Setting Sail from Ostia

τειχῶν γε μὴν οὐκ ἠμελήσατε, ταῦτα δὲ τῇ ἀρχῇ περιεβάλετε, οὐ τῇ πόλει· καὶ ἐστἡσατε ὡς πορρωτάτω λαμπρά τε καὶ ὑμῶν ἄξια, ὁρατ<έ>α τοῖς εἴσω τοῦ κύκλου, ἡ δὲ πορεία ἐπ’ αὐτά, eἴ τις βούλοιτο ἰδεῖν, μηνῶν τε καὶ ἐνιαυτῶν ἀρξαμένῳ βαδίζειν ἀπὸ τῆς πόλεως.

You have not neglected walls but you built them around your empire, not your city. And you erected them as far away as possible, splendid and worthy of you, ever visible to those who live within their bounds but for anyone from Rome who wishes to see them the journey would take months and years…

(Oration XXVI.80)1


JUST AS all roads are said to lead to Rome, so there are many roads out of the city, which ultimately lead to all corners of the empire. Although Britannia is hardly the most convenient place to get to from the capital of empire, there are several options open to those wishing to visit the remote island.

Anyone travelling there will probably sail a significant part of the way, weather permitting, for travel by sea is much the quickest and cheapest form of transport for both people and goods. The River Tiber is only navigable with small boats, and Rome’s nearest port for sea-going vessels is some 17 miles (27km) from the city. Until the reign of Claudius, Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber, was the port of Rome. Under that emperor, a phenomenal feat of engineering resulted in the creation of a new port (Portus) less than two miles to the north of Ostia. In Hadrian’s day, the old and new ports are regarded as a single entity, and referred to as Portus Ostiensis or interchangeably as Portus and Ostia.

High-ranking officials such as Julius Severus and Minicius Natalis will have staff to make their travel arrangements for them; but the average prospective sea traveller can glean valuable information about ships likely to be sailing in their direction at the agencies or offices (stationes) of representatives from foreign ports in Rome. They may be able to tell you of a ship soon expected or already sailed into Portus Ostiensis and even secure you a place on board. Such stationes, once found around the Forum of Caesar, have since moved to other parts of the city. Some can be found on the Via Sacra, where the air is fragrant from the Horrea Piperataria—the warehouses built by Emperor Domitian to store pepper and spices from Egypt and Arabia.2

Although it is possible to sail down-river to Ostia from the centre of Rome—as Claudius did when setting out to conquer Britannia—it is an easy journey by road. Ostia lies 14 miles (23km) from Rome, and both Ostia and Portus are perfectly manageable in a day. Pliny the Younger, who had a superbly designed (in his view) seaside villa at Laurentum, near Ostia, described how it was possible to do a day’s work in Rome and get to the villa for the night without feeling unduly rushed. Pliny described the trip as a pleasant ride, though once off the main thoroughfare parts of the road could be sandy and heavy-going in a carriage.3 While some among Minicius Natalis’s party, such as his wife and children, may travel by covered carriage or by boat down the Tiber, riding to the port could well be an attractive option for Natalis and other members of his retinue, especially when faced with the prospect of being cooped up on a ship at sea for the next few days—or even weeks.

There are two routes out of the city, depending on whether you are making straight for Ostia or for Portus. For those heading to Ostia, the Via Ostiensis runs along the left (southern) bank of the Tiber, while the Via Portuensis flanks the right (northern) bank. There were no direct links to Portus until Trajan’s time, when he extended the old Via Campana, which connected the salt marshes of the Campus Saliniensis, north of Portus, with the salt warehouse close to Porta Trigemina in the Forum Boarium.

In Rome, the Via Portuensis (Campana) crosses the Tiber on the bridge named Pons Aemilius into Trans Tiberium (Trastevere) district.*1 This populous area, with its many warehouses and workshops, is also the principal residential quarter for foreign merchants. Many freedmen and Jews of eastern Mediterranean origin have settled here, and anyone who takes the Via Portuensis out of the city will be struck by their highly decorated and distinctive tombs, which lie a little further along the road.

Between the banks of the Tiber and the road’s first milestone is the Naumachia Augusti. A huge flooded basin, 536 metres long by 357 metres wide (1,758 × 1,171 feet), with an island in its middle, it was built by Augustus in 2 BC for the re-enactment of naval battles. Close by are the barracks where a detachment of the Ravenna fleet (classis Ravennas) is stationed, handily close to the Naumachia, where they no doubt help to stage the mock fights. They may even serve as harbour police and have official escort duties when the emperor travels along the river.

