North Carolina (second edition, 2021) p/b 585pp £55 (ISBN 9781469668666)

C. is Professor of Roman History at Queen’s University Belfast. This volume was initially published in 2012 and built on several earlier research papers on aspects of river activity in the Roman empire. The work is essentially an encyclopaedia of all references to rivers and their attributes known to the Romans and spans the period from 1000 BC to AD 600 AD. C. groups the references into ten chapters—rivers as geography (chapters 1 and 2); rivers as legal entities (chapter 3); rivers in religion and the arts (chapter 4); rivers as providers of health and relaxation (chapter 9); rivers as a tool of empire (chapters 5 and 10); and rivers as a source of commerce (chapters 6, 7, and 8).

C. draws his sources from texts, epigraphy and archaeology and supplies both a comprehensive index of the navigable rivers to which he refers (about 140 with both their ancient and modern names) and a similar list of spas and other sites with curative reputations (about 150). There are nearly 100 pages of notes and a bibliography of 52 pages. He supplies over 20 useful maps and diagrams and 19 not so useful illustrations. His approach is faithfully to describe the evidence rather than to draw conclusions from it. Indeed there is barely a generalisation to which he cannot present one or more dissenting examples. With that caveat, however, it is possible to discern some broad common themes.

The river systems C. describes are broadly similar to those we see today. Rivers were highly respected throughout the ancient world, mainly because of their ability to cause occasional destructive flooding, and deities were attributed to them (male if rivers and female if springs) throughout the period covered by C. The Roman practice was to regard rivers (defined normally as streams that flowed all through the year) as held in common for the benefit of the whole community and this understanding was extended throughout the Empire, almost universally in the west and slightly less consistently in the east. The Romans did not have a central policy on how rivers should be used whether for warfare or trade but left each district to work out their own preferences. Local deities and rituals were also respected. Roman understanding of the ways in which rivers worked geographically and how their resources could be harnessed for the public good was comprehensive. Provided the engineering did not sensibly detract from the public good, individual rather than top down solutions were the norm—although imperial governors like Pliny tended to ensure that the Emperor was likely to be content. There was a greater element of top-down control within the legal system—what, for example, should happen when a river suddenly changed course, thus depriving an existing owner of his right to the land and opening up the old riverbed to individual ownership? Broadly however this emphasis on local activity means that we have less information about the detail of it than we would have assembled had the emphasis been top-down.

C.’s style is lucid and eminently readable. His presentation of the material is well-conceived and logical, although fact follows fact rather remorselessly and the inevitable repetitions of phrases like ‘watery environment’ and ‘riverine’ can begin to grate. He has undoubted created an essential quarry for historians for whom activity around rivers is a secondary interest rather than central. This study should protect them from making unjustified generalisations about the effect of rivers and about the significance of central policies on river activities. For the general Classics for All reader this will be a stimulating, but slightly expensive, read.

Roger Barnes