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The Roman Empire in the Claudian period

The Roman Empire in the mid first century AD was an empire in transition.
SIMON KEAY: Before looking closely at Portus and its development under the reign of the emperor Claudius, it’s probably worth spending a little bit of time thinking about the empire of which Portus lay at the heart of. Now, the Roman Empire in the mid-first century AD was essentially an empire in transition. Some 70 years after the conclusion of the civil wars, the Roman Empire had come together. It incorporated much of what we see today in Western Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, large parts of North Africa, and the Middle East. However, under Claudius, we see an extension of the frontiers. We see, for example, the conquest of Britain in AD 43. We also see the annexation of Mauritania, which corresponds to Morocco.
We see the annexation of other areas in the eastern part of the empire too. And in addition to that, Claudius consolidated Roman control in these areas by the establishment of colonies, strategic centres of veteran soldiers settled in new towns. We see the establishment of road networks in provinces like Britannia, Hispania, the Spains, and other parts of the empire. And in addition to all of this, we see major economic changes happening too. Essentially what we have is communities and the different provinces of the Roman Empire starting to pay taxes and starting to produce agricultural surplus, which is then traded around the Roman Empire with the income coming from that being used to pay taxes.
Side by side with that, we see an important period of cultural change too. Roman ideas of way of living and so on expressed in architecture and art and indeed religious practice too were all in a process of change, cultural change. In addition to that, we also see the incorporation of more and more free-born individuals into the political structure of the Roman Empire through a burgeoning network of Roman towns. So the reign of Claudius sees the coming together of the Roman Empire and represents a very important phase in that. In terms of Rome itself, Claudius, as we know, was a member of a very aristocratic family, the Julio-Claudians.
And indeed Claudius, aside from establishing Portus, did leave his mark in Rome too in the construction of a number of very well-known public buildings and aqueducts too. So Claudius made a major impact upon the Roman Empire. And I think there’s little doubt though that the work that he undertook at Portus represented some of his concerns about feeding the populace in the city of Rome, concern that the population of circa a million people living in the city would have sufficient grain and other foodstuffs from around the Mediterranean.
And so to that extent, he also ensured the making it easier for grain to come from the Mediterranean provinces to the city by extending privileges to shippers and merchants to serve the Roman state and to carry these precious cargoes to the city of Rome itself. So I think that gives you a good introduction to the empire of which Portus was a part at the time of its establishment in the mid-first century AD.
As you have heard, following the rebuilding of the Roman Empire after the Civil Wars by Augustus in the later 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD, the reign of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) witnessed major changes. Its boundaries were extended with the addition of new provinces, such as Britain and Mauretania.
Populations within the Empire were brought under tighter control with the establishment of colonies and roads, while important steps were also taken in the gradual process of incorporating free-born provincials into its political structure, by granting some of them Roman Citizenship.
Furthermore, the study of the material culture of populations in the west and the east reveals how city-dwellers were gradually starting to adopt or adapt new social, artistic and linguistic practices mediated by Rome, as a way of participating in the cultural life of the Roman Empire. Claudius was also concerned to ensure that the growing population of the City of Rome was well supplied with grain and other key foodstuffs by establishing the capacious new harbour at Portus, and providing financial incentives to shippers to transport the grain to it. These increased grain imports could not feasibly be brought directly to Ostia.
In case you wondered, the building shown behind Simon is called ‘Building 3’. This is a rather less exciting term than the one we use most commonly in the course – the Palazzo Imperiale or Imperial Palace. You will get to know this very well, and in particular during the time we will focus on the results of the latest fieldwork in Italy in Week Six.
Was the Claudian period in Italy how you imagined?
Next, Dragana will provide us with a quick summary of the phases of Portus. You might want to create your own hand written or digital timeline at this point, to help to keep track of what is happening when.
Before then, why not share with other learners what you think the first century AD was like in the country where you live? It would be good to get a global impression of the context for the things we are describing here.
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Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome

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