After about two miles, the road temporarily splits, with the new Via Portuensis taking a higher route to the west, while the old Via Campana follows the meanderings of the river, before reuniting again (at Ponte Galeria).4 The newer stretch of road thus avoids the crowds of people along the Via Campana who, on high days and holidays, make their way to two ancient sanctuaries between the fifth and the sixth milestones.

One sanctuary belongs to the Dea Dia, a cult which is said to have been founded by Romulus. In addition to the ancient sacred grove—now within a monumental enclosure—there is a whole complex of buildings attached, including baths and an adjoining circus, or racetrack. Augustus revived the cult and made it chic. It is officiated over by the fratres arvales (Arval brethren), a select group of senators to whom Hadrian, automatically enrolled as a member on becoming emperor, is much attached. He consented to become their magister in AD 126, a job which entails officiating at arcane rites at the sanctuary, sacrificing on public occasions in Rome and holding convivial dinners for his fellow priests.

Rather less socially exclusive are the celebrants at the temple of Fors Fortuna a little further along the road at the sixth milestone. During the three-day festival of this goddess of (good or ill) fortune, held in late June, both road and river are choked with people. Parties of young men hire boats festooned with garlands, and they waste no time in breaking open the wine mid-river. A couple of days later they will attempt to make it back to Rome, hailing the stars, blind drunk.5 Even on non-festival days the small boats on the Tiber make a colourful sight; many are painted, covered in bright pictures and patterns.6

On the opposite bank of the Tiber, visitors taking the Via Ostiensis can leave Rome from the heart of the Emporium, with the mound of potsherds on their right, or come down directly from the Aventine and pass through the Porta Ostiensis, one of the gates in the city’s massive Servian Wall. (Named after Rome’s sixth king, Servius Tullius, the wall is in fact a later construction from the early fourth century BC—but now the city has long expanded beyond it.7) Travellers coming from either direction pass the spectacular pyramid tomb of Caius Cestius, built in about 18–12 BC, and within a short distance they enter a suburban landscape of tombs, among which may lie the burial place of the Christians’ St Paul. Many of the funerary monuments lining the roadsides are large and elaborate, even if not as spectacular as Cestius’s pyramid.

Roadside tombs are not always the most salubrious places. They are notorious hangouts for the cheapest sorts of prostitutes, the bottle-blonde tarts (flavae lupae) otherwise known as bustariae—‘grave girls’.8 Tombs also have the reputation of being used as public conveniences. In Petronius’s Satyricon, written in the previous century, the lavishly ludicrous Trimalchio declares that he is going to appoint a freedman to watch over the tomb he is about to commission so that people won’t ‘run up and shit on it’.9 His solution might be typically extravagant but, as Romans know, the problem is certainly not confined to fiction. An inscription on the Roman tomb of Julia Fericula and Evaristus begs: ‘Passerby, do not urinate on this tomb, the bones of the man housed here beg you. If you are an agreeable man, drink and give to me a mixed drink [of water and wine].’10 Most messages along similar lines are rather less delicately put—blunt warnings along the lines of ‘Whoever shits here, beware of bad luck!’11 It is not only tombs that suffer this fate. Similar injunctions and pleas can be found outside the doors of private houses as well as on public monuments.12 Just as people put out signs warning ‘cave canem’ (‘Beware of the dog!’), so there are signs threatening ‘cacator cave malum’ (‘Watch out for bad things, shitter!’).

Once past the necropolis, the Via Ostiensis takes on a more pleasant aspect and runs close to the river again.13 At the third milestone, where it reaches Vicus Alexandri, a small river port with docks, the route reveals olive groves, gardens, villas and farms.14Between the seventh and the eighth milestones, the road passes near to many fine villas in the possession of senatorial families.15 Travellers to Britannia may spare a thought for M. Stlaccius Coranus as they pass his family’s richly decorated funerary monument along the way. He was a local landowner and served as equestrian tribune in Britannia in the Legion II Augusta during the Claudian conquest, a legion now based at Caerleon, in South Wales.16

About 11 miles along the Via Ostiensis there is a fork in the road; this is where the younger Pliny would have branched off along sandy roads to his seaside villa.17 Shortly afterwards, the road climbs, dips, then rises again to its highest point, passing over a ridge of hills. On this high land (Monti di San Paolo), there is a last view back towards Rome, as well as the first sight of the sea. Here, too, is the source of Ostia’s water supply, brought to the port by aqueduct. From here, the road gently descends into the wooded and marshy coastal plain, where the climate is mild and the landscape pleasingly varied, with woods and meadows. Flocks of sheep and herds of horses and cattle graze in the fields; soon they will depart for their summer pasture in the hills.18

The coastal plain can be prone to flooding. (After the great fire of Rome in AD 64, Emperor Nero proposed sending burnt rubble from the city to fill up the marshes.19) For this reason, as it nears Ostia, the road is raised up on a low causeway.


