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The fountains were an essential element in the distribution of water in the Roman cities; they were the final point of the water supply.  Although water arrived to the domus –rich people’s houses-, to the thermae, to the public buildings, water didn’t arrive to the insulae where most of the people lived; so the fountains were necessary because these poor people had to obtained water from public fountains.  The fountains had to be distributed along the city; in Pompeii they made an homogeneous net that got that any inhabitant was far away from the water more than 40 metres.  The fountains were made between the pavement and the road; in Pompeii these fountains used to be square basins with an ornamental mouth on the bottom where the water steadily flowed and with a drain hole in the basin; in case of overflowing, a small channel run off to the street.  The preserved fountains along the empire, except the ornamental and monumental fountains, had more or less the same shape and aspect, changing only the decorative motive in the fountain mouth: an  animal head, a shield, a rose, an amphora, mythological beings like Hermes, Silenus, Mercurius, Gryphus, etc.  The fountains were meeting points: people chatted around them while they filled up their pithers, jugs, etc., the children played in them in summer, etc.

Now in Rome, of course, the most famous fountain mouth is the so called “Bocca della Veritá” –“mouth of the true”- that it is located in the porch of the St. Mary's church in Cosmedin .


Bocca della Veritá. 

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 27/12/2004)




The use of water as a luxury and ornamental thing and its use to create big public events is considered as a symptom of a hierarchical society anxious to show the money and the power of the upper classes, contending in creating pompous and voluptuous atmospheres and decorations in their palaces and villae; at the same time, a useless and distinguished use of the water should be symptom of progress and civilization.

With the building of aqueducts the domus and villae of Rome, that used to maintain their impluvia and compluvia and even cisterns, started to be decorated with pools, gardens, monumental fountains and actually balnearia –areas reserved to baths-.  Evidently these refinements were only reserved to the owners of enormous fortunes and these refinements were called deliciae, because they meant a delicate, subtle and ostentatious life.  In different areas in these domus and villae fountains could be found, giving delight and freshness to peristyla –inner courtyards with a porch with columns-, gardens and courtyards.


Fountain from a Roman villa (Palazzo Massimo, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 31/12/2004)




The fountains repeated in outline the same decorative patterns, with infinite variants in materials and colours:  architecturally they imitated temples, caverns or arches of triumph, with a vault under a triangular pediment decorated in rich colours; ornamentally the Roman used grapevines, amphorae, garlands, etc. and they reproduced stones, shells, etc. in marble; sculpturally they reproduced Neptune, the bearded marine god, Venus with her shell, nymphs, nereids, fishes, dolphins, ducks, swans, winged Eros etc.; finally, the contrast of lights and shadows was important to create a sensation of depth.


Picture of a fountain with jet (Palazzo Massimo, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 31/12/2004)




Also thanks to the water the very rich Romans built viridaria –“green areas”- in their residences, i. e., gardens, groves or small parks where the art and the nature were walking hand-by-hand.   In the first times and in the modest cases the rich Romans had in their residences small orchard and kitchen gardens that became really private parks thanks to the aqueducts and the gathering of money and power.

Three extreme examples in the imperial residences: first, in the domus Flavia, the emperor Domitian had private room –that included the domus Augusta- where there was an isle filled up with vegetation and surrounded by an artificial lake that was the centre of a peristylum with some floors; the lowest floor was filled up with flowers and had a large shadow to give freshness in summertime.


Fountain in the peristylum of theDomus Augusta (Palatine Hill, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 28/12/2004)


Reconstruction of the Domus Augusta and its fountain, (according to CONNOLLY, P. y DODGE, H., La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998)

Fountain in the peristylum of the Aula Regia in the Domus Flavia ( Palatine Hill, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 28/12/2004)


Reconstruction of the Aula Regia and its fountains, (according to  CONNOLLY, P. y DODGE, H., La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998)

Nymphaeum, i. e., fountain near the triclinium of the peristylum of the Domus Flavia (Palatine, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 28/12/2004)


Fountain in the Domus Augusta (Palatine Hill, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 28/12/2004)




Second example: the Nero’ Domus Aurea, 300 metres long and 90 metres wide; it had a private park with a surface of 50 hectares (105.350 acres) that was filled up with exotic plants and animals from all around the known world; in the park there was a large lake dedicated to the nymphs and filled with water jets and a cascade in a cavern, representing the rocks of the Polyphemus’ island visited by Odysseus. 


