24 May 2022


In the various articles on marble transportation published by Roman ports, the name of the Roman port of Luna (today's Luni) keeps cropping up. This is not surprising since in ancient times this port was mainly used for the transport of the white Carrara marble (also called Luna marble). Time therefore to find out something about this 'disappeared' port.


Figure 1: The current Luni plain with the location of Roman Luna.

At the foot of the Apuan Alps in Northern Italy, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, lies the Luni Plain. The coastline has shifted south and west in the last 3000 years, so that the ruins of the ancient Roman colony of Luni no longer lie by the sea but much further inland.
According to literary sources, the city of Luna was famous for its harbour (Portus Lunae), from which marble from the Apuan Alps, intended for the construction of many monuments in Rome, was transported:" The city is not large, but the harbour is very large and very beautiful, with several harbours, all of which are very deep" 1.
The harbour was already mentioned by Ennius2 who sailed from there to Sardinia in 215 BC. It was also used by the Romans around 195 B.C. as a base for fighting the local Ligurians and Apuan tribes3 .
So the port existed here clearly before the colony from 177 BC.
In 109 B.C, the area was connected to Rome by a newly constructed road to Pisae, the Via Aemilia Scauri4, using from there the already existing road to Rome, the Via Aurelia.
An inscription found in 1851 on the forum of Luna states that M. Claudis Marcellus ended the war against the local population in 155 B.C. in favour of the Romans. Although the port was after the war no longer important for Rome's military fleet, with the foundation of the colony and the construction of the aforementioned land link with Rome, it became an increasingly important economic factor for the area. In particular, the famous white "marble of Carrara", which was widely used in the construction of most of the classical buildings in and outside Rome, was shipped from this port to Ostia and to many other ports in the Mediterranean.
Although several traces of a harbour have been found here and there, no reliable archaeological evidence of harbour structures was among them. How these harbour(s) exactly looked like and where they were located remains uncertain as yet.

Figure 2: Geographical map of the Lower Magra Valley and the surrounding area 5.

New research
From time to time, new data from research on the soil conditions of the surrounding area are brought forward. Together with revised archaeological topography of the ancient city, progress is being made especially in the paleo-ecological6 reconstructions of Luni. To make these new insights possible, data from drill cores, radiocarbon surveys and interpretations of archaeological finds are also used.
For several centuries before the foundation of the colony in 177 BC, the Luni Plain was characterised by a complex architecture of marshes bordered by dune ridges and fluvial sand ridges. The positions of these landforms were not fixed but shifted, depending also on the spatial relationship between the coastline and the river mouths.
To determine the exact location of the Luna Harbour, one must first know where the coastline was in Roman times. This is necessary to demarcate the right area within which archaeological investigations should be concentrated.
From soil borings it appeared that the town of Luna was partly built on the fanned out accretion of the Parmignola river and on a sandbank on the southwest side of the town whose extent along the south side of the city walls is unclear.
All reconstructions made to date place elongated sandbanks opposite the coastline. The size and position of these "islands" often differ in the various views. According to researchers Bernieri and Mannoni7 there was a shallow body of water between the coastline and one of these sandbanks that is now part of the coastal strip on which the village of Marinella was built (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Palaeo-geographical scenario of the landscape in the Luni area (after Raffellini 8).

There would have been a second basin in the area between the western side of the city walls and the long sandbank connected to the coast: identified with the local Seccagna. The latter area is now completely silted up and includes a peat bog in its central part.
The two harbours of the Portus Lunae should have been located in these two basins according to Bernieri and Mannoni. This hypothesis, however, is not supported by archaeological evidence; moreover, it remains to be proven that these basins were deep enough to accommodate ships suitable for the transport of marble. Previous archaeological interpretations of the presence of a docknear the southern city walls must also be rejected.
In 2012, a research team from Pisa, Cologne and Parma published the results of their palaeographic study on the harbour(s) in the Magra valley. They came to the following conclusion: If an important habour, in accordance with the evidence left by historians of antiquity, existed near the city of Luna, it was probably located in the western basin, but at least 250 m from the city walls, while the southern lagoon was too small and closed to accommodate an important harbour. Another possibility that needs to be explored is that one of the anchorages of the Luna harbour system was located to the SE of the southern basin, along the coast towards Pisa.

