BMCR 2019.08.40

Tiber: Eternal River of Rome

, Tiber: Eternal River of Rome. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2018. 330. ISBN 9781512603347 $32.95.


Recently there has been a surge of interest in the environmental history of Rome, exemplified by Kyle Harper’s bold and stimulating (if controversial) The Fate of Rome,1 but the Tiber has received (comparatively) little attention in these discussions. The Tiber valley has been extensively studied in a range of publications stemming from the British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley Project,2 and more recently in Montero and Campbell,3 but a holistic study of the river itself and its role in the history of Rome is lacking. It was last attempted by Le Gall in 1953, in a valuable study that is, nonetheless, desperately in need of updating, especially considering the potential use of paleoclimatic evidence, technological advances and new theories on the relationship between humans and the environment in ecohistory and ecocriticism. The present book comes nowhere near that goal, but it is a very interesting attempt to synthesize a most varied body of stories about the Tiber through the centuries. It is written in the style of popular history with references in endnotes and goes from the beginnings of Rome down to the modern period. The style is very accessible, entertaining and sometimes humorous. Divided into six chapters following a chronological schema (with five interludes on each of the Tiber tributaries), the book offers a treasure trove of “half-submerged curiosities and oddities” ranging from archaeological finds to medieval and modern legends, some of which are only tangentially related to the Tiber. For instance, the story of queen Zenobia (78-81) is most interesting, but hardly relevant (even if one accepts that Aurelian gave her a villa on the Anio), and the same applies to Marozia, who ruled Rome in the 10 th century. Much more relevant are mythohistorical nuggets such as Papstesel (“the pope’s ass”) or donna asino (149-51), a snakelike creature with the head of a donkey that was said to appear after the flood of the Tiber in 1495 and was used by Protestant propaganda to illustrate papal corruption.

Given the wide scope of the work and its target general audience one can hardly expect it to satisfy stringent scholarly criteria (the author is an independent scholar with a BA in Classics). Hence there are a number of shortcomings, only some of which I can comment on as a classicist who has had a research project on the mythology of the Tiber.

“The historian Pliny” appears in the introduction as referring to the floods of AD 105 (p. x), but the work cited is Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder, who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. In telling the story of the salvation of Romulus and Remus at the hands of the flooding river the author seems to take the myth at its word and imagines Alba Longa being “upstream” from the site of Rome (5). In fact, the Alban lake is nowhere near the Tiber. The Cloaca Maxima is rightly given five whole pages (11-16), but no mention is made of the god Vertumnus turning back the floodwaters, a most interesting Roman myth, well known in classical scholarship, that Ovid ( Fasti VI. 395-416) and Propertius (4.2) place at the time when half the Forum was still a marsh. The expulsion of Tarquin is linked to Horatius Cocles’ defense of the Sublician bridge (17-20), but in no source do Romans hold “the high ground” of the Janiculum (the Etruscans do). Surprisingly, no mention is made here of the myth of the formation of the Tiber Island, linked to Tarquin’s grain on the Campus Martius, or better yet the benefaction of a virgin called Gaia Taracia.4 The ludi Saeculares at the Tarentum (20) are not “annual games”, but centennial (hence their name) and have nothing to do with the votive offerings found around the Tiber Island (21). Cicero does not sneer at these votives, but those of the sailors on Samothrace and the passage is not N.D. 3.37, but 3.89 (23). Claudia Quinta is “a matron” on one page (25) and “a vestal” on the next, with no discussion of how the mythic transformation occurred in the sources and why it matters. Augustus did not dedicate a temple to Cybele (26); it was dedicated in 191BC and Augustus merely restored it. After making excellent use of allusions to the Tiber in Cicero’s Pro Roscio and Pro Caelio (29-34), the author digresses to the tributary of Cremera to tell the episode of the 306 Fabii (37-8) who died there. This is relevant, but it is unclear how “the first kings of Rome had been Etruscan” and how the Fabian camp could have been placed “outside Veii”. We are talking myth, fair enough, but the camp is an outpost somewhere on the Cremera (now 37km in length), not a siege of Veii.

The work on Augustus’ mausoleum did not begin “shortly after… the battle of Actium” (45), but before it so the young Caesar could boast that he (unlike Antony) was staying in Rome.5 The story of the Milvian bridge is misleadingly placed in the chapter “Christian Tiber” and the conclusion has Constantine move to his new city and suddenly “Rome’s pagan temples began to turn into churches” (84), which is simply incorrect regardless of how one takes the Christogram legend. The “fanciful” illustration of the Tiber island as a boat is followed by a caption that implies that an obelisk was erected in the middle to make it resemble a boat. In fact only the southern portion of the island was made to resemble a ship’s prow and the obelisk was too small to function as a mast. The terms “left” and “right” bank of the river are used inconsistently as Campo de’ Fiori is placed “on the right” (182) and soon we read that the Pons Fabricius connected the “left bank” to the Tiber Island (184). The two-man commission that Tiberius appointed to look into Tiber floods did not find the waters split between Clanis (a Tiber tributary) and Arno (200), but they did suggest diverting the Clanis to feed the Arno.

