Portus served as the principal maritime port of Imperial Rome from the mid 1st through into the 6th c and beyond. It comprised three large artificial basins and a network of canals and associated infrastructure on the Tyrrhenian coast a short distance to the north of the Tiber mouth at Ostia. It was initially conceived as an extension to the anchorage and transshipment capacity of Ostia, in whose territory it was sited. Following its enlargement under Trajan in the early 2nd c AD it gradually developed increased infrastructure but still remained intimately connected to Ostia.
Clearly, therefore, it is important to understand that Portus cannot be understood in isolation, since it was the key node within what amounted to a network of interrelated ports, that included not only Ostia but also Rome (Emporium), Centumcellae and to a lesser extent Puteoli inter alia. The genesis, flourit and decline of the port were thus inextricably tied to the changing demands of Rome, not least those related to meeting the needs of the population in the broadest sense. It had ceased to function effectively as a port by the Byzantine period but continued to exist as an ecclesiastical centre well into the later Medieval period and beyond.
While Portus was the most important port in the Roman Mediterranean, it is also today one with one of the richest archaeological sites in the world and, because it lies on dry land 2km from the coast, it is also one of the most accessible to archaeological research. The broader area of the site covers some 3.5km2 and consists of (1) the central area of the port with its three associated harbour basins, (2) an eastern the periphery comprising cemetery and river port, and (3) the northern area of the Isola Sacra. It was bordered by the northern periphery of Ostia to the south, the campus salinarum romanarum to the east and flatlands leading to Fregenae to the north.
Prior to the later 19th c, interest in the site mainly took the form of idealized reconstructions of visible remains and the removal of finds to churches, museums and palazzi at Rome and elsewhere. Recorded archaeological work did not really begin until the earlier 19th c, with the best known work being the clearance of large areas around the Trajanic basin by Alessandro Torlonia in the 1860s that was discussed by Lanciani (1868). The first thirty years of the 20th c saw the draining of the site, with occasional excavations in the vicinity of the Portico di Claudio, Darsena by Lugli and others (Lugli and Filibeck 1935). This was followed by other excavations, notably those at the Isola Sacra cemetery by Calza. A major development came with the construction of the new international airport of Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1950s and 1960s, since this revealed hitherto unknown details of the great Claudian basin (Testaguzza 1970). Since then, the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Ostia and the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Roma (Ostia Antica) have coordinated important programmes of restoration and maintenance on those parts of the site under their control, most notably the Grandi Magazzini di Settimio Severo and the Portico di Claudio. They have also undertaken specific research projects to define the western limits of the Claudian basin (Morelli et al 2011), excavate the basilica portuense (Paroli 2005), the antemurale (Paroli & Ricci 2011) and the Terme della Lanterna in the core areas of the port, at different point points in the campus salinarum romanarum (Morelli et al 2011) to the east of the port, and in the Isola Sacra (Germoni et al. 2011). International research projects have been very few. They have encompassed a geophysical survey of the whole port area (Keay et al. 2005), excavations in the vicinity of the Palazzo Imperiale by the Portus Project (Keay et al. 2011) and in the Grandi Magazzini di Traiano (Boetto & Bukowiecki 2010), and programmes of coring in the Claudian basin (Goiran, Bellotti, Giraudi etc), and in the canals (Goiran et al. 2011).
This research has made possible significant advances in our understanding of the port, so that it is now seen as something rather more than simply being an adjunct to a better-known Ostia. It is now seems likely, for example, that the Claudian port was initially designed to help alleviate flooding of the Tiber at Rome, as well as to provide increased anchorage for Ostia and a reasonable degree of infrastructure. Furthermore, the expansion of Portus under Trajan seems to have been quite a gradual development that did not begin until after the completion of Centumcellae (Civitavecchia) in AD 106-110, and that key buildings were not finished until the early years of the emperor Hadrian, even though coins that apparently celebrate its inauguration were issued in AD 112-114. It is also possible that the expansion of the port under Trajan was not simply a response to the need of Imperial authorities to cope with the growing demand for supplies to the City of Rome, and the transshipment and storage activities upon which this depended, but also but also an attempt to provide the infrastructure necessary to house a military detachment from the Misenum fleet. The Trajanic scheme also seems to have involved the construction of a massive new canal that cut across the Isola Sacra, thereby supplementing the water-borne connections between Portus to Ostia. This suggests that Ostia was supplied by Portus, and that many of the warehouses at Ostia may have been designed for the storage of good for local consumption, as well as for re-distribution. Following continual building work at the port in the course of the later 2nd c AD, the Severan period seems to have been a particularly important phase of development in the history of the port.
Portus is often seen to have replaced Puteoli as the primary destination of Egyptian grain coming to Rome, and the large-scale presence of east Mediterranean marble from excavations at the site could be taken to support this view. On the other hand, it was also the main conduit for other fiscal cargoes such as olive oil from Baetica and grain from Africa. Indeed the imported ceramics from the site seem to point to the primary sources of supply to the port seem to have been in the central and southern Mediterranean, particularly Tripolitania and Africa Proconsularis and Byzacena, with lesser amounts from other western and eastern Mediterranean regions.
It also now seems likely that Portus did not just import material from across the Mediterranean, but that it also acted as a hub for the export of certain products from the middle and upper Tiber valley, and for the re-distribution of imported goods from across the Mediterranean (in general see papers in Keay 2012). While there is abundant evidence for sustained import to the port, particularly from north African sources, as well as continued reforms to infrastructure and port buildings in the course of the 3rd, 4th and earlier 5th centuries AD, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the commercial role of Portus was largely spent by the later 5th c. While this was probably due in most part to the dwindling population of Rome itself, it may also have been a consequence of the spread of Vandal power in the western Mediterranean that culminated in the sack of Rome in AD 455. By the time of the Gothic Wars of the earlier 6th c AD, therefore, it seems that Portus’ primary importance to both Goths and Byzantines was strategic.
