Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.34

Brian Campbell, Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome. Studies in the History of Greece and Rome.   Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2012.  Pp. xvii, 585.  ISBN 9780807834800.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Brendan Haug, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (

In a programmatic article on the writing of environmental history, Norwegian scholar Terje Tvedt remarks that “the terms ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ cover such a myriad of variables and aspects of importance to societies that meaningful empirically oriented research or precise discussions become virtually impossible”.1 Accordingly, scholarly attempts to analyze a given culture’s innumerable and ever-changing relationships with “nature” must either expand to great length or else sacrifice depth in favor of broad coverage. A more constructive approach, Tvedt argues, is to focus on human interactions with specific elements or sub-systems of the natural world.

Ancient history has seen recent work at all points along Tvedt’s spectrum. Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea, for instance, attempts to embrace pan-Mediterranean ecology in all its dizzying complexity, while Lukas Thommen’s An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome touches only briefly on a wide array of topics, many of which could be the subject of an entire monograph.

Between these two extremes lie works like Robert Sallares’ Malaria and Rome. Sallares focused on a single natural phenomenon—disease—and offered a rich, convincing study of its effects on ancient populations. To his company we may now add Brian Campbell’s new book on rivers in the Roman world. Like Sallares, Campbell concentrates on human interactions with a single natural element: flowing water. Campbell’s gaze, however, remains pan-Mediterranean and over the course of 558 pages of text, notes, and bibliography (along with three indices) he dips his toes into nearly every waterway in the Empire, from the mighty Danube and the Nile to the tiny streams of Italy and Greece. Clearly, it would be impossible to do justice to a book of this scale and ambition here. This review will thus merely summarize Campbell’s wide-ranging contribution and close by offering some thoughts on water and state power.

Insofar as the book has a central thesis, it is that “rivers were among the natural phenomena over which the Romans consciously sought mastery in one way or another” (30). Such “mastery” is explored in the nine thematic chapters that follow a lengthy introduction. Here, Campbell admirably confronts evidentiary and methodological issues head-on and offers a sophisticated discussion of the difficulties inherent in any general history of Roman river use. First and foremost, the Mediterranean riverine landscape is highly diverse and encompasses everything from massive and perennial waterways to small and unpredictable seasonal streams (22-30). This diversity, in turn, will have informed the development of innumerable locally specific relationships with flowing water, the majority of which cannot be recovered from the fragmentary surviving evidence (29). In consideration of these insurmountable evidentiary gaps, Campbell elucidates two contrasting approaches that might be taken to the study of human-river interaction in the ancient world. The first is the longue durée case-study that brings together all the available textual, archaeological, and geophysical evidence for a single region.2 Yet Campbell rightly notes that the results of such limited case studies cannot be considered representative of the patterns of river use throughout the wider Mediterranean basin. By contrast, Campbell adopts a thematic approach, one that selects a handful of discrete topics and explores them across the whole of the Mediterranean over a relatively long period of time (36-37).

He begins his thematic exploration in Chapter 2—“Putting Rivers on the Map”—by documenting the geographical writers’ use of rivers as fixed points of reference with which to measure distance, define borders, and establish the general shape and orientation of a landscape. But rivers were more than simple lines on a map that demarcated physical regions or provincial or imperial boundaries. In the geographical literature, peoples could also be defined by the rivers upon which they depended, thus “contribut[ing] to the preservation of the identity and history of communities and regions” (81).

Chapter 3 is broadly concerned with the legal instruments used to manage water and riverine landscapes, to ameliorate the potentially harmful actions of rivers, and to regulate the relationships between the river, its local users, and the Roman state. Drawing upon the Digest and the corpus of the agrimensores Campbell illustrates a perpetual balancing act between state and society: the state’s desire to make full use of public water for universal benefit and the imperatives neither to infringe upon the property rights of local landholders nor to disturb their relationships with one another. Connected to this are the attempts of the agrimensores to manage the disruptions caused to landholders and their property rights by the inherent unpredictability of flood-prone fluvial environments.

Campbell turns to religion and art in Chapter 4 and surveys the various depictions and representations of rivers in a variety of media. Although the chapter is something of an outlier in a book broadly concerned with the management and exploitation of rivers, it is here that Campbell lights upon a crucial observation that is otherwise obscured by his focus on Roman “power”: to a great extent, river history is local history. In this vein, he remarks upon the relative insignificance of the Tiber in Roman state religion. Instead, “[i]t was ordinary people who lived in the Tiber valley or in the riverine districts in Rome who had real psychological and emotional connection with the river, a river that they both needed and feared. And they have left few memorials” (143).

Chapter 5 illustrates the military uses of rivers: as environmental elements to be manipulated for battlefield advantage, as watery highways for the transportation of soldiers and supplies, which might be protected by nearby forts, and as the often permeable boundaries along the empire’s frontiers. Since riverine environments were highly variable, they were only infrequently regarded as hard and fast imperial boundaries and the Roman army might operate on both sides of a major waterway. Campbell offers the example of troops operating in Buridavia, sixty miles north of the Danube, a river that functioned not as the border of the empire but “as a line of military control in a wider system” (192). On the whole, Campbell finds that although rivers figured heavily in Roman military thinking, no overall strategic plan or policy underlay their exploitation. Rather, the Romans “exploited the riverine environment as and how it suited them, just like the other natural resources they encountered” (197).

