James Reuel Smith.

Springs and wells in Greek and Roman literature, their legends and locations online

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to Sleep, and, after twice sprinkling his head with
water from the fountain, would compose himself for

Then when Night, her gentle brow crowned with the
poppy, came with an escort of shadowy Dreams, Faunus
would appear, and through the agency of a vision utter
words and give the king oracular instruction or directions,
whose meaning, when he awoke, Egeria would resolve
and make clear to the mystified monarch.

It was in Numa's reign that metal was first impressed
with the figure of an ox to be used as Roman money, and,
possibly, in this incident could be found a suggestion


that might give a deeper insight into the peculiar castings
or coinings of the "Gods" that were called the "Golden
Calf, " out of the jewels of gold that the Israelites bor-
rowed of the Egyptians, on the eve of their exodus under
the lead of Moses.

Ovid; Fasti; III. line 295 and 300.
Ovid; Fasti; IV. line 666.


There was a Roman Spring that became lastingly
linked with the name of the nymph Egeria. Juvenal
refers to it as her trysting place with King Numa, and
indicates that it was not very far from the Porta Capena.

The use of such an elastic measure of distance very
probably explains why each of several fountains, that
are miles apart, is today asserted to be the original Spring
of Numa's favorite; for the broad valley of the Campagna
that stretches from Rome, at the Porta Capena, to the
feet of the distant mountains, produced Springs enough
to warrant the building of many aqueducts, and feed the
pride of several fountain owners, by giving them ample
opportunity to point to more than one grotto as the home
of Egeria's Spring.

Thus three Springs were raised to honor, with even less
effort than Sancho Panza's illustrious friend exerted in
giving many heads to one table, by changing his seat
from one chair to another.

The site of this fountain is closely associated with the
earliest history of Rome, as Numa Pompilius frequented
the grotto in its thick grove while preparing his codex of
laws, which, perhaps with the view of securing for it more


ready and undisputed sanction, he attributed to the in-
spiration of the nymph Egeria.

In subsequent ages the Spring and its surroundings
saw many changes; the place was beautified with temples,
and the native tufo, and the margin of green turf that
enclosed the Spring, gave place to a marble basin and
paving; the neighborhood was converted into a park, and,
the face of nature having been changed the influence of
Egeria, its presiding genius, was lost.

Later, when extravagance, luxury, and the cost of high
living had'increased the greed of the people, and the city's
need of money, the park was rented out for habitations
to a rabble of Jew beggars that Domitian had driven from
the city.

The ancient Porta Capena, which is often confounded
with the present gate of San Sebastian, was probably a
mile closer to the city than the latter, near which the
First Mile-stone was found.

In Juvenal's time, some 800 years after Numa had
passed away and eighteen hundred years ago, two Roman
gentlemen paused near the Porta Capena, and chatted
entertainingly about the Spring, the times, and their
personal affairs.

One of them, Umbritius by name, had just given up his
residence in Rome and was on his way to Cumae, followed
by a cart containing his personal effects. His reasons for
changing his lodgings were numerous, and, read by them-
selves, might be taken for the talk of a dweller in some
large city in the XXth century; he was fleeing fiom the
constant dread of fires, from the perpetual tearing down
of houses, and from the thousand dangers of a cruel city;
and perhaps he refers to something like the interminable
song of the present Summer Restaurant, when he com-
plains of the poets, spouting even in the month of August!


Rome, he says, is no place for honest pursuits, and he is
leaving it to those who turn black into white, and who
barter in contracts; contracts for building temples, for
clearing rivers, for constructing harbors, for cleansing
sewers, and for what not. In short, he is moving to the
country, to — much as a New Yorker might speak of
going to Hempstead — the place where the aviator rested
his weary wings.

Little could good Umbritius have dreamed at that time
that Lieut. Vivaldi of the same nativity would nearly
twenty centuries later, on the twentieth of August. 1910,
rest his weary wings, and lose his life, by the fall of an
army aeroplane within a few miles of where he stood,
much as Icarus, the too venturesome son of the pioneer
in airmanship, brought his untimely experiment to a
close in a more amateurish but similar, sudden descent.

