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Bill Thayer

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The Less There Is, The More They Excavate

[image ALT: A sharply conical pile of decaying concrete about 3 meters high. In the background about 200 meters away, a Roman triumphal arch.]

The concrete core of the monument in an 1897 photograph by Clemens Herschel
In the background, the Arch of Titus and the Temple of Venus and Rome;
for a better view, from a different angle, see the article in Platner & Ashby.

[image ALT: A stone cylinder about 1 meter high. It shows two prominent lions eating horses, and in between them, a narrow tapered column on a base with three niches; the whole monument on a small stepped platform. It is a late‑19c view of the Meta Sudans in Rome, an ancient Roman fountain now vanished.]

This photo also taken by Clemens Herschel and published in his work, The Two Books of the Water Supply of the City of Rome of Sextus Julius Frontinus (1899).

The Meta Sudans was a fountain built next to the Colosseum in the second half of the 1c A.D. Those are the only absolutely certain facts about it.

"Meta sudans" — the Romans' actual name for the fountain — is merely a Latin phrase, from meta, any kind of conical marker, and sudans, "sweating". It's a very matter-of‑fact descriptive name: it's the word that applies to the little conical "finials" placed by Etruscans on top of their funerary mounds; and in a Roman circus, the metae were the two spindle-shaped posts marking the ends of the central spine of a Roman circus: for details, including a probable photo of one, see the article Circus in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. The sweating, in turn, must surely refer to a fountain that exuded water in some way rather than splashing it in a big jet.

At least two other metae sudantes seem to have existed: Seneca mentions one somewhere near Naples (Ep. 56.4), and another actually still stands at the Roman town of Cuicul, now Djemila in Algeria.

Several coins are purported to show the monument in Rome, but they are small so they don't show too much detail. The best shot at what it looked like may be the object between the lions in this well curb in the Vatican: it appears to show a fountain in which water oozed out at the top over a sphere, then rippled along the out-flaring stone, its course broken only by three small flanges over which, on a sunny day, it must have glinted rather beautifully. A row of niches, maybe with statues, provided a bit of focus at the bottom. On the other hand Platner (q.v.) does not believe this relief to be ancient.

An imaginative reconstruction of the fountain based on the famous scale model of Rome, can be seen here. Finally, a view of the Meta Sudans, the Turris Cartularia — demolished in the early 19c — and the Arch of Titus can be found in Section XLIV of Christian Hülsen's guide to the Roman Forum.

Like the overwhelming bulk of the Roman world, however, the Meta Sudans has vanished. Some of it was still there in 1743: they excavated. Richardson's New Topographical Dictionary of Rome tells us that it was thoroughly studied before it was demolished in 1936 — by then the much smaller heap looked quite disreputable and was felt to be getting in the way of the traffic circle around the Colosseum. In 1966 I remember seeing a brass plaque marking its location, set in the asphalt pavement of the traffic circle around the Colosseum. Richardson adds it was excavated in 1983‑84.

Would you believe they excavated it again in 1997‑98?

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What we see here was below ground in Antiquity; we may be looking at the practical substructures of the fountain: cisterns, maybe an underground access for cleaning and maintaining it.

(In the background, the columns of the Temple of Venus and Rome again and the Arch of Titus.)

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Page updated: 8 Aug 12