The Roman Empire in the face of the great depression

By Jérôme Gautheret and Thomas Wieder

Posted today at 01h00

Let us give up for a moment the meditations on the ruins, the walks around the Palatine, the colonnades and the obelisks. Of course, the monuments of antiquity suggest past greatness. They were built for the purpose of flattering the Romans and impressing visitors. And, basically, they continue to have their effect, more than fifteen centuries after the end of the Empire. But to fully imagine the grandeur of the latter, you have to turn your back on these splendours and head for the sea, near Fiumicino airport.

There, we will stop right next to the tracks, at the foot of the connecting slip road leading to the terminals, in front of the entrance to an archaeological park of around one hundred hectares wedged between the car parks and the expressways, which appears hardly in tourist guides.

Welcome to Portus, one of the most breathtaking urban creations of Antiquity. To get an idea of ​​the importance of this site, it is important to disregard what surrounds it at the start of XXIe century and to imagine it as an artificial port located in a marsh area by the Tyrrhenian Sea (today, the coast is 3 kilometers away), whose entrance was marked by a lighthouse similar to that of Alexandria .

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Wanted by Julius Caesar to remedy the congestion of the port of Ostia, which had become too small, then started by the emperor Claudius in the middle of the Ier century AD and inaugurated by Nero in 64, Portus was embellished and completed under Trajan (98-117).

This artificial harbor was to meet the colossal needs of a metropolis which, at its peak under the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD), had around one million inhabitants. A challenge on which the social peace in Rome depended – and therefore the tranquility of the emperors.

A balance in danger

The ships entered a first artificial basin with a surface area of ​​200 hectares, then docked in two interior basins so that their cargoes were unloaded in warehouses before being sent to Rome by road or by the Tiber, itself connected in Portus by a system of canals. When the port was in full swing, the flow was impressive: archaeologists estimate that up to 200 ships could disembark each day at Portus, most of which came from Spain or Africa.

All this, we guess more than we see it because most of the site remains to be explored. But we can clearly distinguish the route of the canals, silted up for centuries, as well as the remains of several huge buildings, including an early Christian basilica which seems to have served until the 13th century.e century.

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