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date: 01 December 2020

Ancient peoples lived in close proximity to the environment and experienced at first hand natural phenomena and landscape features that, while often helpful or indeed essential to life, were also potentially threatening. The land and its produce were crucial to survival, and in a predominantly rural world dotted with towns and cities, many people will have observed at first hand mountains, rivers, and the relationship of landscape to available space for settlement. Rivers expressed the local community’s link with the landscape and sustained river valley communities by providing water for drinking, washing, irrigation, and watering of animals, as well as offering routes of communication. Many rivers were also a fruitful source of fish, especially if the water was clean, such as the high-quality fish from the Pamisos in Messenia (Paus. 4.34.1–2). But of course rivers could also flood a settlement or sweep it away. In addition, popular reaction to the environment around the local area was often influenced by strong cultural and religious feelings associated with landscape. In this context, it is not surprising that some literary works were exclusively devoted to natural features of the landscape, for example describing rivers, their character, history, and legendary associations. Mythology helped to explain natural phenomena. Furthermore, the theme of rivers in various guises appears repeatedly in the work of geographers, ethnographers, teachers, poets, and historians. Philosophers were also interested in the curiosities of riverine conditions, which, by their timeless quality yet constant movement, seemingly offered a comment on the human condition.

River Dynamics

The dynamics of rivers constantly vary over time. Many rivers are likely to have been shallower and broader in the ancient world, and perhaps more susceptible to freeze over in winter. Some have changed direction, such as the Rhône and Tiber in their lower courses. Others have altered the entire coastal landscape by depositing silt at their estuaries, such as the Maeander. It is also true that more rivers were navigable in the ancient world and for farther upstream, since substantial quantities of water are now removed for irrigation and hydroelectric power systems. Despite this and the fact that since ancient times there have been variations in climate and weather patterns, maps of the ancient world based on modern river courses can still offer a reasonably accurate picture of what the ancient landscape looked like. These imponderables do not affect our attempts to understand the ancients and their view of the riverine environment.

The Divine River

Ever since Homer, in popular belief Oceanus was the father of all rivers. The divine river was an important aspect of riverine culture; the riverine god represented the living river, being usually depicted as a robust male (springs were female) who displayed his power not just in legendary sexual exploits, but also visually through surging currents and floods. The spirit of the river needed propitiation, and in many communities regular offerings were made to the riverine spirit. For instance, in Arcadia where the river Neda came closest to Phigaleia, young men cut their hair in honour of the river (Paus. 8.41.3). Offerings were made at the crossing of a river, as Alexander did at the Danube (Arr. Anab. 1.4.5), an especially dangerous moment for him since the future on the other side seemed so uncertain. Hence the great barrier of the underworld was the black river Styx. Appropriately, the senior priests in Rome were the pontifices, the “bridge makers.”

The Healing River

With their divine attributes, both rivers and springs were believed to have miraculous powers to heal the sick, as contemporary writers explain. Pliny describes the source of the river Clitumnus in Umbria, where there was an ancient temple and a statue of the river god; at numerous adjacent shrines inscriptions had been written on walls and pillars in honour of the god. People also came to sail boats and bathe in the river, and the inhabitants of neighbouring Hispellum provided an inn and a bathing place (Ep. 8.8). Aelius Aristides, the famous Greek rhetorician, thought it worthwhile to recount his various ailments and treatment, which included swimming in river water even when in full spate (Sacred Tales 2.18–21; 51–53). The large number of votive offerings found in the bed of the Tiber vividly illustrates the faith of people in the beneficent effects of river water, and the Tiber Island was the site of the famous temple of Asclepius with its tradition of healing. Spas with both hot and cold water could become big business in the Greek and Roman world; Plutarch vividly describes the noisy crowds who thronged the spring at Aidepsus in Euboea (Quaest. conv. 667C–D).

