By the reign of Caesar Augustus, the city of Rome had a population of a million people. With so many crammed into such a small area, disease was a big problem. Having fresh clean drinking water would greatly contribute to one’s health. The problem was that most Romans did not have personal access to running water in their homes. Instead, the vast majority of the Roman public got their drinking supply from public water fountains. Appeasing the divine entities that watched over Rome’s water supply was crucial to its very survival (1).
In ancient Rome, October 13 was the date of the Fontanalia, “the Festival of the Fountains”. This was a feast day dedicated to showing appreciation and thanks to the divine being which watched over springs, fountains, and water wells. Our only ancient source for this feast day is Marcus Terentius Varro. On October 13, he says, the people decorate the fountains with garlands of flowers, and throw flowers into the springs and wells (2). There was a god named Fons or Fontus (literally the Latin word for “spring”) who presided such places. There was an Ara Fontis, an altar to the fountain god, erected atop the Janiculum Hill. There was also a Porta Fontinalis, a gate or a doorway, constructed within the Campus Martius (3). However, for a culture that was as dependent upon fresh water as the Romans were, it is remarkable that Fons did not occupy a more prominent role within their pantheon.
Many ancient cultures ascribed divine attributes to water springs, notably the Celts. The Germans, too, even after adopting Christianity, continued to make pilgrimages and offer sacrifices at the site of springs to the spirits who dwelt within these places. Water bubbling up out of the ground was a remarkable and mysterious thing, and there surely must be some divine reason behind such a sight. Springs served as the sources for rivers and lakes, but they also served as the starting points for many of aqueducts which supplied the city of Rome with fresh water. At Rome’s height, nine aqueducts supplied the city with 46 million gallons of water…every day. If Rome was to survive, the water needed to keep flowing, so it was important to please the water god Fons as much as possible. (4)
Public water fountains did more than just provide a free supply of drinking water to the Roman masses. Central Italy was, and still is, a hot place. Nowadays, the large water fountains with their elaborate sculptures and spouts shooting water out in all directions and even straight up in the air may appear to be nothing more than ostentatious decoration. But in the sweltering summer, these fountains were vital to making the area a little bit more livable by helping to keep the surrounding air cool. As the fountains spray out their water, part of it is evaporated and part of the spray droplets are carried by the breeze – both actions cool the air. Thus, these fountains functioned like a natural air conditioner (5).
The Fontanalia festival is sometimes mistakenly recorded as the “Faunalia” in 19th Century books about Roman history and culture. This has led to some misconceptions that this was a festival dedicated to Faun or Pan, the half-man half-goat who embodied the spirit of the countryside and the wilderness, and who was perpetually trying to get his leg over. There actually was a festival dedicated to him, but it didn’t take place until December 5.
- Peter S Wells, The Battle that Stopped Rome. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003. Page 57; What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”.
- Marcus Terentius Varro, On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 22. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938. Page 195.
- William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899. Page 240.
- The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”; “The Water Supplies of Cities in Ancient Times”, by Walter Atlee (October 27, 1883). Engineering News and American Contract Journal, Volume X (January to December 1883). New York: Engineering New Publishing Co., 1883. Pages 507-508; What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”.
- What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”.
- Fowler, William Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. London: Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1899.
- Varro, Marcus Terentius. On the Latin Language, book 6, verse 22. Translated by Roland G. Kent. London: W. Heinemann, 1938.
- Wells, Peter S. The Battle that Stopped Rome: Emperor Augustus, Arminius, and the Slaughter of the Legions in the Teutoburg Forest. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003.
- “The Water Supplies of Cities in Ancient Times”, by Walter Atlee (October 27, 1883). Engineering News and American Contract Journal, Volume X (January to December 1883). New York: Engineering New Publishing Co., 1883. Pages 507-509.
- The Celts. Episode 3 – “A Pagan Trinity”. Hosted by Frank De Laney. BBC, 1987.
- What the Ancient Knew – “The Romans”. Hosted by Jack Turner. The Science Channel, 2005.