SIMON KEAY: I’m currently standing in a massive passageway which is known as the Portico di Claudio. This portico, in antiquity, looked out onto the great Claudian basin. What you have to do is think away the brick wall that you see between the columns and imagine in your mind’s eye a massive stretch of water. This water was the Great Basin of Claudius. And one has to remember that this encompassed a huge area. Something in the region of 200 hectares of water. And at the very, very end of it, you would have seen the rising prominence of the great Pharos, the great lighthouse of Portus built by the Emperor Claudius.
And this lighthouse guided ships from across the Mediterranean approaching the port of Rome into the port complex itself. And so one would imagine ships coming, mooring here, and starting to unload their cargoes.
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The Claudian basin was a massive artificial harbour that encompassed c. 200 hectares and was the core of the early port. It was probably completed by AD 46, the same period that major building projects were underway at Ostia such as the Grandi Horrea, which was likely a large public storehouse. An inscription from AD 46 found at Portus in 1836 commemorates the Emperor Claudius as having delivered the City (of Rome) from the dangers of flooding through the construction of canals (fossis). These stretched from the Tiber to the sea. The inscription also commemorates the construction of the harbour. Here is the full text:
TI(berius) CLAVDIVS DRVSI F(ilius) CAESAR AVG(ustus) GERMANICVS PONTIF(ex) MAX(imus) TRIB(unicia) POTEST(ate) VI CO(n)S(ul) DESIGN(atus) IIII IMP(erator) XII P(ater) P(atriae) FOSSIS DVCTIS A TIBERI OPERIS PORTV[s] CAVSSA EMISSISQVE IN MARE VRBEM INVNDATIONIS PERICYLO LIBERAVIT
(CIL XIV 85)
Dragana provided a translation as follows during the first running of the course:
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus, son of Drusus,Conqueror of Germany, Chief Priest, made Tribune 6 times, appointed Consul 4 times, Imperator 12 years, Father of the Nation Having led canals from the Tiber for the sake of the works at Portus, and sent them forth to the sea, he freed the City from the danger of flooding.
The inauguration of the port as a whole did not take place until AD 64 during the reign of the Emperor Nero. He issued a beautiful brass coin (sestertius) in commemoration, which depicted an idealized representation of the harbour.
The basin was enclosed by two huge concrete quays that projected far out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The great Pharos, or lighthouse, was established at the end of the quays. This was probably a conscious evocation of the great harbour of Alexandria in Egypt.
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