Reflections on Water, Its Use, and Its Meaning for Society from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period:
Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott, eds., The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing, and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance
Anna Olga Koloski-Ostrow While the genesis of Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott’s The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing, and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009. Pp. viii+538. $261) was a conference on the “Nature and Function of Water,” held in Flagstaff, Arizona, in October 2006, the inspiration for it might have been Pliny’s remark that “there is nothing more worthy of our admiration throughout the whole universe,” in reference to the abundance of water in Rome of his day.1 The twenty-seven contributors describe how the nature and function of water created andshaped social relationships, and how religion, politics, and science transformed, and were themselves transformed by, the manipulation and uses of and disputes over water in daily life, ceremonies, and literature. Individual articles are not numbered (which would have been helpful), but the book is divided into four sections representing broad topic areas: “Gender Roles, Attitudes, Practices, and Innovation in Baths and Bathing”; “Water and the Formation of Identity and Policy”; “Ancient and Medieval Water Sources and Resources”; and “Religious and Literary Imagery:
Water in Medieval through Early Modern Cultures.”
In this review I first consider the wider context for the nature and function of water as it is reflected in previous scholarly efforts, both for Rome and elsewhere. Then I highlight some of the major ideas from a small selection of the more nuanced essays in Kosso and Scott’s volume.
Much architecture and urban infrastructure in the archaeological record bear witness to the importance of water in antiquity. Beyond a doubt, the control and use of water across historical time and geographicalspace prompted both technological advances and artistic embellishments in cities, and also affected life in the countryside. Recent books on ancient technology carefully document the intimate relationships between a clean water supply and quality of life, sanitation, improved manufacturing methods, effective extractive technologies (in mining, metallurgy, quarrying), agriculture (and animal husbandry), and energy and the exploitation of power. Kosso, Scott, and their contributors turn attention away from these more practical applications of water in order to explore the more elusive aspects of water in ancient societies, such as in constructions of identity, rites of passage, foundations of sovereignty, and religious rituals (from pagan bathing habits to baptism). This volume, therefore, paints a landscape for the cultural meaning of water.2 Several French scholars in particular have investigated the specialized topic of Greek and Roman bathing in recent publications.3 French interest in the origins and evolution of baths and bathing in the eastern Mediterranean has resulted in the Balnéorient project, an ambitious effort that aims to research and document bathing in that region from antiquity through the period of the hammam, or so-called Turkish bath. On this side of the Atlantic, research on baths by Fikret Yegül, Sandra Lucore, Garrett Fagan, and others has been intense and enlightening. The field of water studies itself has also burgeoned.4 We now can find studies that examine the topic of historical water use and ideology both diachronically and cross-regionally, from antiquity to the early modern era.
The strength of Kosso and Scott’s edited volume is its focus on the nontechnical aspects of water, although the technical is not completely abandoned. Rabun Taylor’s opening article in part 1, “River Raptures: Containment and Control of Water in Greek and Roman Construction of Identity,” raises important questions with regard to the role of gender in the personification of waters. He notes that each gendered category for water has a specific symbolic function. Sandra Lucore’s “Archimedes, the North Baths at Morgantina, and Early Developments in Vaulted Construction” considers the evidence at Morgantina as the earliest example of above ground, vaulted construction in the Greco-Roman world. In “Women at the Fountain and the Well: Imagining Experience” Kosso and Kevin Lawton respond to Gloria Ferrari’s contention that the images depicted on Greek vases merely give us access to how the artistic subjects were imagined to be, rather than to the way they really were. The authors argue persuasively that real experience informs even the most symbolic imagery on the vases, and that Athenian women really did go to wells and fountains for ritual purposes like weddings, funerals, and religious holidays, both for cities and demes.
Brenda Longfellow’s chapter “The Legacy of Hadrian: Roman Monumental Civic Fountains in Greece” shows how Hadrian, who visited Greece three times when he was emperor, initiated hydraulic building projects, such as magnificent fountains, in order to connect the imperial gift with the local populace and to emphasize the dominance of Rome over Greek heritage. Hadrian’s water architecture was therefore closely connected to his political motives and aspirations.
Étienne Dunant’s “Natural Water Resources and the Sacred in Attica” is the first article in part 3 and examines how natural water sources played a seminal role for ancient Greeks in finding locations for Attic sanctuaries, in deciding on the types of architecture built in them, and even in the various cult practices performed there. His study of natural water resources therefore reflects the impact of ancient human behavior on the environment. The third article in this section, “Running Water: Advances in Urban Water Supply during the Roman Empire” by Deborah Chatr Aryamontri, confronts the technological advances and importance of bathing for the Romans, and explains how bathing became so central to Roman social life. Chatr Aryamontri ties the development and perfection of sophisticated systems for delivering water to urban centers and water’s consumption at public baths, to the very idea of Roman civilization.
Two good examples of how the volume handles water in works of sacred and secular literature—water realized in symbol and metaphor— can be found in part 4. The first, Anne Scott’s “Come Hell or High Water: Aqueous Moments in Medieval Epic, Romance, Allegory, and Fabliau,” surveys the popular and religious works of the medieval world to determine the ways in which water imagery underscores characters, themes, and ideologies. She covers such works as Beowulf, Yvain, the Pearl, and The Miller’s Tale. Irene Matthews concludes the volume with “Waters of Paradise: A Brief Hydroloquy on the Gardens of Spain and New Spain,” which examines the politics of conquest, environmental degradation, and restitution. She focuses on Granada’s Alhambra and Generalife, which date to the early Middle Ages, and traces the rise and fall of medieval and early modern leisure gardens.
This collection of papers is a significant contribution to water studies, not so much for the questions that are answered as for the expanded boundaries of the inquiry. While the history of water requires further research, this volume has done much to inform us on such issues as gender roles and water usage; attitudes, practices, and innovations in baths and bathing; water and the formation of identity and policy; ancient and medieval water sources and resources; and water imagery in religious and literary texts.
The editors provide a solid introduction that lays out the major issues and emphasizes the strengths of the various contributions, although their prose sometimes lacks clarity. A more detailed index and a final bibliography would have been welcome additions. Brief summaries at the beginning of each chapter would have helped the reader navigate the volume more easily as well. The essays are generally well-edited, and there is a variety of archaeological and textual evidence presented here in detail for the first time. Photographs in the volume (all in black and white) are unfortunately sparse and mostly of rather poor quality. Given the high cost of the volume this is a serious disappointment. Nevertheless, these revised and expanded conference papers offer scholars, teachers, and students a new basis for understanding water and its cultural impact from antiquity through the early modern period.
Dr. Koloski-Ostrow is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of The Sarno Bath Complex (1990) and editor of Water Use and Hydraulics in the Roman City (2001). Her most recent book, Roman Toilets: Their Archaeology and Cultural History, coedited with Gemma Jansen and Eric Moormann, was published in 2011 by BABESCH (Bulletin Antieke Beschaving) Supplementary series, Annual Papers in Archaeology, Leiden. She is also working on a book titled The Archaeology of Sanitation in Roman Italy: Water, Sewers, and Toilets, to be published by the University of North Carolina Press.