The Danube and the Sava in Strabo’s Geography and in Roman Inscriptions

  • Marjeta Šašel Kos
Keywords: Savus, Danube, historical geography, Roman inscriptions


The Danube, once considered the most important river of Europe, is referred to by Strabo in several passages. Of the greatest interest is the information recorded in his Book 7, which is largely dedicated to the Balkan peninsula and to the adjacent regions. The Danube as an important boundary river is mentioned at the very beginning of the book, which defines the geographical extent of the area. The importance of the Danube as one of the largest rivers was already perceived by Herodotus, who describes the Ister as the most important of all rivers known to him and locates its source somewhere in the west. Its sources are a day’s walk away from Lake Constance and were discovered by Tiberius only in 15 B.C. – another fact recorded by Strabo. A similar evaluation of the Danube’s importance was made c. 150 years later by the historian Appian, who provides a surprising amount of geographical data. He broaches the subject in his very introduction, stating that the Roman Empire is largely circumscribed by two European rivers, the Rhine and the Ister: the Rhine flows into the northern ocean, and the Ister into the Black Sea. But there are peoples who are under Roman control even beyond these rivers: some groups of Celts beyond the Rhine, and some groups of the Getae named ‘Dacians’ beyond the Ister (Fig. 1). 
Strabo generally refers to the river by its Thracian name, Ister, fully established among the Greeks. In Book 7, however, he explains that it has two names and that the upper section is usually called Danuvius.Danuvius/Danubius is probably a Celtic name, which referred to the river down to the cataracts at the so-called Železna vrata (‘Iron Gates’) under Singidunum (Belgrade). It was only towards the end of the 1st century B.C., when their conquering campaigns finally reached these parts, that the Romans realised it was a single river. The Scythian name for the Danube was Matoas.
In Roman times, the Danube was worshipped and personified as the god Danuvius, rivers in antiquity generally being considered masculine. He was depicted like the Greek river god Achelous: as an (older) man with long wavy hair intended to resemble river waves. Interesting dedications to Danuvius have come to light near the Danube, for example at Aquincum, where one Tiberius Aterius Callinicus commended himself ‘to the downward flowing Danube’ (Danuvio defluenti). At Ristissen in the Province of Raetia, possibly in a sacred place next to the river, an altar was erected in 201, in honour of the imperial house, to Jupiter and Danuvius by one Primanus, the son or slave of Secundus. Together with Jupiter, Neptune, and other river deities, Danuvius is mentioned in a dedication from Vienna (Vindobona), while Tenja near Osijek (Latin Mursa), in the confluence area of the Drava and the Danube, has yielded a dedication to the river gods Danuvius and Dravus. Strabo likewise mentions the Sava, in the fifth chapter of Book 7, where he has earlier described the Danube. The region of Pannonia with Segestica/Siscia was encountered relatively late by the Romans, not before the end of the 2nd century B.C. Before the conquest of the city during the Illyrian War under Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) in 34 B.C., the area had been reached by the Romans only twice. The Sava is mentioned by Strabo in a passage on the regions between Aquileia and Segestica, and on the trade between the two cities (Fig. 2): “The city Segestica, belonging to the Pannonians, is at the confluence of several rivers, all of them navigable. [...] If one passes over the Ocra Pass [Razdrto below Mt. Nanos] from Aquileia to Nauportus [Vrhnika], a settlement of the Taurisci, whither the wagons are brought, the distance is three hundred and fifty stadia, though some say five hundred. [...] In like manner, also, there is a pass which leads over Ocra from Tergeste [Trieste], a Carnic village, to a marsh called Lugeum. Near Nauportus there is a river, the Corcoras [Krka], which receives the cargoes. Now this river empties into the Savus, and the Savus into the Dravus, and the Dravus into the Noarus near Segestica. Immediately below Nauportus the Noarus is further increased in volume by the Colapis [Kolpa/Kupa], which flows from the Albian Mountain [Snežnik] through the country of the Iapodes and meets the Danuvius near the country of the Scordisci.” (7.5.2 C 313–314) All the rivers referred to by Strabo are familiar, except for the Noarus; Strabo is the only ancient author to mention it, not only here but also near the end of the same (fifth) chapter of Book 7, recording that a tribe of the Scordisci lived near the Noarus. Not all of Strabo’s information is accurate: Segestica (located on present-day Pogorelec at Sisak) is indeed at the confluence of several rivers, with the Kolpa emptying into the Sava nearby. The Odra, however, which likewise empties into the Sava close by, is not navigable. Interestingly, it has even been equated with the Raab, the ancient Arrabo or Narabon, although this right-bank tributary of the Danube, originating from Austrian Styria and mainly flowing through Hungary, has nothing to do with Strabo’s description. The same applies to the Mura, Korana, and Drina. More pertinent is the identification of the Noarus with the Odra, which is one of the three rivers in the Segestica region, but it does not empty into the Danube. The only likely identification seems to be with the lower section of the Sava (Fig. 3); the Noarus may be either an older name for the Sava or its name in another language. Since the Sava was one of the most important rivers in the hinterland of the northern Adriatic and in the southeastern Alpine and Pannonian areas, it is hardly surprising that the god Savus should have been worshipped along its stream; he is depicted together with the god of the Kolpa, Colapis, on late Roman coins struck at Siscia (Sisak). Altars dedicated to Savus have been found on four sites along the Sava so far: at Vernek opposite Kresnice (still the territory of the ancient Emona); at Sava, a settlement near Podkraj opposite Hrastnik, where a temple to Savus and Adsaluta has been discovered (in the area of the ancient Celeia in the Noricum Province); and at Andautonia (Šćitarjevo) and Siscia in the Pannonia Province. At Siscia, a lead tablet has been found, containing a prayer that Savus might sink the author’s adversaries in a legal suit. 
The importance of the Sava is highlighted by yet another discovery. Some years ago, a slab came to light at Podkoren in the Gorenjska region, bearing a dedication to Savercna, a female deity probably worshipped around the sources of the Sava Dolinka at Zelenci near Podkoren (Fig. 4). The name of the goddess is beyond doubt derived from the name ʻSavus’; probably a diminutive form, it might signify “little Sava”. This would fit in well with the assumption that it personified the sources of the Sava Dolinka. Zelenci, a natural reserve today, must have been a sacred place in antiquity.


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How to Cite
Šašel Kos, Marjeta. 2010. “The Danube and the Sava in Strabo’s Geography and in Roman Inscriptions”. Keria: Studia Latina Et Graeca 12 (2-3), 9-25.