A brief History of Civitavecchia
History of Civitavecchia in the ancient times

The first human settlements in the area of Civitavecchia date back to the Bronze Age and consisted in various villages on the coast and the hills nearby, often identified as being part of the so-called Villanovan culture.

Several rural and religious sites testify the Etruscan demographic presence in the area, mainly due to the favorable position on the Mediterranean coast and to the mines on the Tolfa Mountains.

In the Roman period, the site was chosen for the construction of a new seaport, that would have made up for the insufficient harbors existing at the time around Rome. The works started around the year 102 A.C. and they seem to have been directed by the famous architect Apollodorus of Damascus and overseen by the Emperor Trajan himself. Such a new commercial vocation attracted the populations already settled in the area and boosted the aggregation of pre-existing villages into a new town, which was named Centumcellae, meaning a hundred creeks because of the coast shape providing a perfect location for a commercial port. The town obtained the status of an independent municipality (rather than being administered from Rome) and maintained quite an economic relevance even after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Coat of Arms of Civitavecchia

Civitavecchia in the Middle Ages

Over time Centumcellae got under the influence of the Byzantine, Eastern Roman Empire and then under the direct control of the Pope and the Vatican State, that during the Middle Ages would have gradually but steadily expanded over most of Europe.

Between 813 and 828 A.C. the Tyrrhenian coasts were continuously attacked and pillaged by Saracen Muslim pirates , which pushed the inhabitants of Centumcellae to take refuge away from the coast, on the surrounding hills, where they eventually established a new town, Leopolis, whose ruins can still be visited today. Some ascribe the name of this new settlement to the Pope who would have granted permission to lay the foundations and financed the construction (Pope Leo III or IV, Leopolis literally means Leo’s city).

The people of Leopolis later returned to their abandoned hometown, the legend says pushed by the somewhat mythical leader of their community, a certain Leandro, who would have advised his fellow citizens so. The anecdote is also recorded in the city current coat of arms, that on a blue background contains the oak under which they would have resolved to return on the coast, between the letters O and C, for the Latinoptimum consilium, meaning a very good, or the best, decision. This happened around the year 1000 A.C., and by that time the old Centumcellae was commonly called Civitas Vetula, that is The Old Town, then evolved into modern Italian Civitavecchia.

Once returned from Leopolis, the refugees’ descendants took care to fortify the port, and they built a stronghold overlooking the sea on the ancient Roman ruins, whose remains are still clearly visible today. The Popes Nicola V and Sisto VI later improved the fortifications with new city walls and partially restoring the Roman aqueduct and port structures, mainly because of the town strategic location against the new enemy threatening the Mediterranean sea: the Turks.

An important turning point for the town was the (re)discover of the Aluminum mines on the Tolfa Mountains, in 1461. This new economic drive requested the attention and investment of the ruling class, so Pope Julius II had a fortress built in Tolfa, on the hills, while Sisto V, Clemens VII and Urban VIII started to use again Civitavecchia as the port of Rome, and therefore quartered a huge fleet here, completed the restoration of the port and especially of the road that used to connect Civitavecchia with Rome in ancient times.

In 1660 Pope Alexander VII built a new dockyard designed by Bernini and completed the restoration of the aqueducts. For the following two centuries the town was alternatively in the French’s and Pope’s hand till 1870, when what remained of the Vatican State was finally annexed to the new-born Kingdom of Italy.

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