Rome sits about 15 miles inland on the banks of the Tiber river. The Tiber starts in the eastern part of the Apennines and flows 252 miles southwest until it empties into the Mediterranean. In ancient times, the Tiber wound through lush meadows and marshes filled with wildlife, while on either side stretched rolling plains of fertile soil. One of the Tiber’s tributaries is the Anio River, and both rivers play roles in the early years of Rome’s beginning. Right where Rome was established, the Tiber bends in a kind of C-shape, and just below this bend is a long oval-shaped island. Up to this island, the Tiber has been navigable by small ships. The river has been turbulent river, prone to flooding, especially in winter and spring, and was difficult to cross. But near island was the first, natural crossing of the Tiber to move inland. Since the marshes near the mouth of the Tiber were rich in salt, this crossing would have proved useful.
The navigability of the water, the crossing by foot, and the existence of the salt-marshes, must have encouraged people to come through the area often. Ancient writers refer to a road eventually called the Via Salaria, which may have been used by the Sabine Latin people to come and go as they transported salt, before, and during the early days of Rome. On a nearby hill stood the Latin city of Antemnae, defeated and destroyed by Romulus. This road goes on and around 5-6 miles from Rome passes close to where the ancient city of Fidenae lived, also familiar from the early wars of Rome.
Many hills were located close to the Tiber island and its river crossing. These hills served as refuges from floods and heat and became fortified settlements. From their lower slopes, freshwater springs provided drinking water. The three hills of Rome closest to the Tiber were the Capitoline, the Palatine and the Aventine. The Capitoline was the smallest, with two crests connected by a low saddle. Sharp cliffs overlooked the river on its southwest end and these became known as the Tarpeian Rock, from which death sentences would be carried out as criminals were thrown over. The Palatine was the central hill of Rome, directly overlooking the Tiber crossing. Its large flat top spanned about 25 acres. Archaeology has uncovered several small huts here, and one has been called the hut of Romulus. Eventually the patricians of Rome clustered their residences here. The Aventine is the southernmost hill, specifically granted to the plebeians to settle.
These three hills are enclosed by additional hills farther inland, which form an arc around them. From north to south, the Quirinal is a long ridge, which became home to the Sabine people after they made peace with Romulus and merged to expand Rome’s population. The Viminal hill runs to the south. The Esquiline hill is a large bluff., which had two main spurs called the Cispian and the Oppian hills, which extended out toward the Tiber. The Velia was a ridge that stretched from the middle of the northern Palatine, towards the Oppian hill.
The Caelian hill was a long narrow ridge curving to the south of the Esquiline. The Janiculum was a line of hills on the other side of the Tiber. It is the highest hill in Rome and served as a key observation. When the last king of Rome was expelled and brought in Etruscan Lars Porsenna, he captured and held the Janiculum for a time.
In between these hills lay small valleys. The most significant of these lay in a depression between the Palatine, Capitoline and Quirinal and became the Roman Forum. An open space at the foot of and between the Palatine and Aventine became the Forum Boarium. A long narrow valley ran between the Aventine and the Palatine and it would become the Circus Maximus. The Campus Martius was a low-lying flatland, north of the Palatine. It stretched 1.5 miles across by 1.5 miles wide between the Pincian hill and the Tiber river bend.
Today it is difficult to visualize this topography, as Rome has been considerably built up. The hills have been reduced over the centuries. Ancient buildings may in places be seen only as ruins. or modern buildings completely cover them over. The Tiber river’s course may have been changed, and many bridges cross it. Rome has expanded over many of the towns familiar in Romulus’ day.
But the geography and the people who lived within it mattered.