Bloomsbury Publishing  p/b 248pp £28.99 (ISBN 9781350194632)

We are beginning to understand better the globalisation of Rome at the centre of the then known world’s economy.  Studies such as David Abulafia’s The Great Sea and research into the Roman Navy have built on earlier work on the nuts and bolts of empire—the major ports and storage systems that linked Rome with every corner of the Mediterranean and kept its people in grain and other commodities.  These were unglamorous areas of scholarship, pioneered by such as my own professor, Geoffrey Rickman, in The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome, but important to our understanding of how the empire was so well-organised commercially as well as militarily.

In this ‘monograph’ Ugolini invites a fresh look at the iconography of those key harbours and the messages they convey.  He wants us to move on from mere cartography and topographical identification to the underlying messages that were conveyed by the harbour-scapes depicted on reliefs, coins, mosaics and wall paintings.

Inevitably U. focuses on the three biggest ports—Alexandria, Portus at the mouth of the Tiber, and Lepcis Magna.  Here we find the monumental lighthouses, harbour walls, moles and warehouses that serviced the trade of the Roman Empire at its peak. And they were monumental: the harbour at Alexandria shifted 300,000 tonnes of grain a year, Portus and its warehouses were linked by new canals to Ostia and the Tiber; Lepcis Magna had enormous granaries.  That very monumentalism, U. believes, projected power: the size of the harbours demonstrating their importance as connecting hubs between sea and hinterland; lighthouses displaying the benevolence of authority; arches the control of entry and trade by the emperor.   Temples, shrines and amphitheatres were built inside the port area, visible on the seafront to returning mariners.

The Esquiline painting, Torlonia relief and other sarcophagi show schematic and idealised scenes rather than natural landscapes: they cram in the busy life of a harbour along with sea creatures, flying deities, wind and waves.  The depiction of Portus on the Nero sestertius, the reliefs on Trajan’s column showing, we believe, most of Italy’s major ports, the Arch of Septimius Severus at Lepcis Magna all display the power of imperial authority and the prosperity that it guaranteed.  Control of the sea, and mastery of wind and wave, kept people fed.  There was no place in these pictures for images of piracy, wrecks or shortages.

On the contrary, ports were shown as navigable, safe and peaceful.  Seas were buffeted by winds but were still mastered by vessels and sailors.  Impressive, newly built infrastructure conveyed its own message that new provinces were within reach, and were being connected now to the key hubs of empire.  The portrayal of larger ships suggested security and prosperity as cross-Mediterranean trade developed.  But U. goes too far, I think, in concluding that port complexes were perceived as a means of control and domination, even class power: ‘the presence of crowds in the scenes suggest complicity between rulers and local population’.   

It is certainly true that the mercantile class grew fast and wealthy under the Julio-Claudians and their second century successors.  The Mosaic of the Ships at Rimini gives us an idealised picture of long-distance trading and sailing.  Other pictures show animals and sea creatures. But these are not mythologised or prettied into landscapes: the newly enlarged harbours were also portrayed full of architectural detail and the particular masts and sails of different types of shipping.

Was this more than celebration of new wealth?  U. suggests these portrayals delivered subconscious messages of protection, patronage and trust.  The monumentality operated on a human level, not a divine one: lighthouses embodied enlightenment, huge warehouses emphasized security of supply against shortages, moles and piers suggested growing trade further overseas.

Food shortages and the riots that they triggered were indeed deep in public consciousness.  Lighthouses were not just wonders of the world but standing guides to the safe arrival of the huge cargoes of free grain on which Rome and other Italian cities depended. Harbour-scapes may indeed have carried subliminal messages, too, that the sea was Rome’s ally, that the elements could be mastered, that human action, where directed by benign rulers, could tame the maritime environment as it had tamed the fields for agriculture and mined the earth for ceramics and metal-making.

So we can agree to spend less time fretting over which precise harbour is the subject of which mosaic or fresco.  As Strabo reminds us, few Italian harbours were natural anyway ‘but those that do exist are big and spectacular’: in other words, they were man-made, massive hubs connecting the Roman empire to the world.  They surely showed, as did the great frontier walls, that theirs was the first global empire, strong and confident in its infrastructure that commanded commercial and military sway across the Mediterranean and beyond.

Sir Michael Fallon

Founder, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Classics