From the City of Fountains to the Limits of the Roman Empire

Water is life. Our existence is dependent on it and in many ways civilization was built on the use of it. From providing necessary drinking water to supplying bath complexes to flowing in public fountains, water played an important part of ancient Roman life. Dylan Rogers IT’03, the assistant director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, conducts research to define water culture in Roman society.

While a student at SYA Italy, Dylan immersed himself in the archaeological wonders of Italy. Walking through the quaint cobblestone streets of medieval Viterbo, he would pass the fountains, seeing the beauty and hearing the comforting sounds of the water as it gurgled from spouts. Aptly named the City of Fountains, Viterbo and Dylan’s experience there would help shape the course of his career. ­

His first seminar paper in graduate school was on the fountains in Pompeii. To explore them properly he knew he needed to develop a background in ancient water systems. Renowned for engineering marvels, ancient Romans developed tunnels from the water source, allowing aqueducts to carry water for many miles to provide safe, potable water to a crowded urban population. While the fountains and arches are very visible, what lies beneath the surface ­­is a complex system of tunnels and aqueducts.

Dylan’s research covers the first three centuries A.D., with a focus on the High Roman Empire. His dissertation, Water-Display and Meaning in the High Roman Empire, explores the placement of ancient Romans fountains in public spaces, including civic, religious and theatrical. “By approaching water-displays using new methodologies related to sensory archaeology, we can better understand the Romans’ fascination with water, along with its physical placement in Roman life,” he said. Until recently, the sense of sight dominated archaeological theory and practice. Trends in modern research include exploring the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, spatiality and emotion.

Dylan uses this holistic approach to his research by examining literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence. “One field of study should never be used to proved or support every aspect of another,” he said. “I try to integrate all evidence in a way that moves toward completing the picture and delivering a broader understanding of how water impacted Roman culture.” By exploring the sensorial nature of archaeological remains, Dylan can further understand the reasons for water display in the ancient Roman world and beyond.

“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,” said Dylan. “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.”

When Dylan is leading school trips or tours for high-level visitors of the U.S. Embassy, he encourages others to imagine themselves standing as they may have when the structure was built. Standing in front of the Trevi Fountain amidst the sea of tourists tossing coins for good luck, close your eyes and you may conjure up images of Anita Ekberg splashing in Fellini’s 1960 La Dolce Vita. How might it change the experience of the space if you think about what it was like in 19 BC when Aqua Virgo, one of the Trevi Fountain’s aqueducts, was built to provide citizens with access to quality water? What was the water culture of the fountain like in ancient Rome? What feelings might it evoke?

Next time you come across a fountain, in your neighborhood park for example, think about the sensorial nature of them. How does it change the space? Is it a drinking fountain or do kids come to play in it, splash in it, have fun, cool off? How do you respond to hearing the splashes of water or the noise from the activities? “Fountains revitalize architectural spaces,” said Dylan. “They are kinetic, changing themselves and the space around them throughout the day with the reflection of the light through the water.”

About Dylan Rogers IT'03

Dylan is the assistant director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He attended SYA as a junior from Maury High School (Norfolk) and graduated from Tulane University and the University of Virginia. A recipient of several fellowships and awards and an invited speaker at several international symposiums, Dylan has nearly a decade of archaeological field work among his accomplishments. In addition to being an invited editor and reviewer, Dylan is a published author of several papers and is finishing his second book, Sensing Water: Public Water-Displays of the Roman Empire. His first book, Water Culture in Rome Society. Research Perspectives in Ancient History, was published in 2018.


Pictured above: Dylan leading tours including the Acropolis with the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce.


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