Fluvial landscapes in the Roman world

Dr Tyler V. Franconi provides an overview of a new book exploring the role of rivers in Roman times.

Fluvial Landscapes in the Roman World is a newly published edited volume that emerged from the 2014 conference Shifting fuvial landscapes in the Roman world: new directions in the study of ancient rivers held at All Souls College in association with the Oxford Roman Economy Project.

Much of Roman history has viewed the landscape as a backdrop for history — a passive recipient of Roman imperialism: we wanted to move beyond this narrative. The conference and publication brought together experts in the history, archaeology, and geomorphology of the Roman world in order to understand better how Rome influenced the environment and how the environment, in turn, influenced Rome.

Rivers offered a particularly dynamic window into this topic, as they were a central focus of Roman settlement and economic activity across Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, and therefore provided ample discussion of similarities and differences in Rome’s interaction with riverine landscapes in markedly different landscapes.

The volume begins with an introduction setting out how the study of rivers can contribute to new narratives of Roman history. This chapter synthesizes a large body of earlier geo-archaeological investigations from many parts of the Roman Empire, demonstrating widespread and repeated encounters between rivers and settlements.

Three main themes come out of this synthesis: mainly that studying rivers can help clarify the relationship between the Roman Empire and its changing climate; rivers can also help document Roman impacts on the environment through actions like agricultural production, deforestation, and mining; and that rivers often have significant roles to play in the shaping of historical narratives.

These historical narratives are explored further through subsequent chapters. Specific case studies from France, Italy, Germany, Syria, and Egypt accompany regional overviews of North Africa and the Mediterranean littoral, examining how hydrological events like floods, sedimentation, channel movement, droughts, and delta progradation influenced settlement location, economic networks, transportation systems, agricultural schemes, and irrigation networks.

Amongst these investigations of the physical interactions between river and society, the contributing authors also examine firsthand accounts from Greek, Roman, and Medieval sources that discuss ancient impressions and explanations for hydrological activity. These ancient sources make it clear that the hydrological processes were well understood by contemporaries, even if the Empire was not always able or willing to counteract environmental forces.

These written accounts provide invaluable evidence, which when considered alongside archaeological and geomorphological studies, document the social context of riverine activity of the time. Together, these papers make it clear that it is only through a contextualized consideration of all available evidence that we can begin to grasp the significance of the ancient environment in shaping Roman historical narrative.

We hope that these papers, synthesizing multidisciplinary research across the Roman Empire, will be of interest to many researchers, and will advance the study of Rome and its environment.

The book is published as a supplement of the Journal of Roman Archaeology and is available for purchase through the journal’s website, and the front matter is available for preview.

For further details contact Dr Tyler V. Franconi.

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