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Bill Thayer

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Of the details of the life of Frontinus we are but scantily informed. His personality, as will be shown, stands out in his works in no ambiguous fashion, but the events of his career, so far as we can glean them, are few, disjointed and indefinite. Even the year of his birth is not known, but since Tacitus2 speaks of him as praetor urbanus in the year 70 A.D., we may infer that he was born not far from the year 35.

Of his family and of his birthplace we know as little. His family name, Julius, and the fact that he held the office of water commissioner, which, as he tells us, was from olden times administered by the most eminent men of the State, would point to patrician descent. His writings on surveying, so far as we have knowledge of them, betray the teachings of the Alexandrian school of mathematics, especially of Hero of Alexandria, and it is not unlikely that he was educated in that city.

He was three times elected consul, first in 73 or  p. xii 74,3 again in 98,4 and a third time in 100.5 After his first incumbency of this office, he was dispatched to Britain as provincial governor.6 In this post, as Tacitus7 tells us, Frontinus fully sustained the traditions established by an able predecessor, Cerialis, and proved himself equal to the difficult emergencies with which he was called upon to cope. He subdued the Silures, a powerful and warlike tribe of Wales, and with the instinct for public improvements which dominated his whole career, at once began in the conquered district the construction of a highway, named from him the Via Julia, the course of which can still be made out, and some of whose ancient pavement, it is thought, may still be seen.8

From this provincial post he returned to Rome in 78, after which the next twenty years of his life are a blank. But to this period, from his forty-third to his sixty-second year, we attribute a large part of his writings. His treatise on the Art of War may have been written immediately after his return from Britain in 78. His Strategemata is assigned by Gundermann to the years 84‑96. Within this period  p. xiii also his services as Augur doubtless began, an office in which the younger Pliny succeeded him at his death in 103 or 104.9

In 97 he was appointed to the post of water commissioner, the office whose management gives him probably his best title to eminence, and during the tenure of this he wrote the De Aquis. The office of water commissioner he held presumably until his death.

The De Aquis is primarily a valuable repository of information concerning the aqueducts of Rome. But it is far more than that. It gives us a picture of the faithful public servant, charged with immense responsibility, called suddenly to an office that had long been a sinecure and wretchedly mismanaged, confronted with abuses and corruption of long standing, and yet administering his charge with an eye only to the public service and an economical use of the public funds. It is this aspect of the De Aquis which lends it, despite its generally technical nature and its absolute lack of stylistic charm, a certain literary character. It depicts a man; it depicts motives and ideals, the springs of conduct.

The administration of which Frontinus was a part was essentially one of municipal reform. Nerva and Trajan alike aimed to correct the abuses and favouritism of the preceding régime. They not only chose able and devoted assistants in their new policy; they themselves set good examples for imitation.

In Frontinus they found a loyal and zealous champion of their reforms. Realizing the importance of his office, he proceeded to the study of its  p. xiv details with the spirit of the true investigator, displaying at all times a scrupulous honesty and fidelity. Were one asked to point out, in all Roman history, another such example of civic virtue and conscientious performance of simple duty, it would be difficult to know where to find it. Men of genius, courage, patriotism are not lacking, but examples are few of men who laboured with such whole-souled devotion in the performance of homely duty, the reward for which could certainly not be large, and might possibly not exceed the approval of one's own conscience.

In Martial10 we have a picture of Frontinus spending his leisure days in a delightful environment. Pliny11 writes of appealing to him as one well qualified to help to settle a legal dispute. In the preface to an essay on farming which Frontinus wrote, it is stated that he was interrupted in his writing by being obliged to serve as a soldier, and it is thought that this may have been on the occasion of Trajan's expedition against the Dacians in 99; this, however, is pure conjecture.

Near Oppenheim in Germany has been found an inscription12 dedicated by Julia Frontina, presumably  p. xv the daughter of Frontinus; its date is supposed to be about 84. Another inscription near the ancient Vetera Castra13 is dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva in recognition of the recovery from illness of Sextus Julius Frontinus; and there is also a lead pipe, said to have been found near the modern Via Tiburtina, inscribed SEXTIULIFRONTINI.