While these might seem like significant advances in our knowledge, it needs to be remembered that the aggregate scale of the excavations carried out to date is small when set against the huge expanse of the port, raising questions about their representativity. Furthermore, the port buildings are very deeply stratified, making access to levels of the 1st and 2nd c difficult and, thus, biasing our evidence to later periods in the port’s history. In particular, the deep stratigraphy of the site is hindering us from fully understanding the scope and functions of the pre-Trajanic port.
In terms of the Trajanic and later portscape itself, our knowledge is still in its infancy. While the 2005 geophysical survey represented an important advance in our understanding of the topography of the port, subsequent excavations have shown that the resolution of the many geophysical anomalies is still crude, and that targetted excavation is needed to better understand key aspects of many buildings and their inter-relationships.
In terms of the built up areas of the port that focused upon the Claudian and Trajanic basins and the Darsena, the survey has helped fill out knowledge of the location of some of the warehouses. However precise details of their layout of these are often lacking and we know nothing of development. We also know very little of what may have been stored in the warehouses, although the current French excavations in the Grandi Magazzini di Traiano are beginning to address this (Boetto & Bukowiecki 2010). Moreover, although our understanding of ports from recent periods would lead us to expect a zoning of storage of different kinds of goods or cargoes of different origins across the port, the lack of excavated sites makes it impossible to confirm whether this was the case at Portus.
Nor is it easy as yet to suggest a zoning of other functions key to a port of this size and complexity. Aside from the temple on the western side (II) of the Trajanic basin and the Palazzo Imperiale to the north (side VI), we know of few public buildings, even though these must have existed to house the many officials who would have processed the documentation involved in checking off the cargoes of ships as they moved in and out of the port, and were assigned warehouse space. Nor do we really know where the people who worked at the port may have lived, although one imagines that some may have lived in warehouses, others in the vicinity of the area later occupied by the basilica portuense (close to side V’’), or indeed on the south bank of the Tiber on the north side of the Isola Sacra: it is even possible that some may have commuted daily or weekly by means of the canal and road that traversed the Isola Sacra and connected Portus and Ostia.
Most research archaeological effort has been expended on the buildings, rather than water spaces upon which they focused, even though there have been various excellent programmes of coring to gauge the sedimentary histories of canals and basins. However, the sheer scale of the latter means that we still much have much to learn of these, the dynamics of the water bodies within them, how they were used by ships and boats, and how the movement of cargoes from their points of unloading through to storage and transshipment may have worked in practice. Furthermore, since the volume of goods being moved in and out of the port throughout the year was likely to have been very substantial, one of the greatest puzzles is understanding how the port authorities were actually able to coordinate the flow of maritime and river traffic in and out of the port and its canal system in such a way as to ensure that major congestion was kept to a minimum.
The fact that there have been very few excavations within the port to-date, coupled with the depth of early deposits, means that our understanding of the commercial connections between Portus and the rest of the Mediterranean are skewed to the later Roman periods, with virtually no deposits with ceramics or marble dating prior to the later 2nd c AD. Clearly, this is an issue that needs to be addressed, as is the almost complete absence of any information about imported seeds or the palaeo-environment. Last, but not least, our knowledge of the demography of the port has been limited to what we can earn from inscriptions from the site (principally epitaphs from the Isola Sacra cemetery), together with the analysis of some of the skeletons from the Isola Sacra cemetery. Ongoing work by the Portus Project and others, however, has begun to shed light on the anthropological characteristics and diet of inhabitants of the port during the 3rd and the later 5th and 6th centuries AD. Perhaps the greatest potential for addressing this issue, especially for the period of the 3rd to 5th c AD, lies in the flat area between the Trajanic basin and the Tiber, an area which the 2005 survey suggests was covered by extensive burials and occasional mausolea.
In many ways the impact of the 2005 geophysical survey was greatest in precisely this area. It revealing a new Trajanic canal, the line of the aqueduct than originated in the vicinity of Ponte Galeria, a road that connected Portus to the Via Campana/Portuensis and what has been identified as some kind of river port closely associated with Portus. Indeed, this work, in conjunction with that of Dr. Morelli and her team in the campus salinarum romanarum, further to the east, raises important questions about the inter-relationships between funerary landscapes, salt exploitation, agricultural activities and commerce close to the port. Similar questions could also be raised about the Isola Sacra to the south.
Aside from these and other issues concerning the development and functions of the port in antiquity, Portus presents us with a major challenge in terms of its preservation, management and access. Following its acquisition by the Torlonia family in the 19th c the site was drained, with most land being turned over to agriculture, and the core area around the Trajanic basin becoming a landscaped garden and subsequently a wildlife preserve. Today, the area of the ancient port falls under the control of various landowners, including the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Roma, the Duke Sforza Cesarini, the Episcopio di Porto, the Comune di Fiumicino and the Aeroporto Internazionale di Fiumicino. This is a pattern that encourages the need for a coordinated strategy for the management of the site, a greater challenge if it is also to incorporate the Isola Sacra Cemetery, Ostia, the Via Portuensis and Ostiensis. Something of this kind was first mooted in 1984 in the context of developing a management framework for the Parco Archeologico di Porto (Mannucci 1992), but never came to fruition. But the encroaching urban development in Fiumicino, the expanding needs of the airport and local transport infrastructure are all threats best combatted by thinking of Portus as a whole and in terms of its hinterland and relationship to Ostia and Rome.
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