All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in February 2012.
At the end of the Carthaginian wars (146 BC), Rome acquired two provinces (Sicily and Africa, then the name of today's Tunisia)
which were great producers of grain.
The most important Roman families acquired
large estates in these provinces and at the same time through their control of the Senate they ordered frumentationes, free
distributions of grain to the inhabitants of Rome.
Ostia, the harbour of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber River became so important that Marius and Silla fought for its possession as they considered it a key factor for controlling the course of events in Rome. After the conquest of Egypt, another large supplier of crops, Emperor Augustus considered the creation of a second harbour near Rome because Ostia was affected by silting caused by floods.
Augustus' plan was implemented by Claudius and completed by Nero in 62 AD. The new port (called Portus Augusti) was located a few miles north of Ostia and it was linked to the Tiber by a canal.
The new harbour did not ensure enough protection for ships during extreme weather conditions and Tacitus (Annals - XV - 18) reports that "about two hundred ships were destroyed in the very harbour by a violent storm". In 103 Emperor Trajan decided to enlarge the port and make it safer by digging a new inner basin having a perfectly hexagonal shape (Portus Traiani). The basin was surrounded by warehouses and granaries built according to advanced masonry standards aimed at ensuring appropriate ventilation and temperature to the stocked goods (see a page on Roman construction techniques).
Pliny the Younger celebrated this and other public works promoted by Trajan by these words (..) auctoritate, consilio, fide reclusit vias, portus patefecit, itinera terris, litoribus mare, litora mari reddidit, diversasque gentes ita commercio miscuit, ut, quod genitum esset usquam, id apud omnes natum esse videretur. "[Trajan] in his wisdom and authority and devotion to the people has opened roads, built harbours, created routes overland, let the sea into the shore and moved the shore out to sea, and linked far distant peoples by trade so that natural products in any place now seem to belong to all." (Panegyricus XXIX - translation by Betty Radice).
It is interesting to note that Hugo Grotius in Mare Liberum (The Free Sea), a pamphlet written in 1609 and advocating the Dutch right to trade in the East Indies, made reference to the benefit of trade for the citizens of the Roman Empire by quoting this sentence by Pliny.
The new harbour was just a few miles away from Ostia so that at least initially those who worked at Porto, lived at Ostia. Maritime agents continued to do business in that town where they had their offices. Gradually however a new town developed between the new harbour and the canal and families started to build tombs on the other side of the canal.
Necropolis means city of the dead and the word perfectly describes a series of tombs which were unearthed at the beginning of the last century. They are very similar to houses and are neatly aligned along a main street. Most of them were built between the time of Trajan and that of Emperor Septimius Severus, approximately 100 years during which trade within the Roman Empire reached its peak.
The construction of the new harbour was followed by the opening of Via Portuensis, a new road which from Trastevere reached Porto. When in 275 Emperor Aurelian surrounded Rome with new walls, the gate of Via Portuensis had two passages, an indication of its importance.
The new road crossed a hilly area where tombs were excavated into the rock. Two of them were found in 1951 and were relocated to Museo Nazionale Romano.
The tombs have small niches (columbarium, dovecot) to house the urns containing the ashes of the dead, because cremation was the typical funeral rite of the Romans until it was replaced by inhumation in sarcophagi. Their elaborate decoration with portraits of the dead, flowers, birds and cupids, all rather small in size, were meant to represent the peace of the afterlife, in what appears to be a serene approach to death.
Portunus was a minor god to whom the Romans dedicated a small temple at Velabro, the site of the first river harbour of Rome. The ruins of a circular building (dated IIIrd century) near Trajan's Harbour are thought to belong to a Temple to Portunus, but they might instead be part of a mausoleum, similar to Tomba di Gallieno along Via Appia Antica.
Gregorius, the first recorded bishop of Porto attended a council summoned by Emperor Constantine in 314, shortly after the emperor had granted Christians the right to profess their faith. The cathedral of Porto was dedicated to St. Hippolytus of Rome; today only the foundations of a small basilica indicate the existence of the church, although the bell tower shows that it was still utilized in the XIIth century. In 1579 Pope Gregory XIII turned it into a watch tower and because it was far from the coastline its height was significantly increased.
Porto retained its role as terminal of maritime routes until the VIth century, when the war between the Byzantines and the Goths for the control of Rome led to a dramatic decrease and impoverishment of its population. In the VIIth century the Arab expansion into northern Africa put the final seal on the decline of Porto. The harbour was progressively silted while the canal became a second mouth of the Tiber, thus creating Isola Sacra, a river island (its name is probably due to S. Ippolito).
Formosus, Bishop of Porto (and pope in 891-96) relocated the bishopric see to Isola Tiberina; some of the relics of S. Ippolito were moved to S. Giovanni Calibita and S. Bartolomeo all'Isola became the new cathedral.
In 1463, at a time of a renewed interest in the Ancient World, Cardinal Juan de Carnaval, Bishop of Porto, decided to resurrect the original see of his diocese by receiving Pope Pius II in a temporary accommodation inside a small medieval castle near Trajan's Harbour.
In 1476 Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia was appointed Bishop of Porto and he decided to repair the medieval castle, improve its fortifications and build a small palace where he received Pope Sixtus IV.
Porto was a suburbicarian (in the vicinity of Rome) diocese and it was assigned to a senior cardinal; today there are seven such dioceses and that of Porto is assigned to the Vice Dean of the College of Cardinals.
Some of the bishops of Porto were elected popes: the last one was Cardinal Pier Francesco Orsini who became Pope Benedict XIII in 1724.
Se vai a Porto, torni morto (If you go to Porto, you will come back dead) this lugubrious saying had its impact on the bishops of Porto. They preferred to live in Rome and have a vicar taking the risk of staying at Episcopio di Porto which was surrounded by marshes which were unhealthy because of malaria.
In addition to malaria the few inhabitants of Porto were at risk of being taken slaves by pirates from Algeria and Tunisia. This risk grew in the XVIth century when pirates were encouraged to intensify their raids by the Ottoman Empire, but already in 1450 Pope Nicholas V ordered the construction of a tower near the coastline of the time (Tor S. Michele, a nearby tower built in 1568, can be seen in a page on today's Lido di Ostia).
In the late XVIIIth century the risk of pirate raids was greatly diminished and Pope Pius VI decided to promote fishing activities by building a small village and a church on the southern side of the river very near the sea.
In 1823-27 a more meaningful attempt to promote fishing activities was made by Pope Leo XII on the northern side of the river mouth; a small town was designed by Giuseppe Valadier, the architect best known for reshaping Piazza del Popolo.
The name Fiumicino derives from Latin focem micinam, small mouth, because of the size of the ancient canal when compared to the natural mouth of the river.
The name Fiumicino has become very popular with travellers because in the 1950s it was decided to build a new airport on the area of the former Harbour of Claudius. Today some 100 fishing boats are active at Fiumicino to supply the local restaurants some of which (the most expensive ones) cater for the businessmen arriving at the airport who enjoy great food at company expense.
Towards the end of the XIXth century a major effort was made to reclaim the marshy land between Fiumicino and Ostia; this led to the disappearance of Anopheles Atroparvus, the mosquitoes which were the vector of malaria, a disease caused by a parasite and not by breathing the air of the marshes.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next and last step in your tour of the Environs of Rome: Caprarola.
Latium was enlarged in the 1920s with territories from the neighbouring regions: the map on the left shows the current borders of Latium; the map on the right has links to pages covering towns of historical Latium: in order to see them you must hover and click on the dots.
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