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The Poetry of Plumbing: Roman Hydraulics as Cultural Icons

Bridget Langley

University of Arizona

Social ecocriticism insists that the city is part of the environment, and environmental studies must take account of the urban experience. When environmental movements fetishize pastoral images, they promote social and cultural policies that harm people – particularly people already most affected by environmental injustice (Ross 1994; Cronon 1995; Bennett and Teague 1999). Scholars such as Michael Bennett urge those working in the environmental humanities to focus on how urbanism, human culture, and the non-human environment interact (Bennett 2001). Historical perspectives are essential to understanding the emergence of the ‘new biome’ of the city and the concomitant shifts in how people conceive of their environments. The Romans, for instance, reconceived their world as they reinvented their city. To understand how they changed both the environment, and their notion of it, I focus on the aqueducts of Rome.

When the aqueducts arrived in the middle Republic, they dramatically altered residents’ experience of water, and provided a striking visual link between the countryside and the city. In this new urban oasis, the concept of water did not stay still. As Romans enjoyed the new abundance of water in elaborate fountains and bath-houses, the aqueducts themselves were incorporated into the poetic topoi of Roman writers. The Roman aqueducts have been hugely influential in post-classical urban design (Kaika 2006; Rinne 2010). A consideration of how aqueducts affect the cultural valuation of water is therefore critical for rethinking the ongoing role of water in urbanized space.

Of the nine Roman aqueducts, the Aqua Marcia and Aqua Virgo are the only ones mentioned in Roman poetry. Since ‘pure water’ had become an emblem of poetry already in Callimachus, it is appropriate that these aqueducts had a reputation for freshness and purity (Frontinus 92, Pliny NH 31.41f.). The Marcia and Virgo have been considered representative of Flavian poetic innovation: Statius and Martial find them fitting symbols for poetry that is at once Callimachean, and grandly materialistic (Martelli 2009; Newlands 2002). However, this ‘aqueduct poetics’ begins in Augustan poetry and develops as imperial hydraulic projects expand.

These aqueducts appear first as symbols of human innovation, comparable but inferior to poetic works (Prop. 3.2.14), representative of urbane poetics (Ov. Tr. 3.12.21-32; Pont. 1.8.35-62). For Propertius, the natural world is still the touchstone for aesthetic refinement (Prop. 3.22.3-24), but Ovid uses the Aqua Virgo to co-opt the pleasures of nature within the controlled urban environment (Ov. A.A. 3.385-98; Fast. 1.461-8; cf. (Favro 1996)). The Flavian poets develop this Ovidian approach, using the aqueducts as symbols of the harmonious balance between nature and human construction (Mart. Epig. 6.42; Stat. Silv. 1.5). This is a harmony explicitly based upon domination of the natural world and other peoples (Mart. Epig. 11.96). In a world at the disposal of the Roman emperor, the Marcia and the Virgo come to represent an artistic triumph which blends the artificial with the natural, the Roman with the foreign, tradition with modernity. When the state controls water, the fountain of inspiration gets filtered through political agendas.

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Latin Literature and the Environmental Humanities: Challenges and Perspectives

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