The landscape opening up before our eyes is divided by the deep green expanse of a large river. It winds its way slowly and sinuously across the plain, bending this way and that like an enormous snake on the prowl. Lines of tall trees rise up along its banks, the first line of an army of giant plants that climbs the hills and mountains of the surrounding countryside, cloaking them in its thick green mantle as far as the eye can see.
It is amazing to see this dominance of nature in the Roman Empire and in general in the ancient world. We have already noted it several times on our journey, but one can’t help but be continually struck by it. Humanity, with our roads and marble cities, so important in our history books, is actually a small exception in this ocean of green and wildlife, dominated by forests, mountains, waterfalls, lakes, and, of course, rivers.
But this is no ordinary river. It is a waterway that plays a fundamental role in the history of civilization, as the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, the Nile in Egypt, and the Yellow River and the Yangtze in China have done. This is the Tiber.
The Tiber is closely tied to the birth of Rome, both in myth and in history. Legend has it that the basket carrying the newborn babes, Romulus and Remus, floated down this river. The basket then ran aground on one of its banks, where a she-wolf discovered the two infant brothers and raised them in a cave on the Palatine Hill. Recently, in the process of making underground soundings with a special drill, archaeologists discovered a beautiful cavern topped by a round vault. A video camera lowered into the cave revealed ceilings covered with stucco and colorful mosaics. Andrea Carandini of the University of Rome, who for many years has conducted important excavations on the Palatine bringing to light Rome’s most ancient roots, believes that this cave could well be the actual Lupercal, a place long venerated by the ancient Romans, convinced that it was the mythical grotto of Romulus and Remus.
Apart from the legend, the Tiber really did play an important role in the origins of Rome. Its shores, in fact, were the meeting place for the populations from the north and south of Latium, with their different languages and cultures: Etruscans, Latins, Sabines, and, before them, prehistoric groups and communities. They sold livestock, traded agricultural products and handcrafted goods, and purchased metal tools and instruments. And merchants from the Tyrrhenian Sea sailed up the river in pursuit of their commercial activities. Salt was one product that followed that very route.
All of this happened not just anywhere on the banks of the Tiber but in one precise location: Tiber Island. The island marked the ideal place for crossing the river, a bit like a stepping-stone in the middle of a stream or puddle. In the beginning, people crossed the river on simple boats before the Sublician Bridge established a stable connection between the banks and became a stimulus for communication and commerce.
On the eastern bank were the famous seven hills, later to be named Aventine, Capitoline, Caelian, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. They constituted an excellent point of control (and command) over the entire area. Some of them were even quite steep and therefore easily defended. It’s no wonder that they were occupied from the dawn of time by villages of wood cabins (as demonstrated by the postholes that supported the cabins and numerous objects discovered by archaeologists).
At the foot of these hills were extensive flatlands, which, probably from the earliest times, were a kind of primitive forum. The flatlands were ideal for commercial exchanges, but they were also the place where agreements were negotiated and marriages arranged. The main items traded in these forums were salt, livestock, and foodstuffs. Centuries later, in imperial Rome, there continued to exist two important markets: the Boarian Forum (for the sale of meat and livestock) and the Olitorian Forum (for the sale of fruit and vegetables). The history of Rome has never really been interrupted.
Our heads are teeming with these thoughts as we continue on our journey. Observing the lazy progress of the Tiber through the plains of this silent, uncultivated natural landscape, Rome, with its frenetic life, noisy streets, and crowded markets, seems very far off. Yet the capital city of the Roman Empire is extremely close, no more than fifty miles from here. And a sign of its nearness appears right before our eyes. It’s a small city, the most important in this area: Ocriculum.
Immense fortunes have been accumulated here ever since the days of the republic. And entire classes of merchants have developed true dynasties of commerce here, amassing enormous wealth.
So what made Ocriculum so rich? This city flourished because it was built at a strategic point for the commercial exchanges taking place here between Rome and Umbria and the Sabine Hills. It is located at the point of contact between the Via Flaminia and the Tiber, two important arteries for the transport of goods. And that’s why it has become much more of a cardinal point for the economy than Assisium (Assisi), Iguvium (Gubbio), and Spoletum (Spoleto), which are all a little farther north. In the modern era, this situation will be turned on its head. Its strategic vantage point for trade having disappeared, Ocriculum will turn into an almost unknown small town (Otricoli; now called Orte), while the other three towns will become popular destinations on the international tourism circuit.
