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Tiber: The Heart of the Eternal City *

B.  Languages and Literature
University of Naples L’Orientale
Oriental Languages and Cultures


This paper deals with the cultural context of river Tiber in the Roman “Eternal City “ in respect of mythology, narrative, ethnology and literature. In the ancient world, since they demarcate and define, rivers often establishing boundaries both symbolically and in geographical terms. From the beginning, poetry has always used images of the nature to model them according to its communicative and symbolic needs, and perhaps no others elements are deformable and adaptable to these aim as is water, intrinsically lacking of a definite form.
Water is chosen as a poet’s confident, as it is able to keep the secrets of the events which it witnesses and The essential characteristics of a river, that is movement and directionality, link it to literary narrative and the construction of literary texts.
Rome is called the Eternal City because the destinies of the world seemed to be related to the city’s destiny. And the thesis was strengthened by the history and events. It is also called Caput Mundi because it was for so long the capital of the “Mediterranean world”.
The eternal city is identified with its river that gave it birth: the Tiber river, site of wars, engineering achievements, major “highway” of the Mediterranean trade, but first of all source of inspiration for the poetry: from mythology to the modern literature poets have used the strict linking between this two entities to tell us about myths, poem, imaginative vision of the afterlife, expressing different feelings and point of view, always showing the lasting connection between Roma Caput Mundi and the Tiber river.

Keywords: river, Tiber, Eternal city and Caput Mundi.


“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one”
(Khalil Gibran)

f the river is the place where everything flows, altering and renewing itself into a ceaseless becoming, it is easy understandable that in every epoch, the main poets have represented in it dynamic and contrastive values, always linked to the antithetical sense of fugacity and regeneration that at each level  (from historical to existential, from physical to philosophy) the change become source of inspiration.
A primordial sign of fertility and pride but also a geological crack of crossing, demarcation and reunion of nature and history, environment and civilization, living allegory of the cycle of life and death, a symbolic figure of the unconscious, but at the same time a mythical image of entire cycles of historical domination in the world. So, the river offers not just a vivid background or illustration, but acts as a mediator between poetry and poet. It can link the past to the present, and the flow of the river can assist or become part of the narrative. Similarly, river catalogues and river journeys may form part of a narrative structure. Poetry, from the ancient to the modern one, owe a lot to the rivers, where their water prefigures in the writing of air and earth.
Rivers have great symbolic value, with deep cultural roots based on the importance of water as a necessity of life (Prudence, J.2005).All civilizations depend on available water, and, of course, rivers are a fine source of life. Rivers also provided ancient societies with access to trade not only of products, but ideas, including language, writing, and technology. River-based irrigation permitted communities to specialize and develop, even in areas lacking adequate rainfall. For those cultures that depended on them, rivers were the lifeblood. In "The Early Bronze Age in the Southern Levant," in Near Eastern Archaeology, Suzanne Richard (2003) calls ancient civilization based on rivers, primary or core, and non-riverine (e.g., Palestine), secondary. You'll see that the societies connected with famous  rivers such as Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, The Yellow River and Tiber are all qualify as core ancient civilizations (Richard, 2003:87).

Rivers have a mystical importance in that while constantly changing they seem to stay the same. Rivers are also unpredictable, and hence there are many stories in mythology of rivers changing shape, and cases where water becomes an agent of transformation. Given that the Tiber is a special river keeping the truth and the mythology in the history of the city Rome, its semantic and representative richness raises to a multiple power. It is the birth point of the largest and most influential empire of the antiquity, gradually overwhelmed by its own growth and expansion, beyond the classical turn of the century in which the alternate events of decadence and recovery, abandonment and rebirth  projected on the journey of entire centuries of conflict and uncertainty. The river is the faithful and sensitive mirror of the city it gave birth. Eternalizing the river in the forms of writing is not merely a permanent testimony but takes directly the place of history, in fact it itself makes the history.


The ideological view that comes to mind only to mention the name of the city of Rome appears and takes on meaning if we pay attention to the waters of the river Tiber that run uneasy and perpetual under the ripe and bridges of the city. All the "monumental" that in history was the prerequisite of a triumphal location of  Rome, the aeterna city, well above the commune, find in its river, which it is its heart, the ordinary reason for its existence, a strongly secularized response, consistent with everyday life of more human activities: related to survival, use and maintenance.
The river is indissolubly linked to the use and the life of men, expressing better than anything else the “handing down” of things and values within a direct and interactive relationship between human society and the environment of its life.

