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The River and the City: The Tiber as a Case Study in Roman Ecohistory

Krešimir Vuković

Catholic University of Croatia / Hrvatsko Katoličko Sveučilište

Much has been written on the urban history of the city of Rome but the role of the river Tiber remains poorly explored, particularly in relation to recent trends in ecohistory. The last major study of the Tiber in Rome was Le Gall’s (1953). The British School at Rome conducted a major project on the Tiber Valley which resulted in several edited volumes (Coarelli and Patterson 2004, etc.) and Aldrete’s (2008) book on the floods of the Tiber was an excellent addition to the scholarship. The focus of my project is the role of the Tiber in the history of Rome, with a focus on the various polyvalent representations of the river in Roman imagination. My approach is thus more cultural than historical and grounded in the environmental humanities (as in Schliephake 2016). As a case study this paper analyses several historical episodes and myths that were shaped by fluvial environment and river phenomena. I start from Rome’s foundation myth (Romulus and Remus) and argue that the Tiber plays an essential role in its formation and later retellings. I move on to the creation of the Tiber Island and imaginative ways in which the process was rendered in Roman mythology. Connecting the Tiber Island and the Tarentum, mythic language renders the phenomena of flooding and alluvation in terms of land donation and acquisition. Finally, various attempts to deal with the problem of flooding in the period of the Empire show a growing awareness of the Tiber as a large fluvial ecosystem that includes everything from deforestation and Tiber tributaries in central Italy to silting and new port facilities in Portus and Ostia. My aim is to show that a strand of Roman ecological thinking developed in relation to the Tiber and owed a great deal to the observation of fluvial phenomena.

Session/Panel Title

New Environmental History: Promise and Pitfalls

Session/Paper Number

73.2

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