Founded on the southern side of the mouth of the Tiber in 386 BC, Ostia is a river port with only limited facilities for larger ships. This means that they have to anchor off the mouth of the river and transfer their cargoes onto smaller vessels. As a consequence, many larger boats, such as the gigantic grain ships that come annually from Egypt, formerly had to use Puteoli (Pozzuoli) in the Bay of Naples, 124 miles to south. This was a less than satisfactory arrangement, especially for something as crucial as the city’s grain supply.

As demand in Rome grew for ‘all the products of all the places in every season’,20 it was critical to improve the logistics for transporting these goods into the city. It was also important for Rome, as the centre of an empire that ruled over so many maritime lands, to have control of a large sea port in proximity to the city. In Hadrian’s era, Ostia remains an attractive place to visit, even for those ultimately heading for the glossy new gateway of Portus. In fact, Ostia is buzzing, profiting hugely from the state investment in Portus. Far from being sidelined, Ostia has also grown in size and prestige.

Many foreign ship-owners have retained their offices here, and since the end of the first century AD, senators and members of Rome’s equestrian class have been investing heavily in Ostia’s development. Hadrian himself has been closely involved in the town’s affairs and has served as duovir, or chief magistrate, on more than one occasion. Early in his reign a large area of shops and warehouses between Ostia’s forum and river was rebuilt,21 and the town now boasts new, state-of-the-art apartment blocks, warehouses, shops and luxury baths.

Coming from Rome, the visitor enters via Ostia’s east gate, the Porta Romana. At this point, the Via Ostiensis becomes the Decumanus Maximus, the main street running through the town, 9 metres (30 feet) wide and flanked by continuous porticoes of gleaming marble. Right by the Porta Romana stands a new baths complex (Terme dei Cisiarii—‘Baths of the Wagon Drivers’) and a little further along, before the theatre and set back behind a portico, another enormous baths development (Terme di Nettuno—‘Baths of Neptune’) is under state-funded construction.

Hadrian’s largest project here is his complete remodelling of the forum, which is now dominated by the Capitolium, a temple dedicated to the Capitoline triad of deities—Jupiter, Juno and Minerva—and flanked by porticoes of grey granite. The temple to these gods, who safeguard the health and security of Rome, stands opposite an earlier temple dedicated to Rome and Augustus, erected during Tiberius’s reign. Urban development is particularly intense in the part of the town facing the sea, where a complex of pleasant, purpose-built apartments with central courtyard gardens (case a giardino) has recently gone up.

Ostia is a giant distribution centre for Portus. From here, cargo that has arrived at Portus can be dispatched, traded or stored, including wine and hides from Gaul, olive oil from Baetica (in southern Spain) and numerous goods from North Africa, such as lamps and cooking wares, fish sauce and olive oil.22 The huge amount of marble being shipped in to supply building projects here and in Rome from Greece and Turkey, North Africa and Egypt, needs especially large spaces for unloading and storage. It is housed at a special Marble Depot (Statio Marmorum) lying between Portus and Ostia on an island known as the Insula Portuensis (Isola Sacra), which was created when the Fossa Traiana canal was dug to link Portus with the Tiber.

Few of the goods distributed from Ostia come directly from Britannia. As demand for British products in Rome is not high, the majority of British exports to the Mediterranean and imports from the region are probably sent via Gaul and the River Rhine, along trade routes that pass through the prosperous cities of southern and central Gaul and the great military bases and their associated towns in Germany. This route is also less dependent on the weather. By contrast, a journey sailing directly to or from Britannia hazards the stormy Atlantic coast and necessitates entering or exiting the Mediterranean through the straits of Gibraltar. This direct route was the one Emperor Claudius chose at the time of the conquest; but because of bad weather, he was forced instead to land at Massilia (Marseille) and continue his journey to Gesoriacum (Boulogne) along the roads and rivers of Gaul.23

In the second century, high-ranking officials, with a small convoy of boats at their personal disposal, may also favour this more direct route to and from Britannia—unless they have business in Gaul or along the Rhine. Travelling via the Straits might be a particularly attractive option for Minicius Natalis as it means he can visit family estates in Hispania before his three-year stint in Britannia.

According to Pliny the Elder, writing in the early first century AD, it was possible to sail from Gades (Cadiz) to Ostia in six days, while journeys from Hispania Citerior (‘Nearer Spain’, being the coast of Spain nearest Italy) could be done in three days and Narbo Martius (Narbonne) in two.24 These are quick times; in unfavourable conditions, the journeys can take much longer.

