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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

by Rodolfo Lanciani

published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company
Boston and New York, 1898

Text, maps and black & white illustrations are in the public domain.
Any color photos are © William P. Thayer.

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The subject which I have selected for this chapter, the archaeology of the Tiber, is so comprehensive, and covers such a vast space in the field of Roman antiquities, that it gives the writer an embarras du choix, and makes it a difficult task to concentrate the while subject within prescribed limits. In the Essay on the Bibliography of the Tiber, published by Enrico Narducci in 1876, not less than four hundred special works are registered, perhaps two thirds of the whole number on this subject. If the publications of the last twelve years were added to the list, we may be sure that a special library on the famous river of Rome would contain about eight hundred volumes. There is probably no other river in the world which has been discussed so exhaustively.

The principal springs of the Tiber are located in a gorge of Monte Cornaro, in the Apennines of Tuscany, at the height of 3,600 feet above the sea. The river runs through the lowlands of Etruria, Umbria, Sabina, and Latium for a distance of 249 miles, of which nearly 80 are navigable even by steamers of moderate size. Between Rome and the sea, it expands into a beautiful channel some 400 feet wide, and is navigated by steamers and barges of nearly 100 tons register. Nothing can be more charming than a sail down the river from Rome to the sea, not only on account of the historical associations of the river itself, but more especially on account of its natural beauty. Let us recall the magnificent p232verses in which Virgil describes how Aeneas, sailing along the Latin coast, discovered the mouth of the Tiber and entered the unknown waters, wondering at the lovely scene which opened before his eyes, and at the feeling of rest and tranquillity which pervaded all his being, after a long and eventful voyage, —

"Atque hic Aeneas ingentem ex aequore lucum

Prospicit: hunc inter fluvio Tiberinus amoeno,

Vorticibus rapidis, et multâ flavus arenâ,

In mare prorumpit. Variae circumque supraque

Assuetae ripis volucres et fluminis alveo,

Aethera mulcebant cantu lucoque volabant."

The fidelity of this picture is astonishing; at least it was so, until two or three years ago, before the appearance in this remote region of peace and enchantment of so‑called civilization, with its pretence of making the air healthier, and of banishing malaria from the lowlands of the delta. The trees sung by Virgil have been cut down; the sand-banks, a favorite resort of flamingoes and pelicans, have been dredged away; and to make the profanation complete, a cast-iron bridge is to be thrown across the river, in place of the picturesque old boat which for centuries has ferried passengers across from Ostia to Fiumicino.

The special characteristics of the river are three: first, the wholesome quality of its waters; second, the considerable amount of solid matter it carries down to the sea, which, deposited on each side of the bar, makes the coast advance at a considerable rate; and, third, the abundance of the springs that feed the river, in consequence of which its normal level never varies by an inch, summer or winter.

Of the first characteristic, I have spoken in the third chapter; of the second, I shall have occasion to speak at length in this. For the third, I may observe that the p233Tiber, as regards volume and level of water, has never changed within historical times.a One may read, even in books of sound archaeological value, that the Tiber was much lower in ancient times than it is now. Even Bonini, one of our best engineers, has stated the difference of level at eighteen feet. His great argument, repeated so often, is drawn from the passage in Plinyº which describes how Agrippa once rowed into the Cloaca Maxima, the mouth of which is not high enough above the water now to admit the possibility of any such anti-hygienic sport. But from a series of observations taken in the course of the present works of embankment, it appears that for the last twenty-one centuries the level of the water, and consequently the bed of the river, has risen only two feet and two or three inches.

There is an important work, written in Latin by Paolo Giovio on the fish belonging to the Tiber. The most famous and costly in ancient times was the lupus, a fish described and praised by Macrobius, Pliny the elder, and Juvenal. The best in quality, the ones reserved for imperial and aristocratic tables, were caught inter duos pontes, near the island of S. Bartolomeo and near the mouth of the Cloaca Maxima. The sturgeon was also highly appreciated. In the Conservatori Palace, on the Capitol, there is still to be seen a marble bas-relief, representing a sturgeon forty-six inches long, and underneath it engraved the text of a law passed by the Senatus populusque Romanus, in the year 1581, according to which any sturgeon caught in Roman waters, equalling or exceeding the statute size, as represented in the bas-relief, must be considered public property, and placed at the disposal of the city authorities. As far as I know, the city authorities have never feasted on a sturgeon since the promulgation of that strange decree.b

p234 As regards inundations, the Tiber ranks among the proudest rivers in the world. That of December, 1870, will never fade from the memory of the living generation; and I fear that this impressive and picturesque spectacle will never be seen again, since civilization has taken up the matter, and by means of lofty embankments, of locks and gates, will succeed, I am sure, in keeping the river confined hereafter within its two parallel walls.

In the second century after the foundation of Rome, King Ancus Marcius, feeling the safety of the kingdom well insured on the land side, turned his eyes towards the Mediterranean, the waters of which he could see glistening under the rays of the setting sun, within a few miles of the city, and in order to open a débouché for international trade, occupied the mouth of the Tiber, and founded a colony by it, which was named Ostia Tiberina, from its position near the bar of the river.º At that remote age, however, very little seems to have been done to secure safety of navigation; and when we ear the harbor of Ostia mentioned by writers of the republican and early imperial periods, we must not think of a real basin of water with piers, and jetties, and breakwaters, but only of the natural channel of the river, which shoals, moving sands, and an almost complete absence of tide made exceedingly difficult and dangerous for sailing vessels.

To these natural defects, common to all river harbors on the coast of the Mediterranean, another must be added, resulting from exceptional local causes, — the enormous yearly enlargement of the coast, by means of the sand carried down to the sea by the Tiber, and deposited on each side of the river's mouth. I have already stated in the third chapter that the flavus Tiberis washes down every year eight and a half million tons of sand, corresponding p235to a volume of more than four million cubic metres. No wonder that, in such extraordinary circumstances, ancient Ostia, the Ostia of King Ancus Marcius, is at the present day fully four miles distant from the bar; that the tower built by Michael Angelo in 1567, on the very edge of the coast, and named Torre S. Michele (now used as a light-house), is 2,250 yards inland; and that the tower built by Clement XII at Fiumicino, in ipso maris supercilio, as the dedicatory inscription says, is now separated from the sea by a line of sand-hills 970 yards wide. From careful measurements taken by the astronomer Angelo Secchi and by myself, the average yearly increase of the coast along the delta of the Tiber has been determined at nineteen feet, from a maximum of twenty-eight at Ostia, to a minimum of ten at Fiumicino. I may here mention a fact, highly illustrative of this singular state of things. The sacred island surrounded by the two arms of the Tiber was sold in 1830 by the pontifical government to the Marchese Guglielmi, of Civita Vecchia, with no stipulation whatever, except the payment, once and for ever, of a fixed amount of money. It was only two years ago that the fiscal authorities opened their eyes to the irregularity of the bargain. It has been ascertained that since the day the property was bought, fifty-six years ago, its surface has been nearly doubled by the addition of 648 acres of ground, which should have been added, of course, not to the patrimony of the Marchese Guglielmi, but to that of the nation.

In spite of so many adverse circumstances, a very brisk trade began to be carried on between Rome, Ostia, and the Mediterranean very soon after the foundation of Ostia. The vessels sailing to it, if men-of‑war, could easily get over the bar, on account of their light draught, and also p236on account of the considerable propelling power they derived from a numerous and well-ordered crew. If merchantmen, they had to steer a different course, according to their capacity and size. Vessels under 3,000 modii, that is to say, under thirty or thirty-five tons register, could sail up the mouth of the river easily. Vessels of larger tonnage were obliged to cast anchor at a certain distance from the bar, and to diminish their draught by transferring part of their cargo to barges and lighters. These particulars show that the Romans of the republic never tried to improve the approach to their only harbor by skilful engineering. By the help of two palisades, or jetties, which have been built at Fiumicino, vessels and steamers of one hundred and fifty tons are now able to reach Rome with perfect ease.

With regard to the navigation of the river from Ostia to Rome in ancient times, we must again make a distinction between war and trading vessels. War vessels could easily overcome the force of the current with their powerfully-manned oars; trading vessels had to be towed up-stream by oxen and buffaloes, for which purpose tow-paths on each bank of the river were opened and carefully paved. Navigation was suspended at nightfall, when every ship was obliged to moor at the nearest station. There must have been at least thirty of these stations between Rome and the sea.

In view of the fact that the quantity of shipping moored at night along the banks must have been enormous, and that the crews of those days were certainly not better nor quieter than those of our own, we need not wonder that special police precautions had to be taken to insure order, and to protect neighboring property from the nocturnal inroads of marauding sailors. Vigiles, that is to say, a p237special body of constables and firemen, were stationed from point to point along the banks; but the expense of this night watch, and of keeping their stations in due repair, had to be met by the owners of the property facing the river, who were subject accordingly to an extra tax, called onus vigiliarium.

The Tiber was not always navigable: in winter, because its water would sometimes freeze; in summer, on account of shoals and sand-banks. Of course I am speaking of republican times, during which the river was left absolutely to itself, and to its own caprices, with no check or improvement by hydraulic means.

The best season for navigating along the coast of Ostia was from the beginning of March to the middle of September; but there were captains and merchants daring enough to run the risk in winter. Vessels would generally sail into the harbor in the afternoon, and sail out in the morning, a practice due entirely to the regularity with which the breeze blows from the sea in the afternoon, and from the land in the morning.

