Water on the Palatine – Water Management and Arrangement of Fountains in the Imperial Residences

A research project of Dr. Andrea Schmölder-Veit funded by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) since August 2007.



The Palatine, the most fashionable quarter of Republican Rome, functioned since the time of Augustus as the residence of the Roman emperors and seat of the government. Constructed over a period of….. give this historic data here).  As a result of repeated ransacking of the architectural fabric of the palaces in the last centuries, the splendor of their marble and mosaic revetment, furniture and sculptural decoration is almost completely lost. However, an important element of the representative décor, the numerous ornamental fountains in the inner courtyards, has often been preserved. Since almost all rooms, no matter whether they were reception or banqueting halls, allowed for a view to a fountain or a nymphaeum, we are fully justified in speaking of the “omnipresence of water”.



The fountains provide us with insights into the structure of the palaces. For example, in some of the rooms nymphaea were installed at a later stage, which suggests that this section of the building was originally of minor significance. Furthermore, changes of orientation of a fountain can also indicate changing functions of the surrounding rooms. Apart from being used as a decorative element, running water served also for drinking and for domestic needs. Not only the monuments – nymphaea, simple fountains, thermae and latrines – witness the importance of these various functions of water, but also ancient texts contain an abundance of information on the use of water. Therefore, the present study will not be restricted to technical and hydraulic aspects. A broader formulation of the questions will offer new insights on the historical development, the decoration of the imperial court, the organization of the water supply and, consequently, the palace management.







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Semicircular fountain in the so called hippodrome to the west of the Domus Severiana. The Palatine between Colosseum and Circus Maximus. The Domus Augustana and the Domus Severiana are outlined in red.


First Results

In 2005 and 2006, I examined the nymphaea on the lower level of the Domus Augustana in context of a research project directed by Dr. Natascha Sojc and, subsequently, some fountains in the Domus Severiana together with Dr.-Ing. Ulrike Wulf-Rheidt. The few publications on this topic show that a thorough record of the finds is a desideratum for further investigation of water works on the Palatine. Careful documentation is therefore a considerable part of the present project. The most recent research proves that various rooms in the Domus Augustana, banqueting halls and four inner courtyards were built already under Vespasian.  A fountain with a large basin, in which rainwater from the surrounding roofs was collected, dominated the open area of the courtyards. To these fountains belong the well-known nymphaeum with peltae in the peristyle, two almost identically designed nymphaea in the west and a pool in the northeast corner of the lower level. Brick stamps found in the sewers verify the erection of the sewers at the beginning of the 2nd century AD. Further examination will be necessary to understand how this fact relates to the construction of the fountains.



At the same time as the sewers were maybe amplified many openings and windows looking into the courtyards were walled up so that the nymphaea could only be seen from one main room and from the upper stories. As a consequence, the form of the pelta nymphaeum in the lower peristyle of the Domus Augustana can only be completely recognized from the upper stories, although the large banqueting halls in the northeast and northwest are orientated towards it. In the 2nd century AD, the pool in the northeast corner was no longer visible from the surrounding corridors and rooms. At the same time, stairs and a step providing convenient access to the basin for its use as a piscina were built.



On the left: Sewer south of the nymphaeum with peltae in the Domus Augustana.


On the right: The lower peristyle of the Domus Augustana with the well known nymphaeum.




Purposes of the Project

This project focuses on the Domus Augustana and the Domus Severiana, whereas the other areas of the imperial palaces are also taken into consideration. Although the investigation comprises all the buildings from Republican times to Late Antiquity, the main focus is on the structures built in the 1st-3rd centuries AD. The study covers a broad range of issues, such as water management and the use of water as a decorative element. Of particular interest are the question of who was in charge of the water supply, and the still uncertain dating of the extension of the aqua Claudia to the Palatine. Apart from the main construction phase dated to the 1st century AD, earlier and later developments of the water conduits will be discussed, such as the Severan restoration. Thus changes in water supply can be related to particular construction phases of the imperial residences.



Another set of questions to be studied includes the following: How was the running water used? Were there any additional resources like groundwater or rainwater? The evidence of cisterns suggests that rainwater was used as domestic water in the imperial residences, as it was the case in the aristocratic domus.



Since decorative fountains and nymphaea numerically represent the largest part of all the water installations on the Palatine, the prestigious function of water remains the main interest of the research. On the one hand, the significance of the surrounding rooms and architectural modifications in the areas will be explored, based on how supply pipes and basins were orientated. On the other hand, the shapes and the arrangement of the fountains on the Palatine should be seen within the context of contemporary Roman architecture. This can help in our understanding of whether the decorative fountains were designed after models from roman villas and domus or whether they were a novelty, created specifically for the imperial residences. Although the fountains represent only a part of all the decorative elements, their décor mirrors the overall design of the imperial palaces.





The few preserved arches of the aqua Claudia on the east slope of the Palatine.



A lively scientific exchange and an intensive collaboration have been established, inter alia, through the joint field campaigns with Dr. Natascha Sojc (Würzburg) and Dr.-Ing. Ulrike Wulf-Rheidt ( who, together with Prof. Dr. Aloys Winterling (Basel), have been in charge of the interdisciplinary project “Palace and City in Severan Rome” since 2007.