The city

Figuur 4: Amphitheater of Luna 10

The city of Luna was founded by the Romans in 177 BC. Since the 18th century, excavations have brought to light the ancient Roman city of Luna with magnificent buildings, including an amphitheatre.
The archaeological site is located in the coastal plain adjacent to the lowest part of the course of the river Magra (see figure 1 and 3).
Although the area was already inhabited many centuries before the arrival of the Romans under the name of 'Selene Limen', the habitation of the coastal plain probably only really developed with the arrival of the Roman colony of Luna at the foot of the Apuan Alps11. The harbour, Portus Lunae, was situated on the western side of the city and was used by the Romans as early as the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., during the Punic Wars, as a port for military expeditions to Spain12.

Figure 5: Map of the walled city of Luna 13

The structure of the city was determined within 25 years of its foundation. The city was built on terraces at a gradually decreasing height from the north (7.16 m above the current sea level) to the ancient southern coastline with a network of streets parallel to the two main streets, the Decumanus Maximus (from east to west) and the Cardo Maximus (from north to south).
During the Republican era, the terraces were already quite high above sea level, but in the Imperial era, the city was raised even higher, while maintaining the same stepped profile.
The southernmost part of the cardo Maximus, whose pavement reaches a height of 1.37 m, has been fairly well preserved near the southern wall gate. This may provide a good archaeological marker for the sea level.
The Romans also made good use of these terraces. Opposite Portus Lunae, on the west side of the river (see figure 2), near the present-day Bocca di Magra, the remains of a maritime Roman villa from the first century BC have been found, which was also built on terraces. The upper terrace at a height of 5.76 metres above sea level was used for a tank that supplied the villa with water for the belneum (bath), while the remains of the caldarium (hot water bath in the termae) have been found on the lower terrace at a height of 62 cm above sea level.

Figure 6: Caldarium in the Roman villa at Bocca di Magra 14

Another villa, near San Maurizio, was located at a height of 1.70 - 1.50 m.
In 2014, an excavation campaign began in the south of the city at a site that was probably connected to one of the harbours. The site was located immediately east of the Cardo Maximus next to the city gate leading to the sea (Figure 5 outlined in red).

Figure 7: Floor plan of multifunctional building

The southern rooms were part of a domus (house for the upper class) while the rooms on the northern side were clearly craft workshops. The complex had building phases from the 1st century B.C. to the 6th/7th century A.D. Several mosaic floors have been found in the domus.
In the early empire, a circular basin with a diameter of 1.40 metres was located in the north-western part of the complex. The floor was made of opus signinum15. In the early empire, a circular basin with a diameter of 1.40 metres was located in the north-western part of the complex. The floor was made of opus signinum. The basin had a tubulus (ceramic drain) which led into a quadrangular, built-in basin made of marble slabs. It was probably part of a fullonica (laundry/dye house). The building was often rebuilt in the course of the centuries. For example, a pit for refuse was installed in room I of the former domus.

Figure 8: House of the mosaics during excavation 16





House of the mosaics
Reading the layout of this Domus is made difficult by the presence of a modern road that runs right through the rooms.
The stately residence, built in the late Republican period, was rebuilt several times and remained in use until late Antiquity. The oldest structures, with cobblestone foundations and walls of schist and amphora fragments, are still visible east of the modern road; above them is the domus from the 1st century BC, from which a beautiful floor of opus signinum with white diamond decoration has been found.
From the end of the 3rd/beginning of the 4th century AD, the dwelling was enriched with a porticus around a courtyard, a well and a fountain basin fed by a lead pipe. In the ambulatory leading to the unexcavated south wing, there is a mosaic representing Dionysus, his head decorated with a wreath of grapes and the thyrsus (staff) in his right hand; in the corners there are busts of the seasons in medallions linked by vines.

