BMCR 2006.04.23

Reading Rivers in Roman Literature and Culture

, Reading rivers in Roman literature and culture. Roman studies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005. xiv, 123 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0739111086 $19.95 (pb).

The principal theme of Jones’ book is the role of rivers as poetic devices in Roman literature, with special reference to the Aeneid of Virgil. In part I she explores the cultural and intellectual background of rivers in the ancient world, since they demarcate and define, often establishing boundaries both symbolically and in geographical terms. Three chapters deal with the cultural context of rivers in Graeco-Roman society in respect of cosmology, ritual practices and ethnography. In part II she moves on to rivers in a literary environment. The essential characteristics of a river, that is movement and directionality, link it to literary narrative and the construction of literary texts. So, the river offers not just a vivid background or illustration, but acts as a mediator between poetry and poet. It can link the past to the present, and the flow of the river can assist or become part of the narrative. Similarly, river catalogues and river journeys may form part of a narrative structure. A final chapter deals with the reception of riverine themes in later literature, but is too short to be really effective.

The argument, with a few exceptions, is clearly expounded. The topic has been well researched with careful analysis of ancient writers. The bibliography is adequate and the volume is in general well produced. Jones has chosen a largely neglected theme, and her book provides an effective introduction. It will be of interest to ancient historians, literary specialists and all historians of the culture and society of the ancient world.

In more detail, rivers have great symbolic value, with deep cultural roots based on the importance of water as a necessity of life and the particular value of running water for cleanliness and the purging of impurities (chapter 1). Rivers have a mystical importance in that while constantly changing they seem to stay the same. Rivers are also unpredictable, and hence there are many stories in mythology of rivers changing shape, and cases where water becomes an agent of transformation. Rivers can produce miraculous outcomes. The frequent appearance of water in cosmogonies hints at an analogy between human life and the history of the universe (p. 18).

In ritual activities (chapter 2) water represents transition from one phase of life to another, including rites of passage and indeed death itself in the final crossing of the river Styx into the Underworld. Given that many rivers were perceived as gods, it is not surprising that rivers were often associated with the gift of prophecy and were involved in divination. Rivers also offered spiritual purification and healing. However, Jones does not deal with the most striking evidence for the healing power of water, namely the importance of thermal springs in the Roman world, as we can see immediately from the number of places called Aquae. In general her case could be improved if she made use of a wider range of evidence. For example, the Sacred Tales of Aelius Aristides, written in the second century AD, give an excellent impression of the cultural and emotional significance of the ability of a river to transform through its special healing powers.

Rivers help to define the identity of peoples and places because they are an emblem of the landscape and therefore advertise the association of certain people with a place (chapter 3). This also serves to mark these people off from outsiders. So rivers divide as well as connect. This is an important theme in ancient writers and it might have been profitable to consider here a related topic, namely the importance of river confluences. These brought about change, because one river was augmented and enhanced by the other, normally tended to be important centres of communications, and above all had a role in the emotional and cultural life of local communities. It was no accident that the temple of Rome and Augustus was located at Lugdunum at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône. Furthermore, the Tabula Sirarensis shows that important ceremonies involving the army and the local communities in honour of the Elder Drusus and subsequently of Germanicus were held precisely at the confluence of the Rhine and the Main (see González, J. and Arce, J. (eds) Estudios sobra la Tabula Siarensis (Madrid, 1988)). I think that Jones rather misses another important point relevant to local and regional identity. It was a significant event to cross a river, often marked with sacrifices. And rivers, once crossed and subdued, could be won over, assimilated, and made to work for the conqueror. So, Horace (Carmina 2.9.21-4) proposing to sing of Augustus’ new triumphs, speaks of the Euphrates as being added to defeated peoples and flowing with diminished eddies. She should bring in here the river Danube as portrayed on Trajan’s column, to which she refers on p. 103.

