The Tiber River is a historic river running from Mount Fumaiolo in Central Italy through its capital city, Rome, and onto the Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia. The Tiber is famous for its murky yellow depths and the amount of world-changing history that’s taken place on its banks. Discover this fascinating stretch of water and discover how deep the Tiber River running through Rome is.
How Deep Is the River Tiber in Rome?
Today, the Tiber River in Rome ranges from two to 18 feet deep, but due to accumulated silt, its depths may have plunged further in the past.
The section of the Tiber running through Rome is around 22 miles from the coast, but the entire River Tiber is 252 miles long. It flows through Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio and drains 6,709 square miles. After the Po River and the Adige River, it’s the third longest river in Italy, and the Eternal City was built on its eastern banks.
Historically, the River Tiber was named Flavus in Latin. Flavus means “blonde,” referring to the murky yellow waters.
The Founding of Rome
Historians believe that without the Tiber River, Rome as we know it wouldn’t exist.
The legend of Rome’s founding dates the city to 753 BC (although archaeological evidence indicates much earlier settlements there). Deposed King Numitor’s daughter allegedly abandoned her twins, fathered by the god Mars, Romulus, and Remus, on the Tiber’s waters. A she-wolf (Lupa in Latin) discovered the boys, and a herdsman, Faustulus, raised them.
In later life, the twins reveal their true heritage, banish the usurping King Amulius, and restore their grandfather, Numitor. Romulus and Remus then leave Alba Longa to find Rome at the spot where the wolf discovered them — the Tiber River’s eastern bank.
How true this is, no one knows, but the River Tiber played a huge role in the rise of Rome. Not only did it provide freshwater for Roman citizens for a while, it formed a trade route that allowed large ships 60 miles upriver, well within reach of Rome. Trading ships delivered riches from around the world and departed with olive oil, wine, and wheat, making merchants very wealthy.
Although the River Tiber created riches, it also took lives due to extensive flooding. In 1557, it flooded so badly due to heavy rainfall that 1,000 people drowned. Today, stone embankments erected in the 1800s manage the River Tiber in Rome and lungoteveri (boulevards) to run its length. The embankments reach 40 feet high in some places.
In the end, it was the Tiber River’s polluted and undrinkable water that helped Visigoths from Germany sack ancient Rome for the final time in 410 AD. They destroyed the aqueduct that brought fresh water into Rome from the surrounding hills. Without the aqueduct, over a million citizens had no drinking water, and the city became uninhabitable within days.
Of course, the Tiber did not care who lived on its banks, and it has continued to flow for thousands of years since.
Ecology of the Tiber River
As with most ancient city rivers, the Tiber has its fair share of pollution. Recent efforts to clean up its act look to enhance its environmental role and create green corridors in areas of the city. However, locals say it’s not enough. The river is polluted, and the boulevard walkways are strewn with graffiti and rubbish.
What’s in There?
Coypu in the Tiber
Nutria, imported from South America for the fur trade, escaped in the 1950s and colonized the Tiber’s banks. Modern Romans called them castorino, which means little beaver, but they’re not actually beavers despite similar looks.
Coypu have thick fur, webbed feet, and bright orange teeth. Males reach around 20 pounds with a two-foot-long tail. They eat 25% of their weight in vegetation every day, and no natural predators keep their numbers down. Previous attempts to cull the Tiber River’s coypu haven’t worked.
Fish and Amphibians in the Tiber River
The Tiber River is deep enough to provide habitats for at least 22 fish species. European brown trout, eels, grayling, flathead grey mullet, and common barbels patrol its waters. Anglers need a permit to fish in any Italian river or stream. Alongside fish, amphibians such as frogs and toads use its banks to find mates, lay eggs, and hunt.
Birds on the Tiber River
At least 15 bird species nest along the River Tiber in Rome and use its waters. Grey herons, great cormorants, little egrets, moorhens, and kingfishers abound, plus of course, seagulls preying on tourist’s snacks.
Many animals make the Tiber River their home, but the ancient river was once also used to execute criminals or dispose of bodies. For example, Pope Formosus was thrown into the Tiber in 897 AD, as was wannabe emperor Sejanus in 31 AD.
What to Do on the Tiber River?
Italy’s Rome is a tourist hotspot, and activities revolve around its ancient river.
Boulevards edge the river, providing spaces for locals and walking tourists. Twenty-six bridges connect the 300 feet apart left and right banks, so it is possible to cross over many times during a sightseeing trip.
Some of the River Tiber’s bridges are ancient. The Milvian Bridge dates from the 1st century BC. Still, possibly the most beautiful bridge spanning the River Tiber’s two 18-foot depth is the Ponte Sisto, a medieval pedestrian bridge dedicated to Pope Sixtus IV.
Tourist boats regularly cruise along the Tiber River, passing landmarks like the breathtaking Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican City. Cruises offer serenity from Rome’s insistent traffic, and it’s possible to hop on and off cruise boats throughout the day so you don’t miss anything. Be sure to say “Grazie tante” (Italian for many thanks) as you disembark.
Can You Swim in the River Tiber?
No, swimming in the Tiber River is illegal despite its adequate depth due to strong currents, pollution, and riverboat danger. Bear in mind that the sayings “swimming the Tiber” and “crossing the Tiber” are actually ancient metaphors for protestants converting to catholicism, not would-be swimmers.
However, on January 1, a few brave Romans traditionally leap 50 feet from the Ponte Cavour into the Tiber. It’s a tradition harking back to 1946 when an unemployed lifeguard advertised his skills as a stuntman.
Where Is the Tiber River Located on a Map?
The River Tiber previously demarked a boundary between the western Etruscans, the Eastern Sabines, and the southern Latins. Still, later, Benito Mussolini altered the boundary so the Tiber’s rising springs lay in his birthplace, Romagna.
The Tiber River runs through the heart of Rome. Rome’s longitude is 41.9028° N, and latitude is 12.4964° E. Its longitude places Rome almost halfway between the north pole and the equator, almost the same as Chicago. IL.
Depth of the Tiber River in Rome
Let’s recap our original question.
The Tiber River reaches depths of two to 18 feet and 300 feet wide as it flows through Rome. This ancient river witnessed the rise and fall of an empire, world wars, and modern inventions, but it’s plagued with pollution.
Despite its pollution, many fish, birds, and amphibians take advantage of the Tiber River waters, along with a recent invasive species, the South American coypu that enjoys its depth and currents all too well.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © sborisov/iStock via Getty Images
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