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  • Tracing the Ebb and Flow of de Architectura 81
  • Alice König

Later, a measure (called the quinaria) that was based neither on the inch nor on either of the digits came into use in the City, supplanting earlier measures, either through Agrippa or through the plumbers working under the direction of Vitruvius the architect.

Frontinus de Aquis Urbis Romae 25

Vitruvius’ eighth book, on water, is not one of his best. It is bitty and discursive … a sloppy compilation of borrowings, largely from Greek writers [which] shows little originality, clear-mindedness or intelligence on Vitruvius’s part. His excuse must be that he was old and tired.

Lewis 1999.145 and 171–72

When it is discussed at all (which is not often), the eighth book of Vitruvius’s de Architectura is frequently approached as something of an anomaly—almost an interruption of the rest of the treatise. Not only does it revolve around the provision of a city’s water supply (not one of “the three parts of architecture” outlined by Vitruvius at 1.3.1),2 it digresses beyond what even an ancient reader might expect an account of civic hydraulics to cover, ranging into philosophy, natural history, geography, and [End Page 161] paradoxography as it discusses different water types and their weird and wonderful properties. It is a book that surprises both disciplinary and generic expectations, in other words, even more than Vitruvius’s other books. In addition, it has had the misfortune to disappoint many an archaeologist and historian of technology, who, without due appreciation of Vitruvius’s agenda, have looked to it in vain for a comprehensive treatment of ancient hydraulic practices and techniques; hence critiques like that of Michael Lewis above.

It is perhaps ironic that one of the few ancient references to Vitruvius outside his own treatise associates him first and foremost with plumbing. Of course, in the passage quoted above, Frontinus is not referring to Vitruvius’s writings but to some of his hands-on experience. It would seem that he might have helped to oversee a significant reform of Rome’s water supply system: the introduction of the quinaria. There was some dispute, it seems, as to whether Vitruvius or Agrippa should take the credit (and Frontinus decides in what follows that neither theory sufficiently accounts for the quinaria’s name). Whatever the true nature of Vitruvius’s involvement, it is clear that, in some quarters at least, he was remembered for his connection with aqueducts and even as a figure of significance comparable to Agrippa in that context (despite their difference in status).

I outline this paradox with a view to unpicking both sides of it. The primary aim of this article is to plug a gap in Vitruvian scholarship by offering a close reading of de Architectura 8. In so doing, I hope to underline what is to be gained by analysing whole books of the treatise as books to be read through from end to end (something that happens too rarely).3 I will also examine the ways in which Book 8 jigsaws into the rest of the de Architectura. As we will see, far from being an interruption of the wider text, Book 8 proves integral to its exposition of a number of core themes. In fact, it does not simply consolidate but also adds nuance (for instance) to the treatise’s representation of architecture and its relationship to the natural world, the relationship that other sections of the text construct between scientific/philosophical learning and architectural/technological know-how, Vitruvius’s self-presentation in relation to other scholars and writers, the treatise’s literary texture and generic ambitions, and Vitruvius’s engagement with Augustan Rome and Augustus himself. [End Page 162] My analysis of Book 8 will thus contribute to a number of important areas of Vitruvian scholarship because Book 8 itself has new insights to offer. Beyond that, it will also draw on and contribute to a wider movement in the study of ancient scientific and technical texts that stresses their intricate intratextuality and the complexity of the reading experiences that they offer. In approaching Book 8 micro- and macroscopically, I want to...


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pp. 161-181
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