Climate change plays a major part in river flooding, but is given short shrift: the republican period was “cool and humid” and the empire “warmer and drier”, a state that lasted until 1200! (193) No mention of the Roman Climate Optimum, no awareness of regional variation or specific periods such as the so-called “Little Ice Age” in the 6 th century. 6

Sometimes the author picks up on terms used in Italian sources without explaining them or rendering them into English. For instance, a “Sclavonian wood merchant” (presumably Slavic?) is a witness to many bodies dumped in the Tiber (158-9). “Marco Antonio de Dominici” of “Spalato” (167) is in fact Marcus Antonius de Dominis, archbishop of Split, Croatia. We are told that “Illyrian Christians” turn up in Rome after the battle of Kosovo in 1389 (207) and restore an old church on the ripetta. It is unclear who these people are; perhaps the Croats with their church of Saint Jerome (for both appear as such on the next page), but then this has nothing to do with the battle of Kosovo. In fact, in 1453 Pope Nicholas V gave the so-called “Illyrians” (people coming from the eastern Adriatic where the Roman province of Illyricum had been) the decrepit church of Santa Marina and they rededicated it in the name of Saint Jerome, the Dalmatian saint. Most translations of Latin are correct, but there are some errors that I cannot ignore. The citation from Ammianus Marcellinus has the grain ships prevented “from entering the Porta of Augustus” (85; RG 19.10). The author uses John C. Rolfe’s translation, but this is hardly an excuse for not recognizing Portus (Latin porta Augusti), which he had already discussed at length. Amusingly, the Latin urinatores is linked to the feeling on the part of divers of the urge to urinate (and not derived from urinor).

There are a number of interpretations that I could contest, but I restrict myself to an obvious one. The author may be forgiven (I also fell for this back in 2013) for indulging the widespread belief that one of the two second-century AD statues of rivers now on the Capitoline represents the Tiber. The statue in question (the other is the Nile) is in fact the Tigris, given that the paws of the damaged animal are not those of a she-wolf but a feline (tigress), and there is a 16 th century sketch that shows this. The twins are not ancient and were added much later when the statue was reworked.7

When it comes to La Divina Commedia, Dante and Virgil do not emerge from hell at Ostia nor does Dante meet his old friend Casella there (128). They meet in purgatory and Casella tells him that souls of the saved wait at Ostia to be taken to purgatory.

Infelicities of spelling and typographical errors are understandable and I only mention a few major ones that caught my eye: “Tithys” instead of Tethys (2), the year of founding the Republic is printed as “598BC” instead of 508. The Portus harbour is hexagonal not “sexagonal” (51). “Panegyrici Latin” (264) should read Latini and Ammerman’s article (2004) is entitled “Dal Tevere al Argileto” not “Argelito” (256). The venerable institution that had me as Fellow in 2017/18 is called the British School at Rome (not “of Rome”), though the error is understandable given the strange British grammar applied at its founding (in 1901).

All of these notwithstanding, the book is a most enjoyable read for anyone interested in the history of Rome, and I confess to learning a lot from it regarding the Middle Ages and the modern period (though I wonder what the experts on those periods would have to say). In the end the author has managed to achieve a most valuable aim in proving that no history of Rome can be told without the Tiber. Let us hope that classicists and ancient historians follow suit in their research.


1. K. Harper (2017) The Fate of Rome (Princeton).

2. F. Coarelli and H. Patterson (eds. 2004) Mercator Placidissimus (Rome); H. Patterson (ed.), Bridging the Tiber (London). R. Cascino, H. Di Giuseppe and H.L. Patterson (eds.) Veii: The Historical Topography of the Ancient City (London). The final publication of this project is still awaited.

3. S. Montero (2008) El emperador y los ríos (Madrid), J.B. Campbell (2012) Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome (Chapel Hill).

4. See D. Nečas Hraste and K. Vuković ‘Virgins and Prostitutes in Roman mythology’, Latomus 74.2 (2015): 329-338.

5. L. Haselberger (2002) Mapping Augustan Rome (Portsmouth), s.v. mausoleum Augusti.

6. See M. McCormick et al. (2012) ‘Climate change during and after the Roman Empire: reconstructing the past from scientific and historical evidence’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43.2: 169-220.

7. See M.E. Titoni (1994) La facciata del Palazzo Senatorio in Campidoglio (Pisa), 110-117. I owe this observation to a discussion with Fabio Barry.