I may add that, under favorable circumstances, vessels sailing from the mouth of the Tiber could reach Alexandria and the Nile in eleven days; the Straits of Gibraltar in seven; the Straits of Messina and even the Albanian coast in five: the coast of Barcelona in four; the Gulf of Marseilles in 3; the coast of Africa in less than two. At the beginning of the empire, when Rome had become the centre of the trade of the world, and had gained a population of over a million souls, for whose maintenance the produce of the whole world was scarcely deemed sufficient, the necessity of building a large and safe harbor forced itself upon the government. So shallow had the waters become at the bar of the river, that p238Caligula was obliged to resort to a simple biremis, the smallest kind of war sloop, to convey to Rome, from the island of Ponza, the ashes of his mother and brother. We know also that the Emperor Claudius made an unsuccessful attempt to land, after a cruise, and was obliged to ride at anchor until boats could be sent from Ostia to his rescue. This explains why large ships laden with grain, such as the one mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as having on board, besides its heavy cargo, two hundred and fifty souls, were obliged to avoid Ostia, and to land either at Brindisi or Pozzuoli.

Julius Caesar was the first statesman who proposed the construction of a spacious harbor, not at, but near, the mouth of the Tiber; his project was propter difficultatem omissus (given up on account of its difficulties), as well as that other curious plan of his for opening a deep canal from Rome to Terracina, to save vessels the danger of rounding Cape Circeum. The honor of the great undertaking was reserved to Claudius, the prince famous for his gigantic hydraulic enterprises, such as the aqueducts of the Aqua Claudia and of Anio Novus, eighty-nine miles long in all, and the drainage of the Lake of Fucino. I shall not describe the harbor two miles west of Ostia, which he succeeded in building, in spite of untold national difficulties, and in spite of the opposition of the supreme council of government engineers. It was inclosed by two jetties, each 809 yards long. The area of the harbor amounted to 691,000 square yards, the depth from 15 to 18 feet, with an aggregate left of quays amounting to 2,600 yards. This colossal work necessitated the removal of 112,000,000 cubic feet of sand. Its only defect was the faulty position of the breakwater, which had been built, not far out at sea, so as to shelter the entrance to the harbor, but on the line p239connecting the ends of the jetties, leaving the two entrances exposed to the full force of the high sea. Tacitus informs us that, during a fierce gale in the time of Nero, not less than two hundred vessels were lost in the roads. I might add that this breakwater, in spite of its defective position, is one of the best, if not the very best example in ancient times of successful construction in deep water by means of caissons.

Claudius managed the enterprise in this way: There was moored at the time — I do not know whether at Rome or at Ostia — the huge ship by which the great Vatican obelisk had been brought over from Egypt. To give an idea of its size I will say, that, besides the obelisk itself, weighing many hundred tons, the vessel was laden with a ballast of 120,000 modii of lentils, corresponding to one thousand tons. Claudius caused the ship to be moored at the place designed for the breakwater, and to be filled with concrete until the weight of the masonry made it sink. This foundation was than strengthened by a girdle of rocks on the weather side, and in due time it grew above the water-level, and was crowned with a lighthouse nearly two hundred feet high, built in imitation of the celebrated Pharos of Alexandria.

Nero, the successor of Claudius, conceived the grand idea of making Rome itself a seaport, by dredging a deep canal p240between the metropolis and the Claudian harbor. The idea does not seem to have been carried into execution. The same emperor, acting on the advice of his favorite engineers, Severus and Celer, began another canal between the harbor of Misenum, on the Bay of Naples, and Rome. If it had been completed, this canal would have been one hundred and sixty miles long, and wide enough to allow the passage of two lines of quinqueremes abreast, the quinqueremis being the largest kind of man-of‑war used in the Roman navy. The cutting was begun in that district of Campania Felix, near Amyclae and near the gulf of Gaeta, water the famous Caecubus was grown, the wine which, according to Pliny, had held the first rank among Italian brands from remotest antiquity. The only result of Nero's undertaking was to ruin forever this noble wine-growing district. The place of the lost Caecubus on the tables of the Roman aristocracy was henceforth to be taken by the Setinian, a wine which Augustus first brought to the notice of connoisseurs, and which was grown on the slopes of the Lepini mountains, facing the Pontine marshes.

The harbor system at Ostia was brought to absolute perfection under Trajan, who, like Claudius, was devoted to grand hydraulic enterprises, as shown by the bridge thrown across the Danube in its widest part; by the harbors of Ancona and Civita Vecchia, still among the best and safest in the Mediterranean, and by the Trajan aqueduct which still supplies one fifth of the city. The fact is that the Claudian or outer harbor had long been insufficient p241for the trade of the metropolis. Everything which taste or luxury required, and all the supplies necessary to feed a population which ad increased to nearly two millions of souls, had to be landed and stored at Ostia. Egypt alone every year shipped nearly one hundred and ninety million bushels of wheat and grain. A far larger supply was imported from Sicily, Sardinia, Africa, Numidia, Mauretania, and from the provinces bordering on the Danube and the Black Sea.

