Dr. Dylan Rogers, now in his fourth and final year of serving as the Assistant Director of the School, published his new book Water Culture in Roman Society, the inaugural title in Brill Research Perspectives’s new Ancient History series, in April 2018. Rogers was a Regular Member (2013-2014) and the Gorham Philips Stevens Fellow (2014-2015) at the School, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia (2015).
How did you first become interested in this topic?
I went to graduate school in 2008 wanting to work on Roman domestic religion. And that first semester, my first seminar paper was on fountains in Pompeii. I’ve been working on water ever since! More seriously, it started with fountains, but to explore them properly over the course of my Ph.D., I had to develop a background in water systems, and the Roman use of water in various contexts. So it got me thinking, and this project stemmed from that.
My dissertation is Water-Display and Meaning in the High Roman Empire, which will be a different book on the everyday use of water-displays within the theoretical model of sensorial archaeology: how one’s five senses would have reacted in an ancient context.
The Water Culture in Roman Society book begins to define what “water culture” means. It’s been used in scholarship before, but no one has really explored the different aspects of it. So I have offered some of my thoughts and definitions, and looked at the archaeological, literary, and legal evidence for this element that impacted nearly all aspects of Roman society.
What does “water culture” mean?
The term “water culture” can help us conceptualize how a society expresses and shapes its place in the natural order; how natural and artificial things come together for various purposes. It usually has to do with harnessing or manipulating water in some respect, which happens not just with fountains; water culture is draining water, it’s hygiene, it’s agricultural irrigation, it’s decoration, it’s power that drives mills. Water culture taps into a number of aspects of civilization that you might not think about that help drive it along. In this way, a society can express and shape its own identity.
What time period and geographical area did you choose to focus on for the book?
I did a sweeping, empire-wide look at water culture, focusing most on the High Empire, or basically the first three centuries A.D. Most water studies up to this point have been very localized, so I wanted to see what would happen if I took some broad strokes: how did climate effect water culture, for instance? It became clear that various parts of the empire could use water in different ways based on local practices, so even though the book provides a broad picture, it’s not a monolithic one. Water culture changed constantly according to time and place, but there are still tenets you can tap into.
Are there comparable water cultures elsewhere in history?
Scholars often describe elements of the Islamic world as subscribing to the tenants of a water culture, especially if you consider the Alhambra, a large, mid-thirteenth century palace complex built during the Islamic conquest of Spain. There are fountains and pools all over that palace. Paris has very large, showy fountains. While this may not be the same as Roman water culture, there are other civilizations that use into water in different ways; that manipulate it with their own desires or use it as ways to express themselves.
As for ancient Greece, the fountains weren’t as showy; they were more utilitarian, often taking the form of aqueducts or small, covered fountain houses in which you could bring water in and take it out. The Romans flipped that on its head, with huge aqueducts and the commissioning of large-scale decorative programs. But the Greeks had a bond with water in terms of the maritime economy (salt water versus freshwater is always a point of contention!), and it was sacred to their religion, just as it was for the Romans.
After the experience of writing the book, do you have any takeaways about water culture that you didn’t before?
Well, I’ve been thinking about it for ten years (!), but I suppose I was struck again by how water impacts nearly all facets of Roman life, whether you can see the water or not. The fountains are very visible, but underneath the streets, the water is flowing through drains. When we think of Roman aqueducts, we have iconic images of bridges, but more often than not, the aqueducts run underground. Whether or not you realize it, water is always there. So it’s interesting for me to think about these issues, which I try to bring out in the book.
You decided to use an interdisciplinary approach to your topic, using archaeological, literary, and legal evidence. How to these different areas relate to one another in terms water culture?
Well, I think it’s really interesting to work on any part of the Roman Empire, because we have such a unique perspective based on all of the available material and written evidence. The written evidence provides fairly detailed, while not complete, picture of Roman life; whereas, when studying the writings of the ancient Greek world, we have parts of—but never the full—image.
But I don’t want to fall into the trap of the old adage, “archaeology is history’s handmaiden;” one field of study should never be used to prove or support every aspect of another. So I try to integrate all of these types of evidence in a way that moves toward completing the picture and delivering a broader understanding of how water impacted Roman culture.
How has being at the American School helped you facilitate this research project?
Well, the Regular Program allowed me to see a lot of Roman remains in situ, and to look at them more in depth. In terms of putting the book together, I was able to do it in a much shorter time period than I expected because of the Blegen Library. I pretty much found every source I needed there. Plus Jim [James Wright, Director of the School from 2012 to 2017], the School administration, and Maria Tourna [Head Librarian of the Blegen Library] were just so supportive and helpful.
What was the biggest challenge?
I think one of the real challenges was managing my time correctly. A big part of my job here, of course, is to do administration for the School. And so sometimes it’s difficult to get that time and focus that you need—to write in clear prose that tells a narrative—while trying to answer questions about visas, processing museum passes, and helping out for big events. After leading the Crete trip in February 2017, I basically locked myself in the Blegen for a month or two!
When you visit Italy today, what parts of the water culture remain or are reminiscent of the period you studied?
Of course if you go to the city of Rome, there are still big, flowing fountains everywhere. You have the splashy ones, the little ones…the Trevi Fountain is a great Baroque example, the Acqua Paola was completed in 1612 by renovating one of the ancient aqueducts in honor of Pope Paul V…Water still flows through the ancient aqueducts. In high school, I studied abroad in Viterbo, a town north of Rome, which is known as the ‘city of fountains.’ In the small area around my school, there were nearly five huge fountains. They are everywhere.
Even on the streets of Rome, they have drinking fountains called nasonior “big noses” (named for the nose-like appearance of the long spout arcing toward the ground) that shoot water when you stick your finger in. So that’s kind of reminiscent of being able to go up to an ancient fountain and just drink from it (since drinking fountains are a rarity in Europe!).
Next time we see a water display, wherever we are, what would you urge us to think about?
I always like to do this with students when we’re out—especially when we’re looking at an ancient fountain that doesn’t have water in it. I ask them to think about how the water flowed back then, in the original structure, and how—as you’re standing there—how that would change your experience of the space. Would the water cool you off, quench your thirst (is the taste different from place to place?), soothe you, or add to the cacophony of sounds around you? What feelings would it prompt?
It’s very rare because it takes a lot of effort, but there are examples of ancient fountains being reconstructed so that water can flow through them again. The biggest one is a large façade fountain in the upper agora from the Antonine period at the site of Sagalassos in Turkey. They brought in the ancient water source, so it flows today, and you can experience more of what the ancients did. It’s not the same, of course, but you have a glimpse: the sound of the water crashing down, how it feels when you stick your hands in, how the water flows across different types of marble. It’s very sunny there, so the reflections on the water changes the whole space.
You can do it with the fountains of today, too. For instance, if you go to a flowing fountain in an urban setting: when they turn the water on in the summer, how does it change the space? Kids come to play in it, having fun, cooling off, hearing the splashes of the water. Fountains also revitalize an architectural space. They are kinetic, changing themselves and the space around them throughout the day with the reflection of the light through the water.
What are you working on now?
I am currently writing a book, based on my dissertation—the tentative title is Sensing Water: Public Water-Displays in the High Roman Empire.
I am also currently co-editing The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Athens, with Jenifer Neils, the current Director of the School. We have gathered an international array of over thirty scholars to explore a number of elements of the Archaic and Classical city of Athens, including the urban fabric, the inhabitants, commerce, culture, and politics, in addition to examining the reception of the city from the Roman period until today. We are excited about this project, especially because of its potential to reach a wide audience, from scholars to interested laypeople.