Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Monday, July 12, 2010

Massive Roman Canal Found Near Portus

Recently there have been some amazing new discoveries in and around ancient Portus. A Roman amphitheater, an imperial residence, warehouses, burials and statues are among the notable finds in the area. All of these buildings and artifacts help to increase our knowledge of Rome's port and of the Roman world itself. The latest discovery will hopefully shed light specifically on Roman trade and shipping. A massive canal, 100 yards wide, has been unearthed at Portus. The canal is remarkable for its size and also because it will help us better understand the ancient port. In antiquity, Portus was located on the coast and this giant canal was used to connect the port to the Tiber river two miles away. This connection allowed river boats to bypass the tricky mouth of the Tiber. In conjunction with the finding of the canal, archaeologists have uncovered many artifacts relating to trade, especially with North Africa. Portus seems to have many secrets still hidden and I'm looking forward to the next archaeological discovery there.

Ostia, founded in the 4th century BCE, was the original port of Rome and functioned as such through the 1st century CE. By that time, it was clear that new harbor facilities were needed to meet Rome's expanding trade, particularly the massive amount of imports flowing into the capitol. Claudius began construction on a new port a few miles north of Ostia, which was simply named Portus (Latin for port or harbor). This new harbor featured a large mole and lighthouse and greatly increased the amount of ships that could bring goods into Rome. Portus changed little until the reign of Trajan, who felt the need for greater expansion. Trajan had a giant hexagonal port built that was connected to Claudius' port and the Tiber via a large canal. This hexagonal port was lined with docks and warehouses for the unloading and storage of good. By this time, Portus supplanted Ostia as the major port of Rome. Portus remained important through the rest of Roman history, though eventually fell out of use by the 6th century CE.
Today, the name Portus is misleading since the modern coast is about two miles away, due to centuries of silting by the Tiber. Just to the north of Portus is Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport, which covers part of the ancient city. The most noticeable feature of ancient Portus is Lago di Traiano, which was built as Trajan's hexagonal port.