehouse of the ‘marine monsters, heads of ferocious animals and images of nymphs’ from the area around the fountain.19 These fragments may have been the inspira­tion for the Triton in the niche in Du Perac’s elegant reconstruction of 1575 (Figure 2.4).20 Overall, the fountain must have been a most attractive landmark in the new Flavian piazza, and it is not surprising that many of the numismatic commemorations of the amphitheatre proudly display the Meta Sudans alongside it as an integral component of the Flavian building programme in the valley.

The close association and equal fortunes of the Meta Sudans and the Flavian amphitheatre continued through the Roman imperial period. On third-century coins commemorating imperially sponsored repairs to the fire-damaged Colosseum, the Meta Sudans is still featured beside the amphitheatre on the reverses. Likewise, when the Emperor Constantine, in the early fourth century, sought to highlight his (fictitious) dynastic associa­tion with the first-century Flavians, he did so not only by erecting a triumphal arch at the southern entrance to the piazza in front of the amphitheatre, but also by further monumentalizing the Meta Sudans.21 This was achieved through the construction of a low wall around the structure, which increased the diameter of the monument from 16 metres to 25 metres.22 This parapet may have served as some sort of bench, encouraging spectators to stop and admire the work of Constantine’s ‘ancestors’, or may have been surmounted by a colonnade, thereby increasing the grandiosity of the fountain as a whole.

The motives behind Constantine’s building projects in the Colosseum valley were complex.23 The Emperor was seeking both to shore up his dynastic credentials and, like the first-century Flavians, to respond to the architectural programme of his rival and predecessor, Maxentius, whom he had recently defeated in an ugly civil war. Like Nero, Maxentius had been a prolific builder in the city of Rome; but unlike Nero, most of his commissions had been highly civic-minded (a new basilica, the rebuilding of the fire – damaged Temple of Venus and Roma, etc.).24 Constantine’s approach to the problem of Maxentius’ spectacular architectural legacy, much of which was concentrated on the Velian hill, was twofold. First, he simply had the Senate

dedicate the new buildings in his own honour, thereby putting it officially on record that they existed because of his benefaction.25 Second, he matched Maxentius’ concentrated nucleus of buildings on the Velian with a nucleus of his own just down the hill in the Colosseum valley. Here, too, Constantine cut corners, so to speak, making highly visible alterations to existing structures rather than building new ones. In addition to the parapet wall around the Meta Sudans, he also installed a new inscription on the base on the Colossus of Sol. The one new structure he did erect here, the Arch, served as a monumental entranceway to the piazza, thereby framing and appropriating the entire space behind it as Constantine’s own.

Constantine’s appropriation of the Flavian piazza thus served to underscore the connection between his neo-Flavian dynasty and that of the first century, and to match Maxentius’ Velian ensemble with his own pseudo­Forum just down the hill. It is also possible that Constantine intended the topographical analogy between himself and the Flavians very literally. Like his ‘ancestors’, he took pains to present his predecessor as a tyrant (even explicitly referring to him as such in the Arch’s dedicatory inscription) and himself as a restorer of the city. By inserting himself into the architectural history of the piazza, Constantine may have sought not only to link himself generally to the Flavians, but specifically to the Flavian legacy of restoring the city after the depredations of a tyrant. The analogy would have extended to Maxentius, now a modern-day Nero, whose infamy in the fourth century as a Bad Emperor was undiminished.26

Thus, by late antiquity, the Meta Sudans, together with the adjacent amphitheatre, was already endowed with a complex, self-referential, multi-layered past, in which the voices of as many as five historical moments re-echoed, and in which good and bad connotations alternated like the tides: the golden age of Augustus, the megalomania of Nero, the civic benefactions of the Flavians, the tyranny of Maxentius and the restoration of Constantine. This ‘classical’ phase of both monuments’ histories ended almost simultane­ously, with the Colosseum seeing its last venationes in 523 and the fountain ceasing to function after the cutting of the aqueducts in 537.27 It is at this point that the fortunes of the two Flavian structures set off on their disparate paths.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm