With her dimensions literally set in rock, the great ship of Fiumicino needed no further proof of her existence, yet that is exactly what we have in the writings of Pliny the Elder and Suetonius who recorded that her timbers were of a ‘special fir’ and her single mast was so huge that it took ‘four men with arms linked to encircle it fully’, that’s a circumference of around 20 feet! Furthermore, she carried around 800 tons of standard ballast.
The histories of the ancient ports are no less fascinating than the associated discovery of the giant ship because the evidence suggests they were products of a cargo-handling revolution familiar to us all in this day and age.
Namely, as old river ports proved too shallow to handle increasing ship sizes, larger, deeper and more commodious ports were created closer lo the sea (Botany Bay replacing Sydney, and Fisherman Island replacing Brisbane are contemporary examples).
Rome’s original seaport city was that of Ostia, which is now one of the best-preserved abandoned cities in the world.
It was on the banks of the Tiber River close to its mouth.
Here, cargo was transhipped to barges or land transport for the final 30 kilometres link to Rome by river or road.
After centuries of service, Ostia became redundant and was ultimately replaced with a dredged harbour to its immediate west, instigated by and named after emperor Claudius in AD 42 (it was also called, simply, Portus).
Excavated out of the foreshore, with breakwaters protecting its entrance, Portus was connected with a canal to the Tiber River for flood mitigation and barge traffic to Rome (which still exists today through the modern town of Fiumicino ).
The port of Claudius took 12 years to build and provided one million square feet of harbour space with over one and a half miles of waterfront capable of handling 300 ships.
Its entrance was 225 yards wide and the breakwaters were built of enormous 6 to 7-ton blocks of travertine held together with iron clamps and pins. So impressive was this marvellous harbour that Nero, succeeding Claudius, struck a celebrative coin in AD 54 showing the two breakwaters in good detail.
About fifty years later, emperor Trajan (spelt traian in Italian) had another port built which was essentially a hexagonal basin extending Port Claudius inland to provide an extra 350,000 square yards of harbour with depths of around 13 feet. It was named Port Trajan, which together with Port Claudius, constituted the greatest of all Roman seaports and provided Rome with secure sea access for five centuries.
Today, Port Trajan remains essentially intact, but is unavailable to the public as it is on airport land. That such an historical gem should be sacrifi ced on the altar of modern transport is a tragedy, but there is some satisfaction in knowing that Claudius’s original inspiration for the area to become an international transport centre has been largely realised – albeit, in a form that he could never have imagined.
More to the point, had it not been for Italy’s admirable policy of halting all development that threatens to destroy sites of historical signifi cance, we may never have known, let alone believed, that a ship of 7,400 tons could possibly have been built two thousand years ago.
This, surely, was a technological breakthrough in every way as dramatic as Isambard Brunel’s Great Eastern in 1858.
His remarkable ship weighed 18,914 tons at a time when big ships were around 5,000 tons. It is interesting that the relative weights are very close in proportion to the Fiumicino ship and even in this day and age of mammoth ships we have not come close to matching it again.