"Not without reason gods and men have chosen this place to found the city: extremely well-kept huts, a convenient river through which to transport indoor products and receive sea supplies, a place near the sea enough to take advantage of the opportunities but not exposed to the dangers of foreign fleets because of the excessive proximity to the centre of Italy, very suitable for the increase of the city, the same size as the latter is the proof ”.
(Cicerone, 54 A.D.)

Cicerone, in his writing De Republica,[1]showed that the ancients were aware that the reasons for choosing the place on which the city would arise were of a purely economic nature.
The presence of the Tiber river was so important for the birth of the city that Servius (Roman commentator lived between the 4th and 5th  centuries AD) argued that the ancient name of the river Tiber, Rumon or Rumen (whose root derives from ruo, or "scroll "), gave its name to the city, so that Rome would mean" City of the River" (Pallottino, 1993: 61-68).

The river Tiber ( in Italian Fiume Tevere) is the historic river of Europe and the second longest Italian river after the Po, rising on the slope of Mount Fumaiolo, a major summit of the Appennino Tosco-Emiliano. With its 252 miles (405 km) long, twisting in a generally southerly direction through a series of scenic gorges and broad valleys, the Tiber flows through the city of Rome and enters the Tyrrhenian Sea of the Mediterranean near Ostia Antica. 
A vivid and overwhelming vortex generated by the Tiber island invests the surroundings territories, marking the founding start of the capital of the world: Tiber is in the archaic Rome the border line between Etruscan and Latin people, and  it was, the mythic nucleus since the earliest origins, as well as strategic crossing point.

According to the legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC on the banks of the Tiber about 25 kilometres (16 mi) from the sea at Ostia. The Tiberina island in the centre of Rome, between Trastevere and the ancient centre, was the site of an important ancient ford and was later bridged.
In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus are twin brothers, whose story tells the events that led to the founding of the city of Rome and the Roman Kingdom by Romulus. The killing of Remus by his brother, and other tales from their story, have inspired artists throughout the ages. Since ancient times, the image of the twins being suckled by a she-wolf, has been a symbol of the city of Rome and the Roman people. Although the tale takes place before the founding of Rome around 750 BC, the earliest known written account of the myth is from the late 3rd century BC. Possible historical basis for the story, as well as whether the twins' myth was an original part of Roman myth or a later development is a subject of an ongoing debate.

Romulus and Remus were born in Alba Longa, one of the ancient Latin cities near the future site of Rome. Their mother, Rhea Silvia was a vestal virgin and the daughter of the former king, Numitor, who had been displaced by his brother Amulius. In some sources, Rhea Silvia conceived them when their father, the god Mars visited her in a sacred grove dedicated to him. Through their mother, the twins were descended from Greek and Latin nobility.
Seeing them as a possible threat to his rule, King Amulius ordered them to be killed and they were abandoned on the bank of the Tiber River to die. They were saved by the god Tiberinus, Father of the River and survived with the care of others, at the site of what would eventually become Rome.
 According to other sources, Rome's founders, were abandoned on the Tiber’s waters, where they were rescued by the she-wolf, Lupa (Richard, J. 2000:630).

The Tibet river represents Virgil's vision of his own storytelling. In Virgil’s epic Aeneid[2], one of the founding books of the western culture, the Tiber is revealed to have reclaimed its ancient, “true” name of “Albula”, though in a way that foreshadows the continuing reality of war and internecine strife for Rome.
There is one of the main mention of the Tiber in the Georgics[3], as the beekeeper Aristaeus enters the underwater realm of his mother Cyrene:

“…omnia sub magna labentia flumina terra spectabat diversa locis, Phasimque Lycumque, et caput unde altus primum se erumpit Enipeus, unde pater Tiberinus et unde Aniena fluenta…”
(G. IV, 366-369).

