Rome’s Tiber River: Is it “safe”?
During a recent visit to Rome, Mary and I needed a break from sightseeing at the popular tourist attractions. To escape the madding crowd we strolled to the historic Tiber River. As I gazed at the scene, I thought about the history this river witnessed through the years. According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC on the banks of the Tiber. Rome’s founders, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, were abandoned on the waters of the Tiber and rescued and suckled by the she-wolf, Lupa. Or so the legend goes.
What I know for certain is that the Tiber runs approximately 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Tuscany through Rome and on to the Tyrhennian Sea at Ostia. Rome grew to become the most important city in the world because of and in spite of the Tiber. Compared to transport by road, the river provided an efficient way to move goods to the city from around the Mediterranean. Because the Tiber is navigable, Rome could be built far enough from the coast to be protected from naval attack or invasion. However, the Tiber frequently flooded the many low-lying areas of the city so in the late 1800s a steep walled embankment was built to tame its flow.
As we approached the bridge near Castel Sant’Angelo, I suggested to Mary that we descend the stone staircase for a close-up look at the famous river. She asked me, “Is it safe?” That got me thinking. What does “safe” mean when speaking about the most important river in central Italy?
Actually I knew Mary was asking about our safety in terms of criminal activity. To get a closer look at the river we would have to leave the crowded sidewalks and plazas and go where few tourists tread. I looked down the steps to assess the situation. Joggers, strollers and an occasional cyclist moved along the paved path next to the river. Everything looked fine. Safe enough for us to explore. Besides, we never felt threatened in Rome at any time. I figured we would be statistically even safer down by the river and away from Rome’s infamous pickpockets. So down we went. And on this day our personal security was never in doubt.
In terms of hygienic safety, I knew we would be okay as long as we didn’t touch the water. Or, god forbid, drink it. The waters of the Tiber have not been drinkable for centuries. During the Roman Empire, water from the river Tiber was badly affected by pollution and waterborne diseases. Beginning in 312 BC, the Romans devised a system of great aqueducts to convey pure sources of water from the distant hills and mountains. Unfortunately for the Romans, the aqueducts eventually became their Achilles heel. All it took to bring down the city was to knock out one of the arches. And that’s just what the Barbarians did in the 6th century. Without drinking water the city, that during the height of the Roman Empire housed more than one million people, became uninhabitable.
As we ambled along the river, a third type of safety I pondered was recreational. Here in the city, the strong current of the Tiber makes it dangerous. And near Tiber Island, logs and other debris don’t escape the relentless grip of a low-head dam. They say Lake Superior never gives up her dead. Similarly, the low-head dam at Tiber Island, like similar structures everywhere, never seems to give up her debris. The regurgitating logs and plastic bottles serve as an ominous warning to anyone considering paddling or swimming the river.
The only watercraft we saw were cruise boats which stayed safely away from the Tiber Island dam. Paddlers do occasionally use the river for supervised activities such as the 2012 ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships.
So is the Tiber safe? Short answer: It depends.
Safe to view? Absolutely.
Safe to paddle? Possibly, if you know what you’re doing and have local experts to guide you.
Safe to drink? I’ll pass.