Pliny14 has preserved for us a saying of Frontinus, "Remembrance will endure if the life shall have merited it," and the truth of the words is most aptly exemplified in the case of their author. Rich and valuable as is his treatise, the De Aquis, in facts relating to the administration of ancient aqueducts, it is the personality of the writer that one loves to contemplate, his sturdy honesty, his conscientious devotion to the duties of his office, his patient attention to details, his loyal attachment to the sovereign whom he delighted to serve, his willing labours in behalf of the people whose convenience, comfort and safety he aimed to promote. We sympathize with him in his proud boast that by his reforms he has not only made the city cleaner, but the air purer, and has removed the causes of pestilence that had formerly given the city such a bad repute; and we can easily pardon the Roman Philistinism with which, after enumerating the lengths and courses of the several aqueducts, he inquires in a burst of enthusiasm, "Who will venture to compare  p. xvi with these mighty works the pyramids or the useless though famous works of the Greeks?" A thorough Roman of the old school, he has surely by his life, as revealed in the De Aquis, abundantly merited the remembrance which posterity has accorded and will long continue to accord him.

The works of Frontinus are all of a technical nature, written, as he tells us, partly for his own instruction, and partly for the advantage of others. The first of these was probably a treatise on the Art of Surveying, of which fragments are extant. It consisted originally of two books, and the excerpts, collected by Lachmann,15 treat the following subjects: de agrorum qualitate, de controversiis, de limitibus, de controversiis agrorum. The work is known to us principally through the codex Arcerianus at Wolfenbüttel, dating probably from the sixth or not later than the seventh century, which appears to have been a book used by the Roman State employees and contains treatises on Roman law and land surveying, including some pages of Frontinus. Various citations in other authors from this work of Frontinus point to the latter as a pioneer in this practical work of the Roman surveyor, and to his writings as the standard authority for many years.

The composition by Frontinus of a military work of a theoretical nature is attested first by his own words in the preface to his Strategemata,16 and also by  p. xvii statements of Aelian,17 a late contemporary, and of Vegetius,18 who wrote on the Art of War some three centuries later. This treatise is wholly lost, except in so far as Vegetius may have incorporated it in his own work.

The Strategemata, presumably following the lost work on the Art of War, which it was designed to supplement, narrates varied instances of successful stratagems, which illustrate the rules of military science, and which may serve to foster in other generals the power of conceiving and executing like deeds. As it has come down to us, the work consists of four books, three of them written by Frontinus, the fourth by an author of unknown identity.19 These four books were still further increased by additional examples, interpolated here and there throughout the work.

Such is Gundermann's conclusion, resulting from his own investigations20 added to those of  p. xviii Wachsmuth21 and Wölfflin.22 From internal evidence Gundermann places the composition of the first three books between 84 and 96, basing this inference upon references to Domitian, who is repeatedly called Germanicus,23 a title not given to him until after his expedition against the Germans in 83, and who is nowhere called divus, as is Vespasian in the Strategemata, and Nerva in the De Aquis, so that the composition of the work evidently fell within the lifetime of Domitian. The dating of the fourth book is a matter of conjecture. Wachsmuth assigned it to the fourth or fifth century, believing it the work of a ludi magister, who compiled it when seeking examples suitable for declamationes or controversiae. Wölfflin saw no reason to dissent from this conclusion. Gundermann, while admitting that there is no argument to prove that it was not written then, — except that if this view is correct, the pseudo-Frontinus must have imitated the purer speech of Frontinus summo studio, — thinks that its composition belongs rather to the beginning of the second century, and that its author was a student of rhetoric who lived not long after Frontinus, a dull man who did not weigh the value of his sources in his compilation. Gundermann cites IV.III.14 to support his theory, but Wachsmuth would transpose this example to the second book as being applicable to Frontinus himself. Schanz24 enters into the controversy and  p. xix says that the language of the fourth book conclusively refutes Wachsmuth's view; he submits instead the theory that the author of this book was a contemporary of Frontinus, the officer to whom the Lingones submitted in 70 A.D., who drew his examples from Frontinus and other sources, and that a third person joined the two works, wrote a preface to the fourth book, and added to the preface of the first book. This hypothesis, he thinks, removes the troublesome problem of duplicates, which could easily creep in with a third reader somewhat superficially handling new material.

