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Rome's Imperial Port

The vast site of Portus holds the key to understanding how Rome evolved from a mighty city to an empire

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Rome-Portus-Vatican-FrescoPortus, now some two miles from the Mediterranean shoreline, was built by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. to be their main maritime port. A 16th-century fresco in the Vatican Palace shows an idealized reconstruction of Portus’ grand architectural and engineering features.

 

Twenty miles southwest of Rome, obscured by agricultural fields, woodlands, and the modern infrastructure of one of Europe’s busiest airports, lies what may be ancient Rome’s greatest engineering achievement, and arguably its most important: Portus. Although almost entirely silted in today, at its height, Portus was Rome’s principal maritime harbor, catering to thousands of ships annually. It served as the primary hub for the import, warehousing, and distribution of resources, most importantly grain, that ensured the stability of both Rome and the empire. “For Rome to have worked at capacity, Portus needed to work at capacity,” says archaeologist Simon Keay. “The fortunes of the city are inextricably tied to it. It’s quite hard to overestimate.” Portus was the answer to Rome’s centuries-long search for an efficient deepwater harbor. In the end, as only the Romans could do, they simply dug one.

 

Although it had previously received little attention archaeologically, over the last decade and half Portus has been the focus of an ambitious project that is rediscovering the grandeur of the port, its relationship to Rome, and the unparalleled role it played as the centerpiece of Rome’s Mediterranean port system. Keay, of the University of Southampton, is currently director of the Portus Project, now in its fifth year, but has been leading fieldwork in and around the site since the late 1990s. He is part of a multinational team investigating Portus’ beginnings in the first century A.D., its evolution into the main port of Rome, and, ultimately, the complex dynamics of the port’s relationship with the city and the broader Roman Mediterranean. The multifaceted project involves a number of institutions, including the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British School at Rome, the University of Cambridge, and the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome.

 

Roman-Ports-HarborStill visible today, Portus' hexagonal basin and its adjacent canal facilitated the transfer of goods up the Tiber River to Rome. One of the difficulties the team has faced in addition to the site’s enormous size is its complexity. Portus encompasses not only two man-made harbor basins, but all of the infrastructure associated with a small city, including temples, administrative buildings, warehouses, canals, and roads. Archaeologists have taken many approaches to investigating Portus. “Methodologically, the strategy has been to combine large-scale, extensive work using every kind of geophysical and topographic technique, with excavation reserved for relatively focused areas,” says Keay. “The aim is to try and understand a key area at the center of the port, which could provide a point from which to understand how the port worked as a whole.” The current archaeological research is offering a new understanding of just how Portus’ construction enabled Rome to become Rome.

 

 

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