The River and Local Identity

The divine aura of rivers helps to explain their role in local life and their emotional and psychological impact. A well-known river in the vicinity could help confirm and strengthen the identity of a community and add distinction to its history. Riverine legends added romantic colour and a good story line, which might even bring visitors. Rivers were associated with the historical and cultural context of local communities, and that was often reflected in their name. Originally the Greeks thought that the river Ebro (Hiberus) was so important that they gave the name Iberia to the whole of Spain (Plin. HN 3.21). Strong riverine identity is demonstrated by the settlers from Argos who founded Argos Amphilochikon and named the local river Inachos, after the obviously well-loved river of the Argolid (Strabo 7.7.7 (326)). The Maeander, famous for its winding course, was clearly at the heart of local life of the Greek communities in its valley, as is illustrated by the coins they issued celebrating its peculiar characteristic. The role of the Nile was unique because of the economic and agricultural impact of the annual inundation. In the words of Herodotus (2.5–11), Egypt was “the gift of the Nile,” which he saw as a mighty river bringing about great changes in the environment. Rome remained throughout its history the only significant settlement on the Tiber. Livy (5.54.4) celebrates the riverine benefits of its location: “Gods and men had good reason to choose this place for founding a city, with its beneficent hills and helpful river, along which the fruits of inland places are brought, and sea-borne produce from abroad.” The Tiber was celebrated in literature and art, represented as a bearded, mature male figure, often lying in an attitude of repose but with potentially great strength in his muscular physique, and accompanied by the appropriate symbols such as the prow of a ship or a steering oar. The Po (Padus) was the second most famous river of Italy after the Tiber. Described by Pliny (HN 3.49) as the “richest river of Italy,” it flowed majestically through fertile agricultural land with many famous cities on its banks, and served as a great delimiter of local geography, with Cispadana denoting Liguria and the western Apennines, and Transpadana the region north of the river. The Danube fascinated both Greeks and Romans. As the Danuvius, a name of Celtic or Thracian origin, it rose in the Black Forest and at the western extremity of the Carpathians plunged through the Iron Gates gorge before opening out into a huge floodplain on its 2,850-kilometre course to the Black Sea. The Greeks called the lower course the Ister, but by the 1st century bce advancing Roman power had identified one river, which according to Pliny (HN 4.79) had sixty tributaries.

River Transport

Rivers assisted the movement of people and goods, and in some cases were the main source of connectivity between regions, although roads could make use of a river valley as far as the headwaters. The Rhône was the great river of Gaul, a major thoroughfare for commercial traffic, for which Lugdunum (modern Lyon) at the confluence with the Saône was an important hub, and in the Roman period the provincial centre of the worship of the emperor, with a riverside temple. The confluence of rivers was significant both psychologically and in practical terms, providing still more connections by road and river. The companies of boatmen on the Rhône and Saône, who were so numerous that forty seats were reserved for them in the amphitheatre at Nemausus (modern Nîmes), testify to the vibrant traffic on these rivers in the empire (CIL XII 3316). The Rhine and Danube, as well as assisting commercial activity, had a significant military dimension in facilitating lateral communications and the movement of military supplies. In fact, this availability of river-borne supply routes perhaps helps explain why expansion in these areas stopped where it did, since the Romans may have been reluctant to abandon so convenient a way of maintaining the armies. In Spain, rivers were crucial to economic prosperity. The Baetis (Guadalquivir), flowing from east to west into the Atlantic, was so important that it gave its name to the Roman province of Baetica. This river, which was navigable up to a few miles beyond Cordoba, assisted in the movement of produce, particularly wine and oil, to Seville, from which it was conveyed to the coast and thence further afield. In the east, the Orontes from its source in the Bekaa valley flowed for about 400 kilometres past Antioch, reaching the sea at Seleukeia Pieria. According to Strabo (16.2.7 (751)), the journey upriver from the coast to Antioch could be made in a day. The great Euphrates was navigable for about 545 kilometres up as far as Babylon, and could be a valuable route from the Persian Gulf into Mesopotamia (Strabo 16.1.9 (740)).

Rivers and the Measurement of Space

Geographers and mapmakers were concerned with the marking and measurement of space, and rivers assisted in their assessment of distance and the designation of regions. In geographical descriptions, rivers had a role beyond the calibration of distance, in that riverine details could help readers visualize the landscape. In the work of land surveyors, who measured and mapped areas for settlement, rivers often served as landmarks confirming location, and also as boundary markers. One aspect of an ideal land distribution for settlers was that as many as possible had some share of the river frontage. But rivers also had a destructive power that surveyors had to guard against in their measurement of land. A river flood could disturb land boundaries, or the course of a river might change, shifting its bed to a new location. Sometimes a river detached areas of land and moved them a considerable distance. The writings of ancient land surveyors demonstrate the power of rivers as a factor in managing the rural environment and the importance of practical measures to deal with this. The surveyors’ favourite solution was to designate as a river’s width an area beyond it, generally the furthest limit to which it had been known to flood; this area was not distributed, though neighbouring landholders could make use of it at their own risk.1

Managing Water Flow

Methods of enhancing water flow, controlling flooding, and improving navigation on rivers were actively promoted, though not always successfully. The centre of Rome was often inundated by the Tiber swollen by rain in its upper valley. In 15 ce a plan was discussed in the Senate for the diversion of some rivers and lakes that fed the river. The plan was eventually abandoned after deputations of local people argued against it because of potential flooding and damage to their communities. Furthermore, they loved their local rivers, which they honoured with sacred rites, groves, and altars (Tac. Ann. 1.79). In a more successful venture around the estuary of the Padus (Po), canals and managed streams controlled water between Ravenna and Altinum for 120 miles (Plin. HN 3.119–122). In 75 ce Roman soldiers were constructing a canal at the mouth of the Orontes, presumably to assist navigation (AE 1983.927), and the Euphrates had a system of canals to divert excess water during the spring and early summer (Strabo 16.1.9 (740)). In 101 ce, amid preparations for the Dacian war, Trajan built a 3.5- kilometre-long canal at the Iron Gates pass “and made the Danube safe for navigation.”2 An irrigation decree found in Spain near the river Ebro also demonstrates Roman involvement in infrastructure. It describes a water distribution scheme based on a canal sourced from the Ebro, arranged by several rural districts, but mediated by the provincial administration during Hadrian’s reign; here local initiative is combined with Roman supervision.3

