Sweet and Bitter

The goddess Venus had two fountains in her garden: One providing sweet and the other bitter water. 


In the story of Psyche and Cupid, Venus’s son Cupid fills two vases, one from each fountain, and with instructions from his jealous mother, goes to Psyche. Venus, incensed with the most beautiful Psyche for usurping attention due only to her, commands her son to make Psyche fall in love with some lowly and mean beast. To carry out his mother’s wishes, the mischievous Cupid places drops of the bitter water on Psyche’s lips. As he does this, Psyche’s beauty touches him, filling him with remorse and moving him to reverse his action by pouring sweet water over her curls.



Like Venus’s garden, Rome, too, has its sweet and bitter waters. Its sweet water can be found everywhere Romans and her visitors live, work, eat, and play.



Roman water is delicious. Most cafes and restaurants, instead of bottled mineral water, serve tap water. Either still or sparkling, it comes to the table in a glass carafe. This same water, managed by ACEA, the largest water utility in Italy and 51% owned by Rome, flows all over the City for private and public consumption in homes, offices, and shops, as well as in streets and parks. 


Since ancient times, water has been a sign of Roman power and conviviality. With their engineering prowess, the Romans developed a massive water distribution system including eleven aqueducts built between 312 B.C and 226 A.D. These carried sweet water from mostly underground springs to their City. Experts say that anywhere from 67 to 1000 liters of water flowed pass each Roman every day. Having no flushing mechanisms or spigots to turn on and off, the water streamed continuously through public baths, fountains, and latrines as well as the private residences of the wealthy.


Today, passersby rest by the City’s fabulous decorative fountains and quench their thirst at public drinking fountains, including the nasoni. The nasoni,  made of cast iron, first came on the scene in the 19th century and sport a long, bent spout which gives them their name, “Big nose.”  There are more than 280 decorative fountains and 2000 nasoni around the City providing citizens and visitors refreshment every day.  I share the Roman passion for deliciously sweet water. And, when in Rome, I can not drink enough of it.


Rome has bitter waters too. The Tiber River, il Tevere, carries them south from the Appenine mountains of Tuscany, through the modern City’s heart, and on to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Rome is bound to the Tiber. Founded on its eastern shores in 753 BC, it depended on the then sweet waters of the Tiber for all its water needs. But as the river became polluted from the run-off of daily Roman life, Romans turned their backs on it for drinking water and built their famous  aqueducts.


Through the centuries, though, Romans continued to live on the river and suffer from its bitter waters. The angry river bore disease and would often overflow its banks flooding the City with its polluted waters. Over time, to protect themselves, the Romans walled in the river and built their residences and buildings facing mostly away from its yellow waters.


But, Romans have been at work to redeem il Tevere from its bitter fate. Various organizations and projects have encouraged the return of fish and fauna, have built filters to catch waste as it comes down stream, and continuously monitor the height of its waters. The struggle continues. Sadly, as I looked upon the river, it seemed lonely and absent from daily Roman life. I saw only a few souls sculling through the bitter waters, but perhaps they are a sign of sweet things to come.


All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum 


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