 The few lines quoted here form part of a larger description of both significant rivers and storied nymphs. Tiberinus is identified as pater because of his connection to Rome; the passage in a sense serves to  balance the supplicatory reference to the river from the first georgic. These two allusions to the Tiber and its god set the stage for the dramatic part played by the river in Virgil’s crowning poetic achievement, his epic of Rome’s origins and identity.
The mention of the eponymous god is echoed near the opening of the second half of the epic, as the Trojans finally arrive near the mouth of the storied river, in a passage that owes much to preceding
literary and historical traditions about the Trojan landfall in Hesperia[4]:

“…atque hic Aeneas ingentem ex aequore lucum
prospicit. hunc inter fluvio Tiberinus amoeno
verticibus rapidis et multa flavus harena
in mare prorumpit…”. (A. VII, 29-32).

There is a grove, and a riverbank that is a place of refuge and serenity; the river itself is possessed of a vigor and life that is most fitting for the very eternal capital of the world, as it were ( Mynors,1969). It is important to remember that in these poems Virgil was partly trying evoke a pleasant pastoral scene and convey the countryman's view of the role of  the rivers and springs in the cycle of bucolic activities.
In the Book VIII of Virgil's epic Aeneid, there is a spatial, temporal and literary journey, where the river is a perfect emblem for directional progress. The Tiber is the point of embarkation for Aeneas' travels in Italy and also provides a course for words and narrative. However, in respect of the famous prophecy of Tiberinus about Aeneas' destined achievements, there is no 'disparity between the prophecy and its fulfillment'. Tiberinus promises to guide the ship so that the rowers can overcome the current, but later it is the river itself that checks its current. Tiberinus simply promises that the Trojans will be able row upstream (a feature of traffic on the Tiber) and in due course makes this easier by ensuring that the river is calm. Tiberinus helped Aeneas after his arrival in Italy from Troy, suggesting to him that he seek an alliance with Evander of Pallene in the war against Turnus and his allies. The river’s deity appeared to Aeneas in a dream, telling him he had arrived at his true home. Tiberinus also calmed the water so that Aeneas' boat was able to reach the safely city (Moroford, Mark, Lenardon, Robert 1971:215). He was considered the one of the most important river-gods and people made sure to put offerings in the Tiber River every May. Tiberinus was honored with twenty-seven straw dummies which were called Argei.

Rivers represents transition from one phase of life to another, including rites of passage and indeed death itself. Tiber river is quoted so many times by Dante Alighieri, in the famous long narrative poem Divine Comedy, the preeminent work in Italian literature and one of the greatest work of world literature.
The poem's imaginative vision of the afterlife is representative of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church by the 14th century. It is divided into three parts: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise or Heaven. The Purgatory demonstrates the medieval knowledge of a spherical Earth, with Dante referencing the different stars visible in the Southern Hemisphere, the altered position of the sun, and the various timezones of the Earth (Richard H., 2000).
In a contrast to Charon's ferry across the Acheron in the Inferno, Christians’ souls are escorted by an Angel Boatman from their gathering place somewhere near Ostia, the seaport of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, through the Pillars of Hercules across the seas to the Mountain of Purgatory.

[…]“ For three months now he has been easily taking on board all who want the trip. Therefore at se seashore where the Tiber becomes saltwater, I was gathered in. Right back to that river mouth he has set his wings again because those who do not sink down to the river Acheron are always assembled there” […]

The souls that were bound for Purgatory assembled in Rome at the mouth of the Tiber River and were ferried by an angel; those who were bound for Hell assembled by the River Acheron and were ferried by a demon. The angel used his wings and the heavenly boat flew; Charon used an oar to paddle and sometimes hit his passengers with it. The blessed souls were singing in unison; the damned were wailing and cursing separately (Lindskoog,1997:10)
The poet imagines that the souls destined for salvation adorn themselves at the mouth of the Tiber, waiting to be welcomed into the jar of the nigger angel and  transport them to the island of Purgatory.
The allegorical significance of the localization is evident: as opposed to Acheron, the river of the damned, Tiber, which clearly indicates connection with the eternal city Rome, as the centre of Christianity, is the river at whose mouth (where it sins) collects souls destined for the eternal deliverance.