Ocriculum rises above a bend in the Tiber, and its port hosts an intense traffic of cargo ships and barges that come and go, loaded with goods. A number of boats are tied up now at the dock in single file. We can hear a background hum of voices from which emerge occasional shouts or curses to be drowned out in turn by the shrieking sound of pulleys and winches. The tether lines of the boats at the dock stretch and contract with the ebb and flow of the current, emitting a long, sad sound, like a cello.
Our attention is attracted by a dog barking and wagging its tail. It’s standing on an enormous stack of wood on a barge that has just released its tether lines and is now being rapidly dragged by the current toward Rome. The huge mass of logs, blocks, and bundles of sticks slides by majestically behind the moored boats, almost as though it were a mountain of wood slipping into the landscape. Its load will be used not so much for making tables, floorboards, or roof beams but for heat—a particular kind of heat: the heat of the baths. The baths of Caracalla alone (and there is no doubt that the same was true for Trajan’s baths) consumed no less than ten tons of wood per day. It has been calculated that the basements of the baths of Caracalla were able to hold two thousand tons of wood, enough to last about seven months. And they were only one of the eleven large bath complexes in the capital, leaving aside the eight hundred smaller facilities. Rome consumed immense quantities of wood every day, for the most disparate purposes. The demand for wood to feed Rome, and all the great cities of the empire, led to the clear-cutting of entire forests in Europe and many areas of the Mediterranean, with the resulting disappearance of species of animals and plants and the destruction of local ecosystems. In sum, the Romans were the forerunners of something that is still going on today: the intensive deforestation of vast areas of the planet. What we are doing to the tropical forests and in other parts of the world, the Romans did to what was then the known world. Then as now, the wood was transported by ship, not only in the Mediterranean but also on the rivers of the empire. Such is the case here, in Ocriculum, where barges go by overflowing with timber cut in the forests around Mount Fumaiolo, where the Tiber has its source and where there is an important center of lumber production.
A curiosity: the huge barge that has just left the dock will probably never come back here. It’s not worth the effort to pull it upriver against the current—it’s too big. The solution is simple and ingenious: since it’s made of wood, it will be dismantled and sold by weight, just like its cargo.
By now, the barking of the dog on top of the stack of wood has grown faint, to be drowned out by the background chatter and noise of the port. The barge is on its way.
The barges are destroyed upon arrival at their destination, but what about the others: do they come back here? If going down to Rome is easy—you just go with the flow—how do you get back upriver? There is no choice but to resort to towage, pulling the boats from the shore with long ropes. Here in Ocriculum they use oxen to pull boats against the current, a practice that remained in use in Italy until the beginning of the twentieth century, as documented in photographs from that time. But elsewhere the Romans use slaves (something that still happens today in China along the Shennong River, not with slaves but with teams of porters). The slaves pull the boats with the strength of their legs, the ropes wrapped around their torsos. They advance bent forward, like someone walking against a gale-force wind. It’s a very common scene along all the rivers of the Roman Empire. This means that wherever towage is used there are footpaths and roads on the riverbanks where the trees are cut down to allow clear passage, a detail often overlooked when we think of Roman-era landscapes.
From a dock we see a young man jump onto a boat with a nifty move. He’s wearing a yellow-orange tunic with a purse hanging from the belt that swings back and forth as he walks. Our sestertius is inside his purse. He’s had it with him since yesterday evening, when he won a game of dice with the soldier we saw leaving Ariminum on horseback. All it took to change the fate of our sestertius was a double six.
The young man takes off his cloak and turns to the helmsman: “Take it away, Fulvius! We’re on our way.”
Two slaves release the tether lines, push the boat away from the dock, and jump aboard. It doesn’t take long for the hull to be snatched by the current and swept along like a dead leaf. The helmsman steers the boat with a sure hand, looking at the horizon. The river is clear. The voyage will be smooth. Destination: Rome.