In chapters 4-8 Jones argues that descriptions of rivers in Roman poetry are in many cases a literary device, a kind of comment by authors on the progress or structure of their narrative. As a forceful, changeable and constantly moving part of the landscape, rivers interact with the dynamics of poetry. Apart from pleasant illustrations and metaphors a river could serve as a means of inspiration, which came though imbibing water from poetically significant springs, be a character in a poetic story, or act as a kind of narrator, representing an independently existing narrative in which author and reader participate. Various types of rivers represented certain genres, for example, big powerful rivers represented epic poetry, and of course oratory could be compared to the flow of a river. Jones puts her case enthusiastically but at times I was not entirely convinced. For example, at pp. 57-58 Lucretius (De Rerum Natura 1.410-17) does not necessarily present the act of drinking water as an analogy for the reception of poetic ability; the image he is using may simply be that of a reservoir in which a large quantity of water is collected and stored and then released.

Jones illustrates her arguments particularly from the works of Virgil (pp. 59-67). The river represents Virgil’s vision of his own storytelling. In the Eclogues water and poetry are two essential elements of the pastoral theme, while in the Georgics water is one image that links the world of agriculture to that of the poet. It is worth pursuing these ideas though it is important to remember that in these poems Virgil was partly trying evoke a pleasant pastoral scene and convey the countryman’s view of the role of rivers and springs in the cycle of bucolic activities. Jones argues (pp. 64-67) that in the Aeneid there is a spatial, temporal and literary journey, where the river is a perfect emblem for directional progress. The Tiber is the point of embarkation for Aeneas’ travels in Italy and also provides a course for words and narrative. However, in respect of the famous prophecy of Tiberinus about Aeneas’ destined achievements, I see no ‘disparity between the prophecy and its fulfillment’. Tiberinus promises to guide the ship so that the rowers can overcome the current, but later it is the river itself that checks its current (pp. 66-67). Tiberinus simply promises that the Trojans will be able row upstream (a feature of traffic on the Tiber) and in due course makes this easier by ensuring that the river is calm.

In chapter 5 Jones notes how Okeanos, the father of all rivers, was thought to encircle the world. This unique shape enabled him to encompass everything and provide an endless journey. But it also confounded beginnings and endings, and was therefore a useful metaphor. It offered self-referential possibility for the author especially in respect of a ring composition. In chapter 6 Jones deals with river catalogues, arguing that they indicate a sense of geographical completeness. River lists frequently provide continuity in narrative, especially geographical continuity, and lend structure. They signify motion and connection to the narrative structure. Incidentally her observations (p. 89) about catalogues that place rivers in a curious order seem to presuppose a good geographical knowledge about rivers on the part of Ovid’s audience and deserve to be explored further

Chapter 7 on upstream voyages and narrative structure is perhaps the weakest section. It is repetitive and overly reliant on material treated earlier. For example, pp. 95-96 on Aeneas’ confrontation with Tiberinus repeat virtually word for word pp. 64-66. Jones notes the personified Danube on Trajan’s column ushering the Roman troops across the bridge that symbolized his subjugation (p. 103). She goes on to suggest rather hopefully that Trajan’s column reads as an upstream journey based on the Danube. But the time frame on the column is provided not by the river but by the regular pattern of Roman military activity. Furthermore, the campaign took the Romans away from the Danube. To control a river and master its source was tantamount to controlling the people in the river’s vicinity. In this context it is in my view relevant to Jones’ theme to ask how Romans altered the course of rivers by engineering to exploit them for travel or for a water supply and how this affected writers’ view of rivers. When Pliny gave advice to the budding poet Caninius Rufus, who wished to celebrate Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, he mentioned specifically the emperor’s subjugation of the natural environment and the rivers as a suitable theme ( Letters 8.4). Numerous inscriptions testify to the Romans’ pride in overcoming the power of rivers and channelling them to their own purposes. ‘When Marcus Ulpius Traianus was legate of Augustus with propraetorian power, care was given to the building of a channel for the river of the Dipotamia, three miles long with bridges’ ( SEG 35.1483); this refers to the channelling of the Orontes in AD 75.

Jones has introduced an original theme in an engaging and interesting way and has raised many important questions. The scope is in some ways limited, and certain aspects would have repaid a fuller examination of available source material in order to offer a better illustration of the essential background of her topic. This observation, which represents a historian’s point of view, is not intended to take away from the achievement of the book, which deserves its place as a significant contribution to current scholarship.