Roman river myths


This river is not impressive when considered from the perspective of strength, clarity, or beauty. It’s history and mythology, however, is impressive. This is the Tiber and the city of Rome was founded on its muddy banks.

The watercourse runs from the Apennine Mountains to the sea. Ancient Rome rests about 16 miles upstream from its mouth. As Pliny the Elder wrote, the river “is more suitable for rafts than for vessels.”*

Two myths are of interest.

The first concerns the the legendary king Tiberinus. As told, he drowned in this water, hence the river’s name.** The chief god Jupiter assigned him a role as the “spirit” of the river. Many depictions of the reclining Tibernius are found in classical art. Water often flows from his beard.

A second (and better known) myth concerns the infants Romulus and Remus. They were placed in a basket in the river as a way of dealing with the pregnancy of their mother who had been charged with a vow to chastity (oops!). The twins were spared by Tiberinus; their basket lodged in the roots of a tree. Later, the city of Rome was founded on the spot.***

*See link here from the hand of poor Pliny. You realize he died in the eruption of Mt Vesuvius?

**See the link here in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

***For details about the twins (and the she-wolf that raised them), see Livy’s The History of Rome (1.4-1.5). See the link here. Note that Livy was running around in the Western Mediterranean at the same time that Jesus was growing up in the Eastern Mediterranean.


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