Early Rome and the environment: from ancient myths of the Tiber to modern city sinkholes

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Kresimir Vukovic (Oxford) is one of our current Rome Fellows, resident at the BSR from October 2017 to June 2018. Kresimir’s research has focused on the mythology of the Tiber in Roman space and literature. In this blog he talks about his research, looking back at his recent lecture for the City of Rome Postgraduate Course, and showing us some of the new directions his work has taken this year.

When our Cary Fellow, Robert Coates-Stephens asked me earlier this year if I would give the inaugural lecture for the BSR City of Rome Postgraduate Course my feelings were mixed: I was honoured by the offer of this great privilege but at the same time started wondering how it is that I got so old so quickly. It seems like ages, but it was only five years ago that I sat in the same lecture theatre as a student on the same course (no grey hair then) listening to Christopher Smith talk on early Rome.

The focus of my lecture was on the role of the environment in the development of Rome as a city in the archaic period from the 8th to the 6th century BC. Rome owes its existence to an excellent strategic location on defensible hills placed near the Tiber Island, which provided a natural point for crossing the great river Tiber. This situation was essential in the development of settlements at a time when there were no bridges and very few boats.


A reconstruction of the hydrological state of early Rome.

But the location also presented problems which quickly emerged as the settlements on the hills of Rome began to coalesce into a city: the inhabitants had to face the difficulties of expanding onto floodplains that stretch between the hills and close to the river. The Tiber flooded the valley between the Capitol and the Palatine on a regular basis, every winter, and the Romans started massive building projects in order to raise the level of the area that was to become their new city centre, the Roman Forum.


Romulus and Remus by Peter Paul Rubens

The process left indelible traces in the mythology of Rome: the foundation myth tells how the twin infants Romulus and Remus are saved because the Tiber was in flood and the myth of Vertumnus, the shapeshifter god, had a sanctuary in the Forum because it was believed that he turned back the river from the area. In my lecture, my stress throughout was on the way that history is told through myths as I believe mythology is the universal language that best communicates the complex realities of ancient Rome and its relationship to the environment. In this sense Roman myths continue to speak to us today.


Vertumnus and Pomona by Peter Paul Rubens

The subject of the environment is becoming increasingly more topical as we come to feel the effects of climate change. One of the myths I talked about was that of Marcus Curtius, a knight who offered his life in an effort to close a massive sinkhole that opened up in the midst of the Forum. Nowadays Rome’s soil continues to remain unstable: high levels of rainfall this year have caused as many as 44 sinkholes to open up in the low-lying areas of the city and there has been an average of 90 sinkholes a year in Rome since 2010. This is partly a consequence of building on ground made up of unconsolidated sediments that the Tiber floods have deposited over the centuries.


Marcus Curtius by B.R. Haydon 1843

This century has been called ‘the century of water’ and the value of clean water as a resource grows in importance every day. In its recent World Water Report the UN calls for greener ways to deal with water management and draws special attention to ecosystems such as river valleys. When it comes to ecosystems, the report notes (p. 23) that we have important lessons to learn from ancient history. The collapse of early great civilizations of Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus-Ganges and the Yellow River was caused by hydrological changes. The BSR is the ideal place to explore various aspects of water management through history. The great river of Rome was the subject of detailed studies in the BSR Tiber Valley project and I recently organised a symposium on the Tiber (The River and the City, 26 March) that revisited the topic.


The river Tiber with Romulus and Remus, Capitoline hill



Research on Portus, the imperial port of Rome continues with BSR archaeologists Stephen Kay, Simon Keay and Peter Campbell all involved in new discoveries. Water has also featured in the work of many scholars and artists in residence at the BSR this year. To name but a few: Lara Pucci presented her research on the symbolism of fascist fountains in her lecture on 28 February while Thea Ravasi gave a guided tour of emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli (25 March) and spoke about the use of water in its monumental spaces. Josephine Baker-Heaslip’s work at the March Mostra highlighted the relationship between humanity and the environment while Marie-Claire Blais’ art was influenced by her thinking about patterns and water. Residing with artists and scholars who share similar interests but look at them from different angles is a unique experience which I found most stimulating in my work as Rome Fellow this year.



Reconstruction of Rome’s imperial port—Portus, copyright Artas Media/Grant Cox


Krešimir Vuković (BSR Rome Fellow; Oxford)

Profile photograph of Kresimir by Antonio Palmieri.