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What happened to the ancient Port of Pompeii?

PortandTerminal.com, November 16, 2020

Much has been discovered about the ancient city of Pompeii but surprisingly little about its port, including its precise location

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – While speaking with Jessica Venner, a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham in England, the question of Pompeii’s port came up. Venner reminded us that the ancient Roman city of Pompeii used to have a significant port (possibly even two) but doesn’t any longer. Which raised the obvious question – what happened to it?

The Ancient Port of Pompeii

What happened to the ancient Port of Pompeii? The answer is actually straightforward. The ancient Port of Pompeii was destroyed along with the rest of the city when Mount Vesuvius famously erupted in 79 AD. A mystery though remains to this day concerning the port. Where was it? What remains of it today?

At the time of its destruction, ancient Pompeii was home to as many as 20,000 people – slightly fewer than the modern city of Pompei today which has a population of 25,000. Thanks to the 9 feet of ash, pumice and other volcanic debris that destroyed, covered and preserved the city much is known about the ancient city of Pompeii. Surprisingly little though is known about its port — and most surprisingly, its exact location.

What we do know

The Pompeii archaeological site with Mount Vesuvius in the background and the modern city of Pompei surrounding it.
The Pompeii archaeological site with Mount Vesuvius in the background and the modern city of Pompei surrounding it.

The ancient city of Pompeii bordered the Sarno River which, unlike the filthy, narrow waterway it is today, was once navigable and provided lagoons which served as a safe shelter for sailors.

So we do one thing. Pompeii’s port was likely a river port and one that would have provided a vital communication channel between the sea and the hinterland. Still, when looking at the sad state the Sarno River is in today, it’s hard to imagine it being home to a vibrant and busy port in its heyday.

Photo: The mouth of the Sarno river as it flows into the Bay of Naples. Today the Sarno is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Photo: The mouth of the Sarno river as it flows into the Bay of Naples. Today the Sarno is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

“Legends tell that Pompeii was one of the more important ports in the Gulf of Naples where neighbouring cities such as Nola, Nuceria and Aceria would have sent their products to Pompeii for transportation across the entire empire. Products such as olives, olive oil, wine, wool, fish sauce (garum), salt, walnuts, figs, spices, shrimps, silk, wild animals for the arena and slaves to man the thriving agricultural industry.” (romanports.org)

Fresco discovered in Pompeii that shows Roman warships moored at the ancient city's port
Fresco discovered in Pompeii that shows Roman warships moored at the ancient city’s port

Porta Marina

Porta Marina gate Pompeii. Tourists visting.
The Porta Marina gate shown here provides access to the west of the city and it is the most impressive among the seven gates of Pompeii. The name derives from the fact that the exit road led to the sea. The layout with a barrel vault made of concrete, that is a mixture of mortar and stones, dates back to 80 BC

What else do we know? One of the city gates in ancient Pompeii is called the Porta Marina (Sea Gate), the ruins of which are shown in the photograph above. Once the gateway into the town from the harbour, Porta Marina is now the main entrance into the archaeological site at Pompei.

Until recently researchers thought that the old port lay just outside the Porta Marina, as its name suggests. One enticing clue that suggested that they were on the right track is the wall shown in the photograph below, which is located near Porta Marina. Some believe that it may in fact be a quay with stone rings for mooring ships.

Ancient wall actually a quay with stone mooring rings?
Ancient wall actually a quay with stone mooring rings?

As enticing as this clue may be and in spite of the impressive amount of research done it trying to identify find the ancient Port of Pompeii, it’s precise location remains a mystery buried underneath centuries of history.

Some researchers believe that ancient Pompeii may have had two ports.

With reporting by RomanPorts.org and special thanks to Jessica Venner, doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham — Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology

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