Anyone travelling to Britain independently can elect to make contact with ships sailing to Gaul, which will be able to take them on the first leg of their journey.25 Gallic ship-owners in Ostia have offices in a large rectangular colonnade with a small temple at its centre (Piazzale delle Corporazioni), which can be found behind the stage of the theatre. The office spaces are all tiny—but then most business is conducted outside and, as shipping is strictly seasonal, takes place mostly during the warmest, most clement months of the year. Outside each office is a decorative mosaic, identifying its occupants’ business.26 One depicts a ship next to a lighthouse bearing the inscription ‘Navi [cularii] Narbonenses’ (‘Shipowners of Narbonne’) above it. Here too is the office of thestat(io)Sabratensium, the North African city of Sabratha, represented by an elephant, as well as the agencies of Alexandrians and Carthaginians. Other offices in the square are occupied by associated trades, such as tow-rope and cord makers, tanners and the barge owners who transport goods from the large ships up to Rome.27

The Gallic ship-owners of Ostia are geared, as are their colleagues from Africa, Egypt and elsewhere, towards cargo rather than passengers and many have made fortunes out of the import–export trade. Some run very large-scale operations. M. Sedatius Severianus from Lemonum (Poitiers), for example, who comes from a family of ship-owners on the Loire, is one such magnate with extensive interests at Ostia. He is destined for the consulship, the only known senator from that part of Gaul to achieve this.28International businessmen of his standing do not themselves hang about in the poky little offices at Ostia, but rather employ freedmen as their agents.


No one, however, not even an emperor or a general with an entire fleet at his disposal, can expect to arrive at the harbour, board a ship and set off at a fixed time. Indeed, only a minority of VIPs can even have an expectation of travelling on any particular vessel. The emperor himself might have to be kept waiting or change his plans if weather conditions are unfavourable, as Claudius had to do when he sailed for Britannia. Journeys by sea are very ad hoc experiences and everyone, of whatever status, needs to be flexible about the arrangements.

Most people travelling independently or in small groups simply go to the harbour and take the next available ship sailing in roughly the direction they wish to take.29 As vessels hug the coast where possible, and stop frequently in ports and harbours along the way, travellers have many opportunities to disembark and find other ships that may go nearer to their ultimate destination. Each stage of such a journey involves a separate negotiation with the captain of the next ship.

While awaiting embarkation on the first leg, travellers can at least take lodgings in Ostia. The wait might be a matter of hours, days or even weeks if the weather suddenly changes. But at Ostia, at least the would-be travellers have an excellent choice of places to bathe, dine, worship, acquire last-minute provisions and rest in comfort before the long sea journey.

As is to be expected in any large sea port, there are bars and taverns to cater to those living or working here or simply passing through. Some of the establishments are a little on the seedy side, the haunts of ‘hitmen, hangmen, sailors, thieves, fugitives, eunuch followers of Cybele and makers of paupers’ coffins’, according to the satirist Juvenal.30 The landlords of such bars, often freedmen and women, enjoy as dubious a reputation as their clientele, ever ready to exploit the vulnerable traveller or drunken customer, and to part them from their purses.31 There have been various restrictions placed on popinae (bars or cookshops) over the years, such as limiting the type of food they are permitted to offer, although it is not clear exactly why. Tiberius banned them from selling bread and cakes, while Nero forbade them from serving any cooked food except for vegetables and beans. Frugal Vespasian further reduced the menu to beans.*2 Perhaps the popinae kitchens were too much of a fire hazard, being typically situated in the heart of towns, or gave off too many vexatious fumes or too much smoke.32

In contrast to the paucity of food on offer, one can expect the bars of Ostia to stock a good selection of wines, from all over the empire and to suit all tastes, backgrounds and pockets. Romans have acquired a taste for Spanish, Greek and French wine, traded at Ostia’s forum vinarium. The wine, which is stored in large jars on the bar floor or in racks on the wall, is decanted into jugs through a funnel and diluted with water. Regrettably, many a barman’s hand strays with the water, leading to customer complaints, sometimes scrawled in graffiti: ‘What a lot of tricks you use to deceive, innkeeper. You sell water but you yourself drink unmixed wine.’33 In the face of such jibes and accusations bar owners fight back, pointing out that you get what you pay for: ‘You can get a drink here for only one coin. You can drink better wine for two coins. You can drink Falernian for four coins’.34 Falernian is the most venerable Italian wine, an expensive tipple associated with high living.