The Center of the World
The fishing line tightens, vibrates, and seems to want to cut the water, swinging violently back and forth; the fish has been hooked! The boy skillfully pulls on the rod, bent into an arc by the weight of the fish. There it is, flashing silver, as it glides along just below the surface of the greenish yellow water. Yes, when it gets to Rome the Tiber no longer has the deep green color that distinguishes it in the countryside. Instead, it’s full of sediment, carried by the waters of the Aniene River that joins it just north of the city. The locals refer to it as the “blond Tiber.” Gradually, carefully, the boy lures the fish toward the shore and pulls it up onto the grass. It’s a nice catch! As he fiddles with it, trying to remove the hook (identical to the ones we use), a boat loaded with amphoras of olive oilpasses by behind him. It is the boat we saw leaving Ocriculum with the young man in the yellow-orange tunic aboard. Three days have gone by and he’s now standing on the bow, intently looking out at the river as it stretches out before him.
The view of Rome from the Tiber, glowing in the early-morning sun, is something that you never hear described in the age of Trajan. At first glance it reminds us of the Ganges, in India, where it passes by the holy city of Benares (today, Varanasi). On the left bank, there is a stone stairway that comes down almost into the water, where it meets a small dock. There are no cranes or containers, naturally, but numerous small groups of people, dressed in colorful tunics, talking among themselves. It is the first small port area in the city, used to facilitate the transport of goods to the narrow streets. Some boats are moored side by side, like the gondolas in Venice. They are unloading goods to be delivered to small shops that, already at this early hour, are receiving their first customers.
Now our boat lines up with one of the many arches supporting a large bridge. It’s not the first bridge we’ve passed: the boat has already gone under the Milvian Bridge, about four miles upriver. This one was built by Nero, so he could have easier access to the gardens and portico of Agrippina, his mother. But to us, in modern times, it means something more, because it connects Rome to the area that is now the Vatican. In Trajan’s time there were no basilicas; it was just a rural area with few buildings. There is a circus (that is, a race track), perhaps a bit decrepit by now, where Nero made martyrs of early Christians, accusing them of setting fire to Rome. This is also where Saint Peter died in 64 CE; his tomb was located, along with those of thousands of other people, in a vast necropolis that grew up alongside the road leading to the bridge. The Christian faithful built a small shrine in his honor where they come in groups to venerate him. Later, Saint Peter’s Basilica will be built on the site of this shrine. Passing under the bridge, we can already see a fair amount of pedestrian traffic. The rush hour has begun.
After the bridge, the Tiber makes the first of its two large bends in the city of Rome. It’s surprising to see that the riverbanks are not well maintained; for the entire length of the river’s course through the city there are almost no retaining walls to prevent floods, such as we see today, but only fields that come down to the water’s edge, some patches of bamboo, or small beach areas made of silt and tufts of grass. As a result, when the Tiber overflows its banks it often provokes disastrous floods. According to Titus Livius, the popular classes of the city are so used to floods they even consider them “divine messengers.” It is believed, in fact, that the most serious floods are harbingers of some tragic event, a natural disaster or a catastrophe that will upset the life of Rome. To get an idea of the frequency of the floods and the quantity of sediment that they bring into the city, keep in mind that in the span of a century and a half, the sacred monument of the Ara Pacis, the altar of peace built by Augustus in an open area, will be surrounded by accumulated sediment so high that a flight of stairs will have to be built to assure access to it.
Despite a series of imperial measures designed to control the river, the poor maintenance of the Tiber’s banks makes it look like a river in today’s third world. The banks are littered with broken amphoras, animal skeletons, and all kinds of trash. The shore is dotted with small wooden docks where we can see little boys dive into the water and come up smiling. A little farther off, glowing white herons and egrets punctuate the shore line, perched on beached tree trunks. Next to them lie old boats, broken up and abandoned. Sticking out of the water are the ribbed hulls of two other smaller boats that the Tiber is gradually devouring. Naturally, there are also boats that are still intact, pulled up onto the shore and arranged in a line. They are white with blue and red decorations. At this very moment, one of them is moving away from the shore, propelled by oars. Aboard there are three people and some well-secured sacks. They agilely avoid a decomposing animal carcass, being pecked at by crows.
