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Frontinus the Historian?

Margaret Clark

University of Texas at Austin

Frontinus’ De Aquaeductu has suffered from a limited range of critical engagement from scholars of ancient literature and history (notable exceptions: Baldwin 1994, DeLaine 1996, and Del Chicca 1995). This paper focuses on chapters 87-102, where Frontinus moves from describing the history of each aqueduct and the quality of the water it conveys to outlining the laws concerning the water supply and the history of the water administration (cura aquarum). Building on the work of Williams 1978 on the narrative of decline in the early empire, I consider how Frontinus’ self-portrayal as a historian of the cura aquarum and his manipulation of this decline narrative operate in tandem. By tracing the development of the water administration in the city of Rome, Frontinus acts as a historian of this part of the Roman bureaucracy. In so doing, he both participates in and manipulates the imperial narrative of decline, as he portrays his tenure as curator aquarum, and thus the reigns of the emperors under whom he serves, Nerva and Trajan, as part of a new golden age. Like Tacitus, who declares in Agricola 3 that, under the rules of these two emperors, nunc demum redit animus, Frontinus praises the foresight of Nerva (87-88), thereby associating himself with this rupture in the decline narrative, the history of which Frontinus makes clear in his treatise.

I begin by arguing that chapters 87-102 constitute an archaeology of the cura aquarum, similar in tone and purpose to the archaeologies found in ancient historical works (e.g., Thuc. 1.1-23; Sall. Cat. 2, 6-7). Through this archaeology, Frontinus represents himself as a historian of the cura aquarum; his citation of old laws, senatorial resolutions, and archives create an authorial persona that is knowledgeable about the office’s development, independent of his participation in it (Bravo 2007 on antiquarianism). By means of these citations, Frontinus creates a history of the water administration, informed by and indebted to the actions of his predecessors in the office – the veteres or maiores (Hölkeskamp 2010, 17-18 on the importance of mos maiorum in Rome).

However, Frontinus’ relationship to these forebears is complicated, in large part due to the contemporary ideas about decline that condemned the recent history of the Roman Empire (particularly the reigns of the later Julio-Claudian emperors, Claudius and Nero, and that of Domitian; Gowing 2005, especially chapter 4; Luce 1993; Caplan 1944; Kennedy 1972; Fantham 1978; Barnes 1986). He holds up the positive examples of Republican Romans who – as aediles and censors – oversaw, repaired, and augmented the city’s water system and of Augustus’ right-hand man Marcus Agrippa, the first curator aquarum, as paragons of what the office can and should be. It is these maiores to whom Frontinus refers when, condemning how the water supply for the city of Rome has been infected by overabundance and indulgence in private luxury, he writes that “manifestum est quanto potior cura maioribus communium utilitatium quam privatarum voluptatium fuerit” (95).

At least in the view of the senatorial class, corruption and incompetence had plagued the imperial bureaucracy, including the water administration, in the generations following the reign of Augustus, as responsibilities were increasingly assigned to imperial slaves and freedmen. With Agrippa as his model, Frontinus portrays himself as a reformer of the corrupt, inept cura, which had languished in the previous decades. Frontinus revives the Republican tradition of active oversight and competent management of the water system, thus situating his tenure of the office of curator as a point of rupture in the narrative of decline. By aligning himself with the legacy of his predecessor Marcus Agrippa, Frontinus brings the emperors he serves (Nerva, then Trajan) into parallel with Augustus, severing the narrative of decline and reinvigorating Rome, both rhetorically and hydraulically.

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Imperial Fashioning in the Roman World

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