Rome, Umbritius goes on to say, is changed in many
ways that make it a less desirable residence than
formerly; — Here, he continues, where Numa used to
make assignations with his nocturnal mistiess, the grove
of the once hallowed fountain, and the temples, are, in
our days, let out to Jews whose whole furniture is a
basket and a bundle of hay. Every single tree is made to
pay a rent, and, the Camenas having been ejected, the
wood is one mass of beggars.

Aftei wards, the neighborhood improved, and Byron
who visited the Spring in 181 7, and devoted to it five
stanzas in Childe Harold, wrote that its grove was foi-
merly frequented in Summer, particularly on the first
Sunday in May, by the modern Romans, who attached a
salubrious quality to the fountain, which trickles from an
orifice at the bottom of the vault of the grotto and creeps
down the matted grass into the brook Aquataccio, which
is the ancient Almo. Byron's poetical picture shows the


fountain robbed by the villa owners, and almost reduced
to the primitive stage that Juvenal sighed for; —

The mosses of thy fountain still are sprinkled

With thine Elysian water drops; the face

Of thy cave guarded Spring, with years unwrinkled,

Reflects the meek eyed genius of the place,

Whose green, wild margin, now no more erase

Art's works; nor must the delicate waters sleep,

Prison 'd in marble, bubbling from the base

Of a cleft statue, with a gentle leap

The rill runs o'er, and round, fern, flowers and ivy creep.

In ancient times the Almo was renowned for its medici-
nal and purifying properties; the cattle were brought to
its banks to be healed of their diseases, and apparently
its virtues applied not only to brutes but to deities, for it
was the custom of the Priests of Cybele, every year on a
certain day in spring, to bring the sacred image of that
goddess from her temple on the Palatine and wash it in
this water. Later, and until a few years back, the image
of our Saviour was annually brought from the church of
Santa Martina in the Forum, and washed in this stream.

Among those, who consider that this Spring was within
the boundaries of the city, is Lanciani, who describes it
and its grotto as being, in 1880, in the lower grounds of
the Villa Fonseca at the foot of the Cselian Hill near the
valley della Ferratella.

Several years later, however, the advance guard in the
march of modern improvement attacked the fountain,
and the military engineers buried it while they were
building the new hospital near Santo Stefano Rotondo.

Still, persistently, as when in human form she would
brook no repression in her grief, "the Springs forced their
way through the newly made ground and appeared again
in the beautiful nymphaeum of the villa Mattei von


Hoffmann, at the corner of the Via di Porta S. Sebas-

Other writers who think of the Spring as outside of the
city, though not as far away as the Alban Hills, identify
the ancient fountain with the one now in a grotto a couple
of miles beyond the walls of Rome. Both of these sites
may be reached by the same road; and a visit to the
fragments of the house of Numa on the Sacra Via, where
he resided after leaving the Sabine city of Cures, and to
the Aventine, where he raised his altar to Jupiter, may
induce a fitting mental mood in which to undertake a
search for the true fountain of Egeria, the nymph that
Numa loved for more than two score years.

A more detailed impression of the topography will be
received if the search be conducted afoot, which it may be
felt is a fitting way to approach the shrine of the nymph
who inspired the laws that for many generations governed
the Mistress City of the world, and the myriad peoples
she conquered and ruled.

Leaving the Forum, a path over a hill and through a
dilapidated park brings one to the Via San Sebastiano,
which, by a sinuous course and under changing names,
leads to the fountain; a few yards from where it crosses
the Brook Marrana, of Lanciani's Egeria, near the Via
San Gregorio, a small rounded mass of masonry marks a
conjectural site of the ancient gate, the " moist Capena"
where the Via Appia began. In those days when the
Brook was probably left to its own devices and, during
heavy rains, came up out of its narrow bed, and spread
itself abroad, as even the Tiber has a fondness for some-
times doing, there was no doubt wading enough to give
the gateway a wide reputation for moistness among the
many travelers who, either going or coming, were forced
to flounder through its muddy reaches.


The Brook passes the mill of E. Mattei just before
reaching the road, and crosses to the right under the
latter, nearly opposite the large brown mass of the re-
mains of the extensive baths of Caracal! a, whose cisterns
and cold plunge, a quarter of a mile away, it possibly
helped to supply when they were opened, nearly two
hundred years after it had made the Porta Capena a
synonynm for waste water.

