Sacred Identity and the Polysemy of Public Fountains at Herculaneum

Jeremy Hartnett

Wabash College

When Martial presents a view of Campania's post-eruption landscape, he alludes to Pompeii with the phrase haec Veneris sedes and to Herculaneum with hic locus Herculeo nomine clarus (4.44.5-6).  Such a shorthand certainly suggests the depth of connection between these cities and deities.  But what are the contours of this sacred identification?  How did it play out in the ways Campanians built their cities?

This paper investigates such architectural expressions of sacred identity by examining a delimited group of monuments from one city: public fountains at Herculaneum.  The fountains, decorated with low reliefs of deities and used daily by many city dwellers, both exhibited and perpetuated Herculaneans' identification with several divinities in addition to the city's eponymous founder.  The reliefs' form, moreover, accommodated and encouraged such connections on multiple registers: historical, local, topographical, and imperial.

One fountain, for instance, showed Aphrodite Anadyomene.  This image of the goddess emerging from the sea after her birth was polysemous, simultaneously reflecting Herculanean's cultural roots and religious practices.  First, since Aphrodite Anadyomene was a subject first portrayed by Apelles in a famous painting for Alexander, the relief cast the goddess in a particularly Greek light.  Such an association was prized by Herculaneans, who continued to celebrate their region's Hellenic roots into Roman times, for example in the Greek captions of a nearby public painting cycle.  Second, the sense of historical depth that the relief evinced, as well as its maritime version of the goddess, echoed Herculaneans' long-standing and prominent veneration of Aphrodite/Venus.  An Oscan dedication to Herentas, an Italic version of Aphrodite, gives indications of the cult's age, while several other facts – an epigraphically-attested college of Venerii, a seaside temple of Venus, and the painting of a rudder on the latter's interior walls – demonstrate its vigor and nautical nature.

Such close connections among the fountains, their reliefs, and local cult practice did not stop here, but extended to the other fountains.  The figures shown on them – Minerva, Neptune, and the city's eponymous founder, Hercules – were also venerated in the city's temples and civic buildings.  Such correspondence is striking on its own, yet the spatial relationship between the reliefs and temples was also profound: each fountain stood down the street from the temple of the deity it depicted.  Together, this constellation of topographical cross-references anchored the fountains in the city's sacred infrastructure.

Despite these intense local connections, both iconographical and spatial, the subjects of the fountain reliefs also mimic imperial monuments in Rome.  Augustus himself, for example, dedicated Apelles' very painting in the Temple of the Divine Julius Caesar.  While this suggests that even images with extensive local cachet may not have sufficed for those wishing to make grander claims, it also underscores the reliefs' polysemy, reminding us of the multiple levels on which even ornamented water troughs could evoke deeply-held sentiments.


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