Portus – the main harbor serving the first megacity in history
Lots of people, lots of goods: feeding the city of Rome
Rome was not built in a day, and it took a few centuries to become its empire’s huge capital. At the
beginning of our era, 2000 years ago, Rome was the biggest city with probably nearly one million people living in it. All these people needed fresh water, clothes, games, and, most of all, food. For a long time, since the beginning of the city seven centuries before, the Tiber River was the main trade route, but when the city became so big the small fluvial harbor inside the city was not enough. The emperor Claudius, in the first half of the first century A.D., started to build the big harbor on the sea that took his name.
A huge project against the forces of nature
Until the time of Claudius, the main sea harbor serving the city of Rome was around 130 miles away, in Puteoli. The goods destined for Rome arrived in front of the mouth of the Tiber River and transferred to smaller boats in the open sea, to go up the river. Unfortunately, building a seaport near the Tiber River was not easy, the coast in that stretch tended to become silted up. But the city needed a more modern and efficient system of supply, so the works started. The big harbor of Claudius was built in a few years. The magnificent port used to have two big banks, two lighthouses, and many horrea, i.e. warehouses to store stuff coming from all over the Mediterranean Sea: the finest clothes, colors, African grain, Spanish wine, and greek olive oil.n But pretty soon Claudius’ port was not enough: the number of ships increased, and the ships were often destroyed by heavy storms; for this reason, the harbor had to be modified.
The emperor Trajan build one of the most efficient harbor structures ever
The emperor Trajan started the excavation of an inner port, connected with the old one, to protect the
boats. He also improved the number of banks to allow multiple ships to unload at the same time. The shape of the Trajan basin was a hexagon, each side having the space to host up to 5 ships. Due to the growing importance of this hub, lots of people were working and also living in that area: not far away there was the city of Ostia, the very first port of Rome, but many workers started to live in the south side of the harbor. Portus became then also a city, its inhabitants coming from every corner of the Mediterranean Sea. Portus continued to have a prominent role until, at least, the middle 6th century, when slowly, due to the lack of commercial importance after the fall of the Roman Empire, the whole area was depopulated.
Once upon a time, there was the sea, today fields, and houses
Today the area where the big port was, became almost impossible to recognize: after so many centuries, the sea is two miles away from the ancient structures that once faced it, the Tiber River and the sea brought sand year after year making the entire area of the port of Claudius a huge field. Only the incredible hexagon of Trajan Port exists, becoming a lake, still maintaining its incredible shape perfectly visible, surrounded by the ruins of huge warehouses, banks, thermal baths, and even a Christian basilica, marking all the changes of this place during times. Everything inside this quiet and beautiful archeological area speaks about the fight between human beings and nature.
The necropolis of Portus – the voices of the ancient workers
Just a few hundred meters away, on the other side of the channel, walking in the beautiful necropolis of Portus, the ancient cemetery of the Harbor city, you can hear almost hear the dead speaking. It was used between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. You can read the names of people that came from very far away to live and work here. This small but emotional necropolis gives a human face to the majestic ruins of Portus: walking among tombs of normal people and workers. We get an idea of the people who used to live there: mostly humble professionals of the harbor, artisans who wanted to be buried with imagines of the tools they used their entire lives, a lot of foreign names, and especially a lot of children and teenagers, cause in this social classes the average life was short.