To the commercial transactions we must add all the trade in building stone, so brisk and active that even Tibullus complained that the streets of the metropolis were always obstructed by enormous carts, loaded with transmarine columns and blocks: columns measuring, sometimes, six feet in diameter [and fifty-five in height], like the one discovered in May, 1887, among the ruins of Trajan's temple; blocks weighing, sometimes, twenty-seven tons, like the one belonging to the temple of the Sun, now lying in the Colonna gardens on the Quirinal. This mania for rare and costly products of quarries, thousands of miles p242distant, began in the year 610 of Rome. Q. Metellus Macedonicus is said to have been the first Roman citizen to bring into fashion foreign building stones; and, accordingly, he is reproached by Velleius Paterculus as the first corrupter of republican simplicity. Pliny relates that when Lucius Crassus, fifty-two years later, decorated his house on the Palatine with six columns wholly of Sicilian marble, and only twelve feet high, he was nicknamed the Palatine Venus. Four years later, M. Lepidus imported for the first time columns of Numidian marble (giallo antico), and was publicly censured for having cut a threshold out of the same valuable material. Lucius Lucullus brought over from Egypt the first samples of black marble (nero antico), called marmo Lucullanum on his account. Sulla, the dictator, stole from the Olympeion at Athens many columns of Pentelic marble. Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, to celebrate his nomination as Aedile, built a temporary stage and decorated it with 370 columns of Lucullaean marble, 33 feet high. About the same time, Mamurra was adorning his house on the Coelian porticoes with shafts of cipollino and Carrara marble. No wonder that, at this stage of luxury, the price of elegant private mansions should have reached fabulous sums. Messala bought the house of Antonius for a sum corresponding to $165,000. Cicero gave for the house of Crassus $155,000; the house of Claudius had cost $655,000; that of Scaurus was valued at $4,425,000; and I am speaking of republican times! No wonder that the contractor for the maintenance of public drains should have required from M. Scaurus a security against any possible danger of the sinking of streets in the transportation of his columns and blocks of marble, so heavy were they. A gentleman possessed of great perseverance, Sig. Faustino Corsi, counted in Rome, forty-one p243years ago, 7,012 ancient columns, or important pieces of ancient columns, which had escaped destruction. The number has been increased through recent discoveries and excavations to nearly 9,000. I have brought to light, in the excavations intrusted to my care, 390 of them. Considering what an amount of destruction, of breaking up, of burning into lime, has been accomplished in Rome since the fall of the Empire, there is no danger of exaggerating if we place the total number of columns landed at Ostia at 50,000 at least; and columns represent but a small item in the marble trade of ancient Rome.

The Claudian harbor was not only a commercial, but also a military station, from which emperors and admirals were wont to sail, escorted by powerful fleets, on their expeditions to the far-away border lands of the empire. The same harbor contained a central post office for correspondence with the provinces beyond the sea, the existence of which office was revealed for the first time in 1874. Our late King Victor Emmanuel, when undertaking, near the end of that year, some excavations on his hunting estate of Castel Porziano, between Ostia and Torre Paterno, discovered the public square or forum of a village, named Vicus Augustanum Laurentium, mentioned by Pliny the younger as adjoining his famous Laurentine villa. In the centre of the square stood the marble pedestal of a statue, raised by the worthy inhabitants of the village in memory of a local benefactor, named P. Aelius Liberalis, a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian. As usual, the career of the gentleman so highly esteemed by his fellow-citizens is described in the legend on the pedestal. We are told by it how Liberalis began his career in the finance department, as praepositus mensae nummulariae fisci frumentarii Ostiensis, that is to say, as cashier of the branch office for the p244importation of breadstuffs, which had been established at Ostia as the landing-place of the fleets laden with the harvest of all the provinces of the empire. In course of time he was elected to another office, procurator pugillationis et ad naves vagas, — postmaster of Ostia and superintendent of the fleet of despatch boats.