Rivers help to define the identity of peoples and places because they are an emblem of the landscape and therefore advertise the association of certain people with a place. So rivers divide as well as connect. This is an important theme for writers and poets. The Tiber river tended to be important centres of communications, and above all had a role in the emotional and cultural life of Roman’s communities. Rome is the city where everything is linked together. the screams of pedestrians blend with the silence of the historic buildings; the Tiber slowly flows and divides, the ancient resists and merges with the innovation where different cultures are daily compared; a city that has become for centuries a symbol of human conditions like an Homeric siren, his “voice” has always charmed writers and poets from all over the world: authors like Pirandello, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Giuseppe Ungaretti, after have been seeing “the eternal city” and its connection with the Tiber and have been inspired from it, they have developed  different feelings and got different shapes of it. Through the history of literature, from the mythology until the early 20thcentury, the city of Rome with its Tiber reveals new features.

Pirandello[5]through his poems expresses the late romantic concept of inner coldness. The poet is angry and disappointed with the new image of the eternal city, has already became a symbol of corruption and decadence, sweeping away its glory. He is no able to be consoled: Rome is no longer a classical beauty and its ruins instead of be protected by the romans, are destroyed by the “dwarf traitors of build corruption”. Pirandello would like to see shimmering the memories of ancient Rome, and to eradicate the wickedness, that is, the civil and social corruption that grips the city.
In 1901 he wrote  Tiber’s Tears (“Pianto del Tevere”) whose inspiration was born from the Tiber’s flood on December 2, 1900, barely contained by the wall still under construction which collapsed for a long stretch between the Cestio and the Palatine bridge and its muddy waters came into the city through Pantheon’s Square.

“You will no longer see him , passing through the city of Rome, as I did , one day;
the Tiber, passing between his natural shaky lids [...] like a mugging and full of robbery he comes down, so that every wave is able to overcome the edges of oppressive margins; running through the underground streets, he is shown to the Pantheon: "Do you see, sacred scraps of our Rome? I am still here: Rome needs a great wash”
(Pianto del Tevere,1990)

The poet uses  the pronoun “our” because he feels part of the city and “him” referring to the Tiber, because he personifies the river with the eternal city. For him the flood is a rebellion, and the protagonist of this poem is the river’s lament who wants to overcome the banks to cover Rome and its wickedness, erasing a city that was just a scrap of what it was.

Different point of view is founded in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s poetry[6]: Rome is not the city of antiquity, but it is the city that shines with its precious ornaments, and among its ornaments emerges the river Tiber. He does not care about Rome’s corruption that made worried Pirandello, but he sees the same decadence as a great beauty.

“Rome shone in the morning of May embraced by the sun,
on the bridge appeared the shining stream of river Tiber, fleeing among the green houses,
after a while, on the  uphill the eternal city appeared,
clearly carved, like an acropolis, in the full blue’s sky.
(D’Annunzio, 1889)

D’Annunzio links the beauty of the river Tiber to the sudden appearance of the immensity of Rome.
For him, the majesty of the city, with the epic eternal “flavour” is due to the Tiber’s beauty from which the city was born, capturing the attention of the poet,  becoming active part of the shining city. Every corner of the city is smiling at him, as if to give the last greeting that the protagonist seems to implore with his eyes. The poet reads the city and Rome opens itself to the poet.

For the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti,[7] rivers are always been a central part in his poetry. To the four rivers of Ungaretti’s life, is added the fifth one: “the fatal Tiber” spectator of all the atrocities of the war but also of a new awareness of the poet.  The Poem “My River even you” is the most notorious and most religious poem in which the personal pain of Ungaretti instill the angst of the Roman people for the humiliating pain of deportations (Second World War), where his confession of faith becomes more dramatic and tense.
“My River, even you, “fatal Tiber”
It pierces in your heart
The sum of the pain
That man is pouring on the earth;
[…]Your heart is the passionate home
of love is not in vain.
My lonely crying is no longer just mine”
(Ungaretti, 1947)

In this poetry, the Tiber becomes the symbol of the fatal pass of the night of “fear”. The Crucified Christ is the brother from whom the Poet finally embraces all of his humanity. In 1916, Ungaretti wrote a poem entitled “The Rivers” in which he could understand himself through the rivers he met on his life’s pilgrimage: from Egypt, France, to Italy. The Tiber becomes a symbol of the pain that advances in the "night" and strikes the innocent, symbolized in the "lust of lambs [...] infinite sobs”.
The worse suffering is the expectation of the unpredictable pain itself, where the anguish make every refuge insecure. In recognizing this situation as "his river", Ungaretti admits that pain is inseparable part of his person and of the human. It is not enough to psychologically regain the pain to give it a sense. It is not enough to take note of the evidence that makes us impotent. It is not enough if the pain continues to generate only more pain.


