restricted access Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome by Brian Campbell (review)
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Rivers and the Power of Ancient Rome. By Brian Campbell (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2012) 608 pp. $70.00

This monograph is a broad survey of the cultural, political, and economic importance of rivers in Roman civilization. The chronological focus is the late republic and early empire (c. 200 B.C.E.-200 C.E.), although Campbell reaches both earlier and later when valuable source material beckons. The geographical parameters are equally wide. "Ancient Rome" covers the expanse of the Roman Empire, although the lion's share of attention is devoted to Spain, Italy, Gaul, and the provinces along the Rhine and Danube. The Nile, for instance, is not ignored, but neither is it accorded space commensurate with its importance.

The study relies, first and foremost, on the ancient literary and legal texts. Campbell has gathered and analyzed an impressive battery of ancient comments and reflections on rivers. Archaeology and, to a lesser extent, epigraphy are used to supplement the written evidence. At times the treatment is encyclopedic, both in its comprehensiveness and its pace. Some chapters (especially Chapters 7, 8, and 9) are basically inventories of knowledge, particularly useful to those interested in regional detail. Throughout, the methodology is the traditional accumulation and critical analysis of extant sources; only part of Chapter 1, about the hydrological cycle, is meaningfully informed by environmental science. The general disengagement with the natural sciences is evident in Campbell's peremptory claims that "historians have tended to avoid the issue" of climate change and that "the type of evidence available to estimate climate is not helpful," which he bolsters with citations of two articles by Shaw.1 Although Campbell is right that ancient historians have paid insufficient attention to climate change, readers of this journal will know that there is a lively and rapidly growing literature in environmental history with consequences for the study of the ancient world.2 [End Page 115]

Rome was a riverine civilization. The city was sited on a river, its founding legends closely bound up with stories of the Tiber. More importantly, the Roman Empire was a tri-continential, iron-age empire with relatively rudimentary transport technology but relatively advanced civil engineering and organizational capacity. Rivers were the natural complement to the Roman road and water-supply systems. The strength of this book is to delineate the ways in which empire and nature interacted during the Roman period. Campbell shows how the technologies of legal science and land survey allowed the Romans to appropriate the landscape within a strong regime of property rights, and he traces an enduring tension between the state's supervenient powers and the priviate individual's property rights.

Because two rivers in particular (the Rhine and Danube) demarcated the Roman Empire's most heavily militarized frontier zone, the Roman army was unusually reliant on river transport, although Campbell notes that it remains difficult to draw broad conclusions. The book also captures the importance of rivers in Mediterranean myth and imagination, even if Campbell's claims to recover insights of what ordinary people in the countryside thought of rivers generally stretches the evidence. The maps are abundant and useful, although more advanced Geographical Information Systems (GIS) applications may still have more to tell us about the place of rivers in Roman geospatial networks (for pioneering examples, see both and [End Page 116]

Kyle Harper
University of Oklahoma


1. Brent Shaw, "Climate, Environment and Prehistory in the Sahara," World Archaeology, VIII (1976) 133-148; idem, "Climate, Environment, and History," in Thomas M. L. Wigley, M. J. Ingram, and R. Farmer (eds.), Climate and History: Studues in Past Climates and Their Impact on Man (New York, 1981), 379-403.

2. See, for example, Michael McCormick, Harper, et al., "Climate Change before and afterthe Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XLIII (2012), 169-220.