Figure 9: Artist impression of the house of the mosaics 17

In the northern ambulatory, there is another mosaic depicting a basket of flowers surrounded by birds and a mosaic depicting a dancing procession. These mosaics are still in situ. From the same period dates the mosaic of Hercules with a felled wild animal at his feet.
In the 5th century, the rooms on the east side of the atrium were decorated with a mosaic representing the Circus Maximus in Rome.
In addition to these houses, several others have been partially or completely excavated, including the domus with the frescoes and the domus of the ocean.

Figure 10: Floor mosaic with dancing procession 18.

On the northwest side of the ancient city are the remains of the Great Temple, dedicated to the goddess Luna.

Figure 21: Remains of the temple of Luna


Figure 12: The amphitheatre of Luna 19

The amphitheatre of the city was located outside the city walls and next to the Via Aurelia. The theatre could hold up to 6,000 spectators who came mainly for bloody and violent shows, such as duels between gladiators or the hunting of wild animals. The impressive and imposing amphitheatre amazes tourists with its structure and shape.
Only part of the first aisle has been preserved. Originally it was completely covered with Luna marble and richly decorated. Unfortunately, most of the marble was stripped and reused by the inhabitants in later centuries.



Figure 13: The channel under the Cardo Maximus 20

Underneath the Cardo Maximus was a canal in which rainwater from the road was collected.
Luna reached its height of prosperity in the Julius-Claudius period. After a slow, gradual decline from the 4th century AD, Luna became a strategic city, when in 552 it was chosen as the main centre of the Maritima Italorum (Byzantine name for the present-day province of Liguria).
In the 5th century, probably due to both cultural and natural causes, such as an earthquake at the end of the 5th century AD, floods and gradual silting up of the harbour, the city fell into decline 21. The harbour landscape changed into a desert and the area became an unhealthy habitat for humans and animals due to the marshes present in combination with the malaria mosquito.




Figure 14: Domus di Oceano. Detail of the polychrome mosaic with in the centre the face of Oceanus, from whose beard of seaweed
two two small dolphins are born.
  • Sources
  • - M. Bini et al.= Geoarchaeological sea-level proxies from a silted up harbour: A case study of the Roman colony of Luni (northern Tyrrhenian Sea, Italy)
  • - Luni - Simonetta Menchelli
  • - https://www.carraraonline.com/villa-romana-bocca-di-magra.php
  • - Arthur de Graauw - www.AncientPortsAntiques.com
  • - Wikipedia

  • Notes
  • 1: Strabo, Geogr. V2.5
  • 2: Quintus Ennius (239-169 v.Chr.), Latin poet, sometimes called "the father of Latin poetry".
  • 3: Livy. AUC. 34.8.4-5,34.56.1-2, 39.21.1-539.32.1-3
  • 4: Named after Marcus Aemilius Scaurus.
  • 5: After Del Tredici and Perilli (1998).
  • 6: Paleoecology uses fossils to reconstruct ecosystems of the past.
  • 7: Bernieri, A., Mannoni, T., 1983. Il porto di Carrara. Storia e attualita` . Sagep, Genova.
  • 8: Raffellini, C., 2000. Archeologia e paleogeografia del Portus Lunae.
  • 9: Frova, A., 1976. Luni. In: Soprintendenza Archeologica della Liguria (Ed.), Archeologia in Liguria. Scavi e scoperte 1967–75. Societa` Italiana Archaeologica Genova, Genova, pp. 15–43.
  • 10: Photo: Mediatus (wikipedia)
  • 11:Gambaro and Gervasini, 2004.
  • 12: Read: "Tarragona".
  • 13: Figuur: Simonetta Menchelli.
  • 14: Photo: Carraraonline.com
  • 15: opus signinum: ground brick bound with lime.
  • 16: Photo: Stefano Costa.
  • 17: Photo: https://luni.cultura.gov.it/
  • 18: Photo: https://luni.cultura.gov.it/
  • 19: Photo: https://mytravelintuscany.com/
  • 20: Photo: Stefano Costa
  • 21: Durante, 2001a
  • 22: Photo: Lucia Gervasini and Silvia Landi


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