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p543 Fons

Article by Philip Smith, B.A., of the University of London
on pp543‑545 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

FONS (κρήνη), signifies originally a natural spring of water, but both the Greeks and Romans had artificial fountains, made either by covering and decorating a spring with buildings and sculpture, or by making a jet or stream of water, supplied by an elevated cistern, play into an artificial basin. Such fountains served the double purpose of use and ornament. Among the Greeks, they formed the only public supply of water except the rain-water which was collected in cisterns [Aquaeductus]; and at Rome, the poorer people, who could not afford to have water laid on to their houses, no doubt procured it from the public fountains.

Several examples of natural springs, converted into ornamental fountains, in the cities of Greece, have been mentioned under Aquaeductus. They were covered to keep them pure and cool, and the covering was frequently in the form of a monopteral temple: there were also statues, the subjects of which were suggested by the circumstance that every fountain was sacred to some divinity, or they were taken from the whole range of mythological legends. That at Megara, erected by Theagenes, is described by Pausanias as worth seeing for its size, its beauty, and the number of its columns (I.40 §1). That of Peirene at Corinth was adorned with covered cisterns of white marble like grottoes, p544out of which the water flowed into the open air, and with a statue of Apollo, and was enclosed with a wall, on which was painted the slaughter of the suitors by Ulysses (Paus. II.3 §3; see a paper by Göttling, on the present state of this fountain, and of the Craneion, with an engraving of the source of the Peirene, in Gerhard's Archäologische Zeitung for 1844, pp326, 328; the engraving is given below.


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Corinth contained numerous other fountains; over one of which was a statue of Bellerophon and Pegasus, with the water flowing out of the horse's hoofs (Ib. §5); over another, that of Glauce, was the Odeium (Ib. §5); and another was adorned with a bronze statue of Poseidon, with a dolphin at his feet, out of the mouth of which the water flowed (Paus. II.2 §7 s8). In the same city, was another fountain on a still grander scale; namely, that of Lerna, which was surrounded by a colonnade with seats for those who desired a cool retreat in summer; the water was no doubt collected in a spacious basin in the centre (Ib. 4 §5 s6; see also 5 §1). Several other fountains of a similar kind to these are described or referred to by Pausanias (II.27, IV.31, 33, 34, VII.5, 21, VIII.1), among which two deserve special mention, as they were within temples; namely, that in the temple of Erechtheus at Athens, and of Poseidon at Mantineia, which were salt-water springs (I.26 §5, VIII.10 § 4). Vitruvius mentions the fountain of Salmacis as among the admirable works of art at Halicarnassus (II.8 §12).

The Romans also erected edifices of various degrees of splendour over natural springs, such as the well-known grotto of Egeria, near Rome, where the natural cave is converted by the architect into a sort of temple (comp. Plin. H. N. XXXVI.21 s42), and the baptisterium of Constantine. A simple mode of decorating less considerable springs was by covering them with a vault, in the top of which was an opening, surrounded by a balustrade, or by a low wall adorned with marble bas-reliefs, one example of which, among many, is seen in a relief representing the twelve gods, now in the Capitoline Museum. In all cases, a cistern was constructed to contain the water, either by cutting it out of the living rock, or (if the spring did not rise out of rock) by building it of masonry. Vitruvius discusses at length the different sorts of springs, and gives minute rules for testing the goodness of the spring, and for the construction of the cisterns (VIII.3.7). The observations of Vitruvius apply chiefly to those springs and cisterns which formed the sources of the aqueducts.

At Rome, a very large proportion of the immense supply of water brought to the city by the aqueducts, was devoted to the public fountains, which were divided into two classes; namely, lacus, ponds or reservoirs, and salientes, jets of water, besides which many of the castella were so constructed as to be also fountains (see Aquaeductus, p114B, and the woodcut). Agrippa, who during his aedileship paid special attention to the restoration of the Roman waterworks, is said to have constructed 700 lacus, 105 salientes, and 130 castella, of which very many were magnificently adorned; they were decorated with 300 bronze or marble statues, and 400 marble columns (Plin. H. N. XXXVI.15 s24 §9). There were also many small private fountains in the houses and villas of the wealthy (Plin. Epist. V.6). At Pompeii, the fountains are extremely numerous, and that not only in the streets and public places, especially at the junctions of streets (in biviis, in triviis); but also in private houses. The engraving on p109 represents a section of one of these fountains, in which the water pours into a basin; that now given, in which the water is thrown up in a jet, is taken from an arabesque painting on the wall of a house at Pompeii: in the painting, the vase and pedestal rise out of a sheet of water, which may be supposed to represent the impluvium in the atrium of a house.


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(Respecting the fountains of Pompeii, see Pompeii, vol. 1 p131, vol. II pp71, 78, and Sir W. Gell's Pompeiana, vol. I pp390, 395, plates 50, 53). The proof which these fountains afford, of the acquaintance of the ancients with the chief law of hydrostatics is noticed under Aquaeductus, p109.

The forms given to fountains were as numerous as the varieties of taste and fancy. The large flat vases were a common form, and they are found, of 5, 10, 20, and 30 feet in diameter, cut out of a single piece of some hard stone, such as porphyry, granite, basanite, breccia, alabaster and marble. An ingenious and elegant variety, of which there is a specimen in the Capitoline Museum, is a tripod, up the centre of which the jet passes, the legs being hollow to carry off the water again. Very often the water was made to flow out of bronze statues, especially of boys, and of Tritons, Nereids, Satyrs, and such beings: several of these statues have been found at Pompeii; and four of them are engraved in Pompeii, vol. 1 p104, one of which is given below. On the Monte Cavallo, at Rome, is a colossal statue of a river god, probably the Rhine, which was formerly in the forum of Augustus, which it refreshes with a stream of water pouring continually into a basin of granite twenty-seven feet in diameter. The celebrated group, known as the Toro Farnese, originally, in Hirt's opinion, adorned a fountain. Mythological subjects were p545also sculptured over the fountains, as among the Greeks; thus at Rome, there were the fountains of Ganymede and Prometheus, and the Nymphaeum of Jupiter. (Stieglitz, Archäol. d. Baukunst, vol. II pt. 2 pp76, 79; Hirt, Lehre der Gebäude, pp399, 403).


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Thayer's Note:

This article is not one of the better ones in Smith's Dictionary. One would like to be presented with a clearer typology, classifying Greek and Roman fountains by shapes and by iconography; to be told a bit more about the different uses to which these fountains were put; to see a few more examples.

Very easy to criticize, of course; less easy to rewrite Smith's article: and alleging time constraints, I haven't done it. Still, the student would do well to look at the Meta Sudans in Rome; to read the beginning of Chapter 11 of Lanciani's Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries; and, since fountains are supposed to be relaxing, to sit a bit by this Roman fountain in Formia:

zzz. It is an ancient Roman fountain in Formia, a coastal town of central Italy.
Photo © Carole Roach 2001, by kind permission.


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