The ancient port town of Civitavecchia lies north west of Rome in the Lazio region of Italy.
Originally, it was a small port named ‘Centum Cellae’ that was built up by Emperor Trajan. Trajan was one of the five ‘great’ emperors who led the Roman Empire in the conquering of many areas in central Europe to great success. He already had his own personal villa nearby, and decided that this old Etruscan port would serve as an alternative to the untrustworthy and increasingly dangerous Rome ports that sat in the mouth of the Tiber. According to local legend, the name Centum Cellae refers to the naturally occurring caves dotted along the coastline.
Eventually, Centum Cellae became the main harbour that served the city of Rome. Not only that, but it became an important military port that was home to the Miseno and Ravenna fleets in the early half of the first millennium. Emperor Decius, whose short-lived reign lasted between 249 and 251 A.D., started an infamously destructive wave of Christian Persecution.
During his reign as well as the reigns of his predecessors, Elected Popes of the Catholic church were martyred within less than a year of their initiations. The first to be martyred during this time was Cornelius I in 253. He was jailed in Centum Cellae and according to some sources was beheaded. The persecution of popes by the Roman Empire all started on the streets on Civitavecchia.
In the 500s, Centum Cellae faced the brunt of the wars between the Byzantines and Goths since it was a perfect strategic strongpoint for any warring states on land and on sea.
In the 700s, the Papacy recognised the city as an important stronghold and invested in its future. In 749, Gregorious III helped rebuild the walls surrounding the ancient city to help protect against the barrage of Saracens and Lombards.
However, in the 800s, Centum Cellae was attacked constantly by Saracens and pirates. Many of its inhabitants fled to the hills in which Papal history states a new town was born named after its founder Pope Leo IV. The ruins of Leopolis can still be visited in the hills between the towns of Allumiere and Tarquinia.
In 889, the townsfolk that moved away from Centum Cellae returned after years of deliberation. They decided to rename the town as Civitas Vetula, which means ‘old town.’ This was only to distinguish Centum Cellae from the new towns that cropped up around it by the fleeing inhabitants.
Around 1000 A.D., Civitavecchia was under the custodianship of Count Ranieri di Civita Castellana, later of Pietro Latto. A couple of centuries after him, Civitavecchia was owned by the di Vico family who were prefects of Rome.
Modern day Civitavecchia has walls built in 1590 by Urban VII which were then restored during the times of Popes Paul IV and Pius IV. The fortress surrounding the town were designed by Michelangelo and have stood the testament of time. Not only were the fortress walls renovated, but also the aqueducts originally built during Trajan’s time as well as the harbour itself. The Papal authority commissioned a major re-scaling and rejuvenation project that saw Civitavecchia become one of the major ports owned by the Papal authority.
This was all made possible because of the discovery of Alum hidden within the mountains near the town in 1462. Alum became the main export of Civitavecchia and accounted for 70% of the Pope’s means of income. Alum is a multi-purpose, versatile and solid chemical compound that was sought-after during the middle of the second millennium.
The fortress designed by Michelangelo and built in 1508 is now a popular tourist attraction and an icon of the city.
In 1638, a wall was built to separate the harbour from the rest of the city. In doing so, multiple hospitals were opened a large arsenal was made to house the Papal Navy’s armaments.
The Arsenal of Civitavecchia was built between 1660 and 1663 and was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII. It was designed by the baroque architect and sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini and was located on the original site of Centum Cellae. Unfortunately, the arsenal was accidentally destroyed by the allied forces in 1944, along with most of the port areas surrounding its vicinity.
A painting made in commemoration of the Arsenal’s completion is the closest accurate picture of how incredible the Papal arsenal truly was. “The Bernini Arsenal at Civitavecchia” by Viviano Codazzi and Fillipo Lauri is currently housed at Alessandra di Castro in Rome.
The Napoleonic Empire had on and off control of the city during the latter part of the 18th century and the 19th century, but after the fall of the French Empire, Civitavecchia came under papal control again in 1825. Civitavecchia became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
At the start of the 20th Century, Civitavecchia became a commercial port for the trading of goods. However, history repeated itself as thousands of the city’s inhabitants fled to the hills to evade bombs from the allied forces during world war two. As a result of the bombings, roughly 80% of the city was completely decimated. Although a re-building of the city was needed for the many civilians who lost their homes, as thousands of new buildings were re-built a lot of the preserved artefacts and historic landscape were lost forever.
In the 21st Century, Civitavecchia acts as one of the most important harbours for the ferrying passengers to and from Sardinia, Sicily, North Africa, Spain and France. Most cruise liners use Civitavecchia’s port for excursions to Rome and sometimes Florence.
From humble beginnings as a happenstance villa location to a Roman emperor, to the main cruise and container port for the city of Rome. Civitavecchia has seen ancient tribal wars, Napoleonic wars and the start of Christian persecution. For many visitors, this is the stopping point before reaching the great city of Rome, but don’t be fooled. Civitavecchia is a historic and important city for not just Rome but to Italy itself.