Pons Sublicius

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The earliest known bridge of ancient Rome, Italy, the Pons Sublicius, spanned the Tiber River near the Forum Boarium ("cattle forum") downstream from the Tiber Island, near the foot of the Aventine Hill. According to tradition, its construction was ordered by Ancus Marcius around 642 BC, but this date is approximate because there is no ancient record of its construction. Marcius wished to connect the newly fortified Janiculum Hill on the Etruscan side to the rest of Rome, augmenting the ferry that was there. The bridge was part of public works projects that included building a port at Ostia, the then location of worked salt deposits.


File:City of Rome during time of republic.jpg
Drawing of the site of the Pons Sublicius (falsely shown as a pier), by Friedrich Polack

Legend tells us that the bridge was made entirely of wood. The name comes from Latin pons, pontis, "bridge," and the adjective sublicius, "resting on pilings," from the stem of sublicae, pilings. As a sublica was a pick, sublicae implies pointed sticks; that is, the bridge was supported by pilings driven into the riverbed. Julius Caesar’s engineers used this construction to bridge the Rhine.

The bridge was rebuilt repeatedly. The date of its final disappearance is not known, but it is not in classical times. The Via Latina went over the bridge and connected to the Via Cassia, a road built over an old Etruscan road that led to Veii. The bridge was a favorite resort for beggars, who used to sit upon it and demand alms, hence the Latin expression "aliquis de ponte" for a beggar.

The bridge was downstream from the Pons Aemilius, a good stone bridge with which it is sometimes confused. Between the two, the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Sewer, was effluent into the Tiber.

In the drawing by Friedrich Polack (published 1896) included with this article the pile bridge is falsely shown as a pile pier. Presumably some structure still existed prior to 1896, which was incorrectly identified. Otherwise the drawing appears to be accurate in the major details.

The observer is standing on the Via Ostiensis at the foot of the Aventine, which is at his back. The river flows toward him. The stone bridge in evidence is the Pons Aemilius. The Servian Wall goes along the bank of the river, is pierced by the Porta Trigemina (you can see the three openings) and starts up the Palatine. Beyond the gate is the Forum Boarium. In the immediate foreground are the docks, or Navalia.

The pier is highly unlikely, as any ship tied up at it as shown would be unstable in the full force of the current. Moreover, the masts would have to be shipped for passage under the bridges. One can readily see how unsuitable the river was for sea-going traffic and how necessary the port of Ostia would have been to Rome.

The opening of the Cloaca Maxima is between the docks and the stone bridge. Beyond the bridge you can just see the Aesculapium on Tiber Island. Looming over the whole scene is the Capitoline, with the temple of Juppiter Capitolinus upon it. The rising ground on the opposite side of the stone bridge is the Janiculum.

Horatius Cocles at the bridge

The legend of Publius Horatius Cocles at the bridge appears in many classical authors, most notably in Livy.

After the overthrow of the Roman monarchy in 509 BC, the exile of the royal family and the king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and the establishment of the Roman Republic, Tarquinius sought military aid to regain the throne from the Etruscan king of Clusium, Lars Porsena. Porsena led his army against Rome in 508 BC. The battle went badly for the Romans, and the Etruscan army surged towards the bridge. The Romans initially fell back. However, Horatius, with the assistance of Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius Aquilinus, sought to buy time and halt the attack by defending the opposite end of the bridge while the Roman soldiers broke the bridge.

Already immortal in literature, Horatius' fame was augmented in modern times by Thomas Babington Macaulay's 1842 poem, Horatius, from his Lays of Ancient Rome:

Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul, with all the speed ye may!
I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path, a thousand may well be stopped by three:
Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?
Then out spake Spurius Lartius; a Ramnian proud was he:
"Lo, I will stand at thy right hand and keep the bridge with thee."
And out spake strong Herminius; of Titian blood was he:
"I will abide on thy left side, and keep the bridge with thee."

Macaulay lacks nothing at all of Livy’s sentiment and spirit. Finally the bridge came down:

But with a crash like thunder fell every loosened beam,
And, like a dam, the mighty wreck lay right athwart the stream:
And a loud shout of triumph rose from the walls of Rome,
As to the highest turret-tops was splashed the yellow foam.

On the wrong side of the river, Horatius prayed to the Tiber and jumped in:

"Oh Tiber, father Tiber, to whom the Romans pray,
A Roman's life, a Roman's arms, take thou in charge this day!"
So he spake and, speaking, sheathed the good sword by his side,
And, with his harness on his back, plunged headlong in the tide.

He made the swim, of course, was given a land grant and a statue at Rome, which other writers actually saw. Some say that he fought alone and died there, but this is the lesser legend. After the difficulty in breaking the bridge down, it was reconstructed without nails, so that each beam could be removed and replaced at will, by the pontifices. Afterwards the bridge was considered so sacred that no repairs could be made without previous sacrifice conducted by the pontifex maximus.Template:Citation needed

Gaius Gracchus at the bridge

The Pons Sublicius is also the bridge over which Gaius Gracchus directed his flight when he was overtaken by his opponents (Plutarch, Life of Gaius Gracchus). Two of his friends attempted to stop them at the bridge, but were themselves killed. Gracchus died violently shortly after in a grove nearby. Roman citizens cheered on the flight of Gracchus but would not assist him. Gracchus' choice of an escape route was probably intended to make use of the magical powers attributed to the bridge, but it failed.

Ritual of the Argei

On the Ides of May, the procession of the Argei went from the temple of Fors Fortuna, built by Servius Tullius, to the pons Sublicius. (There is no reference for this version of events; this ritual is somewhat unclear and may be the same as the Roman Liberalia.) Alternately, Samuel Ball Platner explains that the ritual involved priests travelling to all (27 or 30) of the shrines (sacella) called Argei in the original 4 regions of Rome before arriving at the Pons Sublicius. The pontiffs and the magistrates were carrying straw effigies of bound men, also called Argei, which the Vestals threw into the Tiber. The Flaminica Dialis was dressed in mourning.

The ceremony has sometimes been interpretedTemplate:By whom as an Etruscan magical military tactic, comparable to another in which a Gallic man and woman were buried alive in the Forum Boarium. The Greeks and the Gauls were being ritually buried or drowned, which the superstitious Romans believed had a real effect on their Greek or Gallic enemies. They carried out this type of sacrifice also after major defeats.

New developments

The Papers of the British School at Rome, Volume 72, 2004, contain an article by Pier Luigi Tucci, EIGHT FRAGMENTS OF THE MARBLE PLAN OF ROME SHEDDING NEW LIGHT ON THE TRANSTIBERIM. In it he claims that fragments 138a–f and 574a–b of the Forma Urbis, a marble plan of Rome from the time of Septimius Severus, show the right bank of the Tiber, opposite the Aventine. A road appears there, formerly thought to cross the Pons Aemilius, but shown on the forma crossing another bridge, the last remains of which were removed in the late nineteenth century. It is thought to have been the pons Sublicius. For an updating, see Pier Luigi Tucci, ‘The Pons Sublicius: a reinvestigation,’ in Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, volume 56-57, 2011-2012, pp. 177–212

See also

  • Roman bridge
  • List of Roman bridges



External links

Template:Ancient Tiber Bridges Template:Roman bridges