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, the second longest river after the Po. The Tiber is about 250 miles long and varies between 7 and 20 feet deep. It 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 or Insula Sacra, was included in Region XIV of Caesar Augustus's administrative areas of the city of Rome.

Origin of the Name Tiber

The Tiber was originally called Albula or Albu'la ("white" or "whitish" in Latin) supposedly because the sediment load was so white, but it was renamed Tiberis after Tiberinus, who was an Etruscan king of Alba Longa who drowned in the river. Ancient historians refer to the river as "yellow," not "white," and it is also possible that Albula is the Roman name for the river, while Tiberis is the Etruscan one. In his "History of Rome," the German classicist Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903) wrote that 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 southward.

The Tiber and its god, Tiberinus or Thybris, appear in several histories but most prominently in the first century BCE Roman poet Vergil's "The Aeneid." The god Tiberinus functions as a fully integrated character in "The Aeneid," appearing to the troubled Aeneas to advise him, and most importantly, to prophesy a magnificent destiny for Rome. Tiberinus the god is a rather majestic figure, who introduces himself in a long, long passage in the Aeneid, including:

"The god am I, whose yellow water flows
Around these fields, and fattens as it goes:
Tiber my name; among the rolling floods
Renown’d on earth, esteem’d among the gods.
This is my certain seat. In times to come,
My waves shall wash the walls of mighty Rome.”

History of the Tiber

In antiquity, ten bridges were built over the Tiber: eight spanned the main channel while two permitted access to the island; there was a shrine to Venus on 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 thoroughfare for the Mediterranean trade of oil, wine, and wheat.

The Tiber was an important military focus for hundreds of years. During the third century BCE, Ostia (a town on the Tiber) became a naval base for the Punic Wars. In the 5th century BCE, the Second Veientine War 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 in classical times. While today the river is confined between high walls, during Roman times it regularly flooded.

The Tiber as a Sewer

The Tiber was connected with the Cloaca Maxima, the sewer system of Rome, which was said to have been first built by the king Tarquinius Priscus (‎616–579 BCE) in the 6th century BCE. Tarquinius had the existing stream expanded and lined with stone in an attempt to control storm water—rain flowed downhill to the Tiber through the Cloaca, and it regularly flooded. In the third century BCE, the open channel was lined with stone and covered with a vaulted stone roof.

The Cloaca remained a water control system until the reign of Augustus Caesar (ruled 27 BCE–14 CE). Augustus had major repairs made to the system, and connected public baths and latrines, turning the Cloaca into a sewage management system.

"Cloare" means "to wash or purify" and it was a surname of the goddess Venus. Cloalia was a Roman virgin in the the early 6th century BCE who was given to the Etruscan king Lars Porsena and escaped his camp by swimming across the Tiber to Rome. The Romans (at the time under the rule of the Etruscans) sent her back to Porsena, but he was so impressed by her deed that he freed her and allowed her to take other of the hostages with her. 

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

Sources and Further Reading

  • Leverett, Frederick Percival. A New and Copious Lexicon of the Latin Language. Boston: J. H. Wilkins and R. B. Carter and C. C. Little and James Brown, 1837. Print.
  • Mommson, Theodor. "The History of Rome," Volumes 1–5. Trans. Dickson, William Purdie; Ed. Ceponis, Daid. Project Gutenberg, 2005. 
  • Rutledge, Eleanor S. "Vergil and Ovid on the Tiber." The Classical Journal 75.4 (1980): 301–04. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography." London: John Murray, 1904. Print.