It’s a vision that doesn’t fit well with the pomp and splendor of the capital of the empire. It’s as though we were coming into the city through the service entrance, the one that films always portray as looking out onto narrow streets full of accumulated trash. But all you have to do is raise your eyes a little to see that you are in a special place. Just a few steps beyond this no-man’s-land is an uninterrupted line of buildings and palaces as formidable as a row of legionnaires’ shields. The line begins where the level of the land becomes a few yards higher. And some of them are multistory buildings, like the ones that can be seen today, for example, along the Arno, near the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. They are insulae that on one side overlook the streets of Rome and on the other the Tiber. Gazing at these buildings as you’re going down the Tiber you see a streaming checkerboard of windows that open onto peeling plaster walls, balconies, drying laundry, and above all, scenes from everyday life. It’s a little like moving slowly through a city on a train and catching glimpses of kitchens and dining rooms, with people eating or watching TV.
Here, too, you can see snapshots of life: an old man leaning out a window, eating a focaccia; a young man putting on a red tunic. A little farther on, a woman just out of bed opens the shutters and pushes them back against the walls of the building, stretching out her arms. All she’s wearing is a very light tunic. Then she sees us and covers herself instinctively, shooting us a withering glance. Two windows later, a man empties his chamberpot from the fourth floor.
Now we’re coming up to the area of Piazza Navona, where the river bends around the marshy plain of the Field of Mars before heading straight for Tiber Island. By now, we can see buildings of a certain architectural importance. Passing before our eyes are colonnades, statues, and porticoes, with people coming and going inside, already busy doing errands. Beyond this first line of buildings, we get a glimpse of the rest of Rome, with the roofs of its buildings and temples and, standing high above the early-morning mist, the majestic mass of the temple of Jupiter atop the Capitoline Hill.
By now we are coming into the heart of the city. History is all around us, its great names included. We glide under the great arches of another bridge, built by Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus, who also built the Pantheon.
Ahead is Tiber Island. As we pass to the side of it, we notice its distinct profile. The Romans have exploited its oblong shape to construct the form of a ship, using blocks of peperino, volcanic tuff, faced with travertine marble. The entire island has been turned into a monument, with an obelisk in the middle symbolizing the mainmast. They have portrayed the hull, planked with wood and decorated with portrayals of, for example, Aesculapius and his snake. The whole thing is painted to look like a real ship, and from far away, in the morning mist, its mass looks like a trireme galley anchored in the middle of the river.
For four hundred years it has been home to the Temple of Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. In the third century BCE the city was struck by a grave pestilence and a delegation was sent to Epidaurus, in Greece, to obtain a statue of the god. While the delegation was waiting to be received, a snake, the incarnation of the god, came slithering out of the temple, climbed up onto the Roman ship and, when the ship arrived back in Rome, slid down into the Tiber and swam to Tiber Island. For the Romans it was a message from the gods. They built the temple here in honor of Aesculapius and the plague came to an end. Its location had another, very practical, benefit: those who were sick or in need of healing were drawn away from the city, and the risk of spreading an epidemic was reduced. The Tiber, in other words, creates a natural cordon sanitaire.
The island is connected to the two opposite banks by two bridges, Fabricius and Cestius, under which we are now passing. And right after them comes our destination: a long dock on the left bank of the Tiber. This is where the main warehouses of Rome, thehorrea, are concentrated. They remind us of the great industrial complexes of modern automobile factories. They cover an enormous surface area and appear to the eye as an endless line of long roofs. Their arcades, facing the river, look like so many open mouths. We might call them the famished mouths of Rome, a true demographic monster, a Hydra not of a thousand heads but of a thousand mouths, constantly needing to be fed.
Even at a distance the view is striking: endless lines of slaves stream up and down the diagonal ramps leading to the shore from the ships docked on the Tiber, carrying goods of every imaginable size and description, swallowed up by the open jaws of the horrea. The whole operation is coordinated and organized as though it were an enormous anthill.
Some of the goods come from the farthest corners of the empire. From this vantage point, one gets the sense that the entire empire revolves around Rome, that its unifying mission is to feed, defend, and increase the power of this city.