Water in the Roman World: engineering, trade, religion, and daily life

Review by Dylan K Rogers

To say that the Roman world was overflowing with water is an understatement. Recently, scholarship has increasingly begun to explore the numerous ways water impacted the lives of ancient Romans, from understanding the design of aqueducts in the countryside to the social impact that fountains had in the home. I have myself, in the past, attempted to define the elements of a Roman ‘culture of water’ that speaks not only to pleasure and consumption, but is also predicated on power and resources. In this vein, the volume under review provides a wonderful update to this work, as the individual chapters all seek to illustrate the complexity of Roman life through water. Eleven chapters by an international collection of scholars explore a number of topics, such as physical landscapes, built spaces, and iconographies, examining materials primarily from the western half of the Roman Empire, including England, Germany, France, Spain, and Croatia.

One of the underlying themes of the volume highlights the relationship that the Romans themselves had with water. In particular, one element prevalent throughout is the exploration of ‘waterscapes’, or the landscapes that are tied in some way to naturally occurring water sources, such as the sea, rivers, and springs. In the past, these spaces have often not received as much scholarly attention, as they are sometimes not deemed as splashy as, say, a monumental fountain in Rome or an iconic aqueduct that visually dominates a landscape. In this volume, a number of waterscapes tied to rivers, such as the Lower Rhine or the River Tees, are explored, specifically to illustrate how these naturally occurring conduits were vital to trade and life in general. Furthermore, other investigations, such as a chapter that considers the depictions of Roman lighthouses, move beyond the water itself, in order to demonstrate the power the Romans had over these landscapes, especially in terms of control through impressive engineering projects. The concluding chapter by Martin Henig, a noted expert of Roman archaeology, helpfully ties together the importance of these waterscapes throughout the Roman world, and especially how the sea connected the whole empire. Meanwhile, other chapters explore the more social side of water, including the religious worship of river gods and nymphs, and the nature of swimming in the Graeco-Roman world.

This volume is extremely successful in that it brings together a number of different authors, who all provide new perspectives, often through new evidence, on how water was used and perceived. It should be noted that readers looking for the most up-to-date bibliography will not always find that in some chapters, such as in Henig’s. But that certainly does not detract from the work, which is a valuable resource for those wishing to plunge deeper into Roman water.

Water in the Roman World: engineering, trade, religion, and daily life 
Martin Henig and Jason Lundock (eds)
Archaeopress, £38
ISBN 978-1803273006