Gateways for People and Ideas

Satellite image of the port at Carthage in modern day Tunisia. Courtesy of Google Earth.

One might find it difficult to believe that historians and archeologists could simply “miss” an archeological find as massive as a harbor, but that is exactly what happened. In 2006, officials in the modern day city of Istanbul (founded as “Constantinople” in the fourth century) were designing an underground tunnel linking both coasts of the Bosphorus strait. Before the actual construction began, a team of archeologists proceeded to dig around the area to make sure nothing would be disturbed. Much to their surprise, they ended up uncovering perhaps the largest archeological discovery in Istanbul: The Harbor of Eleutherios, or the Theodosian Harbor.

Constructed under the Roman emperor Theodosius as an expansion of a smaller port that served the pre-Roman Constantinopolitans, this harbor served as one of the major trading points of the eastern Roman empire throughout late antiquity. Based on the evidence of shipwrecks dated to the 1000s CE, archeologists also conclude that it was functional well into the Middle Byzantine period.

Constantinople was founded by Constantine the Great to seat his new palace. Given his desire to make Constantinople the “new Rome,” it makes sense that, along with the construction of religious buildings and monumental architecture, Constantine and his descendents would want to build a great harbor on the Mediterranean. In the “old” Rome, similar projects had been undertaken by the emperors Claudius and Trajan to expand the artificial portus there. Despite Rome having a suburban port at Ostia, city officials felt that they needed access to the sea via the Tiber river, and thus build their own harbor off the side of the river.

Rome's artificial harbor, the "portus," now obsolete and overrun by weeds.

But the two Romes were not the only capitals that required a harbor, and the Mediterranean was not the only body of water that late antique cities relied on for trade. Rivers were often the only economical way to transport grain and goods over long distances, and as far north as Trier, in modern-day Germany, harbors were vital in servicing the Mosel and Saône Rivers that much of northern Europe relied on. Functioning as one of the capitals during the newly instituted "Rule of Four," Trier was also an administrative center, and hosted both the emperor and his entourage. By the fourth century, however, there is evidence that Trier’s trading power had declined.

While the presence of the emperor increased the volume of trade goods in the area surrounding Trier, it also increased the price of goods, harming non-aristocratic urban families. Furthermore, foreigners increasingly relocated to Trier to be near the imperial palace. Native Trevians, thus, took less of a part in trade itself. The city itself, however, remained a strong production center and waypoint for goods travelling into the Rheinland.

The Römerbrücke of Trier: Germany's oldest riverside attraction.

Within cities, ports were essential in long-distance trade of any sort of production good, or even luxury items and animals, such as Caesar’s giraffe or Charlemagne’s elephant. Pottery fragments, coins from cities with mints, and literature detail how extensive these trading routes could be. Amphorae were shipped from cities like Carthage in the eastern Mediterranean, all the way to Catalonia in Spain, even during historical “crises” such as those in the third century. Roman amphorae have also been recorded in archeological sites near the Portus. This trade has been seen by historians as so influential that arguments for urban decline following the fall of Rome have been made on the reduction of size of amphorae.

More recent research, however, has shown that this shrinkage instead shows a localization and privatization of shipping production goods. Christopher Wickham, a historian concerned with the economics of trade in late antiquity, notes how odd it was that goods made it so far inland at all. The only way that this large scale trade was possible was with the political “underpinnings of the Roman world system,” such as the trade routes that the Roman superstructure made sure to protect. “When that went away [in 476], so...did exchange.” In major port cities, however, trade persisted. Recent excavations in Rome in the Crypta Balbi neighborhood demonstrate that as much as half of the wine in Rome by the end of the fifth century had been imported, even as the Germanic tribes sacked the city.

Port cities have been used as a way to measure decline following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The most famous example comes from Henri Pirenne, a Belgian historian who focused on the weakening of trade relations as a result of the Muslim invasions of the eighth century to point to the beginning of the medieval city, which supposedly began as fortresses that people lived in. “The closing of the sea,” in his opinion, led to the dominance of trade in northern Europe, particularly the Low Countries.

While scholars still accept Pirenne’s claim that control of waterways shaped the fate of cities, trade out of individual cities like Marseille and especially Venice, which continued to do business with the caliphs of North Africa, was still robust, if stunted by the Arab conquests. Nonetheless, Pirenne’s Thesis, whether people are conscious of it or not, often drives many approaches to Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. His emphasis on luxury goods and trade, furthermore, demonstrates the economic centrality of port cities in Late Antiquity.

Outside of the merchant realm, harbors were still vital to individuals inside cities. If one was an aristocrat, one would await the delivery of luxury and foreign goods via the port. If one was poor, one would instead await the delivery of grain in times of need. If you were waiting to go home, you waited for a boat. If one lived on an island, such as Crete, Rhodes or Britain, one could possibly await the invasions of a Germanic tribe. For the populace at large, the inclusion of a harbor could define their civic character, as in the case of Ostia Antica, which maintained an identity as the harbor town for Rome even when ships docked north of the city. Ports and harbors were so essential to urban economic livelihood that they are one of the few types of Roman architecture that is still in use today, albeit with understandable changes over the span of fifteen hundred years.

Coastal cities today heavily rely on their ports, and they still function as gateways, especially in an increasingly connected global community.  

Further Readings:



Nicholas Lewis