A quarter of a mile farther on, the road divides, be-
coming the Via Porta Latina on the left, and in the angle
here is a column in front of a gateway leading into a
forest-like garden, and on the left a church.

A quarter of a mile beyond is the door to the tomb of
the Scipios, set in a hill hugged wall with a single large
cypress tree above it, and then the Porta San Sebastiano,
with two round towers, and the Via delle Mura crossing
the way between them. Beyond is a Custom House with
its scales, and a staff of officers armed with long, thin,
rapierlike rods, with which they prod the contents of the
city-bound carts in their search for wine and other duti-
able supplies.

Then, passing the Via del Travicello, the cane bordered
Almo, here ten feet wide, is reached. Beyond the Almo,
near the church Domine Quo Vadis marking the meeting
of the Master with Peter, the paved road forks into the
Via Ardiatina on the right and the Via Antiqua on the
left; and a short distance ahead of this forking there
branches off, to the left of the latter road, a country field-
road. Following this field-road a little bricked up arch
is passed, and then a field-gate on the left. From here
the roadside walls give place to thick hedges, until,
suddenly, they too cease, and an unobstructed view is
had of the distant Alban mountains ahead, and of a
pretty, green, rolling country round about, close at hand,


with the Almo, now tree lined instead of cane bordered,
meandering through the valley which is covered with
fields and meadows, and dotted with grazing cows and,
here and there, a plowman turning up the deep red soil
behind a pair of white oxen whose early progenitors,
bred for the sacrificial altars and leading a toilless life,
were supposed to owe their priestly requirement, of
immaculate coats, to some subtle quality in the waters
of the Anio, from which they drew their draughts, and
which join the Tiber a little farther north where Mettus
pitched his camp.

A quarter of a mile farther on, the road approaches to
within 250 feet of the Almo, where the Temple to Deus
Rediculus stands, almost on its banks. This ancient little
building, with terra cotta decorations and brick pillars
capped with- the same material, which may once have
been a tomb, is now used as a barn by the farmer whose
house stands next to it, and its basement has become a
storage room for the family, and a playhouse for the

In the next half-mile three small streams are encoun-
tered; one runs through a stone canal two feet wide;
another crosses the road in its natural bed; and the third
runs alongside of the road, which, half a mile beyond the
Temple, passes directly in front of the Shrine of Egeria,
once a dark grotto from which issued a Spring of running
water that irrigated a grove that surrounded it; then,
velvety turf enclosed the water with a margin of green,
and no marble profaned the native tufo. But that was
so many centuries ago that, even nearly two thousand
years before today, the reflective Roman regretted the
presence of embellishing marble, and felt it chilled the
influence of the presiding genius. Today the marble has
disappeared, burned it may be, for lime, or perhaps still


intact and more appropriately adorning some Roman
building; and only the brick and cement, that made its
backing, are now to be seen in the big chamber into
which the original grotto has been enlarged, by cutting
back into the hill out of which the Spring still flows.

It is a spacious, arched, windowless, three sided cham-
ber with three vacant statue niches on each of two sides ;
the front being open and facing the road.

The ceiling is some thirty feet in height, the hill itself
having a rise of a hundred feet or more, and the chamber
is approximately 25 feet wide by 60 feet long.

Projecting from the rear wall, and some three and a
half feet above the floor, is a slab on which reclines the
life-size statue of a woman. This figure, slightly raised
at the shoulders, portrays an attitude of attention and
suggests that she is listening for the expected approach
of Numa.

The statue is now armless and headless, and pieces
have been chipped and broken from the body whose
surface has become the muster-roll of a horde of vandals,
the names scrawled with various colored leads, and in all
sizes of letters.

Giving off from this chamber, on the left and at the
entrance, is a small anteroom, with a statue niche at the
rear, and there was probably once a counterpart of this
room, opposite to it, on the right hand side of the large

The Spring is behind the left sidewall of the chamber,
and, through a break, in the masonry of that wall, making
a small cave-like opening some six feet above the level of
the floor, the water can be seen there, running in a curved
channel that conducts it to the back of the statue, under
which it makes its first appearance inside of the chamber.