It isn’t only food and wine that is on sale here. Scrawled on bar walls throughout the empire, from the sweltering dives of Pompeii to the smoky taverns of Bonna (Bonn), are claims along the lines of ‘I screwed the barmaid’.35 While some of these brags may be drunken jokes or fantasies, the law certainly regards innkeepers and tavernkeepers as guilty of procurement if they are found to have girls offering more than just drinks.36

Perhaps it is possible to find among this shady crew an honest bartender to run up some honeyed wine for the journey. It is a soothing drink, which keeps well and is easy to make: just combine ground pepper with skimmed honey in a cupella (small cask) and, at the moment you want to drink it, mix as much as you like with the wine. If you use a thin-necked container, dilute the honey mixture first with some wine, so that it pours freely.37

Having been to the baths, a bar, a brothel—or perhaps all three—and after having eaten, prayed, rested or shopped, travellers must return to their lodgings at some point to await the summons to sail. Word may come from a sailor with an unkempt beard—it is considered unlucky for sailors to shave on board ship or to cut their hair38—or from a slave sent to enquire about when the ship is due to set sail. Once you are summoned, there is no time to waste as the ship needs to take advantage of the now favourable conditions, which means not just the wind but also the omens, for sailors are notoriously superstitious people.


Connecting Ostia with its newer neighbour, Portus, is the Via Flavia, a late-first-century road that runs north–south through the Insula Portuensis. On either side of this road are the monumental mausolea and numerous graves of a large cemetery.*3 At its northern end, the Via Flavia crosses the Fossa Traiana canal by way of the Bridge of Matidia, another construction in honour of Hadrian’s mother-in-law (and Trajan’s niece).

As the gateway to Rome from the sea, Portus is much more than an enormous transport hub. It is monumentally impressive, proclaiming Rome’s domination over the world. Goods arriving here on merchant ships from all over the empire are unloaded as quickly as possible and then either stored in gigantic warehouses, or taken straight on by barge through the Fossa Traiana and into the Tiber to Rome, or shipped on to other destinations. Along the canal, broad towpaths run either side, raised above the surrounding landscape and accessed at intervals by steps. Co-ordinating all this traffic to and from Rome is a constant logistical headache.39

Sailing daily into Portus Ostiensis, too, are crowds of people with many diverse reasons for visiting Italy. They include officials, merchants, tourists and military recruits—men such as young Apollonarius, a hopeful, Greek-speaking Egyptian recruit to the Roman navy, who, arriving into Portus on a ship from Alexandria, immediately sends a letter back home to his mother Thaesion to let her know that he has arrived safely.*4 His correspondence is proof indeed as to the efficiency of Roman communication systems. For, on reaching Rome the same day, a second letter informs his mother that he will be assigned to the main base at Misenum; and, having been suitably impressed by all that he sees on his first day at the heart of empire, he tells her not to worry because he has come to ‘a lovely place’,40 (καλον τοπον).

This is precisely the favourable impression that visitors are meant to have, from the moment their ships first reach the huge outer basin of the Claudian harbour. At its mouth stands the great lighthouse, modelled on the famous one at Alexandria. It is built on a man-made island, created out of the ship on which Emperor Gaius Caligula brought the giant obelisk from Egypt, which he erected in his new Circus.*5 From the harbour’s mouth, ships travel more than two-thirds of a mile, passing a monumental series of colonnades, which stretch all around the harbour. As they manoeuvre into the unique hexagonal inner basin built by Trajan, they pass what looks like a palace (the Palazzo Imperiale), surrounded by administrative buildings, and a series of imposing warehouses and porticoes on the south side. The inner basin is absolutely calm, with a gigantic statue of the Emperor Trajan rising above it. A temple and surrounding enclosure forms its central focus, flanked by the almost continuous frontages of warehouses and offices.41Ships are able to moor in the dead calm of the centre of the basin while awaiting their allocation for a berth—each one marked by numbered columns on the sides of the hexagon.42 The basin accommodates up to 400 large ships, so that a considerable proportion of the entire grain fleet can be in port at any one time.

For travellers arriving at Portus, this gateway into the heart of empire represents their first glimpse of Rome—and to those leaving it, their last. As ever, the emotional and political resonance was not lost on the port’s architects. Portus is, as Juvenal put it, ‘more wonderful than anything nature made’.43

The majority of the ships that dock in Portus arrive between May and October. During winter, the sea is all but closed to shipping, owing to the dangers of sailing in inclement weather, when moody skies obscure both sun and the stars. The most crucial commodity to be landed is grain, and it is North Africa that is Rome’s principal bread basket. Late spring and early summer are not only the open seasons for travel by sea, but also the time of the Mediterranean harvest. Rome imports 20 million modii of grain each year from Egypt alone, more than 136,000 tonnes, with twice that amount from elsewhere in North Africa.44 The spring and summer months are therefore ones of frantic activity and potentially great anxiety: bad weather, a shipwreck, a poor harvest or lack of capacity in harbour—all spell disaster. As each grain ship from Alexandria can only make a limited number of journeys to Rome a year, it is imperative that they are able to land safely in harbour, be unloaded and then set out again as quickly as possible. Everything at Portus is thus geared towards maximum efficiency and a speedy turnaround for both goods and passengers.