The points of dissimilarity between the first three books and the fourth are treated in detail by Wachsmuth, and even more exhaustively by Wölfflin. The two works differ first of all in the plan followed by their respective authors. Frontinus in his preface outlines the arrangement which he proposes to follow in presenting examples: in the first book he will give illustrations of stratagems employed before the battle begins; in the second, those that refer to the battle itself and that tend to effect the complete subjugation of the enemy; the third will contain stratagems connected with sieges and the raising of sieges. To this arrangement the titles of the chapters in the first three books conform, whereas the headings of the chapters in the fourth book give no suggestion of historical stratagems, but belong rather, as Wachsmuth says, to a militarisches Moralbüchlein. Stewechius, for this reason, conjectured that this fourth book might be Frontinus's theoretical work, but its preface controverts this idea.

 p. xx  In his further proof of the spurious character of the fourth book, Wachsmuth points out that of the duplicate illustrations found throughout the entire work, all but one occur in Book IV; he notes also that the examples in this book are drawn much more largely from Valerius Maximus than are those of the earlier books, and that several of its titles correspond to titles employed by Valerius Maximus,25 and he further proceeds to cite thirty-two passages,26 which he claims are taken almost verbatim from that author. He contrasts the use of such words as traditur, fertur, dicitur,27 which he claims are found in no genuine example in the first three books, with the constat28 of the true Frontinus, who would regard illustrations of unsafe tradition as of little benefit to the generals whom he wished to instruct.29

Wachsmuth finds traces of the pseudo-Frontinus in the fourth paragraph of the preface to Book I, which are designed to pave the way for the fourth book, where the στρατηγικὰ outnumber the στρατηγήματα,  p. xxi and where the writer has a distinct preference for dicta.30

On these and other grounds Wachsmuth brands as spurious a number of examples in their entirety and parts of various others. In his decisions against the following twenty, Wölfflin and Gundermann concur: I.III.7; I.VII.4; I.VII.7; I.XI.15; II.III.11; II.IV.14; II.IV.19; II.VIII.5; II.VIII.9; II.XI.6; III.IV.2; III.IV.4; III.VII.5; III.XII.3; III.XIII.3‑5; III.XV.2; IV.III.10; IV.VII.11.

Wölfflin agrees with Wachsmuth in his general conclusions and continues this line of investigation. He begins by comparing the preface to the De Aquis with what he considers the genuine preface to the Strategemata, and notes similarities of style and structure. He then goes on to compare the first three books of the Strategemata with the fourth in points of Latinity, arrangement or subject matter. He contrasts the two authors' methods of employing proper names,31 notes the frequent recurrence in Frontinus of certain phrases32 not found in the pseudo-Frontinus, observes that Frontinus customarily places the author of his stratagems at the beginning of the story, and follows certain subordinate principles of subdivision33 within the general divisions of his  p. xxii work, neither of which usages characterizes the pseudo-Frontinus, and adds examples of other variations in Latinity and subject matter. Of Wachsmuth's thirty-two examples, Wölfflin recognizes twenty as surely and directly taken from Valerius Maximus, and he adds to the list I.XI.11‑13, not mentioned by Wachsmuth. He considers the relation of the real and the pseudo-Frontinus to other authors from whom they drew their material, and finds a difference in their attitude toward Sallust, Caesar and Vegetius; and in general he discerns in the true Frontinus a truthfulness toward the facts given in his sources, whereas the pseudo-Frontinus, while exhibiting at times a slavish dependence on form, has no conscience about changing the facts. He believes that it was not by accident but by design that the fourth book was united to the other three, that the author of this book wished to be considered Frontinus and took certain definite measures to achieve that end, attempting to imitate the style of Frontinus in the use of certain phrases,34 keeping all his stories within the period which would be known to Frontinus, and in the preface to Book IV virtually claiming the authorship of the preface to Book I, as well as the fourth (rejected by Wachsmuth and Gundermann), since he finds in it a rhetorical exaggeration,35 not characteristic of the true Frontinus, and a lack of consistency between the apology for incompleteness  p. xxiii here expressed36 and Frontinus's avowed intention of citing only as occasion shall demand.37 But his strongest reason for suspecting the genuineness of these two paragraphs lies in the fact that their insertion here interferes with an arrangement exhibited elsewhere by Frontinus of annexing the summary of succeeding chapters directly to some such statement as quibus deinceps generibus suas species attribui.38

Gundermann reviews the arguments of Wachsmuth and Wölfflin, accepts many of their conclusions and adds to the evidence. He disagrees with Wölfflin as to the ungenuineness of the third paragraph of the preface, and defends the authenticity of several examples. Of the duplicates, the critics agree that IV.V.8, 9, 10, 11, and IV.VII.6 are interpolations from Book I, and that II.IV.15, 16 are interpolations from Book IV. Wölfflin and Gundermann regard I.I.11 as transposed from chapter v; Wachsmuth thinks it originated in chapter i.

