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Portus00In the video available to visitors to the Fiumicino Ship Museum next to Rome's international airport, the archaeologist Renato Sebastiani states that without the ancient port of Ostia the greatness of imperial Rome would not have been possible, a metropolis of about one million inhabitants. Certainly a statement that can be shared, but it is only one side of a coin that seems to have many, well more than two. And here we have to open a necessary digression.




AncoMarzioOstia (from ostium i.e. mouth, gate, entrance) was founded by King Ancus Marzius in the 7th century BC: his descendant Quintus Marcius Rex (surname left to the members of the family) built the Aqua Marcia aqueduct 500 years later, issuing a coin that shows Ancus Martius on the obverse and the aqueduct on the reverse.

This is further confirmation of a theorem never sufficiently appreciated and disseminated: Civilizations are born from the sea, and from water. Destroyed by the barbarian invasions in 572 a.D. the Acqua Marcia aqueduct was restored and reactivated in 1872. It is still in operation and supplies one of the most appreciated drinking water sources in Rome after about 2200 years.


RipaGrandeWe can expand on Sebastiani's statement: Rome would never even have been founded without the sea, nor would it have ever grown great without water. The first agglomeration was in fact established in the eighth century BC near the meeting place of three different ethnic groups divided by as many rivers.

The Etruscans lived on the right side of the Tiber, the Sabines occupied the territory between the Tiber and its tributary Aniene, the Latins lived on the left sides of the Aniene and the Tiber.

Among the exchanges of the three peoples who had decided to make water a meeting point and not a separation point, salt was the primary commodity: it came from the nearby coast, about 15 km as the crow flies. It was extracted in the Etruscan area, transported to Rome along the river or along the road which, until a century ago, was still called via della Salara Vecchia, then forwarded to the internal territories of Central Italy along what is still called via Salaria today.

The foundation of Ostia, which happened in a later period, had the purpose of providing Rome with a port near the mouth of the Tiber, to transport foodstuffs to Rome by river boats, but also to put an end to the Etruscan monopoly on the extraction of salt. In the following centuries Ostia expanded to adapt to the growth of Rome. In the imperial era, two new grandiose ports were built to cope with the growing traffic: in the middle of the first century BC by the emperor Claudius and about 70 years later by Trajan. The complex simply took the name of Portus.



CostaThe sediments transported by the Tiber made the coastline advance over the centuries: both Ostia and Portus found themselves more and more inland and were abandoned.

The ruins of what is now called Ostia Antica offer visitors a spectacular insight into life 2,000 years ago, comparable to that offered by Pompeii.

The port of Trajan, an immense magnificent hexagonal structure, can also be visited.

The port of Claudius has instead sunk underground and only a few ruins are visible today.

During the construction work on the airport at the end of the 1950s, the remains of some boats also emerged. 




Three types of boats were recovered:

A small sailing boat called 'onoraria':
This was an open sea cargo vessel.

Three 'naves caudicaria':
river barges that transhipped goods to Rome.

The caudicarius was someone who placed a deposit. Perhaps the barges were called like this because the transporter could redeem the deposit upon showing the receipt of the addressee of the merchandise.

And a fishing boat:
called Fiumicino 5

We are about to talk more about it. But we shall not just talk about that boat. 


Fiumicino5 bFiumicino 5

Fiumicino 5 was a 'vivaria', i.e. a boat equipped with a container full of water in which to keep the catch live in optimal conditions. It is probable that these boats were used to carry goods directly to Rome.

With the progressive population increase, marine fishing had become insufficient to cover the food needs of the entire population. Fish had thus become a luxury product, reserved for the classes with greater purchasing power residing in the capital.

To make up for this shortcoming, the use of aquaculture gradually increased, both in marine basins and in fresh water, obtaining products with a more affordable price.


Some of the personalities who dedicated themselves to this commercial activity have left unsuspected traces up to the present day: Gaius Sergius Orata (2nd century BC) as well as being considered the inventor of the hypocaust heating system used in spas and luxury homes, was one of the first entrepreneurs to deal with aquaculture. His specialty was oyster farming, but some believe that the prized fish of the same name, Sparus aurata, takes its name from him.

It is also said that the moray eel has had this name in memory of the leader Lucius Licinius Murena (1st century BC) who was the first to breed it. 





In the third century, the emperor Diocletian issued the Edictum Diocletiàni de pretiis rerum venalium with which he fixed the selling prices of many necessities, including fish.

It may be interesting to examine it in detail to find out which were the most widespread and appreciated species at the time.

Naturally, this task is reserved for experts, the only ones able to decipher the terminology used by the ancients for marine species.

For comparison, keep in mind that the edict set the price of a chicken at 30 denarii and that a pondus, or pound, corresponds to about 327 grams.




piscis aspratilis marini Ital(icum) po(ndo) I (denarii) viginti quattuor
piscis secundi Ital(icum) po(ndo) I (denarii) sedecim
piscis flubialis optimi Ital(icum) po(ndo) unum (denarii) duodecim
piscis secundi flubialis Ital(icum) po(ndo) unum (denarii) octo
piscis salsi Ital(icum) po(ndo) unum (denarii) sex
ostriae n(umero) centum  (denarii) centum 
echini n(umero) centum  (denarii) quinquaginta 
echini recentis purgati Italicum s(extarius) unum denarii) quinquaginta
echini salsi Italicum s(extarius) unum (denarii) centum 
sphonduli marini n(umero) centum (denarii) quinquaginta
casei sicci Ital(icum) po(ndo) unum (denarii) duodecim
 sardae sive sardinae Ital(icum) po(ndo) unum  (denarii) sedecim 


Fiumicino5 cBut let's get back to Fiumicino 5.

This is our live fish transport boat.

As we see, it's a vessel of modest size, not so different from some undecked vessels still in use in small-scale fisheries today, even in industrialised countries.

It is assumed that it had between two and three people onboard, but could almost certainly also be managed by a single person.









Fiumicino5 dThe vivarium has numerous holes on the bottom, intended for the exchange of water when necessary.

They were otherwise closed by pine wood caps.

The vivarium was equipped with a folding lid, to keep the contents safe, but also probably to prevent the fish from escaping in case of rough seas.










OstiaA lot remains to be explored and told starting with the reconstruction to the right.

More is to be said about the Ship Museum in Fiumicino, the Portus and Ostia and even about much else.

We shall talk about that.



Mare nostrum

ImperoSeeing the extent of the Roman Empire at the time of its maximum expansion immediately clarifies the reason why the Mediterranean was defined Mare nostrum at the time.

The vastness of the sea was certainly seen by the first human beings as a barrier, but already in the protohistoric era it was gradually transforming itself into a means of union, as a transmission way not only of goods, but also of culture and human knowledge.

We addressed that already in an earlier article, but now we return to the subject.

It is even possible that virtuous examples from antiquity indicate the way for a better use of human and environmental resources.


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