The Tiber River of Rome

The Tiber: From Highway to Sewer

Ponte Sant'Angelo bridge spanning the Tiber River.

 Rosa María Fernández Rz / Getty Images

The Tiber is one of longest rivers in ​Italy. It is about 250 miles long and varies between 7 and 20 feet deep. It is the second longest river in Italy, after the Po. The Tiber flows from the Apennines at Mount Fumaiolo through Rome and into the Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia. Most of the city of Rome is to the east of the Tiber River. The area to the west, including the island in the Tiber, Insula Tiberina, was in Augustus' XIVth region of Rome.

Origin of the Name Tiber

The Tiber was originally called Albulula because it was so white, but it was renamed Tiberis after Tiberinus, who was a king of Alba Longa who drowned in the river. Theodor Mommsen says the Tiber was the natural highway for traffic in Latium and provided an early defense against neighbors on the other side of the river, which in the area of Rome runs approximately southwards.

History of the Tiber

In antiquity, ten bridges were built over the Tiber. Eight spanned the Tiber, while two permitted passage to the island. Mansions lined the riverside, and gardens leading to the river provided Rome with fresh fruits and vegetables. The Tiber was also a major "highway" for Mediterranean trade of oil, wine, and wheat.

The Tiber was an important military focus for hundreds of years. During the third century B.C.E., Ostia (a town on the Tiber) became a naval base for the Punic Wars. The Second Veientine War (437-434 or 428-425 B.C.E.) was fought over control of a crossing of the Tiber. The disputed crossing was at Fidenae, five miles upstream from Rome.

Attempts to tame the Tiber's floods were unsuccessful. While today it flows between high walls, during Roman times it regularly overflowed its shores.

The Tiber as a Sewer

The Tiber was connected with the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer system of Rome, attributed to king Tarquinius Priscus. The Cloaca Maxima was built during the sixth-century B.C.E. as a canal, or channel, through the city. Based on an existing stream, it was expanded and lined with stone. By the third century B.C.E. the open channel had been lined with stone and covered with a vaulted stone roof. At the same time, Augustus Caesar had major repairs made to the system.

The original purpose of the Cloaca Maxima was not to carry off waste, but rather to manage stormwater to avoid floods. Rainwater from the Forum district flowed downhill to the Tiber through the Cloaca. It wasn't until the time of the Roman Empire that public baths and latrines were connected to the system.

Today, the Cloaca is still visible and still manages a small amount of Rome's water. Much of the original stonework has been replaced by concrete.