The city of Rome collects 3,000 euros per day from visitors who toss coins over their shoulders into the Trevi Fountain in the fond hope they will one day return to the Eternal City. This tourist mecca, which figures prominently in the lighter-than-air 1950s romantic comedy Three Coins in a Fountain, is itself something of a confection, built in the Baroque style during the 18th century. However, the fountain -- only the most recent of several on this site dating back two millenia -- is still fed by the Aqua Virgo, one of Rome’s ancient aqueducts. This aqueduct is so named because a maiden (or virgin) living in the Anio valley first guided Roman soldiers to the spring that is its source. A Roman writer who was ignorant of this story later supposed that the Aqua Virgo got its name from the pristine quality its waters, which “are never sullied, since, while all the others give evidence of the violence of rainstorms by the turgidity of their waters, Virgo alone ever maintains her purity.”
The Aqua Virgo, like the Trevi Foundation, has been rebuilt a number of times over the centuries. It is one of 11 major aqueducts constructed between 312 BCE and 226 CE to supply Rome with water from springs and streams in surrounding hills. With a population of more than one million at the height of the Roman Empire, the city had long since outgrown the water supply available from local wells and the polluted Tiber River. Roman aqueducts are usually associated with the stone arcades used to transport water across low-lying areas. For the most part, however, the water traveled underground in concerete pipes that kept out impurities and the sun’s heat. The flow was generated entirely by the force of gravity, with the aqueduct built on a slight but steady incline from its starting point to its destination. Engineers had to build the Aqua Virgo within precise tolerances to maintain the flow over 14 miles from a source that was only 85 feet above sea level. The Roman system of aqueducts enabled the city to grow to enormous size but also made it vulnerable. You can argue that Rome fell because attacking Goths were able to shut off its water supply during the siege of 537/538 CE by severing the aqueducts. The Goths were eventually driven off, but the city never recovered, its population dwindling to only about 35,000 at its low point in the Middle Ages.
Roman aqueducts are scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. King Herod – a notable villain of the New Testament – had one built to supply water to the Roman outpost at Caesarea in Samaria. There was none, however, in the Samaritan town of Sychar, where Jesus of Nazareth stopped on his way to Galilee from Judea. He was thirsty and asked a woman at the town well to give him a drink. The well, which still exists, was deep and hewn from solid rock – something of an engineering feat in its own day. According to tradition, it had been dug by the Jewish patriach Jacob, which would have made it nearly as old then as the Aqua Virgo is now. Like the Aqua Virgo, the well was fed by an underground spring, and its water was cold and fresh. In contrast to water stored in cisterns, it was referred to as “living water” because it was from a freshening source.
The woman whom Jesus encountered at the well was surprised that he would speak to her because of the enmity between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus told her that if she could see him for who he truly was she would ask him for “living water.” She assumed at first he as referring to the water in the well, but he explained he was offering “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” In a parched land, where water was readily seen as a precious and life-giving commodity, the spiritual significance was clear. Less clear perhaps was the fact that the spiritual water he was offering came from a free-flowing source. Water from an underground spring can travel for miles and still keep its freshness as long as it is allowed to move. The mistake religions make is they try to contain their spiritual sustenance, not realizing that their creeds and dogmas grow stagnant with time. Still waters run deep, we like to say, but sometimes the only remedy is to keep things stirred up.