The ancient ports of Rome
Since ancient times, the Via Ostiensis and Portuensis connected the city of Rome to its coastline through the undulating plains of the Roman Countryside. The first one was built at the same time as the city of Ostia, the port of Rome, along the left bank of the Tiber for about 16 miles.
After the slow and progressive cover-up of the river excavation, alongside Ostia started the construction of a new imposing sea port, called Portus, consisting of reservoirs, canals and infrastructures. The project began under the emperor Claudius and finished by Nero. At the same time, the Via Portuensis was built; following a pre-Roman route, it started from the homonymous gate, corresponding to the current Porta Portese, and headed towards the port. Either roads follow the ancient paths, crossing urban agglomerates dating back to the post-World War II period, such as Vitina, Acilia and the modern nucleus of Ostia and Fiumicino, but also extensive cultivated areas, pine forests, woods and beaches.
The ancient Ostia was founded around the 6th century B.C. at the point where the Tiber river had its outlet in the Mediterranean (the name derives from the word ostium, meaning mouth). In a short time the city developed a commercial function. The changes in the course of the Tiber, the continuous silting up and the progress of the coastline determined, starting from the imperial period, the collapse as a port structure. However, the city maintained a role of commercial control of the area and of the adjacent Portus; the decline and abandonment came only with the end of the Roman Empire.
The excavations began in 1800 under Pius VII, continued with Pius IX in 1909 and are still ongoing, with the aim of bringing to light one of the best examples of Roman cities after Pompeii and Herculaneum. The entrance to the excavations opens near the Roman gate, which marks the entrance of the Via Ostiensis inside the walls. Along the first part of the road, outside the gate, the necropolis line up, after the gate the Via Ostiensis becomes decumanus maximum, the main artery in a north-south direction. On the sides of the decumanus it is possible to visit the horrea (granaries) and stores, in addition to the police station, which had the task of controlling Ostia but also Rome. Further on is the theatre of the Augustan age, still in operation for summer shows after the 12th century restoration. It is connected to a unique complex, not found in any other Roman cities, known as the square of the Corporations, because in the delimiting arcades there were the offices of the different business associations (the corporations in fact) active in Ostia. These associations appear on the 2nd century A.D. mosaics paving the floor of the arcades.
The decumano then reaches the Castrum, the ancient republican nucleus of the city, inside which the forum was built, together with the judicial basilica, the monumental temple of Rome and Augustus, the baths of the forum and the majestic Capitolium, dedicated to the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). One of the buildings that deserves a visit is the Thermopolium, a restaurant with a bar, a large buried terracotta container, dolium, to maintain fresh wine and oil, and a hearth. Beyond the forum, the city extended with residential neighbourhoods housing noble domus, cottages but also multi-storey houses, called insulae.
In 42 A.D., under the emperor Claudius, began the construction of an artificial basin which was flanked by two long piers, on which stood a multi-storey lighthouse. Covered by sand also the port of Claudius, fifty years later Trajan wanted to replace it with an internal basin, octagonal in shape, near which the city of Portus rose, with baths, temples and imperial residences.
The archaeological area includes only part of the ancient city, while the hexagon and the whole suburb is still in private ownership. In the Christian era, it was a bishop’s seat, with its own cathedral (4th century). The ancient episcopium or castle of Porto is still visible, appearing, in its late 16th century reconstruction, on the bank of the Fiumicino canal.
Between Porto and Ostia, at Isola Sacra, stands the Necropolis of dating back to the Trajan’s age, where sailors and port workers found their last home. The burials are small, many simple, in the form of a temple or house and decorated with stuccos, paintings and mosaics.