Emperors must keep Rome fed. Claudius almost lost his life in AD 51 when, with only fifteen days’ supply of grain left in the city, he had to be rescued from an angry mob that drove him to the far end of the forum.45 In order to prevent supplies falling so perilously low again, Claudius tried to tempt ship-owners to sail with corn during the winter months by guaranteeing them compensation in the event of loss and by providing perks and incentives.46 His new harbour of Portus meant that ships were not riding at anchor in open sea.

The tall-masted grain ships make a splendid sight, not just because they are the biggest ships in harbour but for the hope they bring for the coming of summer and the season of plenty. The sudden appearance of the Alexandrian mailboats in spring, heralding the imminent arrival of the grain ships, used to send crowds hurrying down to the waterfront at Puteoli in the days before the harbour was built at Portus.47 No doubt the sight of their arrival offers similar promise at Ostia.

The grain carriers may be the largest ships in port, but others are no less eye-catching. There are triremes of the Roman fleet, whose rostra (beaks) at their bows are sheathed with gleaming bronze and perfectly designed to inflict maximum damage on an enemy ship, while at the same time helping to spring the ships apart and prevent entanglement. The great swooping curves of their sternposts are carved in the form of animal heads, such as those of geese or swans. Some boats have giant eyes painted on their prows to avert the evil eye. Others have cows’ horns hanging from the rigging and giant phalluses or heads of Medusa painted or carved around the ship to neutralize evil spirits and ward off ill omens. Their great iron and lead anchors are also carved with signs to avert bad luck, together with the name of whichever deity watches over the fortunes of the ship: some have Hera’s shining star which, the sailors pray, will provide a guiding light on their journey.48

The ships of the fleet have sails but also banks of oars, with which they can manoeuvre in and out of harbour in the event of a dead calm. The sails themselves are also full of colour and symbolism and are made from rectangular pieces of linen, reinforced at the edges with leather. With Hadrian away from Rome, emperor-watchers will look in vain for the imperial titles emblazoned in gold letters across a sail, or one of purple, the colour that has denoted an imperial ship since the time when, in Pliny the Elder’s phrase, ‘Cleopatra arrived with Mark Antony at Actium on a ship with such a sail, and fled with the same sail’.49

Altogether, there are so many ships in port that the sight is quite overwhelming; indeed, such is the traffic endlessly coming into sight or pulling out of the harbour that it is hard to imagine how even the sea has enough room to hold them all.50 The name of each ship is conveyed pictorially on either side of its prow. Here is a warship known as Armata (Armed), while others are optimistically (or perhaps euphemistically) called after Roman virtues such as Pax (Peace) and Concordia (Concord). There is a Draco (Dragon) and a Taurus (Bull), while the ship called Europa derives her name from the unhappy princess abducted by Jupiter, when disguised as a bull, and carried across the ocean on his back. Ships named after deities associated with the sea or rivers are also popular:Neptunus, Nereis and Triton, Castor et Pollux,51 who were worshipped by sailors through their association with St Elmo’s fire.52

The ships may be less lavishly painted than their smaller counterparts on the River Tiber, but they are still a splendid sight, bearing decoration to match their proud names. The bows are painted with encaustic (paint mixed with wax) in a variety of colours—white, blue, yellow, green and red—and the hulls of some ships are painted too, the waxy mixture laid on while still hot to form a protective layer against the elements. Many hulls are also simply left black with a coat of tar.53

In contrast to the gigantic grain freighters and the long sleek ships of the fleet, the average navis oneraria (cargo ship) is the packhorse of the seas. It is broader than its purely military counterpart and sometimes nicknamed ‘corbita’ (basket), because of the stout, round shape of its hull. The majority of ships sailing from Portus around the Mediterranean use a combination of oars and sails. Larger boats depend mainly on sails and use oars only for going in and out of harbour or rounding a point when battling with the wind. Among the smaller types of boats visible along the coast are the celox (‘speedy’), a small, swift, single-banked boat often used by the military to carry dispatches and passengers on urgent business, and the long slender phaselus which can range in size from a skiff to a large ferry, and which uses both sails and oars.54

While the average merchant ship will only have room for a modest number of passengers in addition to her cargo and crew, the super-sized grain ships can accommodate several hundred people: Josephus travelled to Rome on one such vessel with 600 passengers, while the boat that carried St Paul as a prisoner on his journey to Rome had 276 passengers on it, even during the dangerous closed season.55


