The Meta Sudans
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 8/19/2019
You aren’t alone if your first reaction to this essay’s title was “the Meta What?” Of the many monuments and buildings that I learned about in history, archeology, and art history courses over my decades of study, the Meta Sudans was not one of them. Since it is covered in the Rome Reborn® Colosseum app, however, I wanted to learn what this thing was and how it was important enough to garner enough attention to be included in the application.
Previously, I looked at the Arch of Constantine. Near it was the Meta Sudans, a monumental fountain built by the emperor Domitian between 89-96 CE, replacing an Augustan fountain that was destroyed in the fire of 64 CE during the reign of Nero. While the rebuilt fountain was quite a bit wider it wasn’t much taller.
The word Meta normally referred to a turning post in a racetrack. The shape of the fountain, a tall cone, was quite similar to the meta of the circus. The term sudans means dripping or sweating, which scholars take to mean that the water flowed down from the top of the cone. The center of the cone was concrete, and the cone was around 17 meters high in the center of a pool 16 meters in diameter. Exactly what the top of the Meta looked like is debated; some believe it was just a sphere, while other scholars think it was a flower shape with three petals. Coins that may show the fountain show a sphere on top. Classicist Brenda Longfellow has suggested that the conical shape was also part of the original Augustan design reflecting the Greek baetyls, or phallic pillars, from temples to Apollo. The first emperor would have seen a baetyl in both Apollonia, where he studied philosophy as a youth, and at Actium, where he scored his decisive victory over Anthony and Cleopatra.
Other than the aforementioned coins, various images of the Meta were made over the centuries that help the Rome Reborn® modelers determine what it may have looked like. The concrete core of this fountain could be seen until 1936, when it was by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini because it got in the way of his own version of the ancient triumphal parades.
Two excavations of the area (1981-83 and 1986-89) have confirmed its history. To understand why Augustus had a fountain built here as well as why Domitian restored it, we need to consider the area, the ongoing building there, and the value of fountains in ancient Rome.
The Meta was placed at a prestigious location. It was at the intersection of four (some scholars say five) Augustan city wards and lay immediately to the east of a sanctuary called the Curiae Veteres, which marked the third of the four corners of the city laid out by Romulus, according to tradition. Behind that shrine was Augustus’ birthplace which gained religious importance as he fashioned himself as the second Romulus.
Not only was the Meta Sudans near the triumphal route, which the much later Arch of Constantine straddled, but it was where many people would have passed day in and day out, not only to travel across the city but also, starting in the Flavian period, to visit all of the shops around the Colosseum. This might explain why Constantine had it enhanced, too, instead of removed or replaced; he could increase his presence without further new building projects in a city which he wasn’t even using as a capital.
Domitian may have been continuing his brother’s Titus work to rebuild the Meta Sudans but either way the fountain fit into the new dynasty’s program to proclaim their right to rule to the people. The Flavians’ reclaiming of the area that was once all Nero’s for “the public” was a way for them to show their intentions to serve the people of Rome, not just themselves. If Longfellow’s theory about the baetyl’s connection to Augustus is correct, that would be a way for the Flavians to tie themselves symbolically to the Julio-Claudians. However, if the Meta was a reference to the turning point of the racetrack, they could also be piggy-backing onto the popularity of sporting events in the nearby Circus Maximus. I think both are possible and need not exclude each other.
That might work as an explanation, but we need to consider the monument as a fountain, too. Most people did not have water transported into their homes or apartments, the dominant habitat for most residents of the city. Instead, wives and older daughters (or slaves if one was wealthier) would go to public wells and fountains to get water to be used for that day. Men and boys might of course loiter around the fountains, use it for animals, use it themselves, or simply pass by. Each person using it might have then made the connections between the Julio-Claudians, Flavians, and later Constantine.
Today the Meta Sudans, reduced to its foundations, is in a sad state compared to what it must have looked like in the ancient city. However, with the Rome Reborn® app, we can see how it appeared like after Constantine’s restoration with an enlarged pool and a low wall around it. There’s also a Time Warp so that you can compare and contrast the reconstruction to the actual pitiful remains on the site today.
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