BMCR 2020.03.23

Les fontaines monumentales en Afrique romaine

Nicolas Lamare, Les fontaines monumentales en Afrique romaine. Collection de l'École française de Rome, 557. Roma: École française de Rome, 2019. 463 p.. ISBN 9782728313808 €64,00 (pb).

Table of Contents

This book arose from Nicolas Lamare’s doctoral dissertation, submitted to the Université Paris-Sorbonne in 2014. A specialist in ancient water supply and display, the author has been engaging at length with issues related to Roman-period fountains across North Africa, as his range of publications shows. This volume collects the results of painstaking bibliographic, archival, and field research that Lamare carried out during his doctoral and subsequent studies. The outcome of his work — it must be stressed straightaway — is a valuable academic contribution, which will be of use to archaeologists and historians of North Africa and beyond. Lamare’s book represents a major update of the evidence of North African nymphaea discussed by Pierre Aupert in the 1970s,[1] supplementing other recent works, such as that of Francesco Tomasello on the fountains and smaller nymphaea of Lepcis Magna.[2] This field of research continues to be of current scientific relevance, as demonstrated by the collection of studies on water distribution across the ancient and medieval Maghreb[3] and, more recently, by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) – EauMaghreb programme, which has reunited interdisciplinary essays on water management in North African cities and their territory under the Roman Empire.[4]

The volume features a discussion of the monumental fountains of North Africa (pp. 1-291), followed by a catalogue of the recorded monuments (pp. 293-384) and the associated epigraphic corpus (pp. 387-405). The discussion is broken down into three parts: (1) “L’étude des fontaines: histoire des recherches et methodes” (pp. 7-83); (2) “L’archéologie des fontaines: architecture et hydraulique” (pp. 85-205); (3) “Les fontaines au quotidien: histoire et fonctions” (pp. 207-291). The book includes a useful index of ancient sources and sites (pp. 453-461), as well as two out-of-text plates illustrating Roman coins with depictions of water monuments, and a set of plans of the principal North African fountains.

Part 1 opens with an assessment of North African archaeology and the study of fountains (Chapter 1, pp. 11-31). It starts with the works of Arab geographers as early as the tenth century, continuing with the notes and observations made by European travellers, especially from the nineteenth century onwards. The majority of ancient sites and monuments were brought to light during excavations carried out under western colonization in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Lamare carefully reviews the activity of those colonial investigations, particularly the French ones, while also examining the impact and development of post-colonial scholarship (pp. 13-31). The role of colonialism in the study of North Africa and the subsequent reactions to it are topics that have been extensively treated by modern scholars; in the Anglophone world, the works of David Mattingly are fundamental in this regard.[5]

Chapter 2 reviews previous research and approaches to fountains in the ancient world (pp. 33-56), engaging with the terminology used in the written sources to refer to these buildings (fons, lacus, salientes, and nymphaeum). An important point raised by Lamare, which defines his own approach to this topic, is the critique of the use of typological classifications to attempt to delineate a chronological evolution of fountains (pp. 51-56). Modern, conventional typologies do not reflect the complexity of reality in antiquity — an observation which is also valid for other categories of North African buildings, such as the so-called “Romano-African” or “Eastern-type” temples, just to cite one example. Chapter 3 concludes this first section of the book with a broad overview of the development of private and public fountains across the Mediterranean, from the sixth century BCE to the sixth century CE (pp. 57-83).

In Part 2, the archaeological and architectural features of the North African fountains are assessed. Chapter 4 is concerned with construction techniques (pp. 89-119). Overall, builders opted for the use of locally sourced materials, while marble was preferred for the decorative elements of fountains. The evidence reveals a wide range of masonry types employed in the construction of these monuments, which depended on both regional and interregional patterns. The author remarks, however, that a complete study of building techniques attested in the North African provinces remains a major desideratum. This technological variability is hardly surprising for a territory as vast as North Africa. Modern studies are also revealing that some techniques traditionally believed to have a North African origin, like the opus africanummasonry documented in some of these fountains, actually had a pan-Mediterranean occurrence from the moment of their first appearance, with a broad range of types and variants.[6]

Chapter 5 looks at the elevation and architectural sculpture of fountains (pp. 121-170). As Lamare rightly observes, reconstructing the elevation of ancient monuments is a task that is subject to a high degree of speculation, thus requiring a cautious approach. The first part of the chapter is dedicated to the analysis of the iconographic, literary and epigraphic sources that can provide elements of support for attempting a reconstruction (pp. 125-134). With regard to their architectural layout, North African fountains are divided into four broad groups: (1) Fontaines de plan centré, as exemplified by the model of the meta sudans in Rome; (2) Fontaines-édicules, such as the Fountain of the Tetrarchy at Cuicul; (3) Fontaines à niche semi-circulaire, like the lacus of the theatre at Lepcis Magna; (4) Fontaines “à façade”, the most renowned example being the Great Nymphaeum of Lepcis Magna. As already pointed out, these subdivisions do not have any chronological implications. The preserved architectural sculpture associated with fountains is not abundant in North Africa. For this reason, the author looks in parallel at the more conspicuous evidence from Asia Minor to reconstruct the iconographic programmes, which featured mythological subjects, deities, portraits of local citizens and emperors (pp. 152-156). The architectural analysis of the fountains is supplemented by the examination of water supply and hydraulic technology in Chapter 6 (pp. 171-205). This points to the identification of a system that made use of different methods for sourcing and distributing water (aqueduct branches, cisterns, and pits), some of which must have been in use already in pre-Roman times.