For all seafarers, travelling on whatever type of ship, the moment of embarkation must finally arrive. While only an emperor or general going off to war can expect a large formal leave-taking from Rome, with speeches, sacrifices, crowds and festive garlands, even the most ordinary traveller will expect some sort of a send-off from friends and family, who might accompany them as far as the edge of the city, or even down to the harbourside. At the water’s edge, as the poet Statius describes, the ‘heartless captain’s shouts divides last embraces, ends faithful kisses and denies a lingering hug around a beloved neck’, as the ship, with her narrow gangplank lowered into shallow water, makes ready to cast off her cables.56

If they have any sense, passengers detained by lingering hugs and kisses will already have dispatched a servant, slave or companion up the gangplank to secure a place on deck. On most ships there are very few cabins—usually just one for the captain or owner at the stern of the ship, with ‘the helmsman’s rudder hard by [his] bed’.57 He may have to make his cabin available to other passengers, according to their rank. Depending on the size of the ship, there may also be other cabins adjoining the captain’s.

One can expect passengers of the standing of Minicius Natalis and his family to be able to secure a comfortably appointed cabin. Otherwise, passengers will have to find a space on deck as best they can. Some ships might also accommodate people in the shadowy space below deck, a place to which passengers may retire to sleep, to get some privacy—or do something clandestine.58 The hold may be damp as well as dark. Ships often carry some sort of pump to keep the hold free of bilge—and if there is no mechanical pump, then a weak or junior member of the crew has to do the job by hand.59 Automatic bailers are also used to evacuate water flowing onto the deck. Excess seawater runs into a lead tank with a grille over the top, fitted just below the deck, which has two long lead pipes on either side running the width of the boat so that the overflow runs out of one pipe or another into the sea, depending on which way the ship is tilting.60

The only facility that the ordinary traveller can expect to be included in the price of their passage is access to fresh drinking water, which is kept in a large tank in the hold. Everything else, such as food and bedding, passengers must provide for themselves, so they need to come well equipped with blankets, leather cushions and mattresses if they are to have hope of passing the journey in anything approaching comfort.61

The main shrine of the ship is located on the poop deck, and on a ship of the fleet this is where the ship’s standards can be found.62 Before the start of any journey, crew and passengers sing hymns and prayers, make offerings, light a lamp and pour a libation either over the side of the ship or at the ship’s main altar, invoking the ship’s tutelary god and any other deities who (they hope) might look favourably upon them during their journey and make it auspicious.63

Although ships stop at harbours along the way, everyone has to be prepared for the possibility that for one reason or another, such as rough weather or being becalmed, the ship might be stuck out at sea for longer than planned. It is important, therefore, to bring emergency rations and food that will not perish or go off easily in warm weather. Hard, dry ship’s biscuits are the staple for the crew; but dried fruit and nuts, preserved meat and fish, as well as grain to make gruel or porridge, not to mention the honey wine, all make good rations. Few will be allowed access to the ship’s galley, which is small, its roof tiled as a fire precaution, with a hole in the middle to let out smoke. The cook prepares food on an iron grille fixed in clay above a floor of flat tiles. The bulkheads are filled with cupboards where cooking utensils and dinner plates and cups are stored, and there is a large water jar to hand. The crew guard their personal property jealously and scratch their names onto their own crockery.64 Sometimes the crew bring fresh produce on board in the form of live animals, such as goats or chickens, if the journey is likely to be a long one.65

As the boat makes ready to leave harbour, it is probably best to keep a low profile while the captain shouts his orders to the sailors. His crew will be running around frantically, hauling up rigging, unfurling the sail, heaving the yardarm around and raising the anchors. Under the gaze of the huge statues of the gods and protecting deities of the port and the ocean which adorn the harbour, only the passengers have the leisure for reflection as the ship gradually leaves the harbour behind, ‘the land receding by slow degrees as if it were setting sail rather than you’.66 Many a traveller must experience a pang as they leave the magnificent embrace of Portus—and the protection and triumph of Roman organization and orderliness that it represents—and sail towards wilder, most distant shores. When, weeks later, travellers to Britannia disembarking at Rutupiae are greeted by a huge triumphal arch, they might cast their minds back to one of their last sights at Portus: an arch crowned by a chariot drawn by four elephants, and driven by the Emperor Domitian.67

And so the ships sail out of the inner basin and pass the Tyrrhenian lighthouse between huge breakwaters whose arms, in Juvenal’s words, ‘stretch out and leave Italy far away’.68