Reconstruction of the Nero's Domus Aurea with its gardens and lake

(according to  CONNOLLY, P. y DODGE, H., La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998)




Third example:  the Hadrian’s villa in Tibur (nowadays Tivoli, 5 kilometres far from Rome), where still it is possible to walk near the artificial lake called Pecile (from the Greek ποικίλη “with different colours”) up to a cryptoporticum (an underground porch), near the nymphs’ altar in the Greek theatre, in the hall of the Doric columns and the other temple near the thermae.  The emperor Hadrian ordered to build his private residence in an island in an artificial lake-channel; thanks to a castellum the engineers could store the water that this residential complex needed, not only for the functional aspects, but also for the artistic and delightful aspects.




Other source of pleasure that water could produce was its use in public activities; probably the most spectacular were the naumachiae –“naval battle”- performed in the amphitheatre.  This event consisted of a reconstruction of an historic naval battle to pour blood like in a fight of gladiators. To perform them it was necessary a lake, so the organization of this kind of events was really very expensive and it forced to a big technical effort (water supply and water evacuation).  The first naumachiae took place in real or provisional lakes (Iulius Caesar ordered to install a small lake called Codeta in the year 46 b. C. and Augustus ordered to install another one -552 metres long and 355 metres wide- to perform the battle of Salamina).  After the building of the Amphitheatre Flavian –commonly known as Coliseum- the naumachiae in Rome were always performed in this building.  However, the fashion of the naumachiae only lasted until the endo of the I century a. C. with de Flavian dynasty, because their costs and the technical difficulties forced to leave them.




The Roman decorated their cities with ornamental fountains that were mor than a houndred in Rome; so we know that where the Constantine’ arch is now near the Coliseum it was the Meta sudans, “the fountain that sweats”; this fountain had an inner canalization and the water fell like a cascade on a basin that collected the water.  The emperor Septimius Severus ordered to build the Septizodium, a façade where water jets and cascades gave life to its colonnade.  Some of these fountains are called nymphaeum –in plural nymphaea-, because the nymphs, naiads or lymphae were minor godnesses of the water and the Roman thought that they had some influence in the fountains magnificence.  From natural corners where water flowed naturally these fountains became artificial fountains beautified by the man, like the fountain of the Iuturna nymph, where Castor and Polux watered their horses.  At the same time, the semidivine origin of the fountains was remembered by the Romans and they decorated these fountains with half a cupola and they made them in semicircular plans like apses or exedras, decorated with mosaics, pictures, polychrome marbles, statues of marine gods, Cyclopes, dolphins, nymphs, Aphrodite, Oceanus, etc.  So colossal nymphaea were built, like the nymphaeum in the Domus Aurea, 170 metres long, or the nymphaea in Miletus and Leptis Magna with three floors.


Oceanus Marforius, statue from a fountain -II century a. C.- found near San Pietro in Carcere, Rome (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 28/12/2004)




In Aragon there are remains of fountains like the fountain of the Drunk Faunus, I century a. C., from a villa outside the city of Caesar Augusta, found in Rebolería street and Alonso V street; the statue was a part of the fountain of the peristylum of that villa; nowadays it is preserved in the Museo Provincial de Zaragoza.  The fauni belonged to the entourage of Bacchus-Dionysos; his head leans on a wineskin where the fountain water would flow; the figure reminds the recumbent statues from the king Atalus I's tomb in Asia Minor.


Fountain of the Drunk Faunus (0,93 x 0,53 metres).  Museo Provincial de Zaragoza.

(Photo: Roberto Lérida Lafarga 3/1/2008)







- MALISSARD, Alain: Los romanos y el agua: La cultura del agua en la Roma antigua, Barcelona, 1996

- BELTRÁN LLORIS, Miguel: “El agua profana en la cuenca media del valle del Ebro:  AQUA DUCTA.  La captación del agua, presas, embalses, conducciones”, en AA. VV.: Aquaria: Agua, territorio y paisaje en Aragón, Zaragoza, 2006

- CONNOLLY, P. y DODGE, H., La Ciudad Antigua.  La vida en la Atenas y Roma clásicas, Madrid, 1998