Postal institutions, in the modern sense of the word, were not unknown in Roman times. To secure quick and accurate intelligence, even from the remotest provinces, Augustus established, all along the great highways, a system of couriers mounted on swift horses, and stationed at an average distance of seven miles from one another. Later on, he organized a regular service of mail coaches, which seems to have been brought to a higher point of perfection by the Emperor Trajan. These accommodations, however, were reserved for the benefit of government employees, — such as cabinet messengers, military officers, governors, and so on, — and very seldom were for the benefit of private individuals, to whom the privilege of using mail coaches was granted only by the emperor himself, or by the governor of a province. At the same time, all the burden of the institution had to be borne by the inhabitants of the villages and towns crossed or approached by the high road: they were compelled to supply horses, mules, and oxen, and to keep the stations in proper repair; in other words, they had to pay all the expenses of an organization from which they did not reap any advantage, except the manure from the stables, graciously left them by the generosity of the government. Good, humane emperors did their best to relieve the populace from this indirect heavy taxation. There is a coin struck in honor of Nerva, with the legend, vehiculatione Italiae remissa, which signifies that the inhabitants of the Peninsula at least had been exempted from p245compulsory supply of horses. Hadrian and Antoninus seem to have met the exigencies of the service with their own purse; and, finally, Severus Alexander transferred permanently the burden from the people to the imperial treasury. The postmaster-general, styled praefectus vehiculorum, of equestrian rank, was selected generally from among retired cavalry officers: he had under his orders provincial postmasters of inferior rank.

Such was the state of things as regards the over-land post; regarding the maritime post nothing was known until the inscription of P. Aelius Liberalis was brought to light. His double office of postmaster and master of despatch boats makes it evident that the two things were connected as two branches of the same department. There is no doubt that the naves vagae of the inscription were something like the naves tabellariae mentioned by Seneca as running in front of the fleet laden with grain from Egypt, to announce its arrival at Pozzuoli, or like the naves speculatoriae, corresponding to the avisos of the modern navy. There is no doubt that, with the combined action of canvas and oars, finely-modelled ships could accomplish as quick a passage as was usually made in the first quarter of the present century. This is proved, to quote only one argument, by the remarkable instance related by Plutarch, in chapter sixteen of his life of Cato, when, to impress the Senate with necessity delendae Carthaginis, he unfolded his mantle, and showed the astonished assembly a batch of fresh figs which had been gathered on the African coast only two days before.

I have already said that the harbor system at Ostia was brought to absolute perfection by Trajan. He was the builder of that magnificent inner dock, which, although p246left fully two miles inland by the filling up of the estuary, still exists in its integrity, and is known, especially among wild-duck shooters, as the Lago Trajano, the Lake of Trajan. It ad the form of a regular hexagon, 393,000 square yards in extent, with a line of quays 2,156 yards long, and with a constant depth of 18 feet. The construction of Trajan's dock required the excavation and removal of 85,000,000 cubic feet of sand, and the construction of 1,940,000 cubic feet of masonry.

In modern times undertakings of the same kind have been accomplished successfully even on a larger scale; but for beauty of construction, richness of decoration, and splendor of materials, these will not bear comparison with the work of Claudius and Trajan. We can see with our own eyes the perfection of Trajan's dock, and I better than anyone else, because I have been the only archaeologist allowed to follow the excavations which Prince Alexander Torlonia, the owner of the ruins, has carried on for five consecutive years, doing more harm to the place in this short time than had been done in fifteen centuries of abandonment and desolation.

Of the outer harbor, built by Claudius, and now inaccessible because of the pestilential marshes, we possess three genuine and perfect representations; one in bronze, one in colors, and one in marble. The bronze one is a large medallion in alto-rilievo struck by Nero, with his own portrait on one side and a bird's‑eye view of the harbor on the other, reproduced by Donaldson in Plate No. 89 of p247his "architectura Numismatica." The painted view was discovered some three centuries ago on the walls of a Roman house near the Subura, and has been reproduced and illustrated by Bellori, Falconieri, Canina, Mercklin, and De Rossi. The marble representation was discovered by Prince Torlonia in the spring of 1863. It is a bas-relief, of exquisite workmanship, four feet six inches long, two feet six inches high, showing the inside of the harbor, with its jetties, breakwater, light-house, colossal statues, triumphal arches, and the like, and two large ships, one named the "She-Wolf," the other the "Lynx": the first sailing for an expedition on the high seas; the second furling her canvas as she approaches the quay.

There is no doubt that, in ancient times, no hydraulic work was considered perfect unless it joined to the skill of engineering the beauty of architecture. What I mean is this: we are satisfied, for instance, with fixing to our p248wharves iron rings and old guns as moorings: in ancient times, the rings (dactylia) were cut in stone or marble, in the shape of a lion's head, or dolphin (see previous page); — and the columns were costly marbles, and bore inscriptions in praise of the constructor of the harbor. We fence the space allotted to commercial transactions with iron railings; the ancients enclosed it with colonnades of Oriental marble. We enter the docks, or the line of customs, through an iron gate; the ancients entered through triumphal arches, such as the well-known Arch of Trajan on the eastern pier of the harbor of Ancona. For the storing of merchandise, we make use of wooden and iron sheds, and, in exceptional cases, when we want to impress the stranger with out magnificence, we build brick warehouses. I wish the reader could see, as it has been my privilege to see, the beauty of the docks and warehouses of Porto, the perfection of their reticulated masonry, their cornices and entablatures, carved and moulded in terra-cotta, their mosaic pavements, their system of drainage and ventilation!