Besides these duplicates, there are several cases in which the same story has apparently been drawn from different sources and is, therefore, told differently in two places; i.e. I.IV.9 and I.IV.9a; I.V.10 and III.IX.9; III.XVI.1 and IV.VII.36; III.IX.6 and III.XI.3; IV.II.5 and IV.II.7.

In addition to the stories suspected as a whole, various other portions of the text are regarded as interpolated, i.e. parts of I.II.6; I.XI.13; II.III.7;  p. xxiv  II.V.31; II.V.34; II.IX.2; IV.V.14, which are condemned on grounds of Latinity or other lack of agreement with the genuine or even the pseudo-Frontinus. In all sections of the book are found errors in names and in facts, and many changes in order have been suggested. Wachsmuth would put II.IX.3, 5 in III.VIII, and IV.III.14 after II.XI.7. Gundermann thinks II.VIII.5 should follow II.VIII.3, and II.VIII.9 follow II.VIII.10. For the transposition of a whole leaf of the manuscript, see p. xxix.º The errors in general Gundermann thinks should be attributed in small part to copyists, in larger part to the carelessness or the error of the author, but in largest part to the sources from which the material is drawn, many of which no longer exist.

In his preface to the De Aquis Frontinus himself tells us how it came to be written. Having been invested with the duties of water commissioner, he deemed it of the greatest importance to familiarize himself with the business he had undertaken, considering nothing so disgraceful as for a decent man to conduct an office delegated to him according to the instructions of assistants. He therefore gathered together scattered facts bearing on his subject, primarily to serve for his own guidance and instruction, though not unmindful of the fact that his efforts might be found useful by his successor.

Animated by this spirit and purpose, he wrote his little manual, faithfully carrying out the programme which he had laid down for himself at the outset of the work. He tells us the names of the aqueducts existing in his day, when and by whom each was constructed, at what points each had its  p. xxv source, how far they were carried underground and how far on arches, the height and size of each, the number of taps and the distributions made from them, the amount of water supplied to public reservoirs, public amusements, State purposes and private persons, and finally what laws regulated the construction and maintenance of aqueducts, and what penalties enforced these laws, whether established by resolutions of the Senate or by edicts of the Emperors. And what he records is based not on hearsay, but on personal examination of all details, supplemented by the study of plans and charts which he had made.

The work is a simple and truthful narration of facts, containing a mass of technical detail essential to a complete understanding of the system described. As an honest and thorough-going exposition of that system, the De Aquis will always remain the starting-point for any investigation pertaining to the water supply of ancient Rome.

The Author's Notes:

1 The biographical sketch here given is taken largely from Professor Bennett's article, "A Roman Waring" (Atlantic Monthly, March 1902), to which the reader is referred for a fuller and very sympathetic account of Frontinus as water commissioner, and from Herschel's Life and Works of Frontinus.

2 Hist. IV.39.

3 C. Nipperdey, Opuscula (Berlin, 1877), p520 ff., places the date of his first consulship in 73.

4 CIL III.2, p962; Mart. X.XLVIII.20.

5 CIL VIII.7066; VI.2222.

6 His exact tenure of office there is uncertain. Cf. E. Hübner, Die römischen Legaten von Britannien. Rhein. Mus. XII (1857), p52; Nipperdey, Opuscula, loc. cit.

7 Agricola, xvii: sustinuitque molem Iulius Frontinus, vir magnus, quantum licebat, validamque et pugnacem Silurum gentem armis subegit, super virtutem hostium locorum quoque difficultates eluctatus.

8 Cf. Wm. Camden, Britannia, II p113; D. Williams, History of Monmouthshire, p36 ff.

Thayer's Note: This is very old scholarship; the so‑called Via Julia has been thoroughly discredited as an invention in the Itinerary of "Richard of Cirencester". One of the first to expose the fraud was Thomas Codrington, q.v.

9 Cf. Pliny, Epist. IV.VIII.3; X.XIII.

10 X.LVIII.1‑6:

Anxuris aequorei placidos, Frontine, recessus,

et propius Baias, litoreamque domum,

et quod inhumanae cancro fervente cicadae

non novere nemus, fluminemque lacus

dum colui, doctas tecum celebrare vocabat

Pieridas; nunc nos maxima Roma terit.

