Friday, 3 March 2017

Turn Left to Triumph: The Meta Sudans of Rome

The Meta Sudans is one of the oddest monuments in the city of Rome. I’ll bet most have never heard of it. It’s hard to think what purpose it served. The word /meta/ can mean finishing-point, goalpost, turning point and similar terms. It’s connected with the Greek word ‘meta’ (μετά) where it has the sense of being the end-point of something. But the Greek is a bound morpheme, usually used as prefix, where the Latin is a simple noun. There is some indication that the Etruscans had metae before the Romans, and, as they had an orientalising culture, the connotation of the word may have shifted somewhat, from abstract to concrete.

The Meta Sudans – the sweating cone – stood in Region IV ‘Templum Pacis’, the Temple of Peace. This was a mixture of monumental architecture and down-at -heel housing. It included the ancient Temple of Jupiter Stator and the Subura, one of those areas referred to today as ‘bustling and colourful’ when they mean ‘dangerous’. The district also included the Colossal Statue, but not the  Flavian Amphitheatre (amphitheatrum qui capit loca LXXXVII), which is in Region III ‘Isis et Serapis’, so the boundary of the two regions of the city must have been between the two locations. Quite probably the Meta Sudans was used as a boundary stone.

Topper and Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1929) suggests it was the common marker for Regions I, (Porta Capena) II, (Caelemontium) III, IV and X (Palatium). There are many places in England where several counties conjoin, and there are ten ‘three shire stones’, so it may have served a similar function. Indeed, it may have served a number of functions; we can imagine the senior vicomagister of each city district affected by a Triumph meeting here to plan the events. There may have been other metae in Rome, for it to need an adjective to determine it.

We can see it newly built in a coin of Titus (r. AD79-81), just to the left of the Flavian Amphitheatre (the Colosseum to you and me).  On the coin, it is spurting water rather than sweating or oozing it. By AD354, when the Chronographer itemised the things to be seen in Rome, it certainly had the name (metam sudantem, in the Accusative case).

Sestertius of Titus, showing the Meta Sudans, left
The term ‘meta sudans’ existed before it was built under the Flavians, since as Bill Thayer points out in his as always first rate Lacus Curtius site, it’s referred to in a letter from Seneca to his friend Luculius (aut hunc qui ad Metam Sudantem tubulas experitur et tibias, nec cantat sed exclamat; Seneca Epistulae Morales 4.56) with regard to one at Baiae. This does not mean that the one in Rome was created with that name, as it might have inherited it when it changed to a slighter flow later in antiquity.

There not being such a monument during the life of Seneca (and thus of Nero), yet it was already functioning during the brief reign of Titus, suggests that it was constructed during the decade of Vespasian’s reign. Perhaps it can be related to the Domus Aurea of Nero, which included an artificial lake, created by the engineers Celer and Severus to create a delightful rus in urbe; we could not rule out a purely functional purpose, to regulate hydraulic pressure for Nero’s lake. As that was rapidly dismantled, perhaps the Meta Sudans as we had it until 1936 was prettified and made to be part of a monumental assemblage, because it could not be removed without flooding the area.

The Cloaca Maxima in 1814, oil painting by CW Eckersberg
We can see from nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs than there wasn’t much left. The coin of Titus suggests a high-pressure flow, which did not exist in later centuries, and which was heavily reduced in antiquity. One possibility was that it was used as a safety valve for the water flows from the nearby hills; with heavy rains and rising groundwater flowing off, it could be opened to produce the column of water seen on the coin.

Colourised (perhaps hand-tinted) scene in 1890; maybe a postcard

Victorian photograph of a distant Meta Sudans by the Arch of Titus

Meta Sudans seen through the 250 years later Arch of Constantine

Any large city depends utterly on water flowing, and this was as true for Rome as it was for Los Angeles in the film Chinatown. Rulers, to be seen as benefactors, will want to mark their munificence by a flow of water beyond the level of need. It may have been intended primarily to impress people, in the manner of the Emperor Fountain at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. This was created by constructing a lake in the Peaks seen behind the house, generating enough water pressure for the fountain to reach nearly 300 feet on demand.

Emperor Fountain (1844) with the South Face of Chatsworth House, the Derbshire home of the Cavendish family, Dukes of Devonshire
The valley in which the Meta Sudans is (or was) located was the original thoroughfare of Rome, the via sacra. The various communities which made up early Rome used that road for processions, notably for funerals; Polybius comments on how important those were. By the time the Meta Sudans was built, processions along the via sacra would have passed underneath the Arch of Titus and then turned left past the Colossus (which the Chronographer notes as ’The colossal statue, 102 feet high. On its head are 7 rays each 22 feet long’.  This was a crowded, low-lying poor area area, which in AD354 had 2,757 insulae and only 88 houses. The water pressure had to process 75 bath houses, 78 cisterns and the Baths of Daphne; the latter may be associated with the statue of Apollo (Apollinem sandaliarum) in that district; Daphne was a water nymph pursued by Apollo, and is one of the first myths Ovid recites in his Metamorphoses.

Computer Reconstruction of the Meta Sudans (see the coin of Titus)
Sadly, the Meta Sudans was demolished at the orders of Mussolini in 1936; by then, as can be seen in these illustrations, it had collapsed into a small stump. There is no sign then of cultural protests like those against ISIS for attacking Palmyra today.

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