The aggregate length of the warehouses around Trajan's dock amounts to 17,500 feet. At Ostia, a town nearly two miles long by one wide, they cover one half of the area. In Rome the statistics are even more wonderful. We are now engaged in building a new quarter in the so‑called "Prati di Testaccio," that is to say, in the plain stretching from the foot of the Aventine il to the left bank of the Tiber, and surrounding the artificial hill called Monte Testaccio. This enormous extent of ground, amounting to 800,000 square yards, was entirely occupied by imperial warehouses, denominatedHorrea Galbana, from the family of Sulpicius Galba, who owned the greater portion of them before they were incorporated in the imperial domain. Of p249these public warehouses, there were in Rome 290: this, at least, is the number registered in the official almanac of the empire, in the original edition of the year 312 of our era. Of course, not all of them equalled, or even approached in extent and importance, the Horrea Galbana; but we must bear in mind that more than one half of the population of Rome was fed directly by the emperor, from his own private treasury. Imagine what precautions must have been taken to avoid even the slightest suspicion of famine, which would have brother two it revolution and disorder. Aurelius Victor says that, under Augustus, at the beginning of the imperial period, not less than 48,115,000 bushels of grain (of our standard) were imported from Egypt, but that this quantity was sufficient for four months only: p250144,345,000 bushels were thus required for the while year, and for a population which ad not yet reached its maximum of nearly two million souls.

The Horrea Galbana, in imitation of which all Roman storehouses were built, was composed of a certain number of courts, surrounded by porticoes wide enough to allow the free circulation of carts, and the unloading of merchandise under shelter. The magazines themselves opened upon these porticoes, and were usually two stories high. The lower floor generally was reserved for heavy and common merchandise, — timber, fuel, lead, iron, tin, marble, wine, oil, grain, honey, dried fruit, dried fish; the upper floor for rare and costly merchandise and for offices of administration. Not long ago, I watched the excavation of one wing of the horrea which some workmen were uncovering: of the four storerooms searched under my direction, the first contained huge tusks of ivory, forming a total volume of 675 cubic feet; the second contained a few bushels of lentils; the third, a bed of crystalline sand, used by stonecutters; the fourth was filled up with amphorae of various sizes.

p251 I have mentioned the Monte Testaccio two or three times. This singular hill, unique of its kind, rises from amidst the plain occupied by the imperial warehouses to the height of one hundred and forty feet, and covers an area of nearly sixteen acres. Its singularity arises from the fact that it is not the work of nature, but the mysterious work of man, composed of millions and millions of broken amphorae, and terra-cotta jars, piled up in regular layers, in imitation of geological strata. Many conjectural explanations have been made of its origin and character. Commendatore de Rossi has suggested one which is worth consideration. On the quay of the Tiber, near the foot of the Monte Testaccio, where the grain and wine-laden ships and barges were moored, there was a large marble slab inscribed with the following notice: Quidquid usuarium invehitur, ansarium non debet, — "Whatever is imported of first necessity for the subsistence of the population is not subject to the octroi." The word used for octroi is ansarium, and the root of the singular word is ansa, "handle," evidently the handles of amphorae, in which wine, oil, dried fruit, caviar, and salt fish were shipped over. Considering now that nearly one half of the whole mass of Monte Testaccio is composed of handles, or ansae, Rossi supposes that the customs officers, to mark out the amphorae for which duty (ansarium) had been regularly paid, would knock away one of the handles with a wooden hammer. In other words the Monte Testaccio would be nothing but a gigantic heap of receipts of the import duty from the custom-house of Rome. This explanation, however ingenious and impressive it may seem, cannot p252be regarded as satisfactory. There is no doubt, I admit, that a large part of the provisions for Rome was shipped in amphorae. The amphora is the unit, the standard measure, by which the capacity of a merchant vessel was calculated. In the Torlonia Museum there is a bas-relief representing the unloading of a ship, moored alongside the quay in the Claudian harbor. There is a plank connecting the ship with the quay, and upon this plank a line of sailors and porters, each carrying a laden amphora upon the left shoulder, and a tessera or ticket in the right hand. On the jetty, there is a commissionnaire, or, perhaps, customs officer sitting at a desk, with a large book before him; each of the sailors and porters, in passing by on his way to the warehouses, throws the tessera or ticket on the desk. Thus the scribe or customs officer, whichever he may have been, ad no trouble whatever in keeping his accounts; he had simply to see that, for every amphora landed and removed to the shed, a mark was left on his table, and, at the end of the operation, sum up the marks, and compare their number with the bill of lading declared by the captain of the ship.