Once at sea, everyone gradually begins to adjust to life onboard. If you do not have a cabin, conditions may be not merely uncomfortable but as unsanitary as those suggested by the satirist Lucian in his Zeus Tragoedus. In the topsy-turvy ship he describes, a criminal is honoured with a seat next to the captain, while crowds of good people are packed together in a corner of the ship, ‘not daring to stretch out their bare legs because of the filth’.69 Passengers and crew, not to mention any chickens and goats on board, will produce quite a lot of filth between them in the course of a journey.70

Sickness is an inevitable hazard, as everyone lives so closely on board for days and perhaps weeks on end. A well-equipped ship or travelling party carries a medical chest stocked with remedies to cure stomach problems, eye complaints and seasickness. Pliny the Elder, who was admiral of the Praetorian fleet based at Misenum (Miseno), recommended wormwood (absinthium) taken as a drink to help prevent nausea at sea.71

Open-plan, on-deck living, where passengers camp out with their own food and bedding, is tolerable on journeys in the Mediterranean during the summer months, with regular stops at harbours along the way to stock up on provisions, to bathe and generally to relax on dry land. This is just what St Paul was able to do, even as a prisoner, on his way from Caesarea to Rome: after just a day at sea, the ship called in at Sidon, and Julius the centurion allowed Paul to go ashore ‘to see his friends and refresh himself’.72 When Gaius Caligula sailed to Egypt along the coast of Asia Minor and Syria, he went ashore each night, causing enormous logistic and supply headaches for local officials along the route.73 They were obliged to get in large quantities of food and fodder to cope not only with the imperial entourage (including family, friends, retainers, guards, marines and animals) but also with the vast crowds who were turning out by land and sea, following the emperor’s train ever since it had left Italy. Provincial governors such as Julius Severus and high-ranking officials such as Minicius Natalis will, however, be expected to travel a little more discreetly than an emperor. When onshore, they will stay with friends and acquaintances where possible, so that they can be assured of accommodation more comfortable and salubrious than the average wayside inn.

Over a period of days—or weeks—at sea, friendships will be struck up and confidences made over shared food and gossip, board games and music.74 Those seeking peace and quiet and a tasty supper may try their hand at fishing over the side of the ship.But however passengers choose to pass the time, their most abiding and deep-seated fears will remain those of storm, shipwreck and drowning. The theme of shipwreck is, of course, as old as Homer, and the fear of drowning and the consequences of death at sea are vividly expressed by poets such as Ovid. While condemned to his own living death in exile, on the shores of the Black Sea, he wrote:

I don’t fear dying but… save me from drowning and death will be a blessing… if you die of natural causes or even by the sword at least your body rests on solid ground, as you fade away, and you can make requests to others and hope for a tomb—not to be food for the fishes in the ocean.75

Everyone dreads the sudden gloom that presages a storm, as the sea swells and one side of the ship plunges into the waves as the other rises into the air. The Greek novelist Achilles Tatius describes how, during a terrible storm at sea, wicker shields are set up on all sides of their ship and his protagonists Leucippe and Clitophon vainly seek shelter together with their fellow passengers, by crawling under them ‘as if into a cave… abandoning ourselves to fortune and giving up all hope’.

If the captain gives the order to jettison all cargo, passengers know that they are in serious trouble, and they must heave everything over the side, including personal possessions. Ships are usually equipped with a lifeboat in the form of a smaller boat, or scapha, tied to the ship by a cable and manned at all times by a crew member or slave. On Achilles Tatius’s fictional voyage, there is a terrible panic on board when the captain at last gives the order to abandon ship. The crew in the lifeboat tries to cut it free from the ship without letting desperate passengers climb into it, threatening them with swords and axes. At this point, ‘ties of friendship and decency break down as each man seeks only his own safety and suppresses his more generous impulses… the passengers on the ship curse and pray that the lifeboat will sink’.76

The threat of shipwreck is all too real and the Mediterranean is littered with the skeletons of thousands of ships. All passengers and crew can do is observe the correct rituals to the gods, pray for a fair wind and distract themselves as best they can as they leave the Port of Rome behind them.

*1 The remains of the bridge in later centuries will become known as the Ponte Rotto (Broken Bridge).

*2 Large pots from the bars of Herculaneum have been found containing very parsimonious ingredients—dried fruit, beans or chickpeas—suggesting that the regulations were adhered to at the time.

*3 It remained in use until the fourth century AD and left to posterity some of the most significant examples of Roman funerary architecture.

*4 He sails in the month of May, at some time during the second century, though the exact year is not known.

*5 The Circus was situated in what became the Vatican. The obelisk remained there (to the left side of St Peter’s basilica) until 1586, when it was moved to the Piazza San Pietro.

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