The evolution of Rome's maritime facade: archaeology and geomorphology at Castelporziano

Helen Rendell, Amanda Claridge, 2010

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Professor of Roman Archaeology
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Helen Rendell, Amanda Claridge (2010) The evolution of Rome's maritime facade: archaeology and geomorphology at Castelporziano [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor]

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Map of Rome and the ager Laurens Bronze medallion of Antoninus Pius, c. AD 145

1. Map of Rome and the ager Laurens
2. Bronze medallion of Antoninus Pius, c. AD 145 (Paris BN, inv. FG 128). Aeneas and his son Ascanius/Julus disembarking on the Laurentine Shore, before the miraculous sow and her farrow of 30 piglets.

The city of Rome's interface with the Mediterranean Sea at the mouth of the Tiber river and southwards from Ostia to Lavinium (Pratica di Mare) is one of the most complex culture-historic environments in the Roman world. It is the mythical setting for the final episodes of Virgil's epic poem Aeneid, the story of Aeneas, where the Trojan hero and his companions, on their way to found a new Troy, first set foot in Italy and are received by Latinus, king of the Laurentes, in a grand palace in the woods. Aeneas marries Latinus' daughter Lavinia, together they found the new city of Lavinium, and their descendants go on to become the kings of Alba Longa and thence of Rome. Rome's first emperor Augustus, for whom Virgil's poem was written, possessed a Laurentine estate (called Laurentum) probably centred on a huge maritime villa at Tor Paterno, which continued to be enlarged and embellished by successive emperors, especially under the Antonines of the later 2nd century AD. The city of Lavinium, which had declined in the 2nd century BC, was revived under Augustus' patronage, as the centre of an important imperial priesthood, the Lauro-Lavinates. The Laurentine forests became imperial game parks, where elephant and camel herds were based under the care of special procurators, where the emperors' game keepers trained exotic imported wild animals for the hunt and for the arena. New populations of Laurentes, formed of army veterans, were settled in the territory of Lavinium, in the ager Laurens and around the Ostian lake. The sea front - the Laurentine Shore - was developed into a monumental 'maritime façade' to rival that at Alexandria, lined with the luxury villas of the imperial family and its elite circle, among them that of Pliny the Younger, described by him at length and exceptional detail in a letter of about AD100.

Aerial view of Castelporziano Pietro Rosa's archaeological map of Latium

3. Aerial view of Castelporziano looking towards the Tiber delta. The dotted yellow line indicates the Roman coast
4. Pietro Rosa's archaeological map of Latium, c. 1865 (scale 1:20000). Detail of the region from Ostia to Lavinium.

Ever since the 16th century architects, antiquaries and archaeologists have struggled to reconcile the ancient documentary record with the archaeological reality on the ground. Imperial Laurentum passed first into the hands of the Roman Church and was later divided (as three estates called Castelporziano, Castelfusano and Castel di Decima) among a series of local barons before being partly reconstituted as the private preserve of Italy's royal family and after them, the presidents of Italy. Public access, consequently, has never been easy and is further complicated by the fact that the coastline has changed considerably since antiquity, the Roman shore now lies several hundred metres inland. In the early modern period the coastal lagoons became dangerously malarial while the forests in the interior proliferated and intensified. Although malaria was eliminated over a century ago, the forests are more impenetrable than ever, having been designated natural and wildlife reserves.

An archaeological map of the whole of Latium, made by Pietro Rosa in the 1860s, included a stretch of the Laurentine shore, notably the great villa at Tor Paterno, which had been extensively excavated in 1786-9 and 1801, but left most areas blank (see Fig. 4). In 1865 the site of a small coastal town was identified as the Vicus Augustanus named in various inscriptions and the excavations which followed, from 1875 to c. 1910 exposed three city blocks and part of its forum. The site does not appear on Rosa's map and no contemporary records of the excavations have been found except for some photographs taken in 1910 when a large mosaic was lifted and transported to the National Museum in Rome. In the 1890s and early 1900s the eminent Roman topographer Rodolfo Lanciani and the young Thomas Ashby, director of the British School at Rome, made several visits, tracing the Roman roads in the hinterland, the via Severiana along the shore and the villa-mounds which mark its course. In 1905 Lanciani excavated one of the villa mounds, the 'Villa of the Discobolus'. His and Ashby's field maps survive (Fig. 5-6) which, together with Lanciani's published reports in 1903 and 1906 and a popular account in his Wanderings in the Roman Campagna (1909), constitute the principal modern studies prior to the late 20th century.

Thomas Ashby's annotated field map 1 Thomas Ashby's annotated field map 2

5-6. Thomas Ashby's annotated field maps of the Tiber Delta and Castelporziano 1896 (Istituto Geografico Militare 1:25000)

In 1983 a new programme of archaeological survey and conservation was launched by the local archaeological superintendency (Soprintendenza archeologica di Ostia) in collaboration with the Castelporziano estate management, and a number of invited archaeological teams, including members of the British School at Rome. Initially it was hoped to study the whole 6000 ha estate but in practice, for reasons of security, access has been restricted to the coastal zone. A new archaeological map, covering a 2 km-deep corridor inland from the modern beach, was produced in 1984-1991, plotting the position and visible extent of some 27 'sites' (Fig. 7).

Archaeological map of the Laurentine Shore Castelfusano-Castelporziano-Capocotta 1992

7. Archaeological map of the Laurentine Shore Castelfusano-Castelporziano-Capocotta 1992 (Castelporziano III, Rome 1998, tav. 1).

Three of the more evident and substantial standing remains received more detailed attention and conservation in the same period: a bath-building belonging to the imperial villa at Tor Paterno, an aqueduct which leads to it, and the exposed buildings of the Vicus Augustanus (entrusted to the British team). In the later 1990s research on the Vicus included some new excavations, targeted at defining the chronology of settlement on the site and its economic status, and in the early 2000s (in an effort to define the perimeters of the Vicus) work began on mapping recording the adjacent sites with greater precision. At this stage it became ever more obvious and urgent that the archaeology should be combined with equally detailed study of the physical geography, the geomorphology of the Roman shoreline and its palaeoenvironment. We needed to understand more about the evolution of the coastline itself, and the ways in which the natural and built environments associated with it had interacted during the Roman period. Out of this was borne the present collaborative project, assisted by a major research grant and two studentships from the AHRC.

For more information visit our Laurentine Shore website

An associated data paper for this archive has been published:
Claridge, A. and Rendell, H. (2013) The Evolution of Rome's Maritime Fa├žade: archaeology and geomorphology at Castelporziano (Data Paper). Internet Archaeology, (35) https://10.11141/ia.35.11.

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