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The University of Southampton
Humanities

Portus: The Maritime Dimension of Imperial Rome

Research at the University of Southampton led by the late and much respected Professor Simon Keay has transformed and enriched our understanding of Portus, the maritime port of Imperial Rome – and by implication, Imperial Rome itself.

The research has prompted the Italian Government to recognise the value of Portus as a key cultural heritage and tourism asset, and invest in its decision to make it an integral part of one of its largest and most-visited archaeological parks, Parco Archeologico di Ostia Antica. This resulted in a major programme of tourism capacity-building and public engagement, attracting worldwide attention to the site.

Portus aerial
Portus aerial shot

Context

The archaeological site of Portus lies 25km southwest of Rome, next to Fiumicino International Airport. It was the principal point of entry for ships supplying Imperial Rome with foodstuffs, material and manpower from the mid-1st to mid-6th centuries AD, and it is therefore key to understanding Rome’s relationship to its empire.

With many imposing structures still standing, the site encompasses 5.8km2 and ranks as one of the most important archaeological sites in the Mediterranean.

Research challenge

Although the site has been known since at least the 12th century, research has been episodic and piecemeal. The first major project led by Professor Simon Keay began in 1998 and involved a geophysical survey of the whole site, revealing many large buried warehouses, quays, canals and temples. Subsequent excavations uncovered the Palazzo Imperiale – an imperial maritime villa – along with ship sheds and other related infrastructure.

Geophysical survey of the Isola Sacra – Holy Isle – to the south revealed a canal that connected Portus to the river port of Ostia, as well as evidence that Ostia extended north of the Tiber in the direction of Portus

Further study of these finds has reveal details of the population that frequented Portus and the range of goods that moved through it.

The research at Portus involved cutting-edge interdisciplinary techniques from archaeology, computer-science, geomorphology and human anthropology.

Attracting worldwide attention to the site

The research has introduced new global audiences to the heritage site, which saw threefold increases in visits before the pandemic, partly due to specialist UK tourist companies placing Portus on their itineraries.

The research attracted extensive media coverage, including UK and Italian broadsheets, the BBC and CNN. It featured prominently in a major BBC1 documentary, Rome’s Lost Empire, reaching an audience of over 4 million, and more recently in documentaries by BBC2 and National Geographic.

The Portus team ran a FutureLearn MOOC between 2013 and 2018 that attracted over 30,000 attendees, with 60% of the learners drawn from outside the UK, across more than 178 countries.

Influencing legislation and practice in the management of cultural heritage in Italy

Following the extensive press coverage, the Italian Minister of Culture visited the Portus Project in July 2014 to make a public declaration about the site’s national importance: “There is no place in the world of this beauty and archaeological importance close to an international airport. We will work on a valorisation project because the potential is enormous.”

Portus subsequently formed part of a new heritage management plan that was part of a broader reorganisation of the national tourism ministry. By 2017 Portus became one of three major sites administered by the local Parco Archeologico di Ostia Antica (POA), one of the largest archaeological parks in the world covering around 130 hectares, including Ostia Antica and the Isola Sacra.

In February 2018 POA was awarded €32 million for a five-year programme of research, management, valorisation and outreach by the Italian government. Up to €8 million was specifically assigned to Portus.

The Portus project results are key in an upcoming campaign for the POA to become a World Heritage site. The Portus team’s survey work in the Isola Sacra has also helped guarantee the protection of sites threatened by illegal development. 

Development of tourism capacity-building close to Rome

Following the site’s initial success, Fiumicino authorities are aiming to boost visitor numbers further, capturing the potential of the 35 million visitors who pass the site on their way between Fiumicino Airport and Rome each year.

In 2019 the Italian government awarded more than €1 million to build a visitor centre on the site. Keay was charged by the POA to work with the Director of the building project to ensure its delivery, progress on which continues post-pandemic.

A further €2 million is being spent on re-presenting and re-opening the Museo delle Nave (Museum of the Ships) near the airport.

Related projects

Portus Project

Key Publications

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Simon KeayProfessor Emeritus of Roman Archaeology
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