The first harbour of ancient Rome rediscovered
Archaeologists have unearthed the great ancient monuments of Ostia, but the location of the harbour which supplied Rome with wheat remained to be discovered.
Aerial view of Ostia and the position of its filled in ancient harbour basin (in the foreground). On the left of the picture, the Tiber flows along the Imperial Palace. In red, the coring sites. Credit: S. Keay
Thanks to sedimentary cores, this « lost » harbour has eventually been located northwest of the city of Ostia, on the left bank of the mouth of the Tiber. Stratigraphy has revealed that at its foundation, between the 4th and 2nd century BC, the basin was deeper than 6.5 m, the depth of a seaport.
This research was carried out by a French-Italian team of the Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée (CNRS / Université Lumière Lyon 2), the Ecole Française de Rome and Speciale per i Beni Soprintendenza Archeologici di Roma - Sede di Ostia (1) and will be published in the Chroniques des Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome in December 2012.
According to ancient texts, Ostia was founded by Ancus Marcius, the 4th king of Rome. This new settlement is supposed to have aimed three goals: to give Rome an outlet to the sea, to ensure its supply of wheat and salt and finally, to prevent an enemy fleet to ascend the Tiber. Archeological excavations showed that the original urban core (castrum) dates back to the turn of the 4th and 3th centuries BC. Major ancient buildings and main roads were progressively revealed, but the location of the Ostia river mouth harbour remained unknown to this day.
For some, it was considered as lost forever. Since the Renaissance, many attempts to locate the harbour of Ostia were undertaken without success. It was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that Italian archaeologists defined an area north-west of the city, near the Imperial Palace. At the turn of the century, archaeologists confirmed the probable location of the basin, in that zone, by using geomagnetic instruments. However there was still no consensus on the exact location of the port and the debate was still alive.