BMCR 2018.11.42

Water Culture in Roman Society. Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History

, Water Culture in Roman Society. Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xii, 118. ISBN 9789004368941. $84.00.

Brill, the Dutch publishing house, has launched a new journal, Brill Research Perspectives in Ancient History. They plan four issues per year, with each issue containing a single long article on a topic in ancient Greek or Roman history. The articles are to be historiographical in nature. The volume under review here, Dylan Rogers’ work on water in the Roman world, is the inaugural issue of the journal. It can be thought of as containing four major sections:

1) Preliminaries (Chapters One to Three): definitions, ancient literary sources, public management of water, inscriptions on water pipes.

2) Specific uses of water and the relevant archaeological evidence for each (Chapter Four): aqueducts, baths, drainage, water displays, water power, and post-Roman uses. Rogers usually presents a quick summary of the ancient evidence for a given use of water, then provides a description of modern scholarship on the topic. Or he may survey the scholarship (arranged in chronological order) at the same time as he outlines a given topic, presenting the basic subject, the evidence, and the scholarly work all together (thus baths, pp. 31-39). In general, the text can be read as a kind of annotated bibliography, arranged first by topic and then chronologically. Rogers is generally systematic and thorough, but one might expect more attention to rivers and lakes, as well as much more use of the visual arts as a source. The Romans, for example, created representations of water (for example, river gods) that might profitably be brought into a book on water culture. 3) Implications of water culture (Chapters Five and Six). Rogers here deals with a variety of topics that concern, at least in part, cultural rather than purely practical matters: control of water as a sign of one’s power and status (pp. 64-67), water and aesthetics, and spectacles that involve water (pp. 68-75), religious uses (pp. 76-78), the ways water may disrupt the countryside (pp. 78-81), and the role of water in “cultures of consumption and pleasure” (pp. 81-85).

4) Bibliography (pp. 87-118). A long and excellent bibliography—some five hundred titles—of modern studies on all of these topics. Early in the book, Rogers defines his subject: “[W]ater culture…is the set of water-related practices that both express and shape a society’s perception of its place within the natural order, in relation to foreign societies, and concerning its own constituent participants.” (p. 4) That is, he is interested in exploring how a careful consideration of these various phenomena can help us understand how the Romans defined themselves in their relation to the world around them; water serves as a kind of proxy for all of nature. We might then expect him to present a synthesizing view, the Roman conception of water, built up from various water-related phenomena. In fact, however, he does not do that, nor can we expect him to: this book is a bibliography, not a closely argued thesis. He does discuss modern scholarship that employs one or another of various theoretical models. He deals with control and use of water as a sign of the adoption of Roman culture generally (pp. 61-63), and with water in specific environments, both natural and man-made (pp. 78-81). Thus we observe many individual instances of Romans using and manipulating water; and what they do in each instance can tell us much about what they want and what they value.

There are occasional digressions, of varying value. Rogers is particularly helpful when he outlines the various, mostly German, organizations and conferences on aqueducts and related topics (pp. 20-22), but his digression on spectacles/ spectacula (pp. 70-75) wanders rather far from the topic of water and could be much shorter.

There are no illustrations, and as a consequence it can be difficult to follow Rogers’ descriptions. A case in point would be the section on hydraulic power (pp. 56-57): “Devices in wheel forms are the most efficient lifting devices, as the force of the moving water actually moves the devices themselves.” If you do not know already what he is talking about, you will find it difficult to visualize this “device.” The editor of the journal tells me that, since the articles in this journal are to be historiographical, there will usually not be illustrations. This strikes me as a mistake in the case of this volume.

There is no index. Although the table of contents will guide the reader to a desired topic fairly well, an index would have been helpful. Rogers’ survey of the literary sources (Vitruvius, Frontinus, and others, pp. 4-10) is too brief and does not tell the reader clearly who these men were, nor how reliable they are as sources. There are very few references to inscriptions other than those on water pipes (pp. 14-15), and those are reported not from the original, but from other scholars’ work. Topics that one would expect to find may be omitted, or treated only in passing, if they have not been the subject of recent scholarship. The great domed bath buildings on the Bay of Naples, for example, are culturally significant if anything is, yet I did not notice a reference to them. The bibliography is admirably accurate and complete, but the text itself includes too many small but disconcerting mistakes. Many can be corrected easily, as when Agrippa becomes Agripa (p. 42). Some imply carelessness: sparsiones is correct in the bibliography, but turns into spartiones in the text (p. 56). Barbegal is put west of Arles, not east where it belongs (p. 57). There are puzzles: a small basin for water is said to be a delabrum (p. 77), but I do not find that word in OLD or Lewis and Short. Perhaps simply labrum is meant. Finally, the book sells on Amazon for $75 or so. That is a price high enough to discourage most potential purchasers.