Considered holy since ancient times, the Egeria Spring is located in one of the most evocative areas of the Roman countryside, the Caffarella Valley. Known also as Fonte delle Camene or Fonte dell’Acqua Santa, the spring remained hidden for many years inside a grotto, protected by the neighbouring Sacred Groves.
The Nymphaeum of Egeria was built later, around the second century AD. Rising in the vicinity of the spring and dedicated to the cult of the nymph, it appears today as a sort of niche, once lined in white marble, its large vault covered with mosaics.
The source is the starting point of the “path of waters” that traverses Parco dell’Appia Antica – the Appian Way park, one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. The Park is in fact home to a great many other monumental works from the Roman Age, like the Tomb of Caecilia Metella, the Villa of the Quintili, and the Villa of Maxentius with its famed circus.
Protector of childbirth and fertility, the wise and beautiful Egeria was venerated along with the Camenae, the goddesses of spring water.
It is told that Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, had secretly fallen in love with her, and went every night to the Sacred Groves to meet her.
Thanks to Egeria’s spiritual guidance and her divinatory rites, the king was able to keep his people out of war, promulgate fair laws, and implement early Rome’s political and religious reform.
Upon the death of her beloved, the nymph, in her sorrow, melted into tears. Taking pity on her inconsolable weeping, the goddess Diana transformed her into a spring. The source then became a place of worship sacred to Romans for many centuries thereafter.
Ancient spirits that animated woods, waters, and mountains, nymphs were minor deities associated with a particular location.
From the Ancient Greek “νύμφη” – young girl, they were depicted as beautiful maidens with graceful movements, their delicate heads adorned with flowers. Nude or garbed in light, flowing garments, they loved dancing, singing, and pitching woo with men and satyrs.
In Latin mythology, their cult was associated with springs and running water. The four Camenae (archaic goddesses of springs) – Egeria, Carmenta, Antevorta, and Postverta – were attributed powers of prophesy and inspiration.
Egeria was guide and adviser to Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome and promoter of peace among the early Roman tribes. Her name etymologically derived from ager (“land to be cultivated”) and agger (a defence earthwork), Egeria was an archaic and powerful female deity born from the cults of the earth, able to inspire wisdom, concord, and pacification in the new city’s king.
Antevorta (“she who looks ahead”) and Postverta (“she who looks back”) were associated with childbirth. They were invoked so that the foetus would assume the right position in the womb (head first) and be protected from harm if this were not the case. Goddesses of life and death, in addition to their archaic nature as protectors they were oracles and deities of the afterlife.
Carmenta, whose name is associated with the word carmen (“song,” “epic account,” “poem”) had oracular qualities. She later became more than one (Carmentis), and came to be the Roman personification of the Muses.
And it was to the Camenae that, as early as the seventh-sixth century BC, Numa Pompilius consecrated the woods near the Egeria spring, outside Porta Capena. The festival Carmentalia was celebrated in January, with offerings of milk and water in exchange for prophesies and divinations. And for many long centuries, the Vestal Virgins would visit the sacred spring to draw the water necessary for worship. Brides, their heads adorned with flowers, went there in procession, bearing torches and ears of wheat, piously taking part in the sacred rites, and praying to the nymphs to give them life and fertility.