Theatricality and Spectacle of Roman Water-Display

Here is the abstract of the paper I gave at the 2015 Archaeological Institute of America’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans, entitled ‘Theatricality and Spectacle of Roman Water-Display,’:

Previous scholarship on water-display during the High Roman Empire has focused on typologies, along with the political and social concerns of water-display. I attempt to understand better the Romans’ use of water by applying current landscape theories to water-display. Diane Spenser, in Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity (2010), suggests that in defining a space as a landscape, such as in this case the area surrounding a water-display, it is “visually distinctive and interesting, that it attracts the eye, and engages the senses and faculties” (16). In this vein, then, it is appropriate to connect water-displays to theatricality and spectacle within the Roman world. After briefly defining the terms theatricality and spectacle, I illustrate the theatricality of water-displays through the examples of the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus at Olympia, the Hadrianic/Antonine North Nymphaeum and its accompanying water channel at Perge (Turkey), and the House of the Fountains at Conìmbriga (Portugal). Each of these three examples provides water-display in different contexts (e.g., religious, public, private), by different patrons (e.g. local elite, the emperor, and a private individual), for different reasons (e.g., religious devotion, self-advertisement, pleasure). These water-displays, along with others in the High Roman Empire, distort reality, especially creating the artificial (i.e., theatricality), along with the fact that water-displays are provided by a patron and are naturally tied to place, which can create memories for the patrons of the spectacle of water. Agency is then associated with water-displays, as a patron must sponsor a project, in addition to an audience enjoying the fountain. Theatricality and spectacle offer an exciting avenue of inquiry into the nature and meaning of water-display, which is seen empire-wide, pushing these structures past either simple utilitarian fountains or simple pieces of political propaganda.

alma tadema, entrance-to-a-roman-theatre-1866.jpg!Large

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Entrance to a Roman Theatre, 1866

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