Rivers and War

Rivers in war provide another insight into the ancient world and a link between people and landscape. Military commanders were expected to know the terrain and plan accordingly. Rivers could protect a community by offering security against an attacking force or providing water and a route for supplies. During the siege of Casilinum by the Carthaginians in 216 bce, the Romans floated jars of wheat into the city along the river Volturnus. When Hannibal obstructed them with a chain across the river, they scattered nuts on the surface (Frontin. Str. 3.14.2). However, rivers were also a threat. In 385 bce the Spartan king Agesipolis dammed the river flowing through the city of Mantinea, with the result that the city walls were undermined. Xenophon observed that the lesson was learned that it was not wise to allow a river to flow through a city (Hell. 5.2.4–7). In the 1st century ce the ability of the Germans to exploit their terrain with its forests, rivers, and swamps had a lasting psychological impact on the Romans, partly as a result of the disastrous defeat of Quinctilius Varus in 9 ce. In an anonymous textbook probably from the 2nd century ce explaining how to build a military camp, advice is offered on how to locate the encampment to avoid flooding from adjacent rivers (On Camp Fortifications 57–58). But strategic use of rivers featured strongly in Roman military preparations. For example, the military base of Moguntiacum (modern Mainz) at the confluence of the Rhine and Main was strategically, economically, and ideologically important, as is demonstrated by the memorial celebrations staged there in honour of the dead Drusus, Tiberius’s brother, and also of Germanicus, propagating Roman power at the heart of the local riverine environment (Dio 55.2; Tabula Sirarensis, fragment (a)).4

Rivers and Ideology

Riverine dwellers acknowledged the personality of individual rivers, which depended on the landscape, the seasons, and the watery environment; in this environment local history, mythology, and tradition came together to project the river’s personality. It was a matter of local loyalty, since only the greatest rivers acquired fame outside their localities. Two Greek writers of the imperial period, Strabo and Pausanias, preserve much of Greek riverine ideology and show how it was absorbed into the Roman world. The empire was built round important rivers—the Rhine, Danube, Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris—and in many of its regions, such as Gaul, Spain, and Germany, rivers were vital for commerce and communication. Since rivers were central to the identity and life of many communities, the Romans took over this concept when they claimed a river as their own, but also preserved or left undisturbed local heritage. Water was arguably an agent of Romanization in that communities came to depend on Rome’s watery generosity and technical accomplishments. So great was the perception of Rome’s ubiquitous watery power that when Titus’s army approached Jerusalem in 70 ce, Siloam and other springs, long dried up, were said suddenly to flow abundantly (Josephus, Jewish War 5.410). Aqueducts dramatically demonstrated Rome’s domination of the aquatic environment in controlling sources of rivers and springs and channelling water to wherever suited the ruling power. The significance of aqueducts is marked by the fact that they were administered by high-ranking figures in Roman politics and society, a role later taken over by the emperors.

Although in imperial ideology the rivers of foreign peoples were defeated (and often as a result, in the words of Roman writers, flowed with less volume), they then became in effect allies of Rome. The impact of their new status was increased by the fact that, as powerful beings in folklore and religious life, they had strong local connections. The Danube is represented on Trajan’s column, emerging as a strong male but superhuman figure supporting the Roman army on its way to the conquest of Dacia as it crosses the bridge that indicates the river’s subjugation. Great rivers remained synonymous with the power of Rome, and in popular sentiment the Tiber was the lord of all rivers, even though it was small compared to the mighty rivers of the empire. In the words of Virgil (Aeneid 8.77), the Tiber was “master of the waters.”


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  • 1. Brian Campbell, The Writings of the Roman Land Surveyors: Introduction, Text, Translation and Commentary (London: Roman Society, 2000), 41, lines 12–42.

  • 2. Jaroslav Šašel, “Trajan’s Canal at the Iron Gate,” Journal of Roman Studies 63 (1973): 80–85.

  • 3. Francisco Beltrán Lloris, “An Irrigation Decree from Roman Spain,” Journal of Roman Studies 96 (2006): 147–197.

  • 4. Michael H. Crawford, ed., Roman Statutes (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 1996), vol. 1, 515, nos. 37–38.