An interesting instance of shipment by amphorae in ancient times came to light in the spring of 1885, when I was residing at Sorrento. Some amphorae were shown to me which evidently had remained at the bottom of the sea for centuries, for they were covered with the most wonderful incrustations of shells and corals, of zoöphytes and mollusks. On inquiring about their origin and discovery, I was told that they had been found under water, near the Promontorium Minervae, now Capo della Campanella, and that they belonged to a wreck many centuries old. I had not then the means or the opportunity of verifying the accuracy of this account. But about a month later, at Porto d' Anzio, a p253delightful little harbor thirty-six miles from Rome, amphorae of the same kind, I mean with the same beautiful incrustations, were offered for sale to some of the noble owners of villas on the coast. This time I was more fortunate in tracing the origin and real nature of the discovery. About two miles west of the castle and harbor of Astura, a place well known in the history of Cicero, Augustus, and Conradin von Hohenstaufen, and about fifty yards from the sore, which is there exceedingly shallow, a fisherman had discovered the wreck of an ancient Roman trading ship, of no considerable size, the hull of which was filled with amphorae. The incrustations, a work of centuries, had cemented, as it were, the whole mass into a kind of coralliferous rock, from which it was very difficult to extricate an amphora without breaking it. Still, by perseverance and skill in diving, the fisherman had succeeded in removing the four or five beautiful specimens which I had admired at Porto d' Anzio.

But to come back to Commendatore de Rossi's explanation of the origin of Monte Testaccio; I cannot admit that customs officers would be allowed to knock away the handles of amphorae, because the amphora was a costly receptacle, and without ansae could not be used any longer. If handles enter in a large proportion into the composition of the mysterious hill, this is due to the fact that they were the most solid and heavy portion of the vase, and could not, like the thin body of the receptacle itself, be broken into atoms.

The true explanation has been given by Professor Heinrich Dressel in a memoir, "Ricerche sul Monte Testaccio," published in the "Annali" of the German Institute, 1878. It appears that, when the trade between Rome and the provinces began to assume a certain amount of importance, the authorities of the Tiber set aside a space of ground in p254the vicinity of the landing-place, in which the fragments of amphorae broken during the journey, or in the act of unloading, could be thrown. These fragments were piled up, heap after heap, of the same height, until the whole surface allotted by the magistrates was covered with a stratum, four or five feet high. The horizontal space having been thus all occupied, the deposit began to increase in height; and so layer after layer was superimposed, until a real hill, at least 150 feet high, and nearly 4,000 in circumference was formed. I say at least 150 feet high, because we must remember that it has been for centuries a quarry for building materials, and must have lost a considerable percentage of its former volume. Professor Dressel his been able to investigate the surface only; he examined nearly 3,000 fabric-stamps, impressed on handles of amphorae before they were baked in the kiln, and nearly 1,000 inscriptions, written in pencil and in red or black tint on the body of the amphorae by the producers or under-writers, of ship-captains or customs officers; and the results of his examination prove that the mountain reached its actual height and size at the following dates: on the north side between the years 140 and 149 of our era; on the east side between 150 and 160; on the west side between 174 and 230. The latest date, 251, was discovered not far from the summit, on the east side, but evidently out of its original place.

p255 I come now to the most important question connected with the archaeology of the Tiber, to the question of the treasures which are said to be buried in its bed. The question may be treated from a theoretical point of view, or, practically, from the point of view of discoveries actually made in the river. The idea that the river contains an untold amount of wealth, buried at great depth in its soft, yellowish sand, has been generally held since the Middle Ages. Familiar among the mistaken beliefs is that concerning the golden plate and the seven-branched candlestick, which Titus brought over from Jerusalem, and which are commonly supposed to have been thrown into the Tiber. No such plate and no such candlestick every were thrown into the river; the story has no more foundation than the parallel one of the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi. But setting aside all information which is not based upon solid evidence, I must declare that the number and the importance of discoveries, made in the bed or on the banks of the Tiber before the present age, and registered in archaeological books, are not such as to make us believe in the existence there of any extraordinary amount of riches. One or two marble statues, one or two busts, and some blocks of rare marbles, very likely fallen overboard in the act of unloading, were, before 1875, the most noticeable objects discovered in the river. With such scanty evidence at our disposal, we came to the conclusion that any regular search of the stream would prove, if not fruitless, certainly not particularly remunerative. Our judgment was confirmed by a strange occurrence, which took place in 1866. A freight train gate been carelessly coupled on the gradient which leads from the railway bridge at S. Paolo to the station of Porta Portese, fourteen trucks began to descend the steep incline towards the bridge with such p256velocity that the central span, which was open for the passage of a steamer, could not be closed in time, in spite of the desperate efforts of the guardsmen. The fourteen trucks fell through the gap in mid-stream and were heaped up to the height of some twenty feet above water. It took the government engineers a little more than two weeks to make the necessary arrangements for the removal of the wreck; but they had scarcely completed these when they found, much to their astonishment, that the whole mass had disappeared without leaving a single trace of the catastrophe. The fourteen cars had been swallowed, as it were, by the quicksands which fill the bed to a depth of some thirty feet.

