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This content is taken from the University of Southampton's online course, Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds SIMON KEAY: Portus was the port– the maritime port of imperial Rome from the mid first century AD onwards. It was established by the Emperor Claudius probably by AD 46. And in its initial stages, it was intended by the emperor and his engineers as an anchorage perhaps in the first instance to the north of Ostia, the fluvial port of Rome which lies some three kilometres to our south, and a port that had a long and glorious history, but which had proved insufficient to handle the large ships and cargoes that were needed to feed an increasingly large population in Rome itself. So the newly established Portus, therefore, fulfilled that role.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds But at the same time, it also helped alleviate flooding by a system– an ingenious system of canals connecting the port with the Tiber. So the port itself in its early foundational stage consisted of a huge basin covering some 200 hectares enclosed between two massive concrete quays sticking out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. And this whole complex was linked to the River Tiber which flows past the port a short distance to our east. It was connected to that by two canals. And in addition to that, there are a series of public buildings and there is an aqueduct which also supplied the population living at the port with fresh water.

The reason behind the construction of Portus and its relationship to Ostia

So, we have seen in this first video that Portus’ primary role was to supply the 800,000 inhabitants of Rome with foodstuffs and other materials. It was also a hub for re-distributing imports from other Mediterranean ports and, to a lesser extent, exporting construction material and other products from the Tiber valley.

The video refers to Ostia as a fluvial port - this simply means that it is a port located on a river (the Tiber). In contrast, Portus is a maritime port located on the sea coast, and has an artificial (constructed) harbour rather than a natural harbour.

Download the map of Portus in the Claudian phase from the Resources step. You may wish to annotate the map (on screen or on a printout) as you work through this week.

You will soon learn about the numbered items but here is a taster:

  1. Antemurale: Quay on the western facade (external face) of the port next to to the Portico di Claudio and adjacent warehouses, that was intensively used between the mid 1st and 7th c AD
  2. Portico di Claudio: Monumental colonnade (row of columns) of mid 1st c AD date on the western facade of the port that afforded views over the Claudian basin.
  3. Molo della Lanterna: A long concrete quay that ran from west to east and acted as the northern side of a channel that provided passage for ships heading towards the Trajanic basin; it was surmounted by a lantern and some baths.
  4. Mausoleum: A monumental tomb belonging to a high status individual that was located in a cemetery area in the flat land lying between the Trajanic basin and the Tiber.
  5. Claudian Quay: A large concrete quay found by the Portus Project in 2007 that defined the southern edge of the Claudian basin.
  6. Early river port: A series of structures detected by geophysics and visible in aerial photographs that lay close to the banks of the river Tiber, to the east of the main area of Portus.

In the previous iteration of this course there was a lot of fascinating discussion about Roman concrete. This will be discussed by Christina and Penny in greater depth in Week Four – particularly in Roman building construction methods. They also shared this link on Roman concrete.

Watch the next two videos to learn about the phases of Portus and what the site itself was like in the Claudian period. Feel free to post and comments or queries. We will then have a discussion about this first phase of the port


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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

University of Southampton

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