Posts Tagged ‘Portus’

The short course I did through Southampton University is still available through FutureLearn


or at:

Visualising Portus

Posted: September 5, 2017 in History, Roman History
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Here are a couple of videos on the visualisation project


A couple of years back I had the opportunity to do a short course run by the University of Southampton on the Roman Port at Portus. Since then a number of CGI impressions of the port have been produced giving us the opportunity to see what it would have looked like. This is an introductory video about the site with Professor Keay, who was the tutor on the course.


My previous blogs on Portus can be found at:

Torlonia Relief (from

Torlonia Relief

The Torlonia relief was found in 1863 or 1864 near the so-called Imperial Palace, between the harbours of Claudius and Trajan. It is made of Greek marble. It is probably a votive offering from the nearby Temple of Liber Pater (aka Bacchus). It was probably made in the Severan period.

To the right is a ship that is tied to a mooring block. Examples of such blocks have been found around the hexagonal basin. A porter carries an amphora of wine to the quay. The person who dedicated the relief was probably a wine merchant, and of course there is an association between Liber Pater-Bacchus and wine. Above the ship is a large eye, averting evil.

Trajanic mooring block from Portus ( )

Trajanic mooring block from Portus ( )

The ship to the left has just entered the harbour. On the deck (upper left) people are sacrificing and are probably thanking a deity for their safe journey. To the right a man may be lowering fenders which protect the ship when it comes alongside from the quay (Similar devices are still used today). On the sails are two representations of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, one of the legends of the foundation of Rome.

In the background and to the left is the lighthouse of Claudius with a burning fire which stood at the entrance to the inner harbour at Portus. Between the two ships is Neptune, God of the sea, with the trident, his traditional symbol and to the right of the lighthouse is a statue, possibly of Claudius or Nero (The original port was begun in the reign of Claudius and finally completed int he reign of Nero). On either side of the lighthouse is a statue, holding a wreath and a horn of plenty signifying the properity of the port and of the city. The female figure on the left (in the upper left corner) has a lighthouse on her head. This is probably the personification of Portus whilst the male figure to the right may be the protective deity of the harbour.

In the upper right corner is a triumphal arch. On top is a chariot drawn by elephants. The person in the chariot may be the Emperor Domitian, because he holds a sceptre ending in a human head, a symbol which has also found on Domitianic coins. To the right is Liber Pater-Bacchus, holding a thyrsus, his traditional staff, and accompanied by a panther.

Portus continued to be expand. In the late second century, there was both an expansion of existing buildings and the building of a new complex – The Grande Magazzini Di Septimo Severus. It was built adjacent to the Palazzo Imperiale. This building is two stories high, the ground floor consisting of a large corridor flanked by secure storage rooms whilst the layout of the first floor suggests offices. It has been suggested by some that this building had some sort of customs function as it overlooked both basins and so was ideally positioned to monitor ship movements.

The evidence seems to suggest that at this time there was a large increase in the trade in marble. Analysis of the remnants found suggest that this was primarily from Tunisia and Egypt. Once unloaded from the ships, this was probably transferred to a large marble yard situated at the junction of the Fossa Triana and the River Tiber, from where it was transferred as required to the Statio Marmorum in the city.

Despite the crises of the third and early fourth century Roman Empire it seems as though. Portus remained an active port. Within two years of Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, it is recorded that there was a Bishop of Portus. Sometime in the period 334-341 it was granted the status of a civitas. This is interesting as it implies there was an attached urban community, the location of which so far has remained undiscovered by excavation, although civil buildings such as a large basilica have been found. One intriguing snippet of historical evidence is a reference to the building of a guesthouse at Portus for the use of pilgrims by a senator Pammachus in 398. Were these pilgrims going to Rome or pilgrims going from Rome to the holy land or somewhere else? The Theodosian law code of 438 contains multiple references to Portus regarding the control of state-owned warehouses and the charges for the import and export cargoes

it appears that Portus went into decline in the fifth century, no doubt as a result of the decline of the influence of Rome itself as power moved to Constantinople in the East and to places such as Ravenna in the West. Despite this, it remained an important port and there is a record of one Sidonius Apollimarus being appointed as the urban prefect for Portus in the mid-5th century. From the late fifth century, there appears to have been a contraction of the port area and we see the construction of new defences centred on and around the hexagonal basin. Little is known of what happened after the fall of the Roman kingdom in Italy in 489. However, we do know that during the Byzantine –Ostrogoth war of 535-553 Portus is recorded by a Byzantine historian Procopus as being an important and strategic prize and it seems following the Byzantine victory Portus continues to function as a port. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Claudian basin was by now silting up and there seems to have been no political will to dredge it. Also from around the late fifth century onwards burials begin to be found in areas outside that of the hexagonal basin, suggesting that these areas were no longer in use for port activities. It has been suggested that the Byzantine port consisted just of the Darsena and the hexagonal basin and that these were accessed via the canal system or that a limited path was dredged through the Claudian basin.

