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Unusual legend about creation of Tiber Island

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Tiber Island
Tiber Island

Tiber Island is one of the most picturesque places in Rome. No cars, greenery and the sound of water – this is a place with a small-town charm, where even at the peak of the tourist season you can take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

In ancient Rome, a legend was told about the creation of an island on the Tiber, which was closely related to the history of the city. We know it thanks to the account of Titus Livius contained in the “Ab urbe condita” written at the turn of the first century BCE and first century CE.

According to the Romans, the island was surprisingly young and was created in the period when the monarchy collapsed and the government in the state took a republican form, i.e. only around 509 BCE. During the reign of the kings, the island did not exist yet. When the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was expelled, the Romans had to somehow resolve the issue of the wealth left by the monarch – both in the form of valuables and real estate. It was a time when the young republic had not yet established itself, and the exiled king, who temporarily took refuge in the Etruscan city of Cerae (about 30 km from Rome), still hoped to return to the throne.

Livy tells me that it was then that royal messengers came from Cerae to Rome. Officially, they were only supposed to negotiate the issue of giving Tarquin his property left in Rome. However, in reality, they were given the secret task of gently probing the mood in the city and preparing the ground for the return of the monarchy.

Meanwhile, the Roman Senate listened to the official demands of the envoys and hesitated. A refusal to hand over his property to Tarquin would certainly be the reason for the outbreak of war with Cerae. On the other hand, meeting the demands of the former king would strengthen him and increase his chances in a conflict that seemed inevitable anyway.

The Senate began to support the position that the property should be returned to Tarquin. However, while the senators were debating, the king’s deputies were not idle and conducted confidential talks with influential personalities. Almost certain of the success of their mission to reinstate the king, they became less and less cautious. When the Senate finally discovered their true intentions, the mood in the Curia changed dramatically and there was no question of any settlement with the ex-king and the return of his property to him. The senators, enraged by the duplicity of Tarquin and his envoys, decided that:

  • large tracts of royal property located on the Tiber will henceforth become public property dedicated to the god Mars (hence the “Field of Mars”…),
  • the king’s movable property was given to the people to loot.

It was a clever move by the Senate to allow the looting of royal property. Why? For henceforth the plundering people were so afraid of losing their spoils, should Tarquinius return to the throne, that they would not allow the restoration of the monarchy for anything.

But what does Tiber Island have to do with this story?

Well, according to Livy, in the fields taken from Tarquin the Proud, spelled grew at that time. Livy writes that he was “already ripe for the harvest. However, it was considered a sin to eat grain from a place dedicated to [Mars – ed. MK]; So a group was sent at once, who harvested the grain and threw it in baskets with the straw into the Tiber, which is very shallow, as it happens in the middle of summer. Heaps of grain stopped in the shallows and settled on them covered with silt. On top of this, other things carried by the river haphazardly poured in, and so slowly an island was formed. Livy goes on to say that later the island was built with a stone substructure and raised enough to hold the temples and porticoes.

Livy’s story, unfortunately, has no basis in reality. Although in older studies one can still find an assumption that it may be some reference to the natural formation of the island through the accumulation of river deposits, later geological research proved that Tiber Island is an ancient natural rock formation and could not have been formed in the manner described by Livy.

It remains an open question to what extent the Romans treated Livy’s story as a myth/legend, and to what extent it reflected their deep conviction that this was indeed the origin of the island. I suspect that they may have believed this story, for Livy’s addition that the island was walled up and fortified is a clear attempt to rationalize how heaps of grain and silt deposited at the bottom of the river could support the heavy structures built later.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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