As a forceful, changeable and constantly moving part of the landscape, rivers interact with the dynamics of poetry. Apart from pleasant illustrations and metaphors a river could serve as a means of inspiration, which came though imbibing water from poetically significant springs, be a character in a poetic story, or act as a kind of narrator, representing an independently existing narrative in which author and reader participate.

The theme of river deserves the recognition of having gone through each era with different results from different poets, lending itself to the most disparate symbolism and interpretation.
Every author has used the image of the river in a different way, always linking the Tiber river with the Eternal City, recognizing it as the heart of Rome. The Tiber was not only an important highway for the trade in the Mediterranean area, but it was used in poetry and narrative, always linked to the history of Rome, to determine both what literature can tell us about Tiber and, conversely, how the river can help us think about the development of literature.
Big powerful rivers like the Tiber represented epic poetry, and of course oratory could be compared to the flow of a river. From the ancient mythology telling about the birth of the Eternal city of Rome, with Romulus and Remus rescued by the Tiber’s deity, the river guides us through the events of the Virgil’s epic Aenid where Tiberinus is considered the pater for its connection to the city of Rome, to the imaginative vision of the afterlife of Dante Alighieri, using the Tiber like a starting place for the souls’ salvation.
The scenario changed with the arrival of the nearest modern literature of the XX century, where the Tiber is used like a source of inspiration by  modern poets to express  different feelings connected to the change of  Rome. The Tiber ‘s flows in the author’s poetry bringing delusion, and rebellion caused by the city wickedness with Pirandello, prosperity, richness and worldliness with D’Annunzio and expression of sharing pain with Ungaretti.
Today the Tiber River is a wonderful waterway that crosses the Eternal City, telling the history, the myths and poetry through its flow of the city that gave birth and of which it will eternally be part.

“The charm of the Tiber is perhaps in his continuous flow, remaining unchanged, in his departure, being a sort of physical representation of the history of Rome, being, in an unchanged way, the heart of the eternal city. it's really true, rivers are history of life”.
(Tiziano Tiziani)

Lindskoog, K . 1997. Dante's Divine Comedy: Purgatory: Journey to Joy, Part.Macon: Mercer University Press
Lindskoog, K. 1997. Dante’s Divine Comedy. Macon: Mercer University Press
Moroford, Mark and Lenardon, Robert . 1971. Classical Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Mynors P. 1969. Vergili Maronis Opera Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Pallottino, M. 1993. Origini e storia primitiva di Roma. Roma: Bompiani
Prudence, J. 2005.  Reading Rivers in Roman Literature and Culture. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books
R. F. Thomas, Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality, Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1999, 135
 Richard H. Lansing, Barolini, T.  2000. The Dante Encyclopedia.  New York: Garland Pub
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[1] Written work in the form of political dialogue that discussed the political organization and institutions of the state and of the Roman’s State.
[2] The Aeneid is a latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans.

[3] The Georgics is a poem by Latin poet Virgil, likely published in 29 BC, and considered Virgil’s second major work.
[4] Name with which the Greeks originally designated the western lands
[5] He was an Italian playwright, writer and poet, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. For his production, the themes dealt with and the innovation of theatrical tale are considered among the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century.

[6] He was an Italian writer, poet, journalist, playwright and soldier during World War I. He occupied a prominent place in Italian literature from 1889 to 1910 and later political life from 1914 to 1924.

[7] Giuseppe Ungaretti was an Italian modernist poet, journalist, essayist, critic, academic, and recipient of the inaugural 1970 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. A leading representative of the experimental trend known as Ermetismo, he was one of the most prominent contributors to 20th century Italian literature.

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