It may be that despite the decline of the ports usage the town continued to be of some importance as there seems to be evidence of a refurbishment of the basilica in the sixth and seventh centuries. The last historical record of use for the port is when in 715 the fleet of Pope Constantine is recorded as sailing from Portus

Portus today

Portus today

Portus from Testaguzza 1970, p. 154-155.

Portus from Testaguzza 1970, p. 154-155.

Amongst the other developments during the reign of Trajan was the building of the Therma Della Laterna, a bath complex located near to the lighthouse which is presumed to be for the use of port workers and sailors. It is interesting to note that the similar ‘Terma di Porta marina’ on the waterfront of Ostia has a similar date and they may have formed part of a single project to improve the conditions for port workers and sailors. Further evidence for such a development can be found in the buildings as in at least two cases there is evidence for the building of new cistern blocks during the redevelopment

Trajanic mooring block from Portus ( )

Trajanic mooring block from Portus ( )


Another interesting building which was constructed at this time is the Navilia. It is situated between the Trajanic and Claudian basins and opened out onto both of them. It consists of three sections, each section at which has three narrow bays and one wide bay. In between each of the sections is a passage. These sections are covered by arches It has been suggested that it was for the building or repairing ships. In the late second century, one of these wide bays was converted into offices and storerooms and artefacts found here include nails , washers and sheathing tacks. These are commonly associated with Roman boats and have only been found on this site in the ruins of the Navilia.

Plan of Navilia at Portus from Keay, Earl and Felici 2011

Plan of Navilia at Portus from Keay, Earl and Felici 2011


At Portus a number of new projects were undertaken during Trajans port redevelopment. Most notable is the building of the Trajanic basin, a hexagonal area where each of the sides is approximately 350 m in length and depth of the basin varies from 5 to 8 m allowing it to service the larger boats in the Roman fleet. Around this were built a number of warehouses, which opened directly onto the quayside.

Around this were built a number of warehouses, which opened directly onto the quayside. Two of these have been noted to have raised floors, prompting suggestions that they were for the storage of grain. The second improvement project was the construction of the Trajanic canal , which ran from the mid-point of the Fossa Triana to the Tiber. Its function is not clear, although some historians have suggested that with the increased traffic, it may be that a one-way system was implemented with traffic going along the Trajanic canal in one direction and long the eastern half of the Fossa Triana in the opposite direction. The third large improvement project was the construction of a direct road link between Portus and the city, the Via Portuensis.

There is also the intriguing finding of at least the start of canal going south from the Fossa Triana. At present it is not clear whether or not this was ever completed, but as can be seen from the map, such a canal would link Portus directly to the port of Ostia without the need to sail on the open sea.

Archaeological evidence has been found which can help us to have some information about what was imported and exported from the port at this time. Imports included foodstuffs, mainly grain from Eygpt and North Africa, but also olive oil from North Africa and Spain; fish sauce from North Africa and wine, resources and materials such as textiles, marble, stone and North African redslip wear. It is also likely the imports included slaves and animals for the arena. Exports are slightly more difficult to determine but from other sources, it is suggested that Rome exported wine millstones and bricks from the Tiber Valley Brickyards. There is some debate as to whether or not the port was also used for carriage of passengers, although the luxury and monumental nature of some of the buildings found might point to its use for the transport of important people on official or personal business.

The Trajanic basin today from

The Trajanic basin today from

Two buildings from this period, which are worthy of note are the ‘Grande Magazzini’ whose foundations actually date from the time of the Claudian port, but which seems to have been redeveloped during the redevelopment by Trajan. It is 2 storeys high and is situated around three sides of the Darsena.
But perhaps the most important building from this period is the Palazzo Imperiale, a brick- and reticulate-faced concrete structure dating from 112 -117 which covered nearly three hectares. Of its original three storeys, only the substructures and some of the first floor remain. The Palazzo‘s trapezoidal plan was dictated by the spur of land between the two basins on which it was situated.

