Back to menu

The Tiber ferries

For a long period of time archaeologists and historians have been convinced that there was at Ostia no bridge over the Tiber near the mouth: it would have been an insuperable obstacle for many ships. Then in 2011 Germoni et al. published a new find in the archives (Portus and its Hinterland (2011), p. 255). It is a letter dated 23 July 1879 written by the vice-secretary of the Museo Kircheriano, Angelo Pellegrini, to the Direzione Archeologica del Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione (Fiorelli?). "I have been informed that during the building of the road between Ostia and Fiumicino, the ancient road paved with polygonal basalt blocks was discovered on the Ostia side heading in the same direction. The engineers of that side being surprised, sampled the bed of the Tiber, in which they recognized the piers of a bridge that led to the Isola Sacra. On this (Isola Sacra) side the basalt paved road continued towards the other artificial channel of the river created by Claudius, the so-called Fossa Traiana, where it is believed there existed another bridge that led to the port of Claudius, now Fiumicino as is demonstrated." Unfortunately an accompanying sketch was not reproduced in the 2011 article. It we look at the direction of the Via Flavia on the Isola Sacra, the bridge would have been near the current bridge over the Tiber, near Tor Boacciana. Whether the observation of the engineers was correct has not and perhaps cannot be verified. Nothing is said about the date of the bridge. For the moment I still assume that there was no bridge during the first three centuries AD.

Near Ostia the Tiber is approximately 100 meters wide. Ferries were used to cross the river. Inscriptions from the second and third century AD document four services: the corpus lenunculariorum traiectus Luculli, corpus traiectus Marmorariorum, corpus traiectus Togatensium, and corpus traiectus Rusticelii. A traiectus is a place where one could cross a river. The traiectus Marmorariorum probably has something to do with a marble yard that was found on the Isola Sacra, near Portus: marmorarii were marble workers. The traiectus Rusticelii was named after the Rusticelii-family (we also hear of praedia Rusticeliana, belonging to the Emperor in the Severan period). The expression Togatenses might refer to the inhabitants of a district (vicus), who focused on a cult (cf. the Bonadienses and Traianenses in Portus).

Obviously these guilds had to do with the authorities controlling the Tiber and Tiber banks (curatores alvei Tiberis et riparum). Most likely they were associated with other guilds whose members operated small boats: fishing-boats, boats taking over cargo from large ships to make them lighter, tug-boats, and boats taking goods from Ostia to Rome.

Small boats, presumably rowing-boats, called lenunculi were used by the ferrymen. The lenunculi took people to the Isola Sacra. Here they worked in agriculture, or travelled a bit further, to work in Portus. One of the ferries must have been active at the Tiber mouth, near Tor Boacciana. On the opposite side of the river began a road crossing the Isola Sacra. It is 10.5 meters wide and has deep wheel ruts. In later antiquity it was called Via Flavia, referring to a Flavian Emperor or, more likely, Constantine.

Sextus Pompeius Maximus, q(uin)q(uennalis) corp(oris) treiectus togatensium, was pater patrum in the cult of Mithras, apparently head of the entire Ostian Mithraic community. A president of the corpus traiectus Marmorariorum, T. Testius Helpidianus, was involved in the Imperial cult as sevir augustalis. Apparently, although the members of the ferry guilds were not very wealthy, they did play some part in Ostian society. Moreover, the guilds had patrons from important families. And there is another indication for a certain degree of wealth.

Inscriptions from the second century record donations to the corpus traiectus Rusticelii. The inscriptions were reused, but it is almost certain that they come from the guild-seat, the location of which is not known. Examples of the gifts are a head or statue of L. Verus, donated on the birthday of Antoninus Pius (19 September 145), and a silver imperial head, carried by a bronze Atlas (imago ex argento cum clipeo et Atlante aereo), given on the birthday of L. Verus (15 December 166). The latter kind of object is mentioned several times in the inscriptions. Atlas, normally carrying the globe, emphasizes the Emperor as rector totius orbis terrarum. The guild may have been related in some way to the cultores Larum et imaginum dominorum nostrorum invictissimorum Augustorum praediorum Rusticelianorum. These worshippers are documented in a reused inscription; the place of discovery suggests that the praedia were in the north-east part or to the north-east of Ostia.



Imago ex argento cum clipeo et Atlante aereo.
From Herz 1982, Abb. 1.

It is clear that the Ostian ferrymen were more than humble workers. Their extra income may have come from related trades, with which they were involved. It is also possible that they had a wider duty. The existence of four guilds, with names that seem to be related to places, suggests zoning. Perhaps then, each guild was responsible for certain activities on a stretch of the quays.


M. ACILIO GLABRIONE M. VALERIO HOMULO CO(n)S(ulibus)
ORDO CORPORATORVM LENVNCVLARIOR(um)
TABVLARIORVM AVXILIAR{ES}(iorum) OSTIENS(ium)
[list of members]
Another guild using small boats were the Lenuncularii Tabularii Auxilarii. The precise nature of their activitites is not known.
CIL XIV, 250, 152 AD.
Capitoline Museums. Photograph: Eric Taylor.
IMPERATORE CAESARE AVGVSTO P(ublio) HELVIO PERTINACE II CO(n)S(ule)
ORDO CORPORATORVM LENVNCVLARIOR(um) TABVLARIOR(um) AVXILIAR(iorum) OSTIENSIVM
[list of members]
CIL XIV, 251. 192 AD, l. 2.35 m., h. 0.98 m.
Found in Rome in the 16th century, but from Ostia. Capitoline Museums. Photograph: Eric Taylor.

[jthb - 31-May-2013]