From this fact it appeared evident that the power of absorption of the Tiber was such as to leave no hope of the recovery of heavy objects sunk in its waters. As regards lighter objects, we were of the opinion that a stream running occasionally at the rate of six feet per second must have carried them to such a distance from the town as to make a search for them almost useless.

It is with deep satisfaction that I acknowledge that I was deceived this time by false appearances, and by false deductions. The work on the embankment of the Tiber, carried on in the course of the last ten years, has proved beyond a doubt, that never has such an abundant mine of valuable antiquities been open to science before our age; that the bed of the river has power of absorption to keep works of art firmly and softly embedded in its sands, but not so deeply hidden as to escape the reach of man; that smaller articles have not been carried far away by the violence of the stream; and lastly, that if we were to collect in a special museum the contains of the Tiber, this museum, arranged in chronological sections from the early ages of p257stone, of brass, of iron, to the pontificate of Pius IX, would be absolutely without parallel in the world.

To those who may find my assertions slightly extravagant, or think that the works of art and miscellaneous antiquities, found lately in the Tiber, do not correspond in number and value with the brilliant prospect above referred to, I must reply that a regular search of the river has not yet been commenced; and that the considerable amount of Tiberine antiquities already put aside by us has been brought to light quite accidentally, during the construction of the embankment. Fancy what would happen if a truly scientific investigation, amply furnished with the proper contrivances, should be undertaken!

Twice only has the bottom of the river been explored more or less regularly, although in an exceedingly small space, and twice we gathered a surprising mass of scientific and artistic objects. The first search was made in October, 1878, under the first arch of the Ponte Sisto, on the left (or cis-tiberine) side, in an area sixty feet long by fifty wide. There we discovered the remains of a triumphal arch, raised A.D. 367, in honor of the emperors Valentinian and Valens, together with pieces of one of the bronze colossal statues which stood on top of the monument. We found, also, an historical inscription describing how the banks of the Tiber had been surveyed and enclosed within a line of stone cippi, under the rule of Vespasian, by Caecina Paetus, chief commissioner of the rive, A.D. 71; another inscription, describing how the bridge, now called Ponte Sisto, had been rebuilt under the rule of Valentinian and Valens, between 366 and 367, by L. Aurelius Avianius Symmachus, prefect of the city; and then, coins, terra-cottas, fragments of marble statues and bas-reliefs; fragments of a third inscription which must have p258measured 320 feet in length; and many architectural pieces belonging to the decoration of the old bridge.

The second search took place in the summer of 1885, right in mid-stream, and about 250 feet above the island of S. Bartolomeo. In sinking the compressed air caissons, for the foundations of the central pier of the new bridge (Ponte Garibaldi), a lovely bronze statue was discovered, lying head downwards at a depth of some thirty-five feet below the bottom of the river, described and illustrated in Chapter XI; a patera of gilt bronze, in repoussé work, two feet in diameter; an inscription mentioning a land survey under Agrippa; and then the usual prodigious mass of smaller objects, from the family coins of the seventh century of Rome, to the medals of devotion struck under Gregory XVI and Pius IX.

The Author's Notes:

1 zzz

2 zzz

Thayer's Notes:

a I don't know about the volume, but the level of the Tiber has certainly changed over historical times: its fluctuations are a source of stratigraphic problems and much discussion, for example, in the study of Ostia Antica.

b One of the prices you pay for writing exciting stories is that truth can suffer in the process. This is one of those cases, and I had a camera.

[image ALT: zzz]
The fish, still in its staircase in the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
Capita piscivm hoc marmoreo schemate
longitvdine maiorvm vsqve ad primas
pinnas inclvsive conservatorib. danto
Fravdem ne committito
Ignorantia excvsari ne credito

Ang. Clavario Fran. Calvio Cvrtio Sergardio coss.
instavratvm ac erectvm

The heads of fish that are longer from the first fins (inclusive) than this marble depiction, you will give to the conservators. Do not commit fraud. Do not believe yourself excused by ignorance. Designed and erected by Angelo Clavari, Francesco Calvi, Curzio Sergardi, consuls.

First, the fish appears underneath the text of the decree, not vice-versa; next, no mention is made of a sturgeon or any other specific kind of fish; then, not the whole fish is to be surrendered, but only the head; finally, not vague public authorities, but the conservators.

The law looks like it was designed to gain information about sea fish swimming up into the Tiber (and possibly threatening river fish, fishermen's livelihoods, etc.?).

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