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Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds SIMON KEAY: The kinds of cargo they would have carried varied considerably. One of the most important, of course, which was one of the reasons that the emperors were concerned to have a port like Portus through which they could import material was grain. Grain from Egypt and North Africa, which supplied the populus in Rome. But one has to remember also olive oil, a very important victual in antiquity, wine perhaps. One thinks of marble, all the marble used to decorate the temples and palaces of imperial Rome came through this port system albeit in the Fiumicino Canal a little bit further south. One thinks of slaves, perhaps too. One thinks of wild beasts for the arena. One thinks of textiles.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds Just about anything you can imagine going into imperial Rome in the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries would have come through this complex with ships being initially in the outer Claudian Basin, coming through the canal and unloading here in the Trajanic Basin, into those warehouses that clustered around the hexagonal basin, were then stored before eventually being transshipped into smaller boats to go up the river Tiber and eventually to be unloaded in the great system of warehouses in the southern part of the city of Rome itself, the great Emporium.

The types of cargo that were imported through Portus

As we’ve seen, the biggest imported cargo was grain. Grain came predominantly from Egypt and Africa.

Portus was also vital for other goods like olive oil, wine, marble, slaves, and textiles, and it was the main route for importing these items from the 2nd to 5th centuries AD. It is almost certain that all of the wild animals that were used in the many wild-beast shows in the games at Rome were either imported to Portus, or docked nearby, possibly near Laurentium to the south of Ostia.

The goods were brought into the outer Claudian harbour in great ships. They then waited offshore before their turn for sailing into the Trajanic basin, where they finally moored at one of its six sides. The goods were then unloaded and stored in one of the large warehouses before being then removed to points at which they could be loaded onto barges for the journey to Rome along the canals. This is a process that can best be understood in the Grandi Magazzini di Traiano on the north side of the Darsena basin, where you can still see the steps up which the workmen (saccarrii) would have carried the sacks of grain onto the quayside, before moving through one of the narrow doorways of one of the storerooms of the warehouse.

I talked about the Fiumicino Canal to the south. This is also known as the Fossa Traiana, which is particularly confusing since the canal was constructed under the reign of the Emperor Claudius!

In the extra video below, recorded during the 2014 Portus Field School, I respond to previous learners’ questions regarding possible exports via Portus.

Next Dragana will finish this discussion of the system of connections, thinking about road links to complement the canals.


Point to consider:

Why do you think that importing and managing the distribution of grain was so vital?

[Extra] References and sources

  • Mattingly, D. and Aldrete, G. 2000. The feeding of imperial Rome: the mechanics of the food supply system, in J. Coulston and H. Dodge (eds.), Ancient Rome: the archaeology of the eternal city. Oxford: Oxbow: 142-164.

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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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