By Esther Meijer, Associate Lecturer in Latin Literature, University of St Andrews

Thirty kilometres northeast of Rome, the town of Tivoli is probably best known for two villa complexes: Hadrian’s villa, built by the Roman emperor Hadrian around 120 CE, and Villa d’Este, a 16th-century villa featuring terraced Renaissance gardens with an elaborate system of fountains, canals, and cascades. But there are also other villas in Tivoli. The Villa Gregoriana park was commissioned by Pope Gregory XVI in the early 19th century, following a series of floods and restoration works, and, after a period of decay, it was reopened to the public in 2005. Located in the deep and shaded valley below the town’s ancient acropolis, scattered ruins testify to the presence of Roman villas and waterworks, including aqueducts that run partially underground.

In the late 1st century CE, the Greco-Roman author Statius wrote a poem about one of these villas, owned by Manlius Vopiscus. Prominent in this poem is the local river, the Anio:

“Anio himself (it is wonderful to tell), so rocky above

and below, here rests his swollen frenzy and his foamy

clashes, as if he is afraid to disturb the Muse-inspired

days and song-filled slumbers of the gentle Vopiscus.

Home is on both shores, and the river – so very mellow –

does not divide you. Residences guard either bank,

no strangers to each other, and they do not complain that the river obstructs them:

here there is eternal quiet, here storms are outlawed,

the waters never rage.” (Statius, Silvae 1.3.20-30)

Vopiscus’ villa is idyllic: the Anio, so boisterous elsewhere, provides the villa owner with peace and quiet, thereby assisting his writing of poetry. Although it is hard to identify the layout and location of the villa, the river appears to have run through the villa buildings – a testament to Roman engineering. As such, nature and Roman water management (and Statius) work together to create a safe and privileged home, tailored to Vopiscus’ identity.

The idyll did not last. A decade or two after the composition of this poem, in the early 100s CE, the Anio flooded, displacing many in doing so. In a letter to Caecilius Macrinus, Pliny the Younger writes:

“The Anio, that most delightful of rivers, which for precisely that reason was invited and kept within its bounds by adjacent villas, has broken and carried off a great part of the woodlands that shadow it. … Those on higher land, not caught by that storm, saw household materials and heavy furniture in one place, and farm equipment in another; cows, ploughs, herdsmen there, herds here, released and free between these mangled tree trunks or the beams and roofs of villas, floating randomly all over the place. But higher lands … did not remain free from this disaster. Constant rain and whirlwinds … have overthrown the works that encircle the valuable farms, having shattered and struck down even monuments. Many people have been disabled, buried, and crushed by disasters of this kind; and the damage is increased by mourning.” (Pliny, Epistle 8.17)

The flood, Pliny says, did not discriminate. His description is highly literary, carefully structuring the flood’s effects into lists that emphasise their impact across social classes. Household furniture is neatly juxtaposed with farm equipment, and cows and shepherds float between villa remains in a way that is perhaps not so random after all.

Although the flood may not have discriminated, its consequences would be felt differently by different people. In the face of disasters, societal power structures become (more) visible and are often reaffirmed, and that certainly seems to be the case here. Some lost their families, homes, and lives, and, as Pliny implies, valuable farms were destroyed too. For Tivoli was secondary to Rome, which was dependent on the Tivoli valley, both for some of its food and its waters, which were led to the city via aqueducts.

Today, too, this area is secondary to Rome in some ways. While Tivoli’s attractions draw many tourists from the capital city to the more famous villa complexes, Villa Gregoriana is relatively quiet. Along the river between Tivoli and Rome there are brownfields, junkyards, and itinerant communities, which contribute to environmental fragility and land-use fragmentation. A recent report on ‘resilient landscapes’ proposes to approach these issues by transforming the Anio river into a Greenway, part of a European set of infrastructures designed as resources to deliver ecological services, community, and quality-of-life based on sustainability.

My hope is that this example of Roman flooding prompts us to take a hard look at our own societal power structures in the face of pressing environmental concerns. Who do we expect to be flexible, and how? And what can we do to create flexibility in the systems and societies to facilitate and ease such flexibility? To me, solutions such as the Green Infrastructure project present a step in the right direction.

(Translations by author).