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date: 26 November 2022



  • Philip de Souza


  • Ancient Geography
  • Greek Material Culture
  • Roman Material Culture

The earliest man-made harbour facilities in the Mediterranean region were the riverside quays of Mesopotamia and Egypt, for which records go back to at least the second millennium bce. Maritime installations probably began to appear around the Levantine coast in the early iron age, but the earliest securely datable harbour-works are the late 6th-cent. breakwater and ship-sheds of Polycrates (1), tyrant of Samos (Hdt. 3. 60). The development of specialized naval and merchant vessels, and a gradual increase in overseas trade, meant that quays and docks of increasing size and complexity were required in the Classical and Hellenistic periods.

Early construction techniques made the most of natural features such as sheltered bays and headlands, as at Cnidus. Exposed shores were protected with breakwaters and moles, like that at Samos. The development in Roman times of concrete which could set underwater enabled ambitious offshore constructions to be attempted, notably Caesarea (2) in Palestine. lighthouses, warehouses, and colonnades (see stoa) of some magnificence were common features in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Military harbours often featured fortifications. Narrow entrances, towers, and booms or chains were used to control access from the sea, with walls to guard against attack from the land. In the Classical period Athens, Megara, and Corinth were joined to their respective harbours by Long Walls. The ship-sheds at Carthage seem to have been placed on an island in the middle of the inner harbour, providing excellent security.

Ancient harbours were often very cosmopolitan places, attracting travellers and traders from far afield and having a high proportion of foreign residents. The Piraeus was renowned for its large metic population (see metics), Alexandria (1) had its Jewish quarter, and the epigraphic evidence from Delos attests the presence of numerous Italian and eastern merchants. Their working populations would have included stevedores, lightermen, fishermen, pilots, and clerks. They might also be the haunts of prostitutes and thieves. Large harbours were important sources of revenue (see portoria) for ancient states, directly from harbour fees and customs duties, as well as indirectly from sales taxes and the profits of merchants. See archaeology, underwater; navies; ships.


  • D. J. Blackman, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 1982.
  • A. M. McCann, The Roman Port and Fishery of Cosa (1987).
  • R. L. Vann (ed.), Caesarea Papers, JRA Suppl. 5 (1992).
  • Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of Ancient Topography, Mediterranean Harbours in Classical Antiquity 1-2 (2007).