Reflections of Imperialism: The Meta Sudans in Rome and the Provinces

By Longfellow, Brenda | The Art Bulletin, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Reflections of Imperialism: The Meta Sudans in Rome and the Provinces


Longfellow, Brenda, The Art Bulletin


When Roman emperors built monumental fountains in the heart of Cities, these refreshing oases became grand statements of imperial beneficence. Far more than convenient locations for retrieving potable water, imperially constructed fountains were ingenious combinations of propaganda and euergetism, or individual acts ©f munificence that benefited thé larger community. Typically located along a highly visible edge of an open plaza or at a major street intersection, such fountains, with their artistic displays of statuary and moving water, offered dramatic showcases for contrived messages of imperial might and benevolence.

A conical fountain in Rome presents one of the most intriguing examples of an imperial fountain. Known in antiquity as the Meta Sudans, the fountain marked a busy intersection southwest of the Flavian Amphitheater (Fig. 1). This conspicuous monument was constructed in the late first century as part of the building campaign in which the Flavian dynasty of emperors transformed the area formerly occupied by Nero's Domus Aurea into a public space dominated by imperial monuments. Among the renowned fountains of antiquity, the Meta Sudans is Usted in the fourth-century regionär}' catalogs of the city of Rome,1 mentioned by late antique authors as a public work built under Domitian, and featured on imperial coins and medallions issued by the emperors Titus (79-81), Domitian (81-96), Alexander Severus (222-35), and Gordian III (238-44). Moreover, the Roman fountain, inspired the building of similar fountains in North Africa and the use of conical fountains as numismatic symbols of Rome in the cities of Corinth in Achaea and Nikopolis in Epirus, Beyond its role as a striking monument within the urban landscape of Rome, the Meta Sudans stood as a marker of legitimacy throughout the Roman world, and it held a long-lived and widespread appeal as a multivalent signifier of imperial legacy, both in Rome and in the provinces. The material remains of the monument, its architectural progeny in the provinces, and the repeated appearance of the fountain type on coins and medallions over the course of two centuries indicate that the Meta Sudans functioned as a metonym for the capital, and that it could serve as a symbol of a provincial city's Roman ties and aspirations.

Scholars divide the coins produced during the Imperial period into two major categories: Roman imperials, which are coins struck at Rome and at other mints under imperial control, and Roman provincials, which are coins minted in the provinces.1 Both categories of coinage predominantly featured reigning emperors on the obverses and gods and their attributes on the reverses, although architectural monuments occasionally adorned the reverses of coins. These monuments primarily took the form of temples, altars, and shrines, although other built structures might be seen, including roads, gates, arches, lighthouses, bridges* aqueducts, and fountains."* The provincial mints borrowed the practice of portraying architecture from the Roman imperial mint, so the correspondence in monument selection between Roman imperial and provincial coins is not surprising.4 And yet, the two categories of mints seem to have had different reasons for depicting the monuments. At Rome, the imperial minting authority, broadly defined as the designers and authorize« of coin imagery,5 commonly issued architectural coin types to commemorate a specific event or action, such as the dedication of a building. This use of architectural imagery is in keeping with the general trend of the imperial mint to produce coins that advertise the virtues of the emperor, the blessings of his reign, and his specific achievements, from military victories to building projects.6 In the provinces, however, civic minting authorities frequently featured the same monuments as those on coins issued by previous generations, and this repetitive display of the same monuments is in keeping with the general tendency of provincial mints to circulate coins advertising a city's collective identity, shared experiences, and communal gods. …

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