The reclining statue's slab was supported by three


marble brackets, the center one now in part missing;
these form hollow troughs, three inches wide and open at
the front, through which the water comes out, falling in
three streams into an eighteen inch wide stone channel
in the floor. This channel, carried around the room,
forms a rectangular canal border to the floor, of which it
thus makes an island, and has its outlet at the entrance in
front. From there the stream flows under the road, and
under a two-foot wide stone canal that borders it, through
a skeleton grove, and a partly cultivated forty-acre field
that offers turnips at its westerly bank and sweet clover
at the other, and, after traveling five hundred feet from
the grotto, pours into the Almo, which has come from the
east, higher up in the valley, and is not created by the

The Spring's water is not very cold, but it is not insipid
and, indeed, has no peculiarity of taste.

The ancient grove is now meagerly represented by a
few trees across the road and in front of the grotto ; they
are neither lofty nor venerable, being barely thirty feet
high, and not over fifty years old, and would not attract a
lingering glance but for their charming apparel of ivy,
and the rather remote possibility that they may be lineal
descendants from the forest that first shaded the Spring
and formed the Bosca Sacra of its presiding nymph.

One can easily fancy that, even as a natural grotto,
this was a cozy place in which either to frame a nation's
code or loiter with a nimble- witted nymph. Lying, as it
does some three miles from the town, and cushioned in
the quietude of the hill-sprinkled valley, it would still, if
refurnished and decorated, be an ideal study for a law
compiler; the gentle splashing of the water from the three
spouts below the statue, where the moisture has fostered
a luxuriant growth of delicate maidenhair fern, and the


water's metrical murmur as it glides around the sides of
the island floor, affording restful and suggestful rhythms
in which Nature seems vaguely to whisper what might
either inspire a deviser of laws or lull a dreamer and

From the front of the grotto there is an unobstructed
view, westerly through the valley, to the towers of the
San Sebastian gate a mile and a half away in a direct
line; and, before those towers were raised, the grotto
could have been descried from the Porta Capena; so that,
altogether, this location seems to fit the somewhat in-
definite allusions to the position of Egeria's Spring rather
better than any of the other places do.

The friend of Juvenal's Umbritius, standing near the
moist Porta Capena, would hardly have pointed "down
this valley of Egeria" to the grotto, had it been up the
hill on the left near the Villa Hoffman, or had it been
near Lake Nemi, among the Alban mountains, a thousand
feet higher still, and nearly twenty miles away. But,
from the Porta Capena to the grotto described, there is
quite an appreciable descent almost to where the Almo
and the water from the Spring merge together in the
clover-turnip field.

This place, too, while far enough away from the city
to be secluded, is easily accessible, being but a gallop of
less than a fourth of an hour through the vale to the
grotto; whereas the neighborhood of the source of the
Marrana Brook is almost at the center of the town as
Numa knew it; and, as for Lake Nemi, the forty-mile
journey there and back, with its slow, tedious, and long
uphill climb, would have precluded those frequent visits
to the Spring that, as Livy asserts, were made by Numa —
even if the Spring at Nemi had existed in Numa's life-
time. Ovid, however, plainly states that it was not


until Numa had passed away that the Nemi Spring, fed
by the tears of expiring Egeria, began to flow, and
helped to form the lovely little lake it still maintains
in perfect beauty, deep in the bosom of the Alban

Juvenal; Satire III.



The fountain of Juturna is connected with the nymph
of that name whose charms attracted the admiration of
Jupiter, and whose favorite method of eluding him was to
plunge beneath the waters of the streams by which she
was wont to pass her leisure hours.

This practice perhaps suggested the idea that she would
be flattered and pleased by being created a goddess of the
Pools and Murmuring Streams, and Jupiter accordingly
conferred upon her that honor in addition to his affec-
tions. That she was a being of unusual charms might be
inferred from the fact that Juno preferred her among all
her Latian rivals.

Her Spring was near the temple of Vesta by the Roman
Forum, and was the one at which Castor and Pollux
watered their horses on the 15th of July 496 B.C. after
winning the battle of Lake Regillus, near Frascati, for
the Romans under Postumius when their opponents, the
Latins, were on the verge of victory. According to
Macaulay's lay of the incident the heavenly twins, that
now form the constellation Gemini, who dashed into the
battle, their armor and steeds as white as snow, came out
of it red with gore and they not only watered but washed
their horses in the Spring.