Part 3 further expands the discussion by placing the North African fountains within a broader socio-historical context. This is particularly welcome, as it complements recent works on other regions of the Roman world, such as Brenda Longfellow’s study of monumental fountains in imperial Rome and the Eastern Mediterranean.[7] Chapter 7 looks at the relationship between fountains and urban history (pp. 211-247). Lamare addresses the issue of the visibility of these monuments in antiquity; the author explains that unlike fora, theatres and other enclosed spaces, the full iconographic details of fountains were immediately visible to passers-by on the street. For this reason, they must have constituted a focal gathering point for the local communities. While the absence of precise epigraphic data is problematic for establishing secure chronologies, the architectural and archaeological evidence seems to show that fountains and other related buildings were still built and rebuilt at least until the fifth century CE (pp. 233-247). This adds another piece of information to the development of the North African cityscapes in Late Antiquity — a crucial topic that was often neglected in past studies, but is now being addressed in a more systematic way by modern scholarship.[8]

Chapter 8 takes into account the economics of fountains, especially issues of civic patronage and euergetism (pp. 249-261). In the first three centuries CE, the construction of fountains was achieved mainly through private patronage; municipal financing, on the other hand, witnessed a marked rise from the Diocletianic period onwards. Finally, the religious connotation of some water monuments is explored in Chapter 9 (pp. 263-291). The analysis of the buildings referred to as septizodia, or septizonia, would suggest that the monuments of this type attested in the Roman provinces (not only in North Africa) might have been built in honour of Septimius Severus. The septizodium erected by the emperor as a majestic façade of the Palatine palace in Rome must have influenced the layout of the provincial buildings, although some aspects of its plan and elevation remain conjectural.

The catalogue of monumental fountains is detailed and well organized. It includes 51 monuments, which are grouped geographically, from Mauretania Tingitana to Tripolitania (sites are listed alphabetically within each province). This is supplemented by a useful epigraphic corpus of 49 known inscriptions mentioning water monuments; full concordances with other corpora and previous publications are indicated (sometimes even epigraphers overlook this aspect) and a good commentary of the texts is provided. Given the abundance of data presented in the catalogue, each entry should be seen more correctly as a mini-essay on the respective monument. The history of the monument’s discovery is outlined, alongside a thorough description, the analysis of the hydraulic systems and building techniques, the sculptural decoration, the hypothetic reconstruction of the elevation (when at all possible), and any chronological information available. Understandably, future research on the individual monuments will update or revise the content of some of these entries. For example, the nymphaeum enclosed in the enigmatic “curia Ulpia” at Sala in Mauretania Tingitana (catalogue no. 1) is now being investigated in the context of broader research led by the University of Siena. The building’s architectural stratigraphy and construction phases were recently recorded, and 3D digital models of the proposed elevation were created, in view of the monument’s final publication.[9] With regard to the Arch of Caracalla at Volubilis (catalogue no. 5), if one accepts Lamare’s hypothesis that the annexed fountains were a later addition, it would be interesting to carry out a new comprehensive study. This should look at the arch’s architectural and construction features, all of the decorative and sculptural elements that were associated with it, as well as the structural modifications that the water supply would have required.

In conclusion, Lamare is to be congratulated for producing an important book that, while engaging with a specialized topic, also features various sections accessible to a broader readership, particularly in regard to Chapters 7-9. The analysis of the North African monuments pays due attention to the historical, architectural, and archaeological evidence available for other contexts across the ancient Mediterranean, thus making this publication relevant also to scholars who work outside of North Africa. The exhaustive catalogue of fountains is undoubtedly one of the principal strengths of this volume; its richness of information will make it an indispensable resource for any subsequent study of these monuments.


[1] P. Aupert, Le nymphée de Tipasa et les nymphées et « septizonia » nord-africains, Collection de l’École française de Rome 16. Rome, 1974: École française de Rome.

[2] F. Tomasello, Fontane e ninfei minori di Leptis Magna, Monografie di archeologia libica 27. Rome, 2005: “L’Erma” di Bretschneider.

[3] Contrôle et distribution de leau dans le Maghreb antique et médiéval, Collection de l’École française de Rome 426. Rome, 2009: École française de Rome.

[4] V. Brouquier-Reddé and F. Hurlet (eds.), L’eau dans les villes du Maghreb et leur territoire à l’époque romaine, Collection Mémoires 54. Bordeaux, 2018: Éditions Ausonius.

[5] For example: D.J. Mattingly, Imperialism, Power, and Identity: Experiencing the Roman Empire. Princeton, 2011: Princeton University Press (in particular pp. 43-72, 146-166).

[6] See S. Camporeale, “Merging technologies in North African ancient architecture: opus quadratum and opus africanum from the Phoenicians to the Romans”. In N. Mugnai, J. Nikolaus and N. Ray (eds.), De Africa Romaque: Merging Cultures across North Africa. London, 2016: Society for Libyan Studies, 57-71.

[7] B. Longfellow, Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes. Cambridge, 2011: Cambridge University Press.

[8] See especially A. Leone, The End of the Pagan City: Religion, Economy, and Urbanism in Late Antique North Africa. Oxford, 2013: Oxford University Press.

[9] This study was undertaken by Rossella Pansini and forms part of her recently submitted doctoral dissertation, “Le aree pubbliche e monumentali africane in età romana. Il foro di Sala (Chellah/Rabat, Marocco)”, Universities of Pisa and Siena, 2019.