Brief history of the greatest port in antiquity

Portus Romae, the port of the Roman Empire

Portus Romae was the main port of ancient Rome, located at the mouth of the Tiber River, about 30 km northwest of the city. Today, it is an archaeological site that preserves the remains of buildings, piers, warehouses, and temples that testify to the commercial and military significance of this location.
Visitors who go to Portus Romae from Fiumicino can admire the remnants of a civilization that dominated the Mediterranean for centuries and discover how daily life worked in a port that received goods and people from all known parts of the world. They can also observe the traces of the transformations undergone by the port over time, due to historical, natural, and urban events. Portus Romae is an enchanting site that is rich in history, providing a unique perspective on the past and present of Rome and its surroundings.

Around the first century AD, the capital of the Roman Empire was experiencing serious supply problems due to its continuous population growth, especially during the winter months when transportation became more difficult. The river port of Ostia was no longer able to meet Rome’s immense demands, while the port of Pozzuoli was too far from the capital to ensure continuity of supplies.

The idea of the port

Julius Caesar had already proposed a new port for Rome. However, it was Emperor Claudius who made the decision to construct an artificial port that was located about 3 km north of the Tiber’s mouth. The purpose of the port was to be utilized as a waterway for the purpose of transporting goods. Unfortunately, the project was not well-received due to the expected high expense. In addition, the dangerous proximity of the Tiber resulted in the deposit of significant amounts of soil and debris. Ultimately, this caused a negative impact on the overall structure’s functionality. This was a regular occurrence.

Claudius' port

Claudius was not intimidated, and in 42 AD began the construction of the new port near the current Fiumicino international airport, starting from an artificial basin of 90 hectares excavated from a lagoon and dammed by an immense dam 758 meters long and 3 meters wide.

Claudius’ port extends out to sea with two long, curved piers resembling pincers, connected to the Tiber – the waterway for transporting goods – via the artificial Fiumicino canal, completed in 46 AD with the formation of Isola Sacra. At the entrance of the port is a lighthouse – similar to the one in the port of Leptis Magna, in present-day Libya – built on an islet by sinking the large, disused ship that had transported the obelisk for the Vatican Circus from Egypt with over 1,000 tons of ballast and pozzolana.

Tabula Peutingeriana with Rome (in the circle) and the port of Claudius
Tabula Peutingeriana with Rome (in the circle) and the port of Claudius

Partially active in 62 AD, Portus was completed by Nero in 64-66. The monumental works are believed to have required 30,000 workers and 1,000 pairs of oxen over 20 years. For the exchange and storage of goods, moorings and warehouses (horrea) were created on the two piers. Portus was connected to the city of Ostia, in turn connected to Rome via the Testaccio port on the Tiber (Emporium), and ensured the supply of foodstuffs to the city. Near the complex, a settlement developed – Portus Ostiensis – populated by workers, port administrators, and private entrepreneurs.

Trajan' port

During the reign of Emperor Trajan, a major renovation project was carried out at the Port of Rome. This involved constructing a new, more secure port while relegating the older Port of Claudius to a mere anchorage. The funds for this project were obtained through the conquest of Dacia, which provided the Roman state with an impressive war booty, including around 50,000 prisoners, 165 tons of gold, and 331 tons of silver.

 

The new basin, designed by the Greek architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, has a hexagonal plan suitable for the simultaneous execution of various naval operations, such as docking, loading, unloading, and transportation of goods. The dock measures 358 meters on each side and has 2000 meters of quay, a depth of 5 meters, a paved bottom for easy maintenance, and a total surface area of about 32 hectares.

The Port of Trajan was able to contain up to 200 large-tonnage ships that could dock and unload goods, soldiers, slaves, and animals from all over the known world. The renovation of the complex was completed around 112.

The port remained operational for centuries, underwent multiple interventions, and acquired increasing importance. So much so that in 313, with Constantine, Portus Romae obtained full autonomy. It is estimated that Portus hosted, at the height of its existence, a population of about 15,000 seasonal workers. These included sailors, unloaders, porters, shipwrights, slaves, administrators, merchants, soldiers, and government agents. Most were commuters from Ostia or Rome. The estimated port traffic consisted of several thousand ships annually, and hundreds of smaller boats and barges in the various basins and canals, or in the Tiber River.

In 408, the Goths of Alaric seized control of Portus (they destroyed Rome in 410). In 455, it was partially damaged by the Vandals of Genseric. The strategic importance of port facilities for the supply of Rome, which was now limited to the Trajan basin alone, and the danger of direct attacks, led to the construction of fortification walls around the port structure at the end of the fifth century. After the Gothic Wars (535-553), Porto gradually declined.

Claudio and Trajan's port today

PRIMA DOPO

“Where once there was a harbor, today there is an airport…”

Today, the sea is approximately 3 km away from the completely buried Claudio Port.

The territory and the site of Portus were acquired by the Torlonia family in 1856, and they uncovered part of the buildings. The hexagonal basin of the Trajan port, reduced to a swamp, was cleaned and restored in 1923. Subsequently, the transfer of part of the Torlonia property to the state allowed the establishment of the Archaeological Area of Portus, limited to only the area of the port of Hadrian.

 

The entire hexagonal basin of Trajan, including the remains of storage structures, is now a privately owned area called “Oasi di Porto”.

Both distinct archaeological areas are open to the public and located within the territory of the modern municipality of Fiumicino. One can reach it from Rome via the Rome-Fiumicino highway and the Via Portuense, and from Ostia and Fiumicino via the via dell’Aeroporto.

The visit to the Oasi lasts approximately 1 hour and takes place partly on foot and partly on horse-drawn carts (although, currently, the carts have been discontinued due to social distancing problems).

Are you interested in a tour with an authorized guide to two archaeological areas? Contact us.

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