The structure has been of significant interest since the 16th century due to the discoveries of numerous columns, sculptures and inscriptions. The complex also contained its own bath suite in its southwest corner. The brickstamps found in the building indicates it was a predominantly Trajanic construction with later renovations undertaken by Hadrian and the Antonines. On the first floor rooms are arranged around open-space defined by columns looked out onto the Claudio basin .the ground floor consisted of 42 rooms. The building’s location as well as the evidence of its lavish marble decoration suggest it was presumably the headquarters of a high-ranking official, such as the port procurator and his staff. We know that from this time there was an office of procurator annonae Ostiensis, who was in control of the ports of Ostia and Portus. Others have suggested that the rooms on the first floor may have been accommodation for officials senators or potentially the emperor himself whilst awaiting transport by ship to other parts of the Empire.

Terme_Taurine_Tepidarium in Centumcellae. By AlMare (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Terme_Taurine_Tepidarium in Centumcellae.
By AlMare (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The continued expansion of trade across the Empire meant that within only a few decades of the completion of the Claudian port, it was at straining point again. So in the reign of the Emperor Trajan, we see once again a major improvement to the ports system in general. Leaving Portus to one side for a moment, there was much work on the wharves within the city of Rome itself, indicated by new warehouses and reinforced riverbanks. Trajan also built a new port at Centumcellae to the north-west of the city. It is not clear whether any port facilities existed here before this time. This had both an outer and inner basin similar to that found at Portus although on a smaller scale.

Image from page 475 of "Das Leben der Griechen und Römer : nach antiken Bildwerken" (1882)
Harbour at Centumcellae (from a book of c1812)
Image by Internet archive book images (

There has been much speculation about the function of this particular port. Some historians have suggested that it took over from Ostia, or Portus as a base of the Roman naval fleet. Others suggested that its primary function was as a refuge for ships bound for Portus in bad weather. A third suggestion is that it was a more local port serving trade from Gaul and Hispania. Interestingly, the port is still functioning today as the Rome berth for Mediterranean cruise ships. In addition to these improvements there is also evidence of improvement work at Ancona and Brindisium to the facilities in those ports along with the building of additional warehouses in the port of Ostia.

In the reign of Claudius, a new port was constructed 3 km to the north of the Tiber estuary and given the name Portus, which is Latin for harbour. It appears from the records that this was an area in which the only preceding activity appears to have been that of salt extraction. It is likely that any of us who have visited Rome have probably visited Portus without realising it, since the northern part of the dock complex now lies under Fiumicino airport to the west of the city. The new port complex consisted of a loading and unloading basin with wharves and warehouses together with a large artificial basin enclosed by two moles, which provided a safe anchorage for boats waiting their turn to unload at the docks.

taken from Keay, Earl and Felici 2011

taken from Keay, Earl and Felici 2011

The Claudian basin covered an area of around 200 ha and is estimated to have been around 7 m deep. It is thought that the likely loading and unloading wharves were in the south-eastern sector on the map. These facilities were linked to the River Tiber directly by canal (the Fossa Triana), which meant that the barges did not have to to go on to the open sea in order to access the route to the wharves in the city of Rome. Apart from the direct effects of the new port, the new canal system also appears to have had a marked effect on the prevention of floods within the city itself. The inner basin or Dasena covers just over 1 ha and his 3.5 m deep and it has been suggested that this was the transhipment area since it is linked directly to the Fossa Triana and onto the Tiber. The Fossa Triana became known in mediaeval times as Fiumicino which means little river and it is this that gave the modern name to the area and to the nearby international airport.
Apart from the actual docks archaeological excavation has also been able to partially reconstruct some of the buildings from this period and evidence suggests these are perhaps not quite as we might imagine dock buildings to be. For examples, the building known as the portico de Claudio was a large building hundred 80 m long, looking out onto the Claudio basin. It was known to have had a monumental façade and access to the warehouses behind. If you would like to see what these may have looked like there are reconstructions on The Portus project website at

Evidence found suggests that major trade routes linked Portus to Carthage; Leptis magna; Hispania; Marseille; Alexandria and Greece. It quickly became the trading hub for the Roman Mediterranean, although the evidence from pottery, epigraphs and goods remains suggests that this trade was primarily based on the Western Mediterranean.
However despite these improvements, it seems that there was still a considerable amount of danger for shipping even whilst in the protected waters of the Claudian basin. In A.D. 62 it is recorded that 200 ships in the basin perished possibly during a storm,. In this same year there is also a record of a major earthquake in the Bay of Naples area and some historians have linked these two events together, suggesting that the earthquake resulted in a tsunami like wave, which was able to nullify the protective effects of the harbour wall. This large loss of shipping also gives us some indications of the quantity of shipping that may have been using the port at any one time.

"Ostiaplan-theater-corporation place" by Ursus - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Ostiaplan-theater-corporation place” by Ursus – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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.