Urbanizing the Eternal City:
How did the ancient Romans transform and adapt to Rome’s riverine landscape?
In order to build the Eternal City, the ancient Romans had to modify their landscape and respond to unforeseen challenges.
This Sustainability Case Study considers the trajectory of Ancient Rome’s urban development in its riverine environment. Recent geoarchaeological investigations in Rome’s river valley have shed light on the pre-urban setting and landscape changes that occurred alongside urbanization. With these new discoveries and a rich corpus of archaeological and historical evidence, Rome offers one of the longest records available for exploring how rivers impact cities and cities impact rivers.
In order to build in their flood-prone lowlands in the mid-1st millennium BCE, the inhabitants of Rome engaged in large-scale landscape modification projects and flood mitigation measures. Urbanization at Rome, however, triggered fresh ecological challenges, including rapid sedimentation and escalating floods. The inhabitants of Rome responded to their volatile river with a range of adaptive strategies. Over the centuries, they continued to mitigate the effects of overbank flooding through the use of strategic urban planning, land reclamation, flood-resistant architecture, and bureaucratic oversight of the riverine landscape. It is noteworthy that, despite having the capabilities, the ancient Romans chose not to enact large-scale engineering projects to prevent floods altogether. The so-called Eternal City, therefore, should be seen as a resilient city—one that persevered in the face of dynamic ecological conditions and recurrent inundations.
This case study emphasizes the value of historical applications for modern sustainability studies: the past offers both empirical evidence and a vibrant perspective for conceptualizing the complexities of human-environment interactions over many centuries. The story of Rome’s relationship with its river ultimately underscores the eternal co-evolution of society and the environment.