Emperor’s Private Amphitheatre Discovered in Major Find at Portus, Rome’s ‘Other’ Harbour Town

Several major archaeological discoveries have been made at the site of one of Rome‘s ancient harbours. An oval amphitheatre, a 90m canal as well as many smaller objects (including marble statues) have emerged during excavations of Portus, the cargo port of ancient Rome, about two miles north of its better-known counterpart, Ostia Antica.

The team of archaeologists working at the site is led by the University of Southampton, who are working with Cambridge University, the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Ostia and the British School at Rome.

Amphitheatre Fit For an Emperor

The amphitheatre, which could have seated many hundreds of spectators, was found inside a big imperial palace complex. The site of Portus lies next to Fiumicino runway Rome’s international airport and is 20 miles outside Rome’s city centre. As with its famous neighbour Ostia, Portus is now an inland site, since the coastline has moved further out due to silt from the Tiber.

The site was also excavated in the 1860s by Rodolfo Lanciani, who uncovered half of the amphitheatre and mistook it for a theatre. The other half has come to light during the excavation by the Portus Project team.

‘Grossly Under Studied’

Professor Simon Keay, an expert in Roman archaeology at Southampton University and the British School at Rome and director of the Portus Project, told the BBC that the oval-shaped amphitheatre is similar in size to the pantheon and is at the eastern end of the imperial palace. He emphasised that it is very unusual to find a building of this architectural quality near to a harbour: “Its design, using luxurious materials and substantial colonnades, suggests it was used by a high status official, possibly even the emperor himself, and the activities that took place there were strictly private. He also believes that it may have been used for private performances inside the palace.

Professor Keay added: “The site has been known about since the 16th century but it has never been given the importance it deserves. It has been grossly under studied.”

Although Ostia is what we now think of as the ancient port of Rome in fact during much of the imperial period Portus was the principal harbour. Building work began on the hexagonal harbour of Portus during the first century AD during the reign of Claudius it was completed by Nero, and then enlarged by Trajan. It received most of the capital’s food supplies as well as imported materials such as marble and glass from Rome’s provinces. The ceramic containers found during excavations of the site provide evidence of the variety of trade that was done at Portus. It is ironic then that the smaller port of Ostia is far better known today.

Photos by the University of Southampton.