We often marvel at the efficiency of our modern world’s ability to transport objects across vast distances accurately and quickly. While not as interconnected as we are today, the ancient world had similar requirements, needing to move food and material to keep society operating.
At its peak, the city of Rome was home to more than one million people, generating a substantial demand for imported goods. A large portion of this transportation occurred on land along the empire’s well-known highways, but even more arrived by ship through port cities.
Ostia, meaning “mouth” in Latin, was Rome’s first colony in the 7th century BC and the primary port in Republican times. Located at the mouth of the Tiber River, Ostia was conveniently located to facilitate the easy delivery of goods to the empire, but it had some fundamental limitations due to sandbars which prevented large ships from entering. This meant that goods needed to be distributed to smaller ships capable of passing through: an inefficient process which produced significant contention.
Additionally, although they were absolutely essential to all major inland cities, ports and harbors were some of the most challenging of all engineering projects, requiring immense funds to build and even more to maintain.
Both Julius Caesar and Augustus wanted to extend and improve the port, but the expenses were astronomical, and it wasn’t until Claudius’ reign that the empire undertook the project. In 42 AD, a constant problem with grain shortage produced a tipping point to force the creation of an artificial harbor at Ostia. This new harbor would support year-round deliveries on top of military improvements, transportation simplification, and streamlined trade.
The design was a semi-circle, ambitiously surrounded by two large stone walls in the sea that were used as a breakwater and to help protect the harbor. New docks were excavated to the north along the Tiber and connected to the harbor by two canals. As part of the building process, one of Caligula’s ostentatious pleasure barges was sunk by being filled with cement. The entire port was adorned with marble and beautifully constructed, filled with magnificent frescos and statues.
The building project was a massive undertaking and mentioned by many ancient authors. Construction was finally completed under Nero in 64 AD. When projects of this magnitude were completed, it was cause for celebration. Not only did the Port of Ostia guarantee an improvement in Roman life, it also reaffirmed their international renown as engineers.
Head of Nero, laureate, right
NERO CLAVD CAESAR AVG GERM TR P IMP P P
View of the harbor at Ostia; Statue of Neptune set on pharos, above; Tiber reclining left, below
AVGVSTI S POR OST C
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