A temple was erected to the heavenly heroes just in
front of the Spring, and for centuries afterwards the
anniversary of the battle was celebrated with one of the
most imposing spectacles of the Eternal City, a parade of
the equestrian body of many thousand horsemen who
rode to the Spring to commemorate the victory and to
honor the two horsemen who brought it about.

Sacrifices were offered to Juturna on the I ith of Janu-
ary, and the water of her Spring was used in the nearby
temple of the Vestal Virgins.

The fountain was found during excavations, in 1898,
which revealed traces of a marble basin of the Imperial
period, and a larger and older basin of tufa which had
originally received the water.

The only three columns of the temple of Castor and
Pollux left standing are conspicuous pointers to the loca-
tion of Juturna's Spring, which lies some twenty feet
southeast of them. Its waters are contained in a brick
tank floored and sided with a casing of marble, from the
center of which rises a base of brick still partially layered
with marble, the top of which, now covered with a thick
growth of grass, formerly supported a group of the heroes
and their horses. At the bottom of the tank in the south-
east end is a low arch for the egress of the water; and on
the northwest side opposite the three columns of the
temple, is a perpendicular tube with perforations to
prevent overflowing. Some of the water of the fountain
was conducted through a lead pipe to the well of the
Sacrarium just south of it.

The water, now perfectly clear, is about fifteen inches
deep; and the bottom of the tank is some fifteen feet
below the level of the forum's present pavement.

Juturna also presided over another fountain which was
bv the Numicum, a small river near Lavinium in Latium;


its waters were used in sacrifices, and were famous for
their healing qualities.

Ovid; Fasti; I. In 707. II. In 586.
Propertius; IV. Elegy 22.
^neid; XII. In 178.



The fountain of Mercury was in the Via Appia, near
the Capenian Gate.

Only one of the ancient writers has referred to it, and
of its early history he says nothing whatever; but his
description of its attraction for tradesmen, their faith in
its waters, and their ceremonies and prayers when they
had visited the fountain, are humorously entertaining,
and show why "being in trade, " even in those early days,
cast suspicion upon the morals and characters of persons
so engaged.

Ovid says ; ' ' If we may believe those who have experi-
enced it, this fountain has a divine efficacy. Hither
comes the tradesman having a girdle around his robes,
and in a state of purity.

"He draws some of the water to carry it away in a
perfumed urn. In this a laurel branch is dipped and with
the wet laurel are sprinkled all the things which are in-
intended to change owners. He sprinkles his own hair,
too, with the dripping bough, and runs through his
prayers in a voice accustomed to deceive; 'Wash away
the perjuries of passed times,' says he; 'Wash away my
lying words of the passed day, whether I have made thee
to attest for me, or whether I have invoked the great
Godhead of Jove, whom I did not intend to listen to me.
Or, if I have knowingly deceived any other of the Gods,


or any Goddess, let the swift breezes bear away my wicked
speeches. Let there be no trace left of my perjuries on the
morrow, and let not the Gods care whatever I may chose
to say.'

"'Do but give me profits; give me the delight that rises
from gain, and grant that it may be lucrative to me to
impose on my customers.'

"From on high Mercury laughs at his worshipper
while making such requests as these, remembering that
once on a time he himself stole the Ortygian kine."

Mercury (possibly a form of the Latin word "mercari"
to traffic), the God with many attributes, among which
were craft and theft, had a temple dedicated to him in
Rome as the patron of traders, more than two hundred
and fifty years before the time of Christ, and his festival
was held on the fifteenth day of May, a month that de-
rives its name from his mother's, Maia, as the day Wed-
nesday, in French, derives its name from his own.

If it be accepted that this fountain is the Spring which
is still flowing near the old Porta Capena, and which is
assumed by some to be the fountain of Egeria, then, an
otherwise lost fountain is accounted for, and the fountain
of Mercury here, and the Spring in the grotto "down the
valley," become the present representatives of the two
old Springs described, one of them by Juvenal, and both
of them by Ovid.

Online LibraryJames Reuel SmithSprings and wells in Greek and Roman literature, their legends and locations → online text (page 37 of 46)