The Tiber Runs Through It:
Landscape and Identity
in Ancient Rome

Gretchen E. Meyers

Rollins College

Ancient sources attest to the crucial role that the Tiber played in the development of the city of Rome (for example, Strabo, 5.3.7-8 and Pliny, HN 3.54-5). Similarly, modern scholars have recognized the importance of the Tiber to the Roman city and have commented on a wide range of urban issues, ranging from commerce, food supply and flooding, that intimately linked the river and the ancient Roman populace (Le Gall 1953; Patterson 2004) However, despite this nearly universal acceptance of the Tiber as a integral facet of the ancient Roman environment, less attention has been paid to how ancient Romans viewed the Tiber and its visual impact on the city's architectural geography. In this paper I suggest that for the ancient Romans, the Tiber River served as a physical reminder of their origins and was thus a source of national identity. 

I explore this relationship in two diverse ways. First, drawing on contemporary theory in architecture and landscape architecture, I consider the Etrusco-Italic tradition of rivers as a means of approach in the early monumental architecture of central Italy. Beginning with its origins as a settlement perched atop the Palatine hill, with the river running below, Romulus' Rome was topographically similar to a number of sites in Southern Etruria, including Acquarossa, Falerii Novi and Veii. By comparing patterns of architectural development at these sites and Rome, I argue that visual access and approach from the river informed the ancient city's urban identity and established the Tiber River as the new city's metaphorical entryway. As Rome continued to develop, architectural progress encompassed not only hilltops but the river's banks as well. In the second part of the paper, I consider the proliferation of mythological associations between access and water in the region of the Tiber's early port, the Forum Boarium. Ranging from the mythological entries of Aeneas and Romulus to the sacred spaces of Portunus and Carmenta, the watery banks of the river told a story of origins, passageways and foundation. Just as a constructed architectural monument might have done, by utilizing landscape and myth the Tiber River spoke to citizens and visitors about the identity of Rome.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page