Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome

Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome

Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome

Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome


Figuring in myth, religion, law, the military, commerce, and transportation, rivers were at the heart of Rome's increasing exploitation of the environment of the Mediterranean world. In Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome, Brian Campbell explores the role and influence of rivers and their surrounding landscape on the society and culture of the Roman Empire.

Examining artistic representations of rivers, related architecture, and the work of ancient geographers and topographers, as well as writers who describe rivers, Campbell reveals how Romans defined the geographical areas they conquered and how geography and natural surroundings related to their society and activities. In addition, he illuminates the prominence and value of rivers in the control and expansion of the Roman Empire--through the legal regulation of riverine activities, the exploitation of rivers in military tactics, and the use of rivers as routes of communication and movement. Campbell shows how a technological understanding of--and even mastery over--the forces of the river helped Rome rise to its central place in the ancient world.


“Of all the rivers that flow into the seas enclosed within the Roman Empire, which the Greeks call ‘the internal sea,’ by common consent the Nile is the greatest. Sallust wrote that the Hister (Danube) is the next biggest. Varro, however, in his discussion of that part of the world called Europe, places the Rodanus (Rhône) among the top three rivers of this area, therefore apparently making it a rival of the Hister; for the Hister also flows in Europe” (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.7). Gellius has done his research and offers an interesting geography lesson, setting three major rivers against the vast expanse of Roman territory and noting other factors, particularly the comparative size and status of the rivers, which presumably would then confer dignity on the areas through which they flowed. He also delves into river nomenclature, preferring Rodanus for the more common Rhodanus, and Hister for Danuvius, applying to the whole river a word of Thracian origin used by the Greeks to describe the lower course of the Danube.

This passage touches on some intriguing topics but is also typical of many of our sources in not pursuing riverine themes consistently or with the kind of precision that modern historians need. Yet rivers appear repeatedly in the works of a broad sweep of ancient writers, and geographers and surveyors in particular used rivers more methodically to measure distance, establish location, and define space and boundaries, in respect of both entire provinces and local communities. It is hard to think of a more important aspect of the natural geographical phenomena of the ancient world than rivers; permanent yet constantly in motion, they were a perplexing paradox. “Perhaps because water is irrepressibly cyclical and endlessly able to change the form it has taken, its history is varied and complex” (Squatriti, 1998, 164).

It is also inescapable that in all eras rivers have left their mark on the physical landscape and on communities that lived in the vicinity. The ancient world could not have been what it was without rivers, and individual communities were assisted or constrained by rivers, depending on local geography and their skill in exploiting and adapting to the riverine environment. In the present day . . .

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