Floods in Ancient Rome

We are currently seeing terrible images of flooding in Italy as a result of torrential rain affecting Emilia Romagna and areas around Ravenna and Veneto. We think of Italy as a warm, sunny country with a consistantly warm climate – but even in Ancient Rome flooding was not uncommon, with the River Tiber bursting its banks 12 times in 189BC, according to the poet Livy.

Ancient Rome had an advantage when it came to dealing with flooding – its underground sewer system, which helped to channel the flood waters. However, many episodes of flooding also resulted in casualties, fatalities – and sewerage pouring into the streets.

There was also damage to property – and in extreme cases of flooding, the homes of patricians (the wealthy citizens of Rome) were used as makeshift hospitals and treatment centres to help doctors tend to those who had been injured in the flooding and the collapse of buildings.

River Tiber at Trastevere in spring

The most likely periods for flooding in Ancient Rome were late winter and early spring as ground defrosted and spring tides make the Tiber swell. Evidence shows that Ancient Rome was also as much as 5 metres lower than the modern city of Rome today, meaning ground level was nearer the level of the Tiber. Today, the land round the Tiber is elevated and the river is bounded by high walls. But in Ancient Rome, river levels were not recorded as they were in countries like Egypt, which depended on the river for its mainly agricultural-based economy. Ancient Rome was part of a large empire and although agriculture was important, many goods were imported. Rome also had an efficient transport system, so the River Tiber was not such a crucial part of the economy. It was not actually until 1782 AD that river levels in Rome began to be recorded.

However, flooding in Ancient Rome could be extensive – with the area of the Campus Martius being almost completely covered one year. The Campus Martius is one of the largest areas of the city. stretching from the Teatro Marcello to the banks of the Tiber near Emperor Hadrian’s Mausoleum.

Castel Sant’Angelo on the River Tiber shot from the Lungotevere by the border of the Campus Martius

Sadly, the current storm across parts of Italy have resulted in deaths and injuries, with homes swept away and people displaced. Today we cite global warming as the cause – but the Ancient Romans frequently suffered flooding of the Tiber. Rome was actually built on a flood plain and developed as an agricultural hub with farming being the predominant past-time in pre-Roman times. But it is thought by some experts that deforestation of areas around the River Tiber might actually have contributed to the episodes of flooding, including the 12 devastating floods of 189BC. We are still trying to understand the effects of deforestation on climate today, centuries after Ancient Romans found themselves bailing out their homes.

We pray for those caught up in the flooding today.

Images copyright A. Meredith

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