Portus: Gateway to Rome (1)

Posted: May 24, 2015 in History, Roman History
Tags: , ,
"Ostiaplan-theater-corporation place" by Ursus - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostiaplan-theater-corporation_place.jpg#/media/File:Ostiaplan-theater-corporation_place.jpg

“Ostiaplan-theater-corporation place” by Ursus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostiaplan-theater-corporation_place.jpg#/media/File:Ostiaplan-theater-corporation_place.jpg

When people talk about the Port of the city of Rome, they are usually thinking of the River port of Ostia, which was situated at the mouth of the Tiber. But at the height of the empire this was only part of a port system which had grown as the city and the empire expanded.

Ostia was the first Roman settlement outside the city. According to legend, it was founded by Ancus Marcius, the semi-legendary fourth King of Rome. From inscriptions, it seems that its foundation can be dated back to the seventh century BCE. However archaeological remains so far discovered can only take its date back to the fourth century and the oldest buildings currently viewable date from the third century BCE.

As well as being a trading port, it was also the Fleet base for the consular Navy and later for the Imperial fleet.
The port at Ostia was rebuilt around 68 BCE following its destruction of port along with the town by pirates. It was this attack, which led to the noted campaigns by Pompey the great against the Mediterranean pirates. The port and the town were reconstructed with a more defensive outlook and protective walls. There was a further redevelopment in the first century CE during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, which greatly enhanced the facilities of both the city and the port. However, in the years that followed, it became evident that for a number of reasons, the port at Ostia was no longer sufficient to cope with the amount of trade to and from Rome.

What was it then that led to the decision to expand the port system of Rome. Firstly Rome itself was increasing in size as a result of the expansion of the Empire. Secondly, the expansion of the Empire had opened up even greater trading opportunities and the need for more traffic between the capital and the outlying colonies. It should also be remembered that more trade meant more tax income and so there was a strong economic incentive for the imperial authorities to facilitate its expansion. Ostia itself had a number of geographical issues which prevented an expansion of any significant nature within the existing port. A sand bar near the mouth of the estuary limited the size of ship which could enter into the river. Sediment from this bar drifted northwards into the mouth of the Tiber and required regular dredging. As over-time Roman ships became bigger, this obviously caused a problem as they were not able to use the port facilities at Ostia. Records record that sometime after 194 BCE grain shipments to Rome were handled by the port at Puteoli on the Bay of Naples. It is not clear how this grain was then transported to Rome, but it is most likely that it was these shipped on smaller coastal vessels which were capable of using the Port at Ostia. As the shipments, and trading general, increased in volume, this in turn led to a another problem. Because of the estuarine nature of the port, there was very limited waiting space for boats, which had arrived but were not yet able to dock. This was due to a relatively limited capacity on the wharves at Ostia. Despite the modifications undertaken in the reign of Tiberius. It soon became evident that an entirely new solution needed to be found.

Before going any further, we should perhaps spend a few moments thinking about what happened to the goods once they had arrived at the port of Ostia. They were unloaded onto the wharves and stored in warehouses. From here, there were two options to transport them into the city. The first of these was trans-shipment by horse-drawn barge along the tiber to the numerous river wharves, which lined the Tiber. Some smaller ships could also have made it up the river to the city quaysides. The second was to transport them by road by means of the Via Ostiensis, which ran from Ostia into the city. Thus, in the early years of the common era, it was likely that grain shipments from North Africa or Egypt would arrive at Puteoli near Naples, be transferred to a coastal vessel for the journey north to Ostia and then finally be loaded onto river barge for the final journey into the city. Part of the solution that was required needed to make this journey more efficient.

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