Chapter 6—“Exploiting Rivers”—is by far the most varied and it would be difficult to summarize its contents here. Ranging widely over topics such as navigation, transportation, canals, dams, and water distribution, the chapter is nearly a microcosm of the book as a whole. As such, it draws attention to the one area in which Campbell’s familiarity with the evidence is less than complete: the papyri. Still, this leads only to some very minor errors and omissions, particularly in a section of water mills, irrigation, drainage, and wetlands. The papyri are rich in evidence for these issues among others and a greater attention to the scholarly literature on these topics would have helped to flesh out the relevant sections of the chapter .3

The paired Chapters 7 and 8 address the movement of goods by river, the former addressing Spain, Gaul, the Rhine and Britain and the latter the Danube, Italy and the East (including a welcome section on the Nile). Campbell concludes that, in general, much river navigation and transport was local and small-scale, leaving few traces in the surviving evidence. Even along the major rivers used for military traffic, Rome simply made opportunistic use of the available resources, resulting in “only limited attempts to control or improve navigation” (328). Along with their other useful attributes, navigability was simply one additional contribution a river might make to its local users.

The penultimate Chapter 9 surveys water, particularly springs, as sources of recreation and health and deploys a wide array of evidence for the use of “medicinal” waters in the Roman world. The map included at pages 348-49— documenting the locations of 189 known Mediterranean spas—is enough to indicate the centrality of water to Roman- era medicine.

Of course no book, especially one of this size and ambition, can fail to provoke a few quibbles. First, those hoping for a tightly argued monograph will be disappointed. This is not a criticism per se for it is simply the inevitable consequence of Campbell’s thematic approach. While each chapter may usefully be read as a stand-alone essay, there is little that binds them together, save the frequent assertions of Rome’s power and her “mastery” of nature.

Second, the language of “power” and “mastery” will strike those familiar with the literature on modern river control as somewhat anachronistic. This was the self-confident, high-modernist rhetoric of 19th and 20th century hydraulic engineers, who dammed, channelized, diverted and otherwise “rectified” rivers the world over.4 While Campbell adopts their unique terminology, much of the power and mastery on display in his study is purely symbolic: the stuff of art, literature, and imperial propaganda. Still, this top-down perspective is in large part dictated by the elite provenance of much of the evidence at Campbell’s disposal, the strengths and weaknesses of which he discusses, frankly and fully, in the final section of the introduction (30-44)

Nevertheless, this heavy focus on state and elite activity results in the claim that “the way in which riverine resources were exploited was dictated by the powerful elite in Rome or in local cities ... [while] lesser people joined in, helped, or tried to keep out of the way” (387). True up to a point, perhaps, but this is a decidedly one-sided perspective on ancient water management. Indeed, “lesser people” make appearances throughout the book, e.g. honoring the Tiber (143), contributing local water management traditions to “Roman” irrigation schemes in the Maghrib (228), or managing the healing waters of the thermal spas that dotted the Empire (368). Egypt’s papyri also provide evidence for local control and agency exercised both independently and in close coordination with state authorities.5 These mundane activities made relatively little impact upon the written record and we are only beginning to probe the myriad interactions and exchange between Roman and non-Roman traditional water management practices.6

These comments are meant simply to indicate that despite its great length Campbell’s magnum opus is hardly exhaustive. Nonetheless, his contribution is most welcome and will long remain the point de départ for any study of Roman perspectives on and utilization of the Mediterranean’s watery landscapes.


1.   T. Tvedt, “‘Water Systems’, Environmental History and the Deconstruction of Nature,” Environment and History 16 (2010), 144-145.
2.   A recent example of this approach is P. Thonemann, The Maeander Valley: A Historical Geography from Antiquity to Byzantium (Cambridge, 2011).
3.   E.g. D. Rathbone, (2007), “Mēchanai (Waterwheels) in the Roman Fayyum,” in Mario Capasso and Paola Davoli edd., New Archaeological and Papyrological Researches on the Fayyum. Pap.Lup. XIV (Congedo Editore), 251-262.
4.   E.g. D. Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (Oxford, 1985); T. Tvedt, The River Nile in the Age of the British: Political Ecology and the Quest for Economic Power (I.B. Tauris, 2004); D. Gilmartin, “Imperial Rivers: Irrigation and British Visions of Empire,” in D. Ghosh and D. Kennedy edd. Decentering Empire: Britian, India and the Transcolonial World (New Dehli, 2006), 76-103; M. Cioc, “The Rhine as a World River,” in E. Burke and K. Pomeranz edd. The Environment and World History (Berkeley, 2009), 165- 190.
5.   B. Haug, Watering the Desert: Environment, Irrigation, and Society in the Premodern Fayyum, Egypt (Dissertation, University of California Berkeley, 2012), 177-223.
6.   For a North African example see A. Leone, “Water Management in late antique North Africa: agricultural irrigation,” Water History 4.1 (2012), 119-133.

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