11 Epist. V.I.5: adhibui in consilium duos quos tunc civitas nostra spectatissimos habuit, Corellium et Frontinum.

12 Cf. A. Dederich, Zeitschr. für die Alterthums-Wissenschaft, VI (1839), p841.

13 A Roman camp on the Rhine, now Birten or Xanthen.

14 Epist. IX.XIX.1, 6: addis etiam melius rectiusque Frontinum, quod vetueri omnino monumentum sibi fieri. Vetuit exstrui monumentum; sed quibus verbis? "Impensa monumenti supervacua est; memoria nostri durabit, si vita meruimus.

15 Die Schriften der röm. Feldmesser, Berlin, 1848, 1852. Cf. also M. Cantor, Die röm. Agrimensoren und ihre Stellung in der Gesch. der Feldmesskunst, Leipzig, 1875.

16 Cum ad instruendam rei militaris scientiam unus ex numero studiosorum eius accesserim eirue destinato, quantum cura nostra valuit, satisfecisse visus sim, etc.

17 De Instruendis Aciebus, Pref.: παρὰ Φροντίνῳ τῶν ἐπισήμων ὑπατικῶν ἡμέρας τινὰς διέτριψα, δόξαν ἀπενεγκαμένω. περὶ τὴν ἐν τοῖς πολέμοις ἐμπειρίαν . . . εὗρον οὑκ ἐλάττονα σπουδὴν ἔχοντα εἰς τὴν παρὰ τοῖς Ἕλλησι τεθεωρημένην μάθησιν.

18 De Re Militari, I.8: compulit evolutis auctoribus ea me in hoc opusculo fidelissime dicere, quae Cato ille Censorius de disciplina militari scripsit, quae Cornelius Celsus, quae Frontinus perstringenda duxerunt; and II.3: nam unius aetatis sunt, quae fortiter fiunt; quae vero pro utilitate rei publicae scribuntur, aeterna sunt. Idem fecerunt alii complures, sed praecipue Frontinus, divo Traiano ab eius modi comprobatus industria.

19 E. Fritze, P. Esternaux and F. Kortz dissent from this view and claim the fourth book also for Frontinus. Cf. also note 6 on p. xx.

20 G. Gundermann, Quaestiones de Iuli Frontini Strategematon Libris, Fleckeisen Jahrb. Supplementbd. 16 (1888), p315.

21 C. Wachsmuth, Ueber die Unächtheit des vierten Buchs der Frontinschen Strategemata, Rhein. Mus. XV (1860), p374.

22 E. Wölfflin, Frontins Kriegslisten, Hermes, IX (1876), p72.

23 Cf. I.I.8; II.III.23; II.XI.7.

24 M. Schanz, Zu Frontins Kriegslisten, Philol. XLVIII (1889), p674.

25 i.e. chapters i., iii., iv., v., vi. Cf. Val. Max. II.VII; IV.III; VI.V; III.VIII; IV.I.

26 i.e. IV: I.1, 2, 13, 17, 18, 23, 26, 31, 32, 38, 39, 40, 42, 44, 46; III.1, 3, 12; IV.1, 2; V.4, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 23; VI.3; VII.29, 36, 39.

27 Cf. IV: I.1; I.3; II.1; III. 1, 10, 11; V.13, 14; VII.4.

28 Cf. II.I.13; II.III.21.

29 H. M. Connor, in an appendix to her thesis, A Study of the Syntax of the Strategemata of Frontinus (Ithaca, 1921), makes a comparative study of the syntactical uses of the first three books and the fourth, and concludes: "A thoughtful examination of the four books has revealed to me no compelling argument in respect to syntactical structure, diction or content, which establishes the existence of a pseudo-Frontinus."

30 Cf. IV. V.12, 13; VI.3; VII.4. Also IV.I.17; IV.VII.1, 2, 3, 16.

31 e.g. Frontinus sometimes speaks of the elder Scipio merely as Scipio, sometimes as Africanus; he mentions the younger Scipio only once as Scipio. In Book IV the younger Scipio is once called Africanus, once Aemilianus; the elder is spoken of merely as Scipio.

32 i.e. ob hoc, ob id, ideoque, as against ob eam causam in Book IV.

33 i.e. that of nationality, followed by Val. Max.; or of locality; e.g. I.IV.1‑7, operations on land; 8‑10, on rivers; 11‑14, on sea.

34 e.g. quodam deinde tempore, tum cum maxime.

35 i.e. quis enim ad percensenda omnia monumenta, quae utraque lingua tradita sunt, sufficiat?

36 ne me pro incurioso reprehendat, qui praeteritum aliquod a nobis reppererit exemplum.

37 quemadmodum res poscet.

38 Cf. Books II and III, and the De Aquis.

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