One of the highlights of the conference was the optional extra on the Sunday when we went on a coach tour to visit the excavations at Portus, the great artificial harbour built by Claudius and Trajan to provide a safe harbour for the great grain ships that supplied the food for the populace of Rome, avoiding the notorious treacherous entry to the Tiber river which made access to the harbour of Ostia so difficult. Here major excavations are being carried out by the British School under Simon Keay – we have written about them several times in CWA – issues 20, 42 and 51 so I was anxious to see them in person.


The huge outer basin constructed by Claudius is now bisected by the Fiumicino airport, the major airport of Rome, and conversation is interrupted at times by the take-off of huge aircraft.

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The approach to Portus is not prepossessing. A modern dual carriageway runs along one side of it on an elevated viaduct servicing Fiumicino Airport.

The approach is unprepossessing. A modern dual carriageway on an elevated viaduct runs along one edge of the site: on the one side of the road were car-parks, the inevitable hinterland of any major airport. On the other side of the road was the entrance leading through to what had been until recently the private leisure park of the Torlonia family, though the main archaeological part has now been taken over by the state as an archaeological area: the remainder is still part of the Torlonia estate which the duke visits from time to time in his horse and carriage.



Plan from Wikkipedia showing the layout of the Great Port. The huge outer harbour was built under the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-55).: the unways of the modern airport run diagonally across it. The inner hexagonal basin was built by the Emperor Trajan surrounded by warehouses and the “Imperial Palace”. Note the great canal that connected it to the River Tiber at the top right.

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Simon Keay, Director of the excavations expounds the site to the conference.

The total area of Portus was huge: the outer harbour built by Claudius covers some 200 ha, while the inner hexagonal basin built by Trajan covers some 32 ha; by comparison,  the walled area of Roman London covered 138 ha, so the whole of Roman and indeed Medieval London would have fitted inside the Claudius basin with room to spare. And this is not to count all the very extensive warehouses and other buildings on dry land. Thus visiting it involves as lot of walking : it is mostly very flat with just slightly elevated sections marking the former dykes, interrupted by the occasional elevated remains of vast buildings.

We visited three main parts of it, Firstly the Palazzo Imperiale, overlooking the Trajanic palace. We did not actually see the Trajanic Basin, which was rather a pity because I am sure that is a very spectacular part of the site – I think it was reconstructed and filled with water in the 19th century by the Torloni family.

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The current excavations in progress. On the far side the water tower is being excavated. In the foreground are the excavations of the so-called Imperial Palace.

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The excavation of the Imperial Palace still standing two stories high. Its original function remains uncertain.

But the Palazzo Imperiale – the Imperial Palace is the site of the major excavations by the British School. In a way they were rather unimpressive as they were nearly the very minute part of what is clearly a very large building. On the other hand they were rather impressive as what they were excavating were huge buildings still standing two stories high. In one corner was the castellum aquae, the water tower and further on there were the shipsheds, where the ships could be drawn up.

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This fine mosaic is still in position in the Lantern baths, originally excavated in the 19th century.

Afterwards we went on to visit the ‘Lantern Baths’. These were somewhat odd, as it is a part of the site that was excavated early and is thus prominently preserved but it is difficult to know quite what it was. It was situated on a long finger that forms the northern side of the entrance from the outer harbour to the inner harbour. It seems that originally it may have been some sort of customs house or administrative centre, but it was later transformed into baths. When travellers and sailors eventually arrived in port, was a good bath the first thing they needed?


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The Trajanic warehouses lying at the intersection of the inner harbour and the canal that led to the Tiber. Goods were stored here for transhipment by barge up the river to Rome.

Then a long walk back, though luckily I was given a lift in his car by Stephen Kay, the archaeology officer at the School, and we concluded the visit by going to the so-called Magazzini Traiani, the largest warehouse project in the Roman world, begun by Claudius and lying at the interface between the basin where the ships could be unloaded, and the canal which led from the port to the Tiber, where goods could be transhipped into barges for the 20 mile journey up river to Rome. It is a major French research project and some of the warehouses are spectacularly restored. It was a fascinating visit.


On to The Vatican


27th March 2016

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