Portus – Ancient Rome’s Lost Harbor

Built on the north of the mouth of the Tiber, Portus was constructed by Roman emperor Claudius. It was one of the main ports during the Imperial period (27 B.C. to A.D. 565), providing a conduit for different merchandise such as glass, ceramics, slaves and wild animals for the Colosseum. As a result, it was considered a hub of commerce for the largest urban population in the ancient world.

The History of Portus

Roman Emperor Claudius, Roger Ulrich, Flickr Commons

Roman Emperor Claudius, Roger Ulrich, Flickr Commons

Claudius constructed the first harbor on the site to provide protection against the prevalent southwest wind. In the inscription he erected in AD 46, he boasted that he freed Rome from the danger of inundation. However, Tacitus wrote in AD 62 that numerous grain ships sank in the harbor due to violent storms. By AD 103, Trajan constructed another harbor a little further inland. The newer Portus features a hexagonal basin of a 97 acre area and canals connecting it to the harbor of Claudius and the Tiber. This made the port gain a great reputation matching that of Carthage or Alexandria.

It was not until recently that the mystery of the port’s disappearance was solved. According to dig director Simon Keay of the University of Southampton, Portus was destroyed by the Byzantines during a war with the Ostrogoths to control Rome. “By the 6th century, the Byzantines felt the port could be a threat as it was vulnerable to being occupied by the Ostrogoths, so they took the decision to destroy it themselves,” he said. After gaining and losing control of the port during the war, the Byzantines decided to destroy it altogether. This was not an easy task since the structures were solid and would have required a “firm decision and the Byzantines’ will” to be carried out.

Portus in Modern Times

Many of the port’s ruins are still intact, especially the second century hexagonal basin (known as Lago Traiano due to the reeds growing there), third century brickwork warehouses, and an early Christian basilica. Italy’s Cultural Heritage minister Dario Franceschini and the Mayor of Fiumicino Esterino Montino intend to make the site accessible by 2016, allowing 30,000 visitors to the site. However, it may take more than that since only a part of Portus has been excavated and experts believe that the site has more potential.

For instance, in 2011, an ancient Roman shipyard was unearthed in the area. Measuring 475 feet long and 200 feet wide, the shipyard building was made of large 10 feet concrete pillars, eight parallel bays, and wooden roofs. Keay commented, “This was a vast structure, which could easily have housed wood, canvas and other supplies and certainly would have been large enough to build or shelter ships in. The scale, position and unique nature of the building leads us to believe it played a key role in shipbuilding activities.”

Before this massive find, archeologists uncovered the remains of an imperial palace and an amphitheater. Another important finding was a mosaic that depicts a building such as the one uncovered with a ship in each bay. It is currently on display in the Vatican Museum, but more are expected to be exhibited along once the excavation stops in the area.


Nora Garibotti is a photographer with a particular interest in Roman antiquity & architecture.  More